Science Myth or Truth? Can you tell?



Can you tell truth from myth?

Test yourself with these tales.

Each could be true, part-myth or myth.

The truth about each story can be found below the image that follows the story.

Truth, Part-Myth or Myth?

1. William Shanks was an amateur mathematician who lived in the 19th century. His dearest wish was that his gravestone should record his devotion to mathematics.

He had calculated pi to as many decimal places as he could, which was 707. In those days, this was no mean feat, requiring over 15 years work, breaking the previous world record for pi’s precision.

Shanks had pi engraved on his gravestone to 707 decimal places.

Unfortunately, the last 179 decimal places in his calculation were wrong. Oops!

Truth, part-myth or myth?

Pi correct to 707 decimal places


Answer 1

Part-myth: there’s no evidence for the gravestone part of the tale. Shanks did actually calculate pi to 707 places, and he did get the last 179 places wrong. It took until the 1940s before Shanks’s error was discovered.

2. Okay, a solitary mathematician got things wrong. Science and tech as a whole don’t fail, do they?

Well, unfortunately they do, and when it happens, it can be big, costly and embarrassing.

In 1999, NASA’s Mars Climate Observer went AWOL because engineers at Lockheed Martin had been working in feet and pounds, while NASA had been working in meters and kilograms!

The Climate Observer was meant to go into orbit around the Red Planet, but the numbers fed into the navigation system were wrong; the Climate Observer crashed into Mars and was destroyed – a waste of over a hundred million dollars and a major setback to our knowledge about Mars’s climate. So, yes, even major-league Science & Tech can get it wrong.

Truth, part-myth or myth?


Is the wreckage of the Climate Observer out there somewhere?

Answer 2

Sadly, it’s all truth.

3. Menelik the Second, Emperor of Abyssinia, was a trendy sort of ruler, desperate for his people to have access to the latest technology. His big idea was to import electric chairs from the United States of America, so that Abyssinia could carry out executions using an up-to-date method. Hey, everyone would see how forward thinking Menelik was!

BUT… nobody had told Menelik that the chairs needed an electricity supply to do their grim work. Abyssinia didn’t have one! Nevertheless, impressed by the design of the chairs, Menelik had one of them converted into his new throne.

Truth, part-myth or myth?


Answer 3

Myth. Electric chairs are simple wooden constructions – anyone with basic woodworking skills could make one. America’s execution centers used home-made chairs. There were no manufacturers. This is a persistent myth first reported in ‘interest’ sections of North American newspapers in the first half of the twentieth century.

4. On April 1, 1976, the well-known British astronomer Patrick Moore told early morning listeners to BBC Radio something very strange would happen that morning.

At 9:47 a.m. everyone would feel the effects of a rare alignment of the planets Jupiter and Pluto. When Pluto moved behind Jupiter, their gravities would briefly combine, reducing gravity on our own planet.

Listeners could verify the effect by jumping into the air at 9:47 a.m., when they would feel a floating sensation.

Of course, this was an April Fools’ prank cooked up by Moore and the BBC.

Sure enough, at 9:47 a.m., large numbers of people who had not realized it was a prank jumped into the air. Soon the BBC was getting hundreds of telephone calls confirming the decrease in gravity – yes, people had really felt like they were floating. One lady told the BBC that she and her friends had floated out of their seats at 9:47 a.m.

Truth, part-myth or myth?


Answer 4

Truth. It all happened.

5. Venus Hop by the one-hit-wonder group Frankie and the Fireballs peaked at number 16 in the U.S. Billboard Pop Chart on September 28, 1963.

Frankie and the Fireballs consisted of five of NASA/JPL’s young engineers: Frankie Webster (vocals), Bill Morrison (guitar), Stephen Renzetti (guitar), Gerald Neugebauer (bass), and Herb McDowell (drums).

Although such activities were in breach of their employment contracts, the positive publicity NASA/JPL got at a time when they were trying to convince Congress to increase their funding meant the engineers were encouraged to release more songs.

Unfortunately, their next four releases all flopped, and the engineers abandoned their pop music careers.


Truth, part-myth or myth?

Answer 5

Myth. It’s all fiction. The group pictured is The Fireballs in 1959. There was no song called Venus Hop. The Fireballs had no connections with NASA or JPL.

10 of Science’s Best BAD ideas – Part 2

You wanted more bad ideas, but they have to be good bad ideas? Well, here they are.

1. Thomas Edison’s Spirit Phone and Theory of the Brain

When he took a break from inventing light bulbs, movies, and phonographs, Thomas Edison thought a lot about how the natural world worked.

Spirit PhonesIn 1920, he confided to a journalist from American Magazine that he had a “spirit phone” in the works. The phone would allow people to talk to the dead. Years later he said it had all been a joke.

Was it a really joke?

Or was it an act of self-promotion? He certainly had a talent for this.

Or did he really think his spirit phone was possible?

Well, maybe we can learn more by considering Edison’s ideas about the human brain.

In Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison, he outlined his idea that within our brains were millions of tiny creatures he described as ‘little peoples.’ These creatures, he believed, carried out all of the brain’s work.

The ‘little peoples’ were controlled by ‘master entities’ living in the frontal lobe of the brain, in Broca’s area.

Edison also believed that when someone dies, their ‘little people’ move and take up residence in someone else’s brain. Perhaps they could then could arrange to phone home on the Edison Spirit Phone?

2. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection Pangenesis

Nine years after his 1859 scientific blockbuster On the Origin of Species, Darwin published The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.

He felt he needed to explain the mechanism of heredity. The fact that this had already been done perfectly well by Gregor Mendel two years earlier had escaped him. In fairness to Darwin, Mendel’s work had escaped almost everyone until Carl Correns, Hugo de Vries, and Erich von Tschermak independently rediscovered it in about 1900.

So, what did Darwin actually propose? Unfortunately, rather than base his theory on years of spadework like Mendel had done, Darwin rather let his imagination run away with him.

girl books

Great Grandma could read one science book a day, Grandma could read two, Mom could read four, and I can read eight science books a day – thanks to Darwin’s gemmules.

First of all, he seemed to accept Lamarckism – that parents can pass acquired characteristics on to their offspring.

If Lamarckism were true, weightlifting parents would have unusually muscular offspring, while successive generations of giraffes would grow longer necks, because the parents’ necks would have been stretched during their lifetimes as they reached up for leaves. In practice, these phenomena are not observed.

Darwin proposed that cells in living creatures, under the influence of weightlifting or stretching or some other influence, would send messages to the reproductive organs, saying something like: “Hey, Dad’s been pushing weights, best make sure baby’s a muscular brute too.”

Darwin proposed these messages would be carried using particles he called gemmules.

Although it’s an attractive idea in some ways – the more we think about science, say, the more our brains would busily make gemmules telling our offspring to be better scientists – it’s just plain wrong. Sorry Charles!

Although, of course… this recent research, means we may still have more research to do.

3. Cold Fusion

In 1989, Professors Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah carried out a famous experiment.

Fleischmann and Pons were respected scientists. Fleischmann had previously written many highly influential papers in the field of electrochemistry – the study of the interface between electrodes and ionic materials.

The two scientists had been working with electrodes made from the metallic element palladium, which has an incredible ability to absorb hydrogen.

A one liter cube of palladium can absorb 900 liters of hydrogen gas. When it does this, you can actually see the metal expanding slightly.

In their experiment with a palladium elecrode, Fleischmann and Pons claimed to have transformed hydrogen into helium plus LOTS of energy.


Fleischmann and Pons dreamed of capturing the power of the sun in a test-tube. Cold fusion is the ultimate clean, green power source.

This was a room temperature version of the way our sun and other stars release energy.

Palladium’s role was to compress the hydrogen and catalyze the fusion reaction.

Although other scientists were able, sometimes, to repeat the experiment so that excess heat was generated, others could not.

Whether excess heat was ever truly generated is not absolutely certain.

What is certain though is the absence of nuclear fusion. No evidence for nuclear fusion in these palladium/hydrogen electrodes – such as the production of neutrons – has ever been found.

Fleischmann and Pons never retracted their cold-fusion claims, but most scientists don’t believe them.

4. The Sun is Inhabited

Okay, it’s a crazy idea, yet one of the greatest astronomers in history actually came to believe that the sun is the home of civilized beings – and he was not alone.

On Tuesday, March 31, 1781 William Herschel saw a disk in the sky between Gemini and the horns of Taurus. He checked his star charts and found there should be nothing there. It was a discovery! But what had he discovered?

At first Herschel thought it must be a comet – an unusual comet, though, because it didn’t seem to have a tail. However, as time passed, and he plotted the trajectory of the ‘comet’ across the heavens, it didn’t follow a parabolic shaped path – the path that all comets take.

Herschel made his data public, and mathematicians such as Pierre Simon de Laplace calculated the orbit and declared it was almost circular. Comets didn’t have near-circular orbits. That shape was reserved for other heavenly bodies – planets, for example!

And indeed, the disk was a planet. William Herschel, a self-taught telescope maker and astronomer had discovered a new planet – Uranus. The first planet discovered in recorded history.

Did Herschel let it rest there? No, of course he didn’t. Fourteen years after his momentous discovery, he felt the need to let people know the truth about the sun.

He revealed that sunspots allow us to look through the sun’s shining, luminous atmosphere, to see the sun’s solid land below. The sun was, in fact, a large planet – the solar system’s main planet. It was probably inhabited, like the other planets and the moon, by creatures adapted to its specific conditions. He argued that since our sun is a star, other stars must also be large, inhabited planets.

It’s amazing how far a little logical thinking can take you, isn’t it?


Herschel’s 12 meter (40 feet) telescope. Herschel made the best telescopes the world had seen. He discovered Uranus, moons of Uranus, moons of Saturn, and thousands of stars and nebulae – which were later shown to be galaxies. He also discovered infrared radiation.

5. The Number of the Beast Universe

I’m slightly cautious about calling this one a bad idea, because the passage of time might yet prove me wrong.

Arthur Eddington was an astrophysicist of the first rank. The Eddington Limit of stars’ luminosity is named in his honor, and in 1919 he confirmed experimentally Einstein’s theory that space is curved by gravity.

Eddington believed that the secrets of the universe could be revealed by dimensionless numbers.

Take the width of your hand, for example – say 10 cm. Its dimensions are centimeters. The width of your thumb – say 2 cm – also has dimensions of centimeters. If you divide the width of your hand by the width of your thumb, you get a result of 5. This number has no dimensions, because centimeters divided by centimeters cancels to 1. You now have the dimensionless number 5.

It doesn’t seem likely that this dimensionless number could help explain the universe, but Arthur Eddington believed that some of them did!

The numbers he focused on were all approximate and were:

owl-numbers137, 1840, and 1039

He got 137 by multiplying the reduced Planck constant by the speed of light, then dividing by the square of the electron charge.

1840 comes from dividing a proton’s mass by an electron’s mass.

1039 comes from dividing the square of the electron charge by the gravitational constant times the proton mass times the electron mass.

Eddington eventually decided that the fundamental dimensionless numbers of the universe clustered within a few orders of magnitude of 1, 1040 and 1080.

Some of his fellow scientists mocked Eddington’s approach, while some played around with his numbers to see if some new insight could come from them.

As yet, nothing serious has been reported, but in the fullness of time, who knows? Maybe you can find something?


Click here for Part 1 of 10 of Science’s Best BAD ideas.