Whenever someone strikes up a conversation with me about the universe, I get animated.
No surprise there: I’ve made aliving writing about astronomy, physics, geology, spaceflight, and relatedareas of science for nearly a decade, and have read obsessively on these topics for much longer than that.
However, people have shared a lot of peculiar “facts” with me over the years that ended up being totally false.
Below are some of the silliest and most common claims I’ve heard.
No one is perfect I believed many of these statements at some point in my life but it’s time to put these myths, misconceptions, and inaccuracies to rest.
MYTH: The Sun Is Yellow
If you wince and look at the afternoon sun, it might look yellow but the light it gives off is actually white in color.
The Earth’s atmosphere between your eyes and the sun is what makes the star appear yellow.
The gases bendthe light in an effect called Rayleigh scattering, which is what also makes the sky appear blue and causes sunsets to blaze into brilliant oranges and reds.
Not helping matters is that astronomers classify the sun as a yellow main-sequence G-type star, or “yellow dwarf.”
Sources: NASA, NOAA, Washington University, University College London
MYTH: The Sahara is the biggest desert on Earth
Not all deserts are hot and full of sand. They need only be dry and inhospitable.
Antarctica fits the bill, since it receives only two inches of precipitation a year and has few land animals.
At 5.4 million square miles compared to the Sahara’s 3.6 million square miles, the Bottom of the World is a vastly larger desert.
Sources: USGS (1, 2), NASA, Encyclopedia of Earth (1, 2)
MYTH: Astrology can predict your personality or the future.
Wouldn’t it be nice to get a glimpse of tomorrow based on something as simple as where the sun, planets, and moon were located when you were born?
That’s what astrology claims to do, what 50% the world at least partly believes, and what as much as 2% of the planet strongly buys into.
Yet thorough scientific investigations of astrology have failed, again and again, to back up any predictions from an astrological sign or horoscope.
A 1985 study in Nature is especially notable. In that experiment, scientists used a non-biased, double-blind protocol and worked in conjunction with some of the top astrologers in the US to test the predictive power of astrological signs.
The results? The astrological predictions were no better than chance.
Sources: The Humanist, Comprehensive Psychology, Nature, Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Pseudoscience and Deception: The Smoke and Mirrors of Paranormal Claims,
MYTH: When you call someone, the signal bounces off a satellite
This is true of satellite phones, which the military uses every day, but your mobilephone works in a much different way.
Mobile phones broadcast a wireless radio signal and constantly look for, ping, and relay data to and from land-based cellular towers.
When you make a call, the nearest tower connects you to another phone via a vast network of tower-to-tower connections and buried cables.
At best, a satellite might be involved in a call around the globe but 99% of international communications data travels through undersea cables.
Source: Global Data Systems, Tech Insider
MYTH: The great wall of the china is the only man-made structure visible from space
On the two other faces or sides of the planet where the water drains from to formboth high tides you getlow tides.
Sources: Tech Insider,NOAA, NASA
MYTH: Lightning never strikes the same place twice
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Lightning does strike twice.
Some places, like the Empire State Building, get struck up to 100 times a year.
MYTH: The Earth is a perfect sphere
NASA (illustration by Tech Insider)
The Earth rotates at about 1,040 mph. That’s about 60% the speed of your typical bullet after it shoots out of the muzzle.
This inertia slightly flattens the planet’s poles and causes a bulge of rock around the equator.
Due to global warming and the melting of glaciers (and less weight pushing down on the crust), scientists think that bulge is now growing.
Sources: StarrySkies.com, MythBusters the Exhibition
MYTH: Mount Everest is the tallest thing on Earth
The world’s tallest mountain, if you want to get technical, is not Mount Everest.
Mount Everest is the tallest mountain above sea level, but if we’re talking mountain base-to-summit height, then the tallest is the island of Hawaii that peaks as Mauna Kea.
Everest stands 29,035 feet above sea level. Mauna Kea only stands 13,796 feet above sea level, but the mountain extends about 19,700 feet below the Pacific Ocean. Over half of it is submerged.
That puts the total height of Mauna Kea at about 33,500 feet nearly a mile taller than Everest.
Source: Tech Insider
MYTH: Water conducts electricity
So yes, there is a “dark side” to the moon but it’s alwaysmovingand sometimes faces Earth directly.
Sources: NASA (1, 2)
MYTH: Tectonic plates move because volcanism pushes them apart
Older edges of a tectonic plate are cooler and denser, causing them to sink into the mantle where they’re recycled. Where two plates are being yanked apart by this sinking, ocean ridges appear.
That’s where the tectonic plate is being built by hot, buoyant rock that convects upward and emerges from the stretched-out weak point. The resulting volcanism isn’t what pulls two plates apart.
MYTH: Going past the edge of space makes you weightless
Most scientists agree space begins 62 miles up, where the Earth’s atmosphere is more or less a vacuum.
Yet going past this line does not magically make you weightless. If you’re in an accelerating rocket, you will feel many times Earth’s gravity. It’s only when you start falling that you feel weightless.
This is what it means to orbit something: to seemingly fall forever around that object. The moon around the Earth, the Earth around the sun, the solar system around the Milky Way Galaxy … They’re all falling into one another in a crazy cosmic dance.
If you’re 250 miles above the Earth, you have to travel 17,500 mph around the planet to experience continuous freefall precisely the speed of the International Space Station and its astronauts.
Sources: FAI, NASA
MYTH: Diamonds come from coal
Most diamonds aren’t formed from compressed coal.
Instead, they’re carbon that is compressed and heated 90 miles below the surface of the Earth. Coal is found about 2 miles down.
MYTH: People in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat
Sources: NASA(1, 2)
MYTH: Lightning causes thunder.
Getty Images/Ethan Miller
A scientific and philosophical nitpick here, but lightning is just a stream of electrons zapping from cloud to cloud or ground to cloud. This in turn heats air into a tube of plasma that’s three times hotter than the surface of our sun.
That tube violently expands and contracts nearby air, creating an unmistakable crack and rumble not the flow of electrons itself.
Source: Scientific American
MYTH: The Asteroid Belt is dangerous
Movie scenes of spaceships flying through a dense field of tumbling, colliding rocks are imaginary.
The Asteroid Belt a zone between 200 and 300 million miles from the sun is an incredibly lonely and desolate void.
In fact, if you pulled all the asteroids in that belt together they’d only weigh about 4% the mass of Earth’s moon.
This is why NASA gets really excited when it catches evenone asteroid colliding with another.
Sources: NASA, TodayIFoundOut.com
MYTH: The moon is very close to the Earth
A photo of Earth and the moon from space. That tiny speck at the bottom left is the moon.JAXA
The moon sometimes looks so close you could reach up and up and grab it.
In reality, the moon orbits at a distance of about 239,000 miles from Earth. If you could somehow hop in a Boeing 747 and cruise to the moon at full speed, the journey would take about 17 days.
The moon is far, far away.
Sources: Tech Insider, Boeing
MYTH: You can only balance an egg during the Spring Equinox
Source: National Geographic
MYTH: Nothing can go faster than light
Blue Cherenkov radiation in a nuclear reactor, where neutrons travel faster than light through the surrounding water.Argonne National Laboratory
Wrong on a few levels.
While light can move unimpeded at 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum, it slows down when it travels through different substances. For example, light moves 25% slower through water and 59% slower through diamond.
Particles like electrons, neutrons, or neutrinos can outpace photons of light in such materials though they have to bleed off energy as radiation when they do.
What about light in a vacuum?
Even then, the expanding fabric of space once exceeded light-speed during the Big Bang, and physicists think wormholes and quantum entanglement might be able to “move” faster as well.
Sources: Georgia State University, Tech Insider
MYTH: The vacuum of space is cold
If you’re in total darkness at the coldest spot in the known universe, the vacuum of space can get down to minus-454 degrees Fahrenheit. Brr!
But in sunlight near Earth, temperatures can swing to a boiling 250 F. That’s why astronauts wear reflective white spacesuits.
Sources: NASA (1, 2)
MYTH: Enrico Fermi developed the “Fermi paradox” about aliens
Physicist Enrico Fermi once famously asked “where is everybody?” after seeing a New Yorker cartoon featuring a flying saucer.
But Fermi was questioning the feasibility of travel between stars not the actual existence of aliens.
The “Fermi” paradox, which explores the contradiction that intelligent aliens are inevitable but we haven’t seen them, doesquestion alien existence. And Fermi didn’t do that work.
Astronomer Michael Hart and physicist Frank Tipler were the ones who actually fleshed out the idea in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The Fermi paradox might be more accurately called the ‘Hart-Tipler argument against the existence of technological extraterrestrials,’ which does not sound quite as authoritative as the old name, but seems fairer to everybody,” astronomer Robert H. Gray wrote for Scientific American.
Sources: Tech Insider, Scientific American
MYTH: There are only 3 phases of matter: Solid, liquid, and gas
You forgot a big one: Plasma.
It’s easy to assume solids are the most abundant form of matter in the cosmos, since we all live on a giant rock. But plasma is vastly more abundant; stars, including the sun, are gigantic orbs of glowing plasma.
There are other sub-phasesof matter, but solid, liquid, gas, and plasma are the main ones.
Sources: NASA, Southwest Research Institute
Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/25-silly-myths-about-earth-space-and-physics-that-drive-me-crazy/