Periodic Trends: Debunking science myths

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger

Graphic by Kathryn Messinger


Just like rumors spread in the world of gossip, so too do they spread in the science realm. Remembering back to the days of high school, these science myths are also usually laid in unverified, exaggerated information that comes from word of mouth and not from a reliable source. I’m here to set the record straight about a lot of these myths that science majors like myself are constantly frustrated by.

Myth: Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.

Truth: Not only can lightning strike the same place multiple times, but it’s actually a very common occurrence. Lightning will discharge electricity at the tallest point, such as tall buildings and trees, and if they’re tall enough, will strike several times before it moves far enough away to find another target.  The Empire State Building, for example, acts as a lightning rod for the surrounding area and is struck by lightning about 100 times per year.

Myth: A penny dropped from a tall building can kill someone on the ground.

Truth: A penny does not have enough mass, nor is it very aerodynamic. Gravity can only supply a penny with so much force. Not to mention the existence of wind resistance and terminal velocity along with the limited height of buildings, it won’t ever happen, no matter what the circumstances. While many may think a penny dropped from the Empire State Building would pick up enough speed to kill a person, it will leave a mark at best.

Myth: We only use 10 percent of our brain power.

Truth: Imaging technologies like MRI show that, in some way or another, in different circumstances, humans use most if not all of our brains in some way. Yes, maybe some sections more than others, but this is because the brain has specialized cognitive and regulatory regions. Strong evidence to refute this is when a person damages almost any part of the brain, it usually inhibits vital function in some way. When it doesn’t, it’s like when someone gets stabbed or shot, and by some miracle, misses vital organs. This obviously does not mean we don’t use those organs.

Myth: If it’s called a “theory,” it’s the same as a guess, not fact.

Truth: That’s sometimes true, when you’re just beginning to investigate a subject area. But even if all the evidence explains a phenomena, prior to this, the scientists didn’t fully understand it. The theory of evolution? A fact. The Big Bang theory? A fact. But unless you’re billions of years old and saw it with your own eyes, you weren’t there to witness it all firsthand. It’s also important to distinguish that a scientific law lets us calculate things, while theories help explain what, why and how things happen. Gravity is technically due to Einstein’s “theory” of relativity, but I’m pretty sure we can all attest that it’s true.

Myth: Antibiotics kill viruses.

Truth: Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Bacteria cause common infections in your sinuses like strep throat and lots of other infections. Viruses and bacteria are two totally different organisms, (if you want to call a virus an organism). Viruses technically can’t be killed since they technically don’t meet all the criteria to be considered alive. You can’t fight a cold and flu the same way as strep throat. Stick to your doctor’s advice and only take antibiotics when he or she specifically prescribes them. 

Myth: Global warming isn’t real.

Truth: I don’t even know where to begin with this. Read a book.

I hope these explanations effectively convinced you that your kindergarten teacher was wrong, and you too can now tell your friends, whenever you hear these myths, why they are mistaken.

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