Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part I

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Factoids From time to time, I'll get an e-mail forwarded to me that's a whole big list of supposed facts. I received one of these e-mails several years ago, and spent a good part of a day researching its claims, with the intention of eventually posting the results on this site. Actually, it was that e-mail that inspired me to write one of my soapbox entries, E-mails and Misinformation, Part II. Anyway, after about a year's hiatus, I took another look at the e-mial. A quick Google search found that a few people had already addressed this particular list. However, they didn't get everything right, either, so I decided to go ahead and put mine up, anyway. The nice part of those other lists, though, was that it made it easier for me to look up some of the claims that I hadn't done, yet. The Media Desk did a pretty good job of reviewing these claims, and was where I got several of my sources from. Here's another page on Google that took a look at the same list.

The thing that amazes me about these lists is just how gullible people are. I mean, the only research it takes to debunk one of the claims (for an American, at least), is to pull a five dollar bill out of your pocket and take a look at it. There's a similar claim that Canadians could test just as easily about their two dollar bill. If you see that something so easily testable is wrong, why accept any of the other claims? I guess though, that people are too lazy, apathetic, or naive to actually do such a simple test.



A dime has 118 ridges around the edge.
True- The Mint calls them reeds. A quarter has 119, a half dollar has 150, and a Susan B Anthony dollar has 133.
U.S. Mint

A cat has 32 muscles in each ear.
Unsure - Technically, it's false - there aren't any muscles at all in the actual ear, but I imagine that it's referring to how many muscles control the ear. I haven't yet been able to find a good, reliable source for that, but it does appear to be a number on the order of 30.

A reader, Susan G., a clinical audiologist from Kansas, sent me the following comment in regard to this factoid:

...you are right, that these are probably for movement of the ears, not really internal muscles. BUT, like humans, cats have a Tensor Tympani and a Stapedius muscle. These are in the middle ear, behind the eardrum. I'm guessing they do the same thing in cats that they do in people-make the middle ear lever less efficient when a loud sound comes in, in order to protect the inner ear from acoustic trauma.

Since I've been trying to reference everything I've listed on this page, not just going by word of mouth, here's a link to an abstract on a paper about that bit of cat anatomy, plus another link to the Wikipedia entry on the tensor tympani.

A crocodile cannot stick out its tongue.
Probably True- Some sources say that crocodiles don't have tongues at all, while others say that the tongue is attached to the rest of the mouth. The first link below shows some good pictures of the inside of a croc's mouth, and it certainly does appear to be lacking a tongue that it could move around or stick out, but part of the wording on the page refers to "palate/tongue." The second link below is to the abstract of a paper about crocodile biology. While I don't have access to the full paper, the title is, "Salt Glands in the Tongue of the Estuarine Crocodile Crocodylus porosus," which certainly seems to indicate that crocs have tongues. So, my best guess is that crocodilians have a tongue attached to their mouth that they can't articulate.
Palatal Valve entry at Florida Museum of Natural History
Abstract to Salt Glands in the Tongue of the Estuarine Crocodile Crocodylus porosus

A dragonfly has a life span of 24 hours.
False- For even the shortest lived species, the complete life cycle from egg through nymph to adult takes around 6 months, and the adult stage lasts at least for several days. Some of the longer lived dragon flies have life cycles of 6 to 7 years, and up to four months as adults.
British Dragonfly Society

A goldfish has a memory span of three seconds.
False- Their memory span is at least several months. Myth Busters even did a segment on this one.
Boston Globe

A "jiffy" is an actual unit of time for 1/100th of a second.
Partially True- That is one of the definitions, but there are actually many definitions of a jiffy, and there doesn't seem to be a standard consensus as to which one to use.
Tech Target

A shark is the only fish that can blink with both eyes.
False- Pufferfish can blink, and maybe a few others. Additionally, only some sharks can blink. They don't have eyelids, per se, but a structure called a nictitating membrane. Most sharks, however, protect their eyes by rolling them back in their heads.
Enchanted Learning Info about Sharks
Wikipedia Info about Pufferfish

A snail can sleep for three years.
Probably True- Actually, it's most likely being in a suspended state of animation for three years, which isn't the same thing as sleep in the sense that we're used to, but it's close enough. I haven't been able to find what I'd call a good, reliable scientific source that confirms the three year claim, but I've seen many references to snails hibernating or going into torpor. Plus, the site below does mention a study where snails did hibernate that long in laboratory conditions.
Bird Nature

Al Capone's business card said he was a used furniture dealer.
Unsure - Lots of sites list this bit of information, but without much detail. To me, it seems just like the type of thing that would be perpetuated as an urban myth if it weren't true.
Student's Website

All 50 states are listed across the top of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the $5 bill.
False- Only the 26 on the front of the memorial. Additionally, the Lincoln Memorial itself only has 48 states listed, since that's how many there were when it was completed. You can even check this one for yourself simply by looking at a $5 bill.
US Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Almonds are a member of the peach family.
True, but a slight misnomer- Almonds and peaches are in the same family, but it's Rosacea, which contains many different types of plants, including those which the name implies, roses. Maybe this statement was meant to imply that almonds and peaches are even more closely related than the family level, actually being in the same subgenus, amygdalus, and that when we eat almonds, the structure we're eating is analogous to the pit of a peach.
American Rose Society

An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.
Probably True- Ostriches have big eyes, and small heads that don't leave much room for anything else. I would have liked to find a reliable measurement of ostrich brain volume, however, to better verify this.
Sunset Group

Babies are born without kneecaps. They don't appear until the child reaches 2 to 6 years of age.
False- They are made of cartilage when we're born, and don't become bony until 2 to 6 year of age.
MadSci Network

Butterflies taste with their feet.
True- Those that have a proboscis use it, too.

Cats have over one hundred vocal sounds. Dogs only have about 10.
Probably False- I guess it all depends on you how classify vocal sounds. Consider the human word, "oh." Is that one vocal sound, or do all the myriad intonations that give it different meanings depending on the context count as differences? However, the inspiration for this factoid may have been the study linked to below. I don't know if the 100 vocalizations in the study were significantly different from one another, or just 100 recordings of cats meowing.

"Dreamt" is the only English word that ends in the letters "mt".
Almost True- "Undreamt," "adreamt" and "daydreamt" also end in "mt."
Meriam Webster

February 1865 is the only month in recorded history not to have a full moon.
False- February 1865 did in fact have a full moon, though there was no full moon in the Februaries of 1866, 1885, 1915, 1934, 1961, and 1999, and probably many others (whose recorded history, by the way).
MadSci Network

In the last 4,000 years, no new animals have been domesticated.
False- To give just one example, foxes have been domesticated this past century. I guess it also depends on what you mean by domestication - actually selectively breeding an animal to change its behavior, like that fox experiment, breeding animals in captivity, like zoos, or simply "breaking" a wild animal to make it work for people, like is done with wild horses and elephants.
Reactor Core - Domesticated Fox Experiment
Wikipedia - List of some domesticated animals

If the population of China walked past you, in single file, the line would never end because of the rate of reproduction.
Most Likely False- I haven't gone through and double-checked the calculations myself, but I've seen a few of these types of calculations, and depending on the assumptions, it would take between 15 and 40 years. Google Answers

If you are an average American, in your whole life, you will spend an average of 6 months waiting at red lights.
Unsure, but this seems a little high to me. I don't know if anybody's done any actual studies, but looking at it from another perspective, if the average lifespan is 75 years, that's 27,394 days that you're alive. Moving on to the supposed amount of time waiting at traffic lights - half a year (6 months) is 182 days, or 4368 hours, or 262,080 minutes. So, taking the supposed time waiting at lights and the average life span, that works out to 9 minutes and 34 seconds per day, every day of your life, including infancy and extreme old age, when you're not likely to be driving around much. I don't spend that much time in traffic lights now, when I'm commuting to and from work every day.

It's impossible to sneeze with your eyes open.
Partially True- A few people can, but most can't. Additionally, the old myth that if you don't shut your eyes when you sneeze then they'll pop out of your head is certainly false.
Think Quest

Leonardo Da Vinci invented the scissors.
False- At least, he wasn't the first. Shears were in use in Egypt by roughly 1500 B.C., and modern cross-bladed scissors were in use in Rome by roughly 100 A.D. I suppose it's possible that the technology was lost, and da Vinci re-invented scissors, but until I see some evidence, I'd doubt it.
Enchanted Learning

Maine is the only state whose name is just one syllable.
True- Obviously, though a territory (Guam) also has only one syllable.

No word in the English language rhymes with month, orange, silver, or purple.
False- According to an e-mail sent into The Media Desk, "Orange rhymes with Sporange (a sac in which spores are produced). Silver rhymes with chilver (a ewe lamb). Purple with hirple (British--walk lamely or hobble)." A Merriam Webster online search found results for each of these, but told me I had to subscribe to their unabridged edition to get the definitions, so I'll take that e-mail writer's word for it. And let's not forget about a "purple nurple twister."

On a Canadian two dollar bill, the flag flying over the Parliament building is an American flag.
False- It's Canadian.
Canadian Paper Money Society

Our eyes are always the same size from birth, but our nose and ears never stop growing.
False- Eyes do grow, though not as fast as the rest of the body. They're roughly 2/3 of their adult size at birth. Plus, I don't know whether or not the nose and ears grow continuously. Physics Factbook

Here's another comment sent in by Susan G., clinical audiologist from Kansas:

"...the inner ear (cochlea and vestibular system) are nearly adult size at birth as well. My professional guess is that, any change in size over time would change the acoustic response of the hearing mechanism-a mechanism that is tuned to the frequency range of HUMAN SPEECH. Maybe there is something about eyes that make it so that they are tuned to the spectrum we are interested in ... not knowing anything about eyes, that's really just a guess...

To add to her comment, I can definitely understand how the ear is affected by the size of its component parts - natural frequencies are dependent on the mass of an object and its spring rate. However, I doubt it's a similar case for eyes. Just think of cameras - big zoom lenses can be huge compared to smaller lenses, but they still focus the same wavelengths of light. It could have to do with sensitivity, but seeing as how other animals can get away with smaller eyes as adults than human infants, I'd doubt that theory. Maybe it's just a by product of the way us mammals develop - most mammal babies have big, puppy-dog eyes.
Wikipedia article on resonance

Peanuts are one of the ingredients of dynamite.
True Enough- Peanut oil can be processed to produce glycerol, which can be used to make nitroglycerin, one of the constituents of dynamite. However, there are other processes that can be used to make dynamite without using peanuts at all.
Wikipedia Peanuts
Wikipedia Nitroglycerin

Rubber bands last longer when refrigerated.
Probably True- Cooling a rubber band will make it last longer by slowing down the chemical reactions that break down the rubber. However, I wonder what effect the dry humidity in the refrigerator would have if the rubber bands weren't in a sealed container.

"Stewardesses" is the longest word typed with only the left hand and "lollipop" with your right.
True Enough- Of course, the implicit assumptions are that this claim is for a touch typist, typing on a QWERTY keyboard in the standard way, typing only English words. The website below lists "aftercataracts," "tesseradecades," and "tetrastearates" for the left hand, and "johnny-jump-up" and "phyllophyllin" for the right, which are all longer than the words listed in this claim. However, johnny-jump-up is the only one that showed up on Meriam Webster, and it's hyphenated, so that's kind of cheating. Google searches for the other words just brought up websites saying that they were the longest words that could be typed with either the left or right hand, none of the sites were actually using the words in context, so I don't know if they're real words or not. Besides, they look like technical words, and if you are going to count those, I'm sure you could find some chemical compound that beats them all.
Fun With Words

The average person's left hand does 56% of the typing.
Sort of True, maybe- You seem to see this statistic everywhere, but with no proof of where it came from. Even if true, it only applies to a touch typist. However, I'd be willing to bet that the average person uses the hunt-and-peck method, and thus favors their right hand. On a related note, the commonly accepted geek fact that DVORAK is far superior to QWERTY isn't based on any solid evidence, either.
Independent Institute QWERTY vs. DVORAK
Liebowitz & Margolis More on QWERTY vs. DVORAK

The cruise liner, QE2, moves only six inches for each gallon of diesel that it burns.
False- The BBC has it listed at about 50' on one gallon of fuel. Going through a quick calculation using their fuel burn of 18 tons an hour, and assuming a 30 knot cruise speed, the ship would still get 31 feet per gallon.

The microwave was invented after a researcher walked by a radar tube and a chocolate bar melted in his pocket.
True- The researcher was Percy LeBaron Spencer of the Raytheon Company.
The Great Idea Finder

The sentence: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" uses every letter of the alphabet.
True, obviously- This sentence was once used to test typewriters.

The winter of 1932 was so cold that Niagara Falls froze completely solid.
False- The falls have never frozen solid in recorded history, though water has been blocked briefly upstream of the falls.
Niagara Falls Live.com

The words 'racecar,' 'kayak' and 'level' are the same whether they are read left to right or right to left (palindromes).
True, obviously- So are "sexes," my two favorites, "Madam, I'm Adam" & "A man, a plan, a canal - Panama," and plenty of others.
Rink Works

There are 293 ways to make change for a dollar.
True enough- It depends on which coins you use. Using pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars, there are 292 ways. If you add in a dollar coin, it takes it up to 293. However, there are three different types of dollar coins (silver dollar, Susan B. Anthony dollar, Sakagawea dollar), so I guess you could aruge that there are 295.
U.S. Mint
Math Forum

There are more chickens than people in the world.
True- It just makes sense - how many chickens do you eat per year? The UN estimates that there are some 15 billion chickens in the Asia-Pacific region alone.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

There are only four words in the English language which end in "dous": tremendous, horrendous, stupendous, and hazardous
True- There's also "annelidous," but if you're going to start using technical words,a lot of weird ones start showing up.
Ask Oxford

There are two words in the English language that have all five vowels in order: "abstemious" and "facetious."
True- There are others, but they're technical: "acheilous," "anemious," "caesious," "annelidous," and "arsenious." By the way, if you add "-ly" to the end of the words, you get all the vowels in order, including the sometimes vowel, "y."
Ask Oxford

There's no Betty Rubble in the Flintstones Chewables Vitamins.
False now, was True- Giving the list maker the benefit of the doubt, Betty Rubble wasn't added to Flintstones vitamins until 1995.

Tigers have striped skin, not just striped fur.
True- Pretty much self explanatory.
Tiger Homes with actual photos

TYPEWRITER is the longest word that can be made using the letters only on one row of the keyboard.
True, but misleading. "Typewriter" is ten letters long, but there are several other ten letter words that can be written with one row of the keyboard. Using only the top row, the following ten letter words can be written: pepperroot, pepperwort, perpetuity, pewterwort, pirouetter, prerequire, pretorture, proprietor, repertoire, repetitory, tetterwort. Shakalshas is the only ten letter word that can be written with the middle row (it's an ethnic group that colonized Sicily long ago).
Fun With Words
Personal Website

Winston Churchill was born in a ladies' room during a dance.
False- He was born in Blenheim Palace, a private residence that doesn't have public bathrooms. According to at least one account, his mother did go into labor during a dance there, and then left the dance to go to a bedroom to give birth. She didn't give birth until the next day, with the local doctor present, long after all of the dance guests had left. The public statement was that Winston Churchill had been born a couple months prematurely, but many suspect that this was to hide the fact that he had been conceived two months before his parents were wed (they were still engaged at the time, however).

Women blink nearly twice as much as men.
Hmm. I think this may have been inspired by studies of something called prepulse inhibition. Basically, everyone blinks when startled by a loud noise. However, if the noise is preceded by a quieter noise, the blink response tends to be less severe. In this test, women will blink harder than men. Not only that, lesbians will blink less severely than heterosexual women, and gay men will blink more severely than heterosexual men. (Since the response is reflexive, and not learned, many interpret this as indicating a biological cause of homosexuality.)
The Economist

Your stomach has to produce a new layer of mucus every two weeks; otherwise it will digest itself.
Hmm. I don't know how to classify this one, either. The stomach is lined with mucus to protect it from gastric acids, but I have no idea where that "two week" reference is coming from. The mucus lining is secreted pretty much continuously, reaching an equilibrium with the gastric acids disolving it at about 1 mm thick. The layer of cells protected by that mucus is renewed about every 3 days. I don't know how long a mucus molecule lasts on average, though, from the time it's excreted until it's dissolved by gastric acid.
University of Western Australia


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