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 18

The Debunker: Is The Moon Bigger Nearer The Horizon?

by Ken Jennings

In honor of the late Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts, we’ve asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to run down some common misconceptions that lots of people still believe about the moon. Did you know it’s not even made out of green cheese? Science ruins everything.

Moon Myth #3: The Moon Is Larger In The Sky When It's Nearer The Horizon.

This impression is so convincing that it can be hard to convince people that it is, in fact, a psychological phenomenon and not an astronomical one. Don’t feel bad: even Aristotle was so suckered by the illusion that he thought it must be caused by atmospheric effects or something. But no: if we go by physical factors alone (refraction and actual distance), the Moon actually appears 1.5 percent smaller when it’s rising or setting! So why does it look so much bigger?

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Tuesday, September 11

The Debunker: Do People Go Crazy During A Full Moon?

by Ken Jennings

In honor of the late Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts, we’ve asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to run down some common misconceptions that lots of people still believe about the moon. Did you know it’s not even made out of green cheese? Science ruins everything.

Moon Myth #2: Human Behavior Gets Nuts During a Full Moon.

Fully 45 percent of American college students, according to one survey, believe the old saw that a full moon makes people a little wacky. This idea dates back to the ancient Greeks. They observed the near-correlation between the length of the lunar cycle and women’s menstrual cycles (a link that’s still controversial, but which many statisticians now believe to be an evolutionary coincidence), and they knew that the Moon’s orbit tugged at the ocean tides. In that case, why couldn’t it tug on the fluids in human brains and bodies as well? In fact, the Moon’s phases were so closely tied to the way the ancients saw mental illness that our word “lunatic” comes from the Latin “luna,” meaning Moon.

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Tuesday, September 04

The Debunker: Is There A "Dark Side" Of The Moon?

by Ken Jennings

Last month, Neil Armstrong died at age 82. One of the best test pilots of his generation, Armstrong thought that his chances to be an aviation pioneer had passed him by in 1947 when his future colleague Chuck Yeager became the first human to fly faster than speed of sound. That all changed when he entered the space program, of course, and in 1969, Armstrong made history when he became the first man to walk on the moon. (If that doesn’t ring a bell to you kids, just picture the astronaut on the MTV Video Music Award.) The day of his August 31 memorial service was, appropriately enough, a “blue moon”—the second full moon in the same month, an astronomical oddity that won’t happen again until 2015. In honor of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts, we’ve asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to run down some common misconceptions that lots of people still believe about the moon. Did you know it’s not even made out of green cheese? Science ruins everything.

Moon Myth #1: I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Moon.

It should be obvious that, indeed, one half of the Moon is always lit by the Sun, and one half is dark. But, despite the impression you may have gotten from bad science-fiction movies and prog-rock albums, it’s not always the same side...



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