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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Tuesday, February 11

The Debunker: Did King Midas Turn His Daughter into Gold?

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 King Midas Turn His Daughter into Gold?

Readers of Greek mythology know that Midas, king of Phrygia, was the Kevin Bacon of classical times: he shows up in story after story, and always does something awesome. My favorite is the myth where he gets asked to judge a divine music contest, and refuses to admit that Apollo is a better musician than Pan. Apollo punishes him with donkey ears, a fact which he desperately tries to hide from everyone. But his barber finds out, and is dying to tell the secret. Finally, he goes down to the riverbank and tells the reeds there, “Midas has ass’s ears!” But the reeds begin to whisper that phrase to everyone who passes by, and Midas puts the barber to death. Talk about blaming the messenger.

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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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