Tuesday, April 22

The Debunker: Did Elizabethans Really Talk Like Americans?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did Elizabethans Really Talk Like Americans?

The great Shakespearean stage director Trevor Nunn opined a few years ago, after directing Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic theater, that he’d like to see Shakespeare done only in American accents from now on. “Today's American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing,” he said. Specifically, it’s been claimed since the late 19th century that parts of Appalachia still speak in an accent that’s a virtual time capsule of Elizabethan English. Gadzooks! Hillbillies talking like Hamlet? Can this in truth be so?

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Tuesday, April 15

The Debunker: Did King John Sign the Magna Carta?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did King John Sign the Magna Carta?

In 1215, a group of feudal barons had enough clout to get King John on board with the Magna Carta, a document that for the first time limited the powers of the English crown. The charter enshrined rights like due process of law, making it the direct ancestor of the many future constitutional documents both in Britain and abroad, including the U.S. Bill of Rights. So powerful is the symbolism of the Magna Carta even overseas that in 1957 the American Bar Association placed a monument to the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the meadow near the Thames where the document was signed.

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Tuesday, April 08

The Debunker: Do Londoners Check the Time on Big Ben?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Do Londoners Check the Time on Big Ben?

When I got married back in 2000, we spent our honeymoon in London. A friend of my wife’s asked her, “What are you guys going to do all day, besides look at Old Ben?” I was a little aggrieved at this description of my anatomy, until I realized she had meant to refer to “Big Ben,” which as everyone knows is the clock tower at the north end of the Houses of Parliament, right? Wrong. Yes, the clock tower is an iconic symbol of London. But no, it’s not called Big Ben.

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Tuesday, April 01

The Debunker: Did Henry VIII Divorce Any of His Wives?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did Henry VIII Divorce Any of His Wives?

“Divorced, beheaded, died, / Divorced, beheaded, survived.” That’s the mnemonic rhyme we used in school when we were studying the life of Larry King. Oops, that’s wrong. Just dug out my old notes. King Henry VIII of England.

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Tuesday, March 25

The Debunker: Are There Super-Smart People with Photographic Memory?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that the second week of March is Brain Awareness Week around the globe? You didn’t? You weren’t aware of your brain? Conscious of your consciousness? Well, get with the program. March is perhaps the brainiest month of the year—it’s also when we celebrate the 1879 birthday of famous smarty-pants Albert Einstein, and the 1946 beginning of Mensa intelligence testing. But it turns out people will believe just about anything they hear about what’s going up between their ears. We’ve asked Ken Jennings to fact-check some particularly lame-brained misconceptions about gray matter.

The Debunker: Are There Super-Smart People with “Photographic Memory”?

When people recognize me from my streak on the quiz show Jeopardy!, it’s one of the most common questions I get, right up there with “What is Alex Trebek really like?” and “Why do you still dress so badly?” People always want to know, “You have a photographic memory, right?” I don’t! What a useful thing that would be, to be able to casually glance at a page of text, or a map, or a painting, and remember it forever. I think the NSA would pay for that skill.

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Tuesday, March 18

The Debunker: Do We Use Only 10 Percent of Our Brains?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that the second week of March is Brain Awareness Week around the globe? You didn’t? You weren’t aware of your brain? Conscious of your consciousness? Well, get with the program. March is perhaps the brainiest month of the year—it’s also when we celebrate the 1879 birthday of famous smarty-pants Albert Einstein, and the 1946 beginning of Mensa intelligence testing. But it turns out people will believe just about anything they hear about what’s going up between their ears. We’ve asked Ken Jennings to fact-check some particularly lame-brained misconceptions about gray matter.

The Debunker: Do We Use Only 10 Percent of Our Brains?

Harvard psychologist William James used to claim that people “use only a small part of our mental and physical resources.” This is hard to argue with: of course, humans are born with an abundance of time and talent and possibility and sadly, most of us spend a lot of it on dumb stuff like Facebook or fantasy football. But in 1936, Professor James’s soundbite suddenly went viral. Journalist Lowell Thomas misquoted James to say that “the average person develops only 10 percent of his latent mental ability”—and then added the now very scientific-sounding claim to his introduction to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book, with Thomas’s information attached, became the biggest bestseller of its time.

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Tuesday, March 11

The Debunker: Did Big Dinosaurs Have a Second Brain?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that the second week of March is Brain Awareness Week around the globe? You didn’t? You weren’t aware of your brain? Conscious of your consciousness? Well, get with the program. March is perhaps the brainiest month of the year—it’s also when we celebrate the 1879 birthday of famous smarty-pants Albert Einstein, and the 1946 beginning of Mensa intelligence testing. But it turns out people will believe just about anything they hear about what’s going up between their ears. We’ve asked Ken Jennings to fact-check some particularly lame-brained misconceptions about gray matter.

The Debunker: Did Big Dinosaurs Have a Second Brain?

Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh was one of the great dinosaur experts of the 19th century, naming pretty much every extinct lizard you see today in museum lobbies or children’s books: Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Triceratops, Apatosaurus. Much of his work centered on the dinosaur he called Stegosaurus, meaning “covered lizard.” In 1881, he made a cast of a Stegosaurus skull, and was astounded to find that the giant animal probably made do with a 3-ounce brain, no bigger than a lime. (Not quite the “brain the size of a walnut” from popular accounts, but close.)

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Tuesday, March 04

The Debunker: Are There “Left-Brained” and “Right-Brained” People?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that the second week of March is Brain Awareness Week around the globe? You didn’t? You weren’t aware of your brain? Conscious of your consciousness? Well, get with the program. March is perhaps the brainiest month of the year—it’s also when we celebrate the 1879 birthday of famous smarty-pants Albert Einstein, and the 1946 beginning of Mensa intelligence testing. But it turns out people will believe just about anything they hear about what’s going up between their ears. We’ve asked Ken Jennings to fact-check some particularly lame-brained misconceptions about gray matter.

The Debunker: Are There “Left-Brained” and “Right-Brained” People?

Your buttoned-down computer programmer friend Gary is detail-oriented and analytical. Not long ago, he would have carried a slide rule with him at all times in his jacket pocket. “Left-brained!” you announce knowingly. But your free spirit friend Maya is creative and intuitive. She’s written poetry since third grade and has recently taken up painting. Regardless of weather, she is probably wearing a scarf right now. “Right-brained!” you decide.

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Tuesday, February 25

The Debunker: Did Atlas Hold Up the Earth?

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 Atlas Hold Up the Earth?

The Titan Atlas probably has the worst job in Greek mythology. You’ve seen him in statues and on the cover of unreadable Ayn Rand books, hoisting that giant ball on his shoulders night and day. But you might be surprised to find that, in ancient myths, Atlas does not hold up the Earth. Consider: if he did, what would he stand on?

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Tuesday, February 18

The Debunker: Does The Iliad Tell the Story of the Trojan Horse?

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: Does The Iliad Tell the Story of the Trojan Horse?

To this day, we still use the proverb “Beware Greeks bearing gifts,” remembering the end of the Trojan War. Unable to scale the impregnable walls of Troy, the Greeks rely on stratagem: Odysseus designs a giant wooden horse, and the Greeks pretend to leave Troy by ship. The gullible Trojans think, “Nice! Free horse!” and wheel it into the city. By night, the Greek army sneaks out of the hollow horse and takes over Troy.

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