There are a lot of misconceptions, misconceptions and monkey stories that keep on singing around despite their untruth. Even though scientific research has shown that something is not or is true, some semi-scientific explanations are more persistent and convincing than scientific evidence. For example, despite repeated nagging from scholars, most people continue to find a toilet seat dirty, while a commonly used keyboard is considered completely harmless. They should have known…
Well, we average people are (usually) not consciously ignorant, we have acquired most misconceptions simply because people around us have confided these misconceptions to us. Why not accept what your classmate said as a fun fact yesterday, or your colleague at work claimed to have heard on television (by the way, it is very likely that your classmate and colleague are also firmly convinced, because these misconceptions are often television broadcasts!). If we have to start doubting everything, we don’t have much time left in our average life to do other things. Therefore, in most cases it is very healthy and time efficient to just accept what others say. Chances are they are right in many cases. However, sometimes not.
Some of our beliefs are so ingrained that hardly anyone suspects them of falsehood anymore. And yet some views are as false as can be. A small selection from a large list of misconceptions is described here, so that at least in these specific cases you can say ‘no, it really isn’t, just check it out!’ Ten to one, you don’t convince anyone with it until you threaten the scientific papers (and some people aren’t even impressed by that). Anyway, consider this list mainly as self-enrichment, and if it goes a bit you can also enrich others with it. In any case, it is nice material for a long ride in the elevator.
This part of this Misconceptions special contains ten misconceptions about history and ten misconceptions from the scientific world (such as physics, mathematics, materials science and so on). In a later section, we’ll cover biology, science, and health!
10. Life Expectancy in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, people lived on average only about thirty years.
This widespread belief is wrong. That is, it gives the wrong impression. The official life expectancy of a Medieval baby (at birth) may be 30 years, but that in no way means that most people died around the age of 30. You have to take into account that a large part of the children at that time died of childhood diseases, or even in childbirth. When you look at the life expectancy of a medieval man at the age of twenty, you see a completely different picture appear. Most childhood illnesses are over by age 20, so if you’ve survived those first two decades, you’re significantly more likely to live past the age of 30. The average life expectancy in the Middle Ages for 20-year-olds was therefore about 64 years.
9. Horned Viking Helmets
Vikings had horns on their helmets.
We are all familiar with the image, the bearded, fierce, bloodthirsty Viking with a huge ax in one hand, a round shield in the other, and a conical helmet with two horns attached to his head. Terrifying, perhaps, but quite a false image. At least, as far as the helmet is concerned (the battle ax and the round shield are part of the standard equipment of a Viking, by the way).
The image of a horned Viking actually appears for the first time in our history in the scenographic representation of the opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, by Richard Wagner (in 1876, about 9 centuries after the heyday of the Vikings, please note!) . Historically, there have been peoples in Europe who wore horned helmets, but it was not the Vikings who did. In a depiction of the Battle of Verona (312 AD), the Germanic Cornuti were at the forefront, and they are depicted wearing horned helmets. In the Migration Period (the period when many peoples changed locations, at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, around AD 500), images of warriors wearing horned helmets were found in Öland (Sweden), as well as in Kent ( United Kingdom) and East Sussex (ditto).
There is a chance that there is an overlap between the ritual use of horned helmets in Germanic peoples and the rise of the Vikings. However, Vikings themselves never used such helmets in actual battle. Let’s face it, it’s very impractical, such a helmet, since the enemy can put it to good use, grab the horns and easily pull you to the ground with it. The Vikings were masters of battle, and really would not have tolerated such clumsiness in their own equipment! It can serve as a coat rack, though.
8. Tons of armor
The plates of armor the knights wore in the later Middle Ages to replace the chainmail (a suit of armor made of thousands of iron rings) was so heavy that knights could hardly move and had to be hoisted into their horses.
This misconception is supported by Hollywood movies where knights are mounted by trollies because they can’t pull it off themselves. However, a plate armor is lighter than a chain mail (which in addition to the tons of rings also required a very thick layer of leather protection), and also the distribution of weight is more consistent over the whole body. A chain mail transfers most of the weight to the shoulders of the wearer. A plate of armor spreads the weight over all limbs, so it was an improvement in weight. The total weight of a plate armor was about 15 to 25 kilograms (depending on the size of the wearer, of course) and it allowed the wearer full flexibility to jump,
The armor that many people think of when they think of medieval armor is the specialized armor that knights used during jousting. This was a highly specialized armor that indeed restricted the wearer’s movement and could weigh up to 50 pounds. However, this was by no means the armor that knights wore in battle against the enemy! It was just to seduce the ladies! As today, glitter, size and decoration were important in this temptation in the past. The bigger, the brighter and the more expensive, the more women fell into a swoon!
7. The Earth is Flat
Stupid Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat, until Christopher Columbus proved otherwise and in the process discovered America.
There are a number of problems with this common belief. Let’s start with the most striking thing: Medieval Europeans by no means believed that the Earth was flat. It had been known since the ancient Greek heyday (the days of Plato and Aristotle) that the world was spherical. At least, this was known among the intelligentsia, the average farmer didn’t give a damn whether the earth was flat or round, as long as the harvest was good.
Well, the scientists of that time already knew that the world was round, and it was not the idea that Christopher was so difficult to sell. The dispute was mainly about the distance or the size of that sphere. Columbus thought that Indonesia would be much closer (in his opinion the spherical shape was considerably smaller). He was obviously wrong about this, but in the process he discovered South America. And that was certainly a great luck for him, because he could never have reached Indonesia with his ship’s supplies, via the great ocean!
6 and 5. Columbus discovered America
Columbus was the first European to set foot on American soil.
We will stay with world discoveries for a while and in particular with Columbus. We already saw in the previous misconception that Columbus had misjudged the size of the globe. However, it did lead to the discovery of South America. There’s no denying that. What can be denied is a) the fact that Christopher was the first and b) that he set foot on American soil.
First of all, Christopher was not the first European (of course there were Indians walking around for a long time then!). The first European was an Icelander named Leif (the son of the better known Erik the Red, the discoverer of Greenland). Leif continued his father’s discovery, so he and his crew have been in America well over 5 centuries before Christopher. New Foundland, to be precise, in North America (Canada). So in principle we can say that Columbus (and his men) were the first to discover South America. However?
Actually not even that, because Christopher and his crew never really set foot on American soil on their first trips to America. On October 12, 1492, Columbus landed on one of the islands in the Caribbean Sea. He was thus the discoverer of the Caribbean islands, but not so much of America. Calling Columbus the discoverer of (South) America is a bit like claiming that the discoverer of Java also discovered Australia. It is all ‘close’ to each other, but one is not the other!
However, we don’t have to leave Columbus completely dishonorable. His journey has indeed opened the gates to America. He was the first to venture across the Atlantic in centuries, and the first to reach the other side (even though he didn’t reach the mainland straight away). So he did discover America indirectly!
4. Then they eat cake!
Marie Antoinette was confronted with the fact that the Parisians were so poor that they could no longer buy bread. There was a shortage of bread and people died of starvation in the streets. To this the well-to-do lady joked: “Then they eat Cake!”
This rather unsympathetic expression, often used to show how cruel and dishonest the nobility was in France just before the French Revolution, is in reality not true at all. The statement was written down by Rousseau, in his book Confessions, and at the time he wrote the statement Marie Antoinette herself was only ten years old. Even if she had actually said it, how much value should we place on a ten-year-old’s statement?
Most historians either believe that Rousseau made up the statement himself, or that it was said by Maria Theresa, wife of Louis XIV, the Sun King (the one who left the nobility impoverished by spending ridiculous amounts of money on extravagant palaces, art and parties). Incidentally, the official statement is not so much ‘ then they eat cake ‘ but ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’, or ‘let them eat brioche’. Brioche is not really a cake, more like a rich bread.
Anyway, Marie Antoinette was not much loved (neither by the common people nor, apparently, by Rousseau). This statement fitted perfectly into her reputation as a heart-warming and unsympathetic witch.
3. Napoleon the Dwarf
Napoleon Bonaparte was a short man.
A misconception often attributed to Emperor Napoleon is that he was short in stature. This also seems to be the case in paintings made by him. In fact, Napoleon wasn’t short at all, he was actually a tad taller than the average French man of the time. The misunderstanding may have arisen due to a measurement error, or rather, a translation error in the measurement. After the Emperor’s death in 1821, his height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches. However, these were French feet, so converted to English standards he was 5 feet and 7 inches, or 1.69 meters. Before that time, that was by no means absurdly small (even today this is a ‘reasonable’ height, although the average for a man is around 1.80 these days).
Another reason for the misconception may be that Napoleon was escorted almost always and everywhere by his Imperial Guard, and this select group of guards was specifically selected for stature. Such a contrast is of course unavoidable.
2. The War of the Worlds
When the radio play of the book ‘the war of the worlds’ by author GH Wells was broadcast in America, a nationwide chaos and panic broke out, because everyone thought that a war had really broken out.
This is quite an exaggerated explanation of what actually happened. There was only a select group of people who listened to the broadcast at all, let alone panicked. Indeed, there have been a number of reports of people calling the police for more information, and a small increase in emergency calls has also been recorded, although this was hyped up more by the media the day after the broadcast than was actually true. At that time, the newspapers were quite in competition with the newly emerging radio, and so saw their chance to blacken their competitor. However, in the end the whole debacle turned out to be not so much a bad thing for the radio as a huge ad stunt. People began to see that hearing something was much more real than reading something! The radio was on the rise, the newspaper was on the decline. At least,
1. Albert Einstein bad at math
Albert Einstein got unsatisfactory marks for mathematics in his school days
We all know the brilliant inventor of the theory of relativity Albert Einstein, and few people dare to claim that they are smarter than him. And yet there is a common belief that in high school he was bad (or at least scored badly) at math. However, this is not the case, and Einstein himself says this “I never failed in Mathematics. Before I was 15 I had mastered differential and integral calculus” (“I never failed in mathematics. Before I was 15 years old I already mastered differential and integral equations”. Well, what he does not mention is that his first attempt at the Swiss Polytechnic (then the university for techies) failed, he was at the time two years younger than his fellow classmates and still scored exceptionally well in the math and physics parts of the entrance test.
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