Tuesday, February 04

The Debunker: Did Pandora Open a Box?

by Ken Jennings

Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, was a trivia-obsessed ten-year-old, and now he’s raising a few quiz kids of his own. This month he launches a new series of amazing-facts books for kids, The Junior Genius Guides. Since the first two books in the series introduce young readers to Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology, respectively, we’ve asked him to set us straight this month and debunk some popular misconceptions about classical mythology, which has always been all Greek to us. Myths about myths?! May Zeus have mercy on our souls.

The Debunker: Did Pandora Open a Box?

Like the streaming music service that became her namesake, Pandora was engineered to be a perfect match. According to Hesiod, she was history’s first woman, sculpted from clay by the gods and given all good gifts (“Pandora” is actually Greek for “all-gifted”) in order to become the wife of the Titan Epimetheus. She made him very happy—that is, until she released all the evils of the world, condemning the human race to millennia of toil, sickness, and evil. Once all the bad stuff has escaped, only “hope” is left to cling to.

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Tuesday, January 28

The Debunker: Do Mice Really Like Cheese?

by Ken Jennings

It’s now 2014, a full decade since Jeopardy! made Ken Jennings mildly famous, but he’s still waging his tireless war against misinformation in our weekly “Debunker” column. Did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Or that David Seville of “The Chipmunks” fame was born on January 27? By the end of this month, of course, the most famous rodent-related day on the calendar, Groundhog Day, will be just hours away. In honor of our small woodland friends, most of whom are probably hibernating right now, Ken will spend the month of January gnawing away at all the rodent-related facts you only thought you knew.

The Debunker: Do Mice Really Like Cheese?

Animated mice, I am quick to note, love cheese. In 1986’s immigration parable An American Tail, we learn that animated mice will even cross an ocean on the chance of finding a paradise where, allegedly, “the streets are paved with cheese.” But the mouse-cheese link predates Tom and Jerry by thousands of years, being found in the letters of the Roman writer Seneca. It’s possible that the ancients associated mice with cheese because cheese, unlike other stored food items, needed to be left out to “breathe,” and was therefore more susceptible to household pests. Or maybe our forefathers, looking to “build a better mousetrap,” tried aromatic baits like cheese in hopes of bringing all the mice to the yard.

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Tuesday, January 21

The Debunker: Can Porcupines Shoot Their Quills?

by Ken Jennings

It’s now 2014, a full decade since Jeopardy! made Ken Jennings mildly famous, but he’s still waging his tireless war against misinformation in our weekly “Debunker” column. Did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Or that David Seville of “The Chipmunks” fame was born on January 27? By the end of this month, of course, the most famous rodent-related day on the calendar, Groundhog Day, will be just hours away. In honor of our small woodland friends, most of whom are probably hibernating right now, Ken will spend the month of January gnawing away at all the rodent-related facts you only thought you knew.

The Debunker: Can Porcupines Shoot Their Quills?

If you believe, as I do, that the moral arc of the universe bends away from ignorance, then the matter of porcupine defense is a depressing one. People have been wrong about porcupine quills for over 2,500 years, and don’t seem to be getting any less wrong. It’s not just dumb people, either. Our belief that porcupines can shoot their spiny quills through the air to ward of attackers dates back at least as far as Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of his day. The Greek naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote, “The quills of the porcupine are longer, and when it stretches the skin, it discharges them like so many missiles.”

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Tuesday, January 14

The Debunker: Was “Steamboat Willie” the First Mickey Mouse Cartoon?

by Ken Jennings

It’s now 2014, a full decade since Jeopardy! made Ken Jennings mildly famous, but he’s still waging his tireless war against misinformation in our weekly “Debunker” column. Did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Or that David Seville of “The Chipmunks” fame was born on January 27? By the end of this month, of course, the most famous rodent-related day on the calendar, Groundhog Day, will be just hours away. In honor of our small woodland friends, most of whom are probably hibernating right now, Ken will spend the month of January gnawing away at all the rodent-related facts you only thought you knew.

The Debunker: Was “Steamboat Willie” the First Mickey Mouse Cartoon?

Last week, we learned that the Disney company isn’t above throwing cute, chubby rodents off cliffs if dramatic necessity so requires. This is more than a little ironic, since the multibillion dollar entertainment goliath was originally built on rodents—specifically, on the success of one little mouse. No, not the fat one with no pants from Cinderella! Not The Rescuers either, good guess! The Great Mouse Detective? Try again. Nope, not “Roquefort” from The Aristocats. Damn, you know a lot of Disney mice. Respect.

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Tuesday, January 07

The Debunker: Do Lemmings Commit Mass Suicide?

by Ken Jennings

It’s now 2014, a full decade since Jeopardy! made Ken Jennings mildly famous, but he’s still waging his tireless war against misinformation in our weekly “Debunker” column. Did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Or that David Seville of “The Chipmunks” fame was born on January 27? By the end of this month, of course, the most famous rodent-related day on the calendar, Groundhog Day, will be just hours away. In honor of our small woodland friends, most of whom are probably hibernating right now, Ken will spend the month of January gnawing away at all the rodent-related facts you only thought you knew.

The Debunker: Do Lemmings Commit Mass Suicide?

Chances are you know only one thing about the tiny rodents called lemmings: that they jump off cliffs to their watery deaths during migrations. This behavior is the only reason video games get made about lemmings. It’s their only cultural relevance whatsoever. They’re lucky, I suppose. Most of their cousins, like voles and marmots, have no metaphorical function in modern discourse whatsoever.

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Tuesday, December 24

The Debunker: Did the African-American Inventor of the Blood Bank Die Because Doctors Refused Him a Transfusion?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 was Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 was Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets… all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Did the African-American Inventor of the Blood Bank Die Because Racist Doctors Refused Him a Transfusion?

Millions of lives have been saved over the years by the pioneering research of Charles Drew. Drew was an Ivy League-educated surgeon—the first African American ever to graduate from Columbia’s medical school—who revolutionized blood banking when he discovered that blood could be refrigerated longer if the blood cells were centrifuged out of the plasma, and that plasma transfusions didn’t have to be separated by blood type. During World War II, Drew set up the world’s first large-scale blood banks to help wounded soldiers. Drew’s accomplishments as a black doctor were even more impressive in an age of limited opportunity for African Americans.

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Tuesday, December 17

The Debunker: Was “What Hath God Wrought?” the First Message Sent by Telegraph?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 was Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 is Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets… all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Was “What Hath God Wrought?” the First Message Sent by Telegraph?

Samuel Morse’s invention of the single-wire telegraph in 1838 was the watershed event in mass communications that eventually led to today’s information-saturated world. On May 24, 1844, Morse sat in the Supreme Court room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, surrounded by curious members of Congress. He carefully tapped out, in his namesake code of dots and dashes, the short sentence “What hath God wrought?”, a quote from Numbers 23:23 which a family friend had suggested. Forty miles north, in Baltimore, Morse’s assistant Alfred Vail (the unsung hero of the telegraph’s invention) waited at a train station. The large pendulum of the telegraph receiver began to swing, marking Morse’s sentence onto a piece of paper.

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Tuesday, December 10

The Debunker: Did the Model T Ford Only Come in Black?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 was Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 is Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets…all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Did the Model T Ford Only Come in Black?

Henry Ford wasn’t the inventor of the modern automobile. That would be German engineer Karl Benz. But the Model T, which first rolled out of Ford’s Detroit factory in the late summer of 1908, revolutionized transportation. The “Tin Lizzie” was the first affordable horseless carriage, the one that middle-class families could save up for.

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Tuesday, December 03

The Debunker: Did Thomas Edison Invent the Light Bulb?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 is Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 is Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets…all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Did Thomas Edison Invent the Light Bulb?

Thomas Edison’s lifetime count of 2,332 patents worldwide still stands as a record for an American inventor. But this achievement, and Edison’s lasting fame, are in large part a result of his skill not as a scientist, but as a mythmaker.

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Tuesday, November 26

The Debunker: What's the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year?

by Ken Jennings

If the Plymouth Pilgrims could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, talks turkey about the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: Is “Black Friday” the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year?

When I was a kid, I remember my parents telling me that the day after Thanksgiving was the biggest day of the year for shopping malls. Like most six-year-olds, I didn’t follow sales closely, so this seemed counterintuitive. “Is it because of people lining up to return their Thanksgiving presents?” I asked, in all seriousness. “Yes,” said my father. “Yes, it is.” I believed this to be true for the next five to ten years.

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