I was walking around midtown Manhattan this week when I noticed a news organization with its zipper open. The zipper in question was the headline ticker around a media building on Sixth Avenue, and the news it was announcing was that a group of amateur astronomers in Sicily had just launched a cannoli into space, sending it into the stratosphere attached to a balloon. According to the zipper, the cannoli achieved "low orbit."
OK, leave aside for the moment that the Sicilian Major Tom made it no higher than 18 miles (30 km), which looks a little like space, but isn't. Going into orbit, even a "low" one, requires not only much more altitude—on the order of 100 miles (160 km)—but much more speed, at least 17,500 miles per hour in the flat (28,100 km/h). The balloon, you might expect, didn't quite achieve that.
In fairness, science errors are everywhere and if-it's-high-up-it-must-be-in-orbit is a comparatively mild one. In no particular order, here is the incomplete, by no means definitive, often painful list of the ten most common scientific misconceptions.
You can kill a virus: No you can't. You can deactivate it, destroy it, but you can't kill it. The reason: it wasn't alive to begin with. One of the requirements for life is the ability to reproduce and the virus is out of luck on that score. It survives only by carjacking a cell first.
Jonas Salk discovered the cure for polio: Discovered? You mean like the last guy who used his desk left the recipe in a drawer? It took eight years of work in a basement lab at the University of Pittsburgh to do what he did. And it wasn't a cure—there's never been a cure. Salk created a vaccine, which means, even now, that if you don't get it and you contract the disease, there's no help for you. Listen up, anti-vaxxers.
The dark side of the moon: Pink Floyd, I blame you. For the last time: the moon has no dark side. It does have a far side—which has just the same waxing and waning light the near side does. Album titles ain't science.
Asteroid, meteor, meteorite, what's the diff? Location, location, location. An asteroid is a big rock that's out there. A meteor is a big rock that hits our atmosphere. A meteorite is any chunk that hits the ground—or your house or your head.
It's hot outside: Depends. The temperature at the center of the sun is 27 million °F (15 million °C). The hottest temperature ever achieved in a particle accelerator was 7.2 trillion °F (4 trillion °C). By contrast, the coldest temperature possible, known as absolute zero, is -460 °F (270 °C). In other words, we live only about 500 degrees from the rock bottom of the temperature scale and trillions of degrees from the top. Bundle up.
If it's called a theory, it's the same as a hunch: That's true sometimes, when you're just beginning to look into a phenomenon. But after a while, the word merely means that you didn't actually see the event play out—even if all the evidence tells you what happened. The theory of evolution? A fact. The Big Bang theory? A fact. But unless you're 13.8 billion years old, you weren't here to witness it all.
Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place: Lightning actually doesn't care. Tall buildings get zapped a lot. Park ranger Roy Sullivan was lit up seven times in his career—before committing suicide in 1983. Can you blame him?
The seasons are caused by distance from the sun: Seems to make sense. When the northern hemisphere leans toward the sun it's closer and so it's warmer; when it leans away, its further so it's colder. But that's not it. The Earth is 93 million miles away from the solar fires, so a little tilt this way or that doesn't really matter. It's the angle at which the sunlight hits—low and oblique versus straight on and hot—that makes the difference.
Primitive humans and dinosaurs crossed paths: Yes, there are people who continue to believe that. No, it's not true. We were separated by a good 65 million years. Indeed, it's the extinction of the dinosaurs that made room for little rodent-like mammals (read: your ancestors) to venture out of the shadows and take over the world in the first place. Wilma, we're home!
One false move and a particle accelerator will kill us all: There was a lot of hand-wringing about this back in 2008 when the Large Hadron Collider was about to be switched on and doomsayers predicted it would create an artificial black hole that would eat Europe. It's true that some of the most powerful and violent events in the universe are recreated in colliders, but in miniature—a few harmless particles at a time. Relax and enjoy the bosons.
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