Thursday, February 20

 

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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Thursday, February 13

The Trivial Eye: Hair of the Doctor

by Jason Toon

Different actors, different personas, but most significantly, different hair: so goes the evolution of the character we insist on calling Doctor Who. (We're masochists for outraged, pedantic lectures from geeks.) For a time-traveler, the Doctor sure has followed the hairstyle trends of his time, hasn't he? Keep that in mind as you try to match the hair with the Doctor.

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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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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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