Monday, April 14, 2008

The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies You Were Taught In History Class

Columbus Discovered the Earth is Round

The story we heard:
In 1492, a Spanish ponce by the name of Christopher Columbus won his long-standing feud with the monarchy and the Catholic church to get funding for a voyage to East Asia. They were afraid that he would fail spectacularly, because everybody knew that the Earth was a flat disc, and the direction Columbus was sailing in would cause him to fall off the edge and into the mouth of the giant turtle that supported it.

Columbus, as we were told, did fail to reach his destination, but not because the world was flat--it was because he crashed into the future greatest nation on Earth, baby! Thus, Columbus proved the world was round, discovered America, and a national holiday was born.

The truth:
In the 1400s, the flat-earth theory was taken about as seriously as the Time Cube theory is today, if not less so. The shape of the world has been pretty much settled since the orb theory was first proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, around 2,000 years before the existence of Spain.

In fact, the navigational techniques of Columbus' time were actually based on the fact that the Earth was a sphere. Trying to navigate the globe as if it was a flat plane would have fucked up the trip even more than it was.

The Spanish government's reluctance to pay for Columbus' expeditions didn't have anything to do with their misconceptions about the shape of the world. Ironically, it was because Columbus himself severely underestimated the size of the Earth and everybody knew it. The distance he planned to travel wouldn't have taken him anywhere near Asia. Nevertheless, he eventually scraped together enough funds to embark on his ridiculous adventure, and the clusterfuck that was the Columbus voyage has been celebrated annually in the Americas and in Spain ever since.

So where did the myth come from? It began with author and historical charlatan Washington Irving, who wrote a novel about Columbus in 1838. The novel was fiction, but some elements managed to creep into our history textbooks anyway, probably by some editors who wanted to spice it up a bit. Who's going to read a history book that's just filled with a bunch of boring shit anyway?

Einstein Flunked Math

The story we heard:
Motivational speakers love to tell this tale, inspiring underachievers with the story of this German kid who was just like you! Despite his sincerest efforts he could never manage to do well in his math exams, and struggled desperately with physics while working as a lowly patent clerk.

That muddled kid grew up to be Albert Fucking Einstein! And if he can do it, then so can you!

The truth:
Well, no you can't. As it turns out, Einstein was a mathematical prodigy, and before he was 12, he was already better at arithmetic and calculus than you are now. Einstein was in fact so fucking smart that he believed school was holding him back, and his parents purchased advanced textbooks for him to study from. Not only did he pass math with flying colors, it's entirely possible that he was actually teaching the class by the end of semester.

The idea that Einstein did badly at school is thought to have originated with a a 1935 Ripley's Believe it or Not! trivia column.

There's actually a good reason why it's a bad idea to include Robert Ripley among the references in your advanced university thesis. The famous bizarre trivia "expert" never cited his sources, and the various "facts" he presented throughout his career were an amalgamation of things he thought he read somewhere, heard from somebody, or pulled out of his ass. The feature's title probably should have been: Believe it or Not! I Get Paid Either Way, Assholes.

When he was first shown this supposed expose of his early life, Einstein allegedly just laughed, and probably went on to solve another 12 mysteries of quantum physics before dinner. By the time he finally kicked the bucket in 1955, it's entirely possible that "failure" was the one concept that Albert Einstein had never managed to master.

Of course, this just reaffirms what we have always suspected, deep down: success really is decided at birth, and your life will never be better than it is right now. Sorry about that.

Newton and the Apple

The story we heard:
You've probably heard of Isaac Newton. He's pretty much the Jesus of physics. In the late 17th century, Newton practically fucking invented science. The discoveries we can thank him for include the laws of motion, the visible spectrum, the speed of sound, the law of cooling, and calculus. Yes, all of goddamn calculus. One wonders if anybody in history ever had a thought before Newton.

Probably his most famous discovery, however, is the law of gravity. The story goes that Newton, a modest mathematician and professor of physics, was sitting under the shade of an apple tree one sunny day, when an apple dropped from a branch and bopped him right on the head.

While most people would merely think "Ouch! Son of a bitch!" and stare warily upward for 10 minutes, Newton's first instinct was to formulate the entire set of universal laws governing the motion of gravitating bodies, a theory so sound that it went unchallenged and unmodified for over 200 years.

The truth:
Newton never mentioned the thing with the apple, and in fact it was another guy named John Conduitt who first told the story some 60 years after it supposedly happened. Even then, he was decisively vague about whether Newton actually saw an apple, or whether the apple is a metaphor that he used to illustrate the idea of gravity for people less intelligent than he was (read: everybody):

"Whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but that this power must extend much further."

You'll notice that even then we don't get the thing with the apple actually hitting Newton in the head, it got added somewhere along the line to add the element of cartoonish slapstick to his genius life.

We like to think complex discoveries happen this way, with a sudden light bulb popping on over our head. Kind of makes it seem like it could happen to us one day, the next great idea will just occur to us while we're wasting the afternoon on a park bench. In reality, Newton spent the best part of his life formulating and perfecting his theories.

When we have kids, we're going to tell them the truth, dammit. Just Newton, hunched over his piles of papers covered with clouds of tiny numbers. Just months and years of tedious, grinding, silent, lonely work, until he had a nervous breakdown and finally died years later, insane from Mercury poisoning. Welcome to the real world,

Washington and the Cherry Tree

The story:
It's a parable that resonates through every primary school student's retelling of the life and times of the man who was both America's first president, and the only president to also have been a superhero.

As a child, we were told, George Washington came into possession of a hatchet, and went about his days chopping the shit out of everything he saw. One day he came upon his father's prize cherry tree, and without so much as a second thought he chopped that sucker down, presumably because it was a Monarchist. Upon being quizzed by his father about the event, Washington proudly admitted that he had been the culprit, due to his inability to lie. The story was later loosely adapted to film with Jim Carrey in the leading role.

The truth:
In a fairly cynical culture, George Washington has still been elevated to the status of some kind of deity, thanks in part to a man named Mason Locke Weems. He was the author of the unfortunately titled biography "The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen." This was the shortest title his editors could persuade him to agree to.

Weems recalled many fantastic stories about Washington, with particular emphasis on his overwhelming moral fortitude and infallibility. The cherry tree story is of particular importance, because it demonstrates that Washington can easily destroy things, and just chooses not to.

According to Weems, "at the sight of him, even those blessed spirits seem[ed] to feel new raptures." That's right, when the angels learned of the existence of George Washington, they began to second-think their allegiance to their much less powerful leader, God. Curiously, Weems waited until Washington was dead before publishing his anecdotes.

As it turns out, if Washington was indeed incapable of lying, then Mason Weems was surely his exact nemesis, seeing as his recounting of Washington's exploits were about as historically accurate as the 1999 Civil War documentary Wild Wild West.

Nevertheless, Weems' pack of lies were taught as fact in American school textbooks for over a century, probably because they are much more enthralling than the true story of a man who, by more reliable accounts, was actually a bland, boring and uncharismatic everyman who just happened to be taller than average, and pretty good at warring. The story still resonates today, delivered to your children's impressionable minds through such reliable media as Sesame Street.

Why does this bullshit story survive? Perhaps because the central message still resonates: "It's much easier to tell the truth when you're the one holding the ax."

Benjamin Franklin, the Kite and the Thunderstorm

The story:
Another great American hero to whom many seem to attribute mutant superpowers is Ben Franklin, the scientist and statesman whose inventions included bifocal spectacles, the urinary catheter and freedom. He was particularly interested in electricity, and faced with intense skepticism from his colleagues about his theory that lightning is electricity, legend has it that he conducted an experiment to prove them wrong.

Franklin, with a knowing wink, went out into a raging thunderstorm and released a kite with a lightning rod affixed to the top and a metal key attached to the string. When the kite had annoyed the face of God to the point that he threw a bolt of lightning at it, the charge passed down the string and into the key, and when Franklin touched the key, it let off a spark of static, which somehow allowed him to discover electricity.

The truth:
It's certainly true that Franklin at least proposed a kite experiment. Less certain, however, is whether or not he ever actually got around to performing it, and some sources suggest he did not. What is certain is that the experiment had nothing to do with lightning. If someone flew a kite into a storm, and it was struck by lightning, there's a good chance that person would be utterly destroyed. In fact, everyone in the vicinity would at the least suffer from hairless-scalp syndrome.

Many people today who believe the amended story of Franklin's kite experiment grew up immersed in the revisionist history of Walt Disney, whose classic cartoon Ben and Me portrayed Franklin not only as having flown the kite in a thunderstorm, but also having been a complete fucking jerk.

While few people still believe that all of Franklin's innovations are actually attributable to his pet mouse, the kite story is still widely accepted despite the unfortunate testimonies of anyone who's ever been stupid enough to replicate it.

The reality of Franklin's experiment is that it simply involved flying a kite into some clouds to collect a few harmless ions, in order to prove that the atmosphere carries a charge. It is through Franklin's discoveries that science was able to infer, later on, that lightning probably has something to do with electricity.

The idea that his kite was actually directly struck by a bolt of lightning is a rather dramatic exaggeration perpetuated by some school textbooks, which also helpfully serves to convince generations of children that getting hit by lightning is not only totally harmless, but scientific fun!

It also, like the Newton apple thing, takes one of history's great geniuses and portrays them experiencing childlike wonder at some now-common idea, as if everyone who lived before the 20th century was a childlike simpleton.

Why can't there be some other legend about him, one closer to his real personality? Like the time he pleasured six women at once. Sure, we made that up. But if you go out and repeat it enough, it'll be in the textbooks by 2050. Let's try it.

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