I’ve been learning a lot lately. Data points that were gradually building up for years have finally reached critical mass, resulting in a new world view. I am almost continually surprised by hearing things I had never heard before that one would think were important to mention.
Nobody Tells Me Anything
History: How is it that with my ability to soak up trivia like a sponge, and my interest in space exploration, that I don’t remember hearing about the five other moon landings that happened after the first? With all those telling the story of how the USA won the space race, those lamenting the fact that we no longer maintain a shuttle and never went back to the moon, those who suggest that the whole trip was faked, and those who debunk such suggestions, I find it extremely shocking that not one of them mentioned any subsequent trips!
Biology: I almost can’t believe that with my interest in biology and all the things I have read, that I have never until recently heard that some mammals have penis bones and that most have penis spines! I do remember hearing on TV many years ago that cats had penis spines, but I was led to believe that they were unique! How did I not know something so basic about mammals?
Ever since a very young age I had always been told that the reason insects (and other arthropods) never got very big compared to vertebrates was because exoskeletons were inherently inferior to endoskeletons. Insects any bigger than those giant rainforest beetles would collapse under their own weight, while vertebrates could be as big as dinosaurs or bigger (none of this applies underwater, where buoyancy cancels gravity). When I was much older, I discovered that vertebrate lungs were much more efficient than the trachea of insects, the “book lungs” of arachnids, and the gills of land crabs. Larger insects require higher oxygen levels. During the Devonian and Carboniferous, when oxygen levels were higher, dragonflies reached wingspans of more than a meter, while millipedes reached three meters long! These days, absolutely nobody mentions the structural limitations of insects. It’s all about oxygen. How did I not know something so basic about insects?
Physics: I can’t believe that with all the books and magazine articles I have read on the subject, just how many aspects of particle physics I was unaware of. Particle physics is incredibly complex and much of the details are incomprehensible to those outside the field, but I thought I had a pretty decent overview of how matter worked. Suddenly, I am hearing of things that are more than details:
Quantum Mechanics is based on the idea that all matter is actually waves that only manifest as particles with actual locations in order to interact with other waves/particles. The locations of these particles are probabilistic – the probability of finding one being the square of the amplitude of the wave, and that at any moment there is a non-zero probability of finding the particle elsewhere – or so I thought. Now I am told that observing the particle “resets” it, adding to the time it needs to transition into a different quantum state (such as location) in accordance with the quantum Zeno effect. I am also told that the probability is not the square of the amplitude, but the sum of the squares of the “real” and “imaginary” parts of the wave function – the imaginary wave being just slightly out of phase with the real one.
Another big part of quantum mechanics is that energy comes in discrete units such that electron orbitals are separated from each other by gaps of non-existence. It is impossible for any electron to be found in these gaps because there exists no partial energy to get them there. I have been told that if energy were continuous it would mean that electrons would simply spiral into the nucleus while continually radiating. The idea of discrete orbitals came from Neils Bohr’s atomic model based on the ideas already described by Max Planck and Albert Einstein. Last year I heard for the first time that while lower orbitals are indeed discrete, some of the higher ones are continuous. That’s kind of a big thing not to mention – especially since it may be the link between the quantum microscopic world and the seemingly-classical macroscopic world.
I was also told for the first time that the weak nuclear force only interacts with “left-handed” particles, which is the idea behind the proposed “sterile neutrino.” The theory is that “right-handed” neutrinos could exist that are impossible to detect because they do not interact with the weak nuclear force. That’s kind of a big thing not to mention when telling me that all neutrinos spin one way!
These are the things nobody bothered to tell me. Then there are the things I was taught wrong:
Everything I've Been Taught Is Wrong
Air: Ever since a very young age I had always been taught that meteors heat up due to air resistance – the same thing that holds back airplanes and race cars – and that air resistance is nothing more than friction. In recent years I have been told that what heats up meteors is almost certainly the compression of air in front of them rather than friction with the sides. This makes much more sense and I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself before, but I’m even more surprised that for so many decades nobody else thought of it either.
Ever since a very young age I had always been told that airplane wings generated lift by being curved, forcing air to move faster over the top than the bottom, creating negative pressure that pulled the wing upwards. No mention of qualifications or controversy was ever mentioned. Now I am told that the real answer is several interwoven factors together and that lift could never be generated by any of them alone.
Water: Ever since a very young age I had always been taught that water makes our skin wrinkly due to turgor pressure brought on by osmosis. The higher concentration of ions inside our cells relative to outside causes moisture to seep in. High school biology reinforced this idea. Now I am hearing from multiple sources that it is thought that our skin muscles contract, giving our skin greater surface area and therefore better gripping power in a wet environment.
Electricity: Ever since a very young age I had always been told that lightning did not come down from the clouds (a common myth based on the fact that lightning only appears when clouds are present), but upward from the Earth. Later I was told that some aspects of the process moved upwards while others moved downwards. Later I was told exactly how lightning worked step-by-step and I don’t recall any part of it moving upwards at all – only downwards. Later I was told that it actually moves upwards but only looks to move downwards due to an optical illusion – but I have never perceived lightning to move at all. To my eyes, it simply exists all along its path in an instant. I don’t know what to think now.
Ever since a very young age I have known of nuclear fusion: It’s what keeps the sun shining. The first astronomy book I ever had gave the following story: Temperature and pressure in the sun’s core drive protons (hydrogen nuclei) together against their mutual electrostatic repulsion. When two protons come together like this, one of them “somehow” becomes a neutron. When there are enough proton-neutron pairs bouncing around, two of them would then be forced together to become a helium nucleus.
Years later, I read another book, mentioning that it was not expected to be hot enough in the center of the sun for outright fusion, so the process required carbon catalysts. Hydrogen would fuse with carbon to produce nitrogen, which would then fuse with more hydrogen to make oxygen, which would then undergo alpha-decay and spit out helium, becoming carbon and restarting the cycle. Electron capture events turned protons into neutrons somewhere along the way.
This story has even come up in the origins debates, with some asking: Since the big bang only produced hydrogen, helium, and negligible amounts of lithium, where did the carbon come from to jump-start hydrogen fusion in the first generation of stars? Since then, every explanation of fusion I have encountered invokes the idea of quantum tunneling to bring protons together that otherwise shouldn’t be.
It was only in adulthood that I heard about Hawking radiation: It was described by saying that pairs of particles – one partner with positive mass and the other with negative mass – pop in and out of the vacuum all the time. When this happens on the edge of an event horizon, they can become separated. For reasons never clear to me, the negative mass particle has a greater chance of falling in while the positive mass particle escapes. In any case, the end result is that the black hole gets lighter while particles escape from its surface.
Later, another explanation surfaced: It was said that since position and momentum cannot both be known with precision, any particle known to be inside the black hole might have enough momentum to escape, and any particle known to have low momentum might already be outside the black hole.
Only recently have I been given the explanation that the event horizon essentially casts a shadow blocking the omnipresent vacuum fluctuation waves, in a manner akin to the Casimir effect. I still don’t totally get it.
I am also told that serious physicists frown on the idea of negative mass and do not accept that pairs of particles could pop out of the vacuum, one with positive mass and on with negative mass, since this would allow an infinite amount of stuff to enter existence every moment – even though I have read in multiple books that this is exactly how some cosmologists have suggested the big bang happened!
Everything Else: I’ve recently been told that tides don’t work the way I was taught, that particle chirality is not the same as particle helicity, that porcupines do sort-of shoot their quills after all (by wagging their tails and flinging them), that margarine isn’t made of what I thought it was, and several different conflicting accounts of how the legend of Atlantis originated. At this point, I’m thinking that I have to go back to first grade and learn everything over. I can’t trust anything.
Everything You've Been Taught Is Wrong
At the same time I’ve been learning just how badly I’ve been mistaught, I have also learned just how badly others have been mistaught. Their stories are much like mine.
Blue Skies: I was always taught that the sky was blue because shorter wavelengths of light from the sun scattered in all directions and thus entered our eyes from around the sun after refracting through the air. Red wavelengths of light followed straighter paths and could penetrate more air, which is why the sun appears redder at sunrise or sunset when the light has to pass through more atmosphere to reach us. Apparently, this is still considered true.
I was extremely shocked to hear that some people report being taught as children (even going so far to assume that all children are taught the same) that the sky is blue because it reflects the sea. Why isn’t the sky brown over the deserts then? Only once have I ever heard such an absurd explanation – and that was from a woman who told me all kinds of nutty things, such as the difference between mammals and animals being that mammals live in the water and animals live on land. I confirmed from her that she believed starfish were mammals and wolves were not. Crazy!
Seasons: I have also heard people claiming that the Earth is cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer because the Earth is farther from the sun in winter and closer in summer. How do they explain that winter in one hemisphere is summer in the other then? How do they explain that the sun never changes apparent size, as it would if we were moving toward or away from it? How do they explain the seasonal change in day length and the changing arc the sun makes across the sky?
I was always taught from the youngest age that the tilt of Earth’s axis caused sunlight to be spread over a larger area in one hemisphere and a smaller area in the opposite hemisphere, causing winter on one side and summer on the other. I am shocked that not everyone knows this.
Everything Else: I have also heard people claiming they were always taught that cars keep us safe from lightning because of the rubber tires on the ground, not from the Faraday-cage properties of the metal roof and sides as I was told.
I have heard people claim they were taught that a hierarchy existed to evolution, with organisms always striving toward more complex forms, finally reaching humans, rather than organisms simply adapting in unpredictable ways to whatever environment they happen to be in, even if it means getting simpler, as in the case of echinoderms (“simple” and “complex” are poorly defined concepts anyways).
I have heard people claim that they were always taught that humans use only ten percent of their brains, hinting at untapped potential or even a sixth sense, rather than less than ten percent of brain cells firing at any given moment - all of them firing at once destroying the possibility of any coherent thought or motion and being almost the definition of a seizure.
I have also heard people claiming they were taught that Jupiter’s red spot is a volcano, rather than a storm on a planet with no solid surface!
Who is teaching kids this garbage? No wonder we have so many scientifically illiterate adults!
I Give Up: I can’t tell who the crackpots are anymore. When even well-respected scientists propose that we likely live in a simulation, that all matter might be conscious, that white holes (requiring negative mass) are real, or really wild ideas like top-down cosmology, I start seriously wondering about reincarnation, telepathy, astrology, and whether the Earth is actually flat.
Remember, the wisest man is the one who knows he knows nothing.
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.