Five Science “Facts” We Learnt At School That Are Plain Wrong

Let’s start with a quiz…

How many senses do you have?Which of the following are magnetic: a tomato, you, paperclips?What are the primary colors of pigments and paints?What region of the tongue is responsible for sensing bitter tastes?What are the states of matter?

If you answered five; paperclips; red, yellow, and blue; the back of the tongue; and gas, liquid, and solid, then you would have got full marks in any school exam. But you would have been wrong.

The sixth sense and more

The sixth sense is real, but it doesn’t let you see dead people
Image Credit: Thomas.haslwanter via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell don’t even begin to cover the ways we sense the world. We sense movement via accelerometers, which are located in the vestibular system within our ears. The movement of fluid through tiny canals deep in our ears allow us to sense movement and give us our sense of balance. Make yourself dizzy and it’s this sense that you are confusing.

When we hold our breath we sense our blood becoming acidic as carbon dioxide dissolves in it, forming carbonic acid. Not to mention senses for temperature, pain, and time, plus a myriad of others that allow us to respond to what is going on within us and the environment around.

Magnetic repulsion

It is not just paperclips that are magnetic. Both tomatoes and humans interact with magnetic fields, too.

Paperclips and other objects that contain iron, cobalt, and nickel are ferromagnets, which means that they can be attracted to magnetic fields. While the water in you and the tomato – or more accurately the nuclei in the hydrogen in the water in you and the tomato – is repelled by magnetic fields. This interaction is called diamagnetism.

But the forces involved are incredibly weak. So normally you don’t notice them. That is unless you have been in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. In there, a massive magnet manipulates nuclei of various atoms inside you in such a way that results in detailed images of your inner workings.

Though you don’t need to go to a hospital to see diamagnetic interactions. Just use a couple of cherry tomatoes, a strong magnet, a wooden kebab stick, and a pin:

And the types of magnetism don’t stop there, but that’s for another time.

You’re painting with the wrong color

The true primary colours.
Image Credit: MARKELLOS via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

You were taught that primary colors are those that can’t be made by mixing other colored pigments together, and that all other colors can be produced by blending these primary colors. Red and blue fail on both counts. You can make red by mixing yellow with magenta. While a blend of magenta with cyan yields blue. Meanwhile, a massive range of hues are inaccessible if you start with just red, blue, and yellow.

Color theorists had this all worked out by the end of the 19th century but for some reason, it hasn’t made it to school curriculums. The proof is in your color printer cartridges. They come in cyan, yellow, and magenta, which are the true primary colors.

A bitter taste in your mouth

Areas 1, 2, 3, and 4 – there is no difference
Image Credit: MesserWoland via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Remember those tongue maps that crop up in biology textbooks? They clearly show how the taste buds for bitter sit at the back of the tongue, with sweet, sour, and salty having their own discrete regions.

These tongue maps first appeared in 1942 after Edwin Boring of Harvard University misinterpreted a German study from 1901. Despite Boring’s mistake the maps soon started to appear in school texts. Then in 1974, the topic was revisited and the whole idea was roundly discredited. Nevertheless over 40 years later tongue taste maps still persist in biology textbooks.

Look at the state of your screen

We all learned solids keep a constant shape because the molecules in them are ordered. These can melt to liquids that keep a constant volume and can be poured. Liquids evaporate to form gases that expand to take up the volume available to them. There we have the three states of matter, end of story.

Except, of course, there are more. Liquid crystals have molecules that are ordered like a solid but are fluid like a liquid. These properties are vital for your cells, shampoo, and of course liquid crystal (LCD) flat screen devices.

But why stop at four states? There is plasma, the state of matter for most things in the sun, or Bose-Einstein condensates, superfluids, and dozens more.

Time to rewrite textbooks?

There are many more than the five “facts” that need to be fixed in school textbooks. I am not suggesting that we should start teaching 6-year-olds about matter that only appears in Nobel Prize-winning physics labs or filling the curriculum with detail on dozens of senses. But maybe we should stop telling kids fibs.

Perhaps a biology lesson should start with: “We have many senses, here are the five we are going to learn about.” Or a sentence dropped in here and there that mentions the existence of more than three states of matter. As for the tongue map, just rip that page out of the book.

Mark Lorch, Senior Lecturer in Biological Chemistry, University of Hull

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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