This may not have hit your radar when it happened, and even if it did, you might not have given it a second thought. But we did, my friend, we did. In 2005, the Spitzer Space Telescope (launched in 2003) beamed back conclusive proof that the Milky Way isn't the simple spiral galaxy you've seen illustrated your whole life. It's really a barred spiral galaxy. So instead of elegant arms coiling out from a central sphere, there's a big fat bar across the middle, and the arms of our galaxy sprout from either end.
Now, scientists had been debating this possibility and trying to come up with decisive proof one way or the other for years. And when they did – not much happened. Some mainstream news outlets gave it a little airtime, and the astronomy community talked it up for a while. Once the space devotees all knew about it, everyone else continued on in blissful ignorance, not knowing they were imagining the galaxy they lived in all wrong.
From geography to physiology, there are many examples of people collectively doing it wrong by learning fiction as truth. Here are 10 of the biggest errors walking around masquerading as well-known facts.
Mount Everest is one whopping big mountain, but is it the tallest in the world? In fact it is not. A mountain is highest in regard to how far it soars above sea level. But technically it is tallest from base to summit. And Mauna Kea kills it at being the tallest.
Here's the deets: Above sea level, Mauna Kea (in Hawaii) is only 13,799 feet (4,206 meters). But when you count the crazy enormous portion of it that's underwater, it's 33,465 feet tall (10,200 meters). Everest, that snobby little upstart, is only 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) above sea level, with none of it below sea level [source: Mitchinson and Lloyd].
But the shame doesn't end there. Mount Kilimanjaro hasn't taken the stand yet. Kilimanjaro is 19,340 feet (5,895 meters) top to bottom. So it's not as tall as Everest – but Everest is surrounded by the rest of its friends, the Himalayas, all of which are collectively growing by a quarter of an inch per year and pushing Everest's summit higher. Kilimanjaro, on the other hand, is solitary, rising out from the relative flatness of Tanzania all on its dramatically striking own [source: Mitchinson and Lloyd].
You lose most of your body heat through your head because there are so many blood vessels in your scalp. Or because there's not a lot of fat between your scalp and your skull. Or because there's a lot of circulation keeping your brain warm. Or something. At least, that's what we've all heard. That's why you need to wear a hat in the winter: Otherwise you'll catch cold.
But, the sad truth is, you lose just as much heat per square inch through your head as you do through the rest of the body, a fact that would become abundantly clear if you ever tried to scrape the frost off your windshield while naked. (We don't recommend trying that experiment.)
So if you're out on a wintry day and you notice that your head seems to be particularly cold compared to the rest of your body, it's probably because your head is bare, and everything else is sensibly bundled up. Putting on a hat will fix that problem.
It's less likely to keep you from catching a cold, though.
The Great Wall of China gets a double whammy on this myth. You can see other man-made objects from space (especially when the part of the Earth being viewed is awash in the artificially illuminated glow of nighttime). It's also pretty hard to pick out the Great Wall of China from any space-based locale. In low-Earth orbit, it's next to impossible to see it with the naked eye. Even with a fairly hefty camera lens, it's still challenging to tell if you're looking at the Great Wall or not.
There are a couple of reasons this pseudo-fact is so far-flung. For one, its history dates back to well before the Space Age, so no one knew enough to nip it in the bud straight off. And for another, the Great Wall of China is, well, a giant wall. Being hundreds of miles long, it's understandable people would assume it sticks out like a sore thumb from space.
Yes, the Great Wall of China is very, very long. It's also built from rocks collected from all over the local landscape – in other words, ones that are usually the same color as the wall itself. So unless China decides to give the wall a makeover and paint it hot pink, it's going to remain fairly hard to spot from space.
You may have lived for field trips as a kid, looking forward to a whole day of out-of-school fun and exploring. That is, until you got started on a tour of some musty building that seemed, well, boring. Not even the tour guide's explanation of how the glass in the wavy, uneven windowpanes has slowly flowed downward over time could keep your attention.
Liquid windowpanes? No.
Rather than the (magical-sounding) slow drip of centuries, the reason old glass windows aren't perfectly even and clear is because of how they were made. Until the early-mid 1800s, most window glass was made using a process called the crown method. The glass was blown, flattened, heated and spun, yielding a sheet that was relatively cheap to produce. It was also rippled and thicker in some places than in others.
In other words, the windows looked that way when they were installed, and they look that way now. No downhill liquid flow is involved. (And if you're really wondering: Glass is an amorphous solid. Learn more about it in "What makes glass transparent?")
You're out in the yard and you see a distressing sight – a baby bird is floundering around on the ground, looking like it's desperate to get in the air, but it can't despite all its efforts. Suddenly, out of your peripherals, you spot a cat readying for a pounce. Sacre bleu! You rush over to scoop up the little bundle of feathers, take it into the house, and try to remember how to assemble a shoebox nest to serve as a habitat for your precious little find. You'll raise it yourself until it's ready to fly.
While this is wrong on several levels, it's not because you touched the bird.
Baby birds usually don't leave the nest until they're ready (or at least readyish) to fly. But, just like how well you drove during your very first driving lesson, they typically stink at flying at first. So needless to say, they suffer a few false starts and end up on the ground, whining like a teenager who wants the keys but hasn't completely got the hang of which is the gas and which is the brake.
But that doesn't mean the fledgling's parents aren't supervising their offspring. They're probably in a nearby tree, shuddering as their little dunce forgets all the lessons they taught it. And if you leave the baby bird alone, chances are they'll be there soon to smack it upside the head and tell it to pay more attention during the next round of flying lessons.
As for the scent issue – birds just don't smell too well. A few species are an exception, but chances are vastly greater that the little chirping ball of fluff won't suffer if you need to move it to the other side of the fence from where your dog plays. Plus, its parents have invested way too much time and energy raising it to just scoot off at the first opportunity, no matter how the little guy smells.
Lots of people think different parts of the tongue are fine-tuned to detect different tastes. The tip of the tongue is where you get your cupcake on, the sides are where the salty taste really hits home, bitter's in the back, and in between is the sour zone. This "fact" was the prevailing notion for a very long time. It has persisted in spite of millions of kids in health class insisting that the wooden spoon just tastes like wooden spoon, no matter how they lick it.
More recently, however, we've found out that the whole zones theory was pretty much bologna. (That would be the umami talking. More about that in a sec.) It turns out people can sense different tastes all over their tongues. There are a few outliers, but for most people, them's the facts.
Then there's the fifth basic taste that doesn't get a lot of PR, and that's umami. Auguste Escoffier, the pimpest chef in 19th century France, concocted this fifth wheel in the palate party. Foodies swooned over it – it's been described as savory and meaty – but scientists stuck to the sweet/salty/bitter/sour taste tetrahedron.
Even though umami was a familiar taste in Japan, the "fifth taste" idea didn't get much traction there, either. That is until Kikunae Ikeda, a whiz-bang Japanese chemist, decided to get to the bottom of what umami was all about. He figured out the taste came from glutamic acid, and he called it the Japanese version of yummy.
No one at the time believed him, though, and it wasn't until the end of the 20th century that scientists decided to look into it. They realized Ikeda was right all along.
Christopher Columbus' crew had a lot to be worried about as they set sail. There was the possibility that they might wind up with scurvy or meander into a vengeful weather front, and of course there were all those warnings about where there be monsters.
But falling off the edge of the planet? Not so much. The idea that Columbus was endeavoring to attempt the unimaginable, defy all existing scientific precedent and become an international celebrity for not toppling off the world is false.
People have known since the learned and logic-laden age of the Greeks that they lived on a great, big globe. There were lots of obvious clues, like the way ships sailed over the horizon.
There were many objections to Columbus' plan to reach the East Indies via a somewhat novel route, but a tragic (and expensive) plunge into the abyss wasn't one of them. Most contentious were the logistics. Given the estimated (and not too shabby) size of the globe, there were steep odds his ships wouldn't successfully reach their intended destination. In the 1800s, the "knowledge" that our goofy, dark-ages ancestors had just up and forgotten the shape of the thing that they lived on started to circulate.
Everybody has veins snaking up and down their bodies, and those veins are blue. So it stands to reason that whatever magical and mysterious substance courses through those veins (all right, fine, it's just boring, old blood) is, as a matter of course, blue.
But no! Once your blood has stopped by the bank (your lungs) and picked up a withdrawal of cash monies (oxygen) it's flush with greenbacks (bright red blood). Once it's spent a night on the town (circulated through your body), it returns with a massive hangover (the blood has turned dark red) and it goes to curl up on the couch (take another pass through the heart).
Basically, the veins are blue thanks to a trick of the light, not the color of what's inside them.
Chameleons are one of the five coolest species in the world. That's a fact.*
They're wicked awesome for a number of reasons: their funny, little two-toed feet, their uber-mobile eye cups, their super curly tails and their other exciting physical embellishments. What's probably best about them, though, is their polychromatic flare. But all those changing colors, unlike what many people believe, usually don't have a thing to do with blending into their surroundings. It hinges on the particular species, of course, but they're usually pretty well camouflaged to begin with. If they need to visually merge into the background, they can just stick with their normal coloration.
Instead, chameleon color-changing is typically triggered by physical, physiological and emotional changes. If they're feeling fussy, say angry or afraid or combative, they'll change colors using their chromatophores. They'll also change colors as a way of communicating in various manners (insert romantic music here) and to pick a fight with a competitor. Light and temperature play a big part, too, in how these little fancy pantses look.
*Chameleons' rank as one of the five coolest species in the world is not, in fact, a fact. Although it is very, very likely.
We hear what you're saying. We see your point of view. We feel your pain. Also, you smell bad and possibly taste funny, the latter of which we don't intend to test.
But if you believe these are the only five ways you can detect information about your environment or alterations to your person, we're going to punch you in the face. There. Boom. You will feel it thanks to nociception, the ability to sense pain.
There are lots more, too, although the lists vary and the final number-of-senses tally is in great dispute. There are several boring ones that your body does without you knowing it. So let's skip those. More interesting is proprioception, which helps you pass the "close your eyes and touch your nose" test. Basically, it's what lets two parts of your body connect without visual confirmation. If you're (successfully) rubbing your eyes in disbelief, you used proprioception to do it. If you accidently smacked yourself in the forehead instead, you experienced a proprioception fail.
Apart from those, hunger and thirst can count according to some, as can feelings of hot and cold. Itch, interestingly, is apparently independent from both touch and pain. It's annoying on so many levels!
Can you tell fact from fiction when it comes to geography? Test your knowledge with this pseudo-geography quiz at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Completely False ‘Facts’ Everyone Knows
This article was pretty cool to research and write. I came away with a sense (Ha! Did you see what I did there?!) that many of these "facts" are just things we take for granted without giving them much thought. But that if we did give them more thought, we could probably reach most of these conclusions on our own. However, thanks to me, you have now given them more thought but without having to bother with coming to the correct conclusions all by yourself. You're welcome.
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