5 Myths of the 1920s That Were Debunked—Then Turned Out to be True

In the 1920s, Lambert & Butler English Cigarette cards set out to debunk common myths. Some are just bizarre (hold burned skin closer to a fire to “draw off” the burn), some are things teachers have the audacity to say to this day (“In summer, the earth is nearer the sun than in winter”)—and some, like these five, weren't actually myths at all, as 95 additional years of scientific research has shown.

1. Fallacy: Drinking hot tea will cool you down.

Lambert & Butler Truth: It’s obvious that drinking hot tea causes your body heat to increase, though eventually you’ll return to normal, which may account for your brain “tricking” you into think you’re cooling down.

Twenty-first Century Truth: When an NPR executive producer told one of her writers to find out why hot tea cooled the body, the writer balked, saying that couldn’t possibly be true. The producer, Madhulika Sikka, replied, “Trust me. I’m Indian, I’m English. One billion Indians can’t be wrong. They drink hot tea in hot weather.” The journalist found out that receptors on the tongue tell the brain that the body is hot, which triggers the body’s cooling systems, particularly sweating. In fact, you sweat disproportionately to the amount of heat you’ve ingested, resulting (as long as that sweat can comfortably evaporate) in a cool down.

2. Fallacy: Artillery Fire Causes Rain.

Lambert & Butler Truth: This long-held superstition was applied to rains that coincidentally accompanied such famous battles as Waterloo and English battles with the Spanish Armada. But this was disproved by a New Zealand scientist in 1907, who fired all sorts of bombast into the air to no result. It was determined that no explosion could generate the amount of energy required to make rainfall.

Twenty-first Century Truth: At the time these cards were printed, the theory of how big “artillery fire” would have to be to change the weather must have only existed in the nightmares of a handful of scientists. In 1945, theory became fact. Nuclear explosions can cause rain, as they did within a half hour of detonation at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s called “black rain,” caused by extreme atmospheric thermal changes and millions of particles of airborne debris becoming condensation vessels. It falls to earth like black sludge, and is highly radioactive.

3. Fallacy: The sun can cause prairie and forest fires.

Lambert & Butler TruthEven the hottest deserts in North Africa only reach temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is far below the temperature needed for forest debris to combust. Sun can dry out tinder, making a spark more likely to catch, but cannot start the fire.

Twenty-first Century Truth: It is extremely hard for sunshine to start a forest fire. But under perfect circumstances, it can. The flashpoint of wood is 572 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s a mighty high temperature for sunlight—unless that sunlight is concentrated by something, and/or directed onto tinder that doesn’t have as high a flashpoint, such as dry grass or pine needles. When paired with the most innocent of debris—a concave soda can bottom, a dog’s water dish or even a drop of water—the temperature soars and spontaneous sparks can fly.


Lambert & Butler Truth: The moon has no effect on weather. Although this has been repeated as truth for ages, studies since 1774 comparing weather changes and the phase of the moon have consistently had the result that “no connection whatever has been traced” (emphasis theirs).

Twenty-first Century Truth: This belief has been around in various forms since the Romans. And it turns out that they may have been on to something. In 2010, researchers from Arizona and the National Climactic Data Center noticed that there was a slight increase in stream flow around the quarter moon, so they went back and looked at rainfall data from as far back as 1895. What they saw was that there was an increase in rainfall around the quarter moon. It’s a small effect—at the most it increases rainfall by 5 percent—but it is there.


Lambert & Butler Truth: The bracing smell of the seaside isn’t ozone, it’s probably just decaying seaweed. Analyses of seaside air versus air from other regions shows that the variation in ozone levels is very small.

Twenty-first Century Truth: This is a strange case in that it was probably true when the card was written, but now isn’t. Seasides probably do contain more ozone than other areas for one reason: shipping. Diesel engines produce a lot of nitrogen oxides that react with chloride (as is found in sea salt spray) to form nitryl chloride, which encourages the production of ozone. And around Miami and Houston, nitryl chloride levels were 20 times higher than models suggested. In Houston, a NOAA researcher has said that 10 to 30 percent of morning ozone production is probably thanks to sea air. So the Victorians were just a little ahead of their time.

There is one major difference between then and now, however. Back then, people felt that the ozone was a great curative that made people healthy. Now the exact opposite is believed.

Fallacy: All Bats Are Blind

Lambert & Butler Truth: Bats have eyes, they are just very small. And they can hardly be blind because they eat very tiny things at night. And there you have it. Argue with that, if you can.

Twenty-first Century Truth: L&B weren’t wrong, really, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are many different species of bats, and they “see” in a variety of ways, often as well as humans. Some bats can only see black and white, but the fruit bat can see color and has eyes adaptable to low light, like cats. But the real proof that bats are not blind didn’t show up until 1939, when Harvard student Donald Griffin began blindfolding, gagging, and covering the ears of bats. After discovering that bats made a great deal of noise too high for humans to hear, he then discovered they used that noise to “see.” Echolocation occurs when the noise a bat makes bounces off an object back to him, telling him where it is, how large, and if he can eat it.

All images courtesy of the New York Public Library

Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find

The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
10 Astonishing Things You Should Know About the Milky Way
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Our little star and the tiny planets that circle it are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its name comes from the Greek galaxias kyklos ("milky circle") and Latin via lactea ("milky road"). Find a remote area in a national park, miles from the nearest street light, and you'll see exactly why the name makes sense and what all the fuss is about. Above is not a sky of black, but a luminous sea of whites, blues, greens, and tans. Here are a few things you might not know about our spiraling home in the universe.


The Milky Way galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers (about 621,371,000,000,000,000 miles) across. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you well over 100,000 years to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. So it's big. Not quite as big as space itself, which is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as Douglas Adams wrote, but respectably large. And that's just one galaxy. Consider how many galaxies there are in the universe: One recent estimate says 2 trillion.


artist's illustration of the milky way galaxy and its center
An artist's concept of the Milky Way and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at its core.
ESA–C. Carreau

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy composed of an estimated 300 billion stars, along with dust, gas, and celestial phenomena such as nebulae, all of which orbits around a hub of sorts called the Galactic Center, with a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") at its core. The bar refers to the characteristic arrangement of stars at the interior of the galaxy, with interstellar gas essentially being channeled inward to feed an interstellar nursery. There are four spiral arms of the galaxy, with the Sun residing on the inner part of a minor arm called Orion. We're located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, but that is OK. There is definitely life here, but everywhere else is a question mark. For all we know, this might be the galactic Paris.


If you looked at all the spiral galaxies in the local volume of the universe, the Milky Way wouldn't stand out as being much different than any other. "As galaxies go, the Milky Way is pretty ordinary for its type," Steve Majewski, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and the principal investigator on the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), tells Mental Floss. "It's got a pretty regular form. It's got its usual complement of star clusters around it. It's got a supermassive black hole in the center, which most galaxies seem to indicate they have. From that point of view, the Milky Way is a pretty run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy."


On the other hand, he tells Mental Floss, spiral galaxies in general tend to be larger than most other types of galaxies. "If you did a census of all the galaxies in the universe, the Milky Way would seem rather unusual because it is very big, our type being one of the biggest kinds of galaxies that there are in the universe." From a human perspective, the most important thing about the Milky Way is that it definitely managed to produce life. If they exist, the creatures in Andromeda, the galaxy next door (see #9), probably feel the same way about their own.


John McSporran, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

We have a very close-up view of the phenomena and forces at work in the Milky Way because we live inside of it, but that internal perspective places astronomers at a disadvantage when it comes to determining a galactic pattern. "We have a nice view of the Andromeda galaxy because we can see the whole thing laid out in front of us," Majewski says. "We don't have that opportunity in the Milky Way."

To figure out its structure, astronomers have to think like band members during a football halftime show. Though spectators in the stands can easily see the letters and shapes being made on the field by the marchers, the band can't see the shapes they are making. Rather, they can only work together in some coordinated way, moving to make these patterns and motions on the field. So it is with telescopes and stars.


Interstellar dust further stymies astronomers. "That dust blocks our light, our view of the more distant parts of the Milky Way," Majewski says. "There are areas of the galaxy that are relatively obscured from view because they are behind huge columns of dust that we can't see through in the optical wavelengths that our eyes work in." To ameliorate this problem, astronomers sometimes work in longer wavelengths such as radio or infrared, which lessen the effects of the dust.


Astronomers can make pretty reasonable estimates of the mass of the galaxy by the amount of light they can see. They can count the galaxy's stars and calculate how much those stars should weigh. They can account for all the dust in the galaxy and all of the gas. And when they tally the mass of everything they can see, they find that it is far short of what is needed to account for the gravity that causes the Milky Way to spin.

In short, our Sun is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, and astronomers know that it goes around the galaxy at about 144 miles per second. "If you calculate it based on the amount of matter interior to the orbit of the Sun, how fast we should be going around, the number you should get is around 150 or 160 kilometers [93–99 miles] per second," Majewski says. "Further out, the stars are rotating even faster than they should if you just account for what we call luminous matter. Clearly there is some other substance in the Milky Way exerting a gravitational effect. We call it dark matter."


Dark matter is a big problem in galactic studies. "In the Milky Way, we study it by looking at the orbits of stars and star clusters and satellite galaxies, and then trying to figure out how much mass do we need interior to the orbit of that thing to get it moving at the speed that we can measure," Majewski says. "And so by doing this kind of analysis for objects at different radii across the galaxy, we actually have a fairly good idea of the distribution of the dark matter in the Milky Way—and yet we still have no idea what the dark matter is."


andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
ESA/Hubble & NASA

Sometime in the next 4 or 5 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will smash into each other. The two galaxies are about the same size and have about the same number of stars, but there is no cause for alarm. "Even though there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy and a comparable number, or maybe more, in Andromeda, when they collide together, not a single star is expected to hit another star. The space between stars is that vast," Majewski says.


There are countless spacecraft and telescopes studying the Milky Way. Most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, while other space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, and Kepler are also returning data to help astronomers unlock the mysteries of our swirling patch of stars. The next landmark telescope in development is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It should finally launch in 2019. Meanwhile, such ambitious projects as APOGEE are working out the structure and evolution of our spiral home by doing "galactic archaeology." APOGEE is a survey of the Milky Way using spectroscopy, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars across the galaxy in great detail. The properties of stars around us are fossil evidence of their formation, which, when combined with their ages, helps astronomers understand the timeline and evolution of the galaxy we call home. 


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