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?
The melody to "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" is ubiquitous--you may or may not have noticed that we also use it for "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "The Alphabet Song." But it's an actually an old French folk song called "Ah! vous dirais-je Maman" ("Oh! Shall I Tell You Mommy"). About fifty years after the melody was first published, it was borrowed for "The Star," a nursery rhyme written by London poets Jane and Ann Taylor. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" was born.
How did Mozart, of all people, get the credit? Around 1781, when "Ah! vous dirais-je Maman" was already an old classic, Mozart composed twelve variations on the simple tune. But so did plenty of other classical composers, including Franz Liszt and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. The melody would have been enormously popular with or without Mozart, and he certainly didn't originate it. But don't feel too bad for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He has a pretty solid musical résumé to fall back on, with or without "Twinkle Twinkle."
Quick Quiz: What novel features an off-kilter parody of the famous rhyme that begins, "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you're at"?
Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.