Science is the pursuit of facts. It is an encompassing subject that contains dozens of fields that we rely on in order to better understand the world around us (and the world inside us, for that matter). But science is always changing and what we thought was true yesterday might be proven false tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, this cursory nature has given rise to many myths and today we take a look at ten of them.
10. The Immortal Twinkie
For most of its existence, the spongy baked treat known as the Twinkie had a labeled shelf life of approximately 25 days. However, ask around and a lot of people would say “25 years” or even longer. The myth surrounding Twinkies is that they last forever and that even in the event of nuclear war, the only survivors would be cockroaches and Twinkies.
The reason for this, according to the myth, is that the Twinkie is a “chemical cake” – it doesn’t actually contain any food, just chemical substitutes, which is why it won’t spoil. And there is some truth to that idea. At 25 days, the Twinkie does have a long shelf life for a baked good and this is possible by not using any dairy products in its ingredients. It does use chemical substitutes for milk and butter, but it also contains flour, oil, sugar, and a tiny bit of real egg, so it’s definitely not just chemicals.
Another reason for the myth is that the Twinkie still looks good, years later, as long as it’s kept in its air-tight cellophane wrapper. One science teacher at George Stevens Academy in Maine has kept one Twinkie on display for over four decades. But back in 2020, scientists at West Virginia University ran tests on some 8-year-old Twinkies that looked good and found they contained a common kitchen mold called Cladosporium. So just because it looks edible does not mean it is edible.
9. The Penny Drop
Let’s say you’re on top of the Empire State Building in New York City and you drop a penny off the side. What would happen? Well, if we go by the story we’ve all heard, then all the pedestrians at ground level are now in mortal danger because that penny will be dropping with the force of a bullet, killing anyone it hits.
The myth commonly refers to the Empire State Building, but it can be substituted with any skyscraper. The idea is that, by the time the penny reaches the ground, it will accelerate to a degree that it becomes a lethal projectile.
The good news is that this does not happen thanks to something called “terminal velocity.” Basically, as the penny falls, gravity acts on it in one direction, but air resistance counteracts in the opposite direction. Eventually, the speed of the falling penny is equaled by the opposing drag force. The penny reaches terminal velocity and will no longer gain any additional speed, no matter how much longer it continues to fall.
And pennies aren’t very aerodynamic, which means that they encounter a lot of air resistance, so they really won’t have too much “kick” by the time they reach the ground. And one physics professor from the University of Virginia put his own body on the line to show that falling coins aren’t lethal, as he let himself be pelted by pennies dropped from a helium balloon hundreds of feet in the air. They came in at an unimpressive 25 mph, and the professor said they felt like “getting hit by bugs, big raindrops, or little hail pellets.”
8. The Location of Lightning
While we’re talking about dangerous things coming from the sky, let’s also cover the most common myth about lightning – that it never strikes the same place twice.
Its usage as an idiom can be traced back to the mid 19th century, but since then a lot of people have taken its meaning in a literal sense. It is unlikely that they think of it like one lightning strike somehow granting immunity from further strikes, but more that the odds of one place getting hit by lightning multiple times are astronomical.
But even this is not true as some places or objects attract lightning, especially very tall buildings. Once again we’re back at the Empire State Building, which proudly boasts that it gets hit, on average, by 25 lightning strikes a year, which provide some incredible photo opportunities. But the Willis Tower in Chicago is the most popular lightning target in the United States, as the building has been struck 250 times between 2015 and 2020.
7. The Egg-quinox
Every year, around March 20, we mark the beginning of astronomical spring with the March or vernal equinox – the moment when the Sun is directly above the Earth’s equator. And every year, somebody is bound to mention that this is the only day of the year when you can balance an egg due to the perfect gravitational alignment of the Earth, Sun, and the Moon.
So is there any truth to this? Well, yes, in the sense that you can balance an egg during the vernal equinox. But then again, you could also do it on any other day since the equinox has absolutely no effect on eggs. It’s more that the majority of people only try to balance eggs on this day and, when they succeed, they end up perpetuating the myth.
The story has been around since the 1940s, but it was during the 1980s that an astronomer from the University of Minnesota put the bizarre idea to the test by trying to balance eggs each day between February 27 and April 3. Although he was successful every day, he found it easier towards the end of the experiment, which showed that it was practice that helped him balance eggs, not the equinox.
6. The Nobel Lie
This time, how about instead of a myth about science, we focus on a myth about a scientist? Specifically, the famous tale of how the Nobel Prize came to be, funded with the money of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who invented dynamite.
As the story goes, in 1888 Nobel lost his brother, Ludvig, and a French newspaper mistakenly thought that Alfred Nobel had died. It then published his obituary with the headline “The merchant of death is dead.” Nobel didn’t like being called a “merchant of death,” so he used his fortune to set up an institution that awarded prizes every year to the people who “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind,” in a desperate attempt to change his reputation.
The problem is that Nobel never mentioned where or when he got the idea. Not even his family knew until his will was read out, and they even tried to get it invalidated once they discovered they were not getting the fortune. Historians have proven unable to find a copy of that newspaper, and while the Nobel Foundation asserts that Alfred did read his own obituary, even they say that it was probably only one factor that led to the creation of the Nobel Prizes. They have correspondence that indicates that the idea had been swirling around in his head for years prior, and the Foundation believes that he first might have thought of it decades earlier when he himself received an award from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
And while we’re at it, we might as well dispel another myth surrounding Alfred Nobel – that he did not create a Nobel Prize for mathematics due to his hatred for mathematicians after one of them had an affair with his wife. While it’s certainly possible that Nobel had enmity towards mathematicians, it definitely wasn’t due to an affair with his wife for a very simple reason – Alfred Nobel never married.
5. The Five-Second Rule
Here’s the scenario: you are munching away on your favorite snack when you accidentally drop it to the floor. Not willing to simply throw it in the garbage, you quickly pick it up off the floor and resume eating it, confidently asserting that it did not break the five-second rule.
A lot more of us are probably guilty of this than we would like to admit, but what exactly is the five-second rule? It is a principle that claims that food is still safe to eat off the floor if you pick it up fast because it takes a few seconds for harmful bacteria to contaminate it.
There is some truth to the idea that contamination is directly proportional to contact times or, in other words, the longer the food is on the floor, the more bacteria it will have. However, even this is an oversimplification, and the basic concept of the five-second rule that there is a “safe” interval of a few seconds is a myth.
The most thorough study was performed by food scientists at Rutgers University. They tested different surfaces (wood, carpet, ceramic tiles, and stainless steel), different lengths of time, and different foods (watermelon, buttered bread, regular bread, and gummy bears). They found that contact time was just one factor; the type of food and the type of surface also mattered. Steel and ceramic were worse than wood and carpet, while wetter foods attracted more bacteria than dry foods, but the point is that they were all contaminated, even the ones that were dropped for less than a second.
4. The Sleepwalker Solution
Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a bizarre phenomenon where people get out of bed and walk around, talk, even perform regular tasks, even though they are still asleep. Because it is so strange, it has given rise to several myths, the most common one of all being that waking a sleepwalker could kill them due to shock or a heart attack.
Sleep specialists insist that this is not true. Millions of cases of sleepwalking happen every year, but no “killer shock.” However, that doesn’t mean that waking up somnambulists is completely safe. People in this state are likely to become disorientated, even violent, and might hurt themselves or those around them. Experts advise that, generally, a sleepwalker should only be woken up if they are about to do something dangerous like try to cook something or go out in the street. Otherwise, the best approach is to try and gently guide them back to bed.
3. The Knuckle Cracker
When he was growing up in California, Donald Unger liked to crack his knuckles, to the disapproval of his mother who told him to stop doing that because it caused arthritis. This was a tale that has been repeated many times to many people, but most of them did not have Unger’s determination and scientific curiosity, because he decided to do a little experiment – every day, he would crack the knuckles on his left hand twice, while leaving his right hand alone, to see if there was any difference.
He did this for 60 years and, in 2009, he received the Ig Nobel Prize for showing that cracking your knuckles does not lead to arthritis. Several more comprehensive studies have backed up his research, but experts still warn against the practice. While knuckle cracking might not cause arthritis, it could lead to loss of grip strength and swelling.
2. The Impossible Flight of the Bumblebee
Back in the 1930s, a French entomologist named Antoine Magnan made the bold proclamation that bees can’t fly. Or rather that bees should not be able to fly from an aerodynamics perspective due to their large bodies and small wings. Over the decades, the myth has evolved somewhat. Nowadays, it generally only refers to bumblebees, since they’re the chunkiest of the bunch, and it often asserts that scientists and engineers think that those little insects are breaking the laws of physics every time they take off.
Admittedly, back in Magnan’s time, insect flight (or even regular flight, for that matter) was still a poorly understood subject. However, the quick and basic calculations that he and his assistant made which, purportedly, demonstrated that a bee was physically incapable of generating enough lift to fly would have only been valid if bees had smooth, rigid wings. Which they do not and, therefore, there are other mechanics at work that help the insects get off the ground and avoid breaking the space-time continuum.
To put it simply, it is a combination of the motion, the shape, and the speed of the wings that keeps bumblebees in the air. While it is true that they aren’t very aerodynamically efficient, it clearly gets the job done.
1. The NASA Space Pen
There are a lot of myths and urban legends surrounding NASA, but the most common one involves the million-dollar space pen. This story gets often repeated when people want to make a point about the space agency’s frivolous spending. Back during the Space Race of the 1960s, American astronauts needed new pens that would work in a weightless environment. NASA then allegedly spent $1 million developing these space pens. Meanwhile, the Soviets simply used pencils.
The only part of that story which is true is that the space pens are real. However, they were developed by a private company called the Fisher Pen Company, which spent about a million dollars of their own money for research & development. NASA didn’t fund it at all, but they did buy hundreds of them in 1967, at about $6 per pen. And two years later, so did the Soviets, because the space pens were a lot safer than pencils whose tips could break off, float away, and damage electronics.