Tuesday, November 25

The Debunker: Can Owls Turn Their Heads All the Way Around?

by Ken Jennings

In November, we set our clocks an hour forward and officially say good-bye to an hour of daylight every evening. From now until spring, we're going to be spending most of our non-working hours in the dark: commuting home from the office when it's dark, making dinner when it's dark, meeting friends when it's dark, getting the kids to and from a million stupid activities in the dark. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is going to brighten this gloomy month with the light of knowledge, debunking some long-held myths about other nocturnal urban wanderers: the birds and critters you might see on a streetlit November night.

The Debunker: Can Owls Turn Their Heads All the Way Around?

One of the secrets of owls' lethal hunting skills is their amazing eyesight. Unlike most birds, owls have two front-facing eyes, which give them binocular vision. In other words, they're one of the few birds that could actually enjoy a 3-D movie (assuming they gave a hoot and could find a pair of the special glasses to fit them). But there are trade-offs involved: bird eyes are fixed into their sockets by a tiny ring of bone, so owls must move their whole heads any time they need to look around. In popular belief, they can swivel their heads all the way around. You know, like R2-D2, or Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

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Tuesday, November 18

The Debunker: Do Cats Use Their Whiskers for Balance?

by Ken Jennings

In November, we set our clocks an hour forward and officially say good-bye to an hour of daylight every evening. From now until spring, we're going to be spending most of our non-working hours in the dark: commuting home from the office when it's dark, making dinner when it's dark, meeting friends when it's dark, getting the kids to and from a million stupid activities in the dark. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is going to brighten this gloomy month with the light of knowledge, debunking some long-held myths about other nocturnal urban wanderers: the birds and critters you might see on a streetlit November night.

The Debunker: Do Cats Use Their Whiskers for Balance?

No Brooklyn hipster bartender has ever been more protective of his showy whiskers than cat fanciers are for those of their little darlings. Whiskers are sensory organs and must not be trimmed, they insist. Sometimes they're so emphatic as to claim that cats need their whiskers to balance, and wouldn't even be able to walk in a straight line without them.

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Tuesday, November 11

The Debunker: Are Bats Blind?

by Ken Jennings

In November, we set our clocks an hour forward and officially say good-bye to an hour of daylight every evening. From now until spring, we're going to be spending most of our non-working hours in the dark: commuting home from the office when it's dark, making dinner when it's dark, meeting friends when it's dark, getting the kids to and from a million stupid activities in the dark. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is going to brighten this gloomy month with the light of knowledge, debunking some long-held myths about other nocturnal urban wanderers: the birds and critters you might see on a streetlit November night.

The Debunker: Are Bats Blind?

Bats are creepy flying nightmare-rats, but nature has taken pity on them in their grotesquery, and gifted them with one of the animal kingdom's all-time great superpowers: echolocation. Many bats emit ultrasonic chirps whose echoes they can use to navigate, communicate with other bats, and find prey. In other words, they can hunt at night without using eyesight. But bat-sonar wasn't proven until 1940, when Harvard zoologist Donald Griffin published his landmark paper on the phenomenon. The common expression "blind as a bat," however, dates back to the late 16th century. What gives?

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Tuesday, November 04

The Debunker: Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?

by Ken Jennings

In November, we set our clocks an hour forward and officially say good-bye to an hour of daylight every evening. From now until spring, we're going to be spending most of our non-working hours in the dark: commuting home from the office when it's dark, making dinner when it's dark, meeting friends when it's dark, getting the kids to and from a million stupid activities in the dark. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is going to brighten this gloomy month with the light of knowledge, debunking some long-held myths about other nocturnal urban wanderers: the birds and critters you might see on a streetlit November night.

The Debunker: Do Raccoons Wash Their Food?

Raccoons are so associated with food-washing that their species name, Procyon lotor, literally means "the washing pre-dog." The French call the little guy le raton laveur--"the rat who washes." The popular myth is that of an animal who won't take a bite without thoroughly dunking its meal--which, if you ask me, is pretty snooty for an animal that gets a lot of its meals from garbage cans.

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Tuesday, October 28

The Debunker: Did Mozart Write "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"?

by Ken Jennings

Human ignorance, sadly, isn't limited to planet Earth. Even today, over 400 years after the Age of Enlightenment began, plenty of people are still getting plenty of stuff wrong--not just about our home planet, but about the whole universe. Luckily, Jeopardy!s Ken Jennings is the author of a new book about the mysteries of the cosmos, the Junior Genius Guide to Outer Space. In this month's Debunker columns, he'll set us straight on a whole sky full of starry slip-ups. These are some misconceptions of truly astronomical proportion.

The Debunker: Star Myth #4: Did Mozart Write "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"?

The little-known fact that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the melody for the children's song "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" is not so little-known as the wiseacre typically volunteering the "fact" would have you believe. I've seen the claim in Frommer's travel guides, children's books about Mozart, and even (ironically) a book about scientific misconceptions by Phil Plait, who blogs at Bad Astronomy. It's plausible enough, I guess. Who else would compose one of the world's most famous kids' songs but the world's most famous kid composer?

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Tuesday, October 21

The Debunker: Are There Twelve Constellations in the Zodiac?

by Ken Jennings

Human ignorance, sadly, isn't limited to planet Earth. Even today, over 400 years after the Age of Enlightenment began, plenty of people are still getting plenty of stuff wrong--not just about our home planet, but about the whole universe. Luckily, Jeopardy!s Ken Jennings is the author of a new book about the mysteries of the cosmos, the Junior Genius Guide to Outer Space. In this month's Debunker columns, he'll set us straight on a whole sky full of starry slip-ups. These are some misconceptions of truly astronomical proportion.

The Debunker: Star Myth #3: Are There Twelve Constellations in the Zodiac?

Little-known fact: the relative positions of celestial bodies millions or hundreds of millions of miles from Earth do not, in fact, affect your mood, character, and luck on a day-to-day basis, despite what syndicated newspaper columns would have you believe. But the signs of the Zodiac are not just accidental, arbitrary superstitions. Astronomy and astrology are very different fields, but they share the same roots: man's earliest observations of the stars.

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Tuesday, October 14

The Debunker: Do Black Holes Suck?

by Ken Jennings

Human ignorance, sadly, isn't limited to planet Earth. Even today, over 400 years after the Age of Enlightenment began, plenty of people are still getting plenty of stuff wrong--not just about our home planet, but about the whole universe. Luckily, Jeopardy!s Ken Jennings is the author of a new book about the mysteries of the cosmos, the Junior Genius Guide to Outer Space. In this month's Debunker columns, he'll set us straight on a whole sky full of starry slip-ups. These are some misconceptions of truly astronomical proportion.

The Debunker: Star Myth #2: Do Black Holes Suck?

Let's get this out of the way up front: falling into a black hole is no picnic. Get too close to one of these collapsed stars, and you'll never get out. Weird time effects will start to boggle your brain: thousands of years will pass by in, from your point of view, minutes. You'll see images from the past lined up in front of you, and images from the future behind you. Light will bend so much that might be able to see the back of your own head. And that's before you even start to undergo "spaghettification"--the gravitational stretching of your body into a new, pasta-shaped you.

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Tuesday, October 07

The Debunker: Is the Big Dipper a Constellation?

by Ken Jennings

Human ignorance, sadly, isn't limited to planet Earth. Even today, over 400 years after the Age of Enlightenment began, plenty of people are still getting plenty of stuff wrong--not just about our home planet, but about the whole universe. Luckily, Jeopardy!s Ken Jennings is the author of a new book about the mysteries of the cosmos, the Junior Genius Guide to Outer Space. In this month's Debunker columns, he'll set us straight on a whole sky full of starry slip-ups. These are some misconceptions of truly astronomical proportion.

The Debunker: Star Myth #1: Is the Big Dipper a Constellation?

Ask someone to name a constellation in the night sky, and odds are most of them will first think of the Big Dipper, the seven bright stars that gleam overhead on summer nights in an unmistakable sickle-shaped pattern. The Big Dipper has helped humans navigate for millennia by pointing the way to Polaris, the North Star. Virtually every culture had its own name for the Dipper, from the "Drinking Gourd" of West Africa to the "Seven Gods" of Mongolia to the "Charles' Wagon" of the Vikings. It's iconic enough to have been borrowed for the corporate logo of Iridium Communications and on the state flag of Alaska. But the world's most famous constellation isn't actually a constellation at all. It's an asterism.

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Tuesday, September 23

The Debunker: Should You Crack Your Windows During a Hurricane or Tornado?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that September is National Preparedness Month? The catchy government slogan is "Be disaster aware! Take action to prepare!" But how disaster-aware are we really? Lots of the things we know about life's worst calamities are actually wrong--and in some cases, dangerously so. Luckily, Ken Jennings, Jeopardy! survivor and professional know-it-all, is here to set us straight. Because what could be more disastrous than ignorance? Well, maybe a big volcano. Ignorance, and also a big volcano.

The Debunker: Should You Crack Your Windows During a Hurricane or Tornado?

You probably haven't heard of the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University, but the lab has saved countless lives over the last fifty years with research into the effectiveness of tornado shelters and other types of storm preparedness. The heart of the lab: a pneumatic cannon that can simulate wind and flying debris at speeds up over 250 miles per hour. If your ground shelter doesn't withstand TTU's wind lab, it's back to the drawing board for you.

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Tuesday, September 16

The Debunker: Did the Band Play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the Titanic Sank?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that September is National Preparedness Month? The catchy government slogan is "Be disaster aware! Take action to prepare!" But how disaster-aware are we really? Lots of the things we know about life's worst calamities are actually wrong--and in some cases, dangerously so. Luckily, Ken Jennings, Jeopardy! survivor and professional know-it-all, is here to set us straight. Because what could be more disastrous than ignorance? Well, maybe a big volcano. Ignorance, and also a big volcano.

The Debunker: Did the Band Play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the Titanic Sank?

More than 1,500 people lost their lives on April 15, 1912 when the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic. Among them were all eight of the ship's on-board musicians, who normally played in a quintet and trio, respectively. Many, many survivor accounts attests that some or all of these musicians kept playing at the top of the Titanic's grand staircase as the ship gradually lowered into the sea, in an attempt to keep passengers calm during the evacuation.

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