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

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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.

4. THE WEATHER CHANGES WITH THE CHANGING MOON.

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.

5. FALLACY: OZONE IS PRESENT IN THE AIR AT THE SEA-SIDE.

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.

BONUS
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

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Words
15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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