Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Do these facts will *really* sound like BS? Really? Only if you don't have the background knowledge.

A friend of mine had a list of "30 Facts That Sound Like BS, But Are Actually True. #12 Makes You Think." I had a click over there to see how many of these facts struck me as BS. Most read like they were plausible, and a few of them I already knew about. But are they really true? Looking through the list, one will note that many of them deal with comparing two different timeframes or dates against each other (which humans are horrible at doing), while others are pieces of somewhat specialized knowledge (with most of these being mathematical and spatial in nature). So it's not surprising that many of these will sound like BS to someone who hasn't really been taught (or internalized) how utterly crap human beings are at thinking about the passage of time, how statistics work, or recognize that the rationalization their brains automatically make to fill in "gaps" in knowlege is not the same as actually knowing a fact.

Lets tease apart these 30 facts by pulling on sources of information. Some of these will just need a simple assessment of a date, but where necessary (and when I'm up for the calculation challenge), I will show my work. I will also make any notes that provide greater context to the answer, if I deem it warranted. (Note, I am using Wikipedia for most of these sources, since I consider that it's credibility has improved enough that it's adequate to be used for assessing the veracity of the sources for this list of facts.)

1. Mammoths were alive when the Great Pyramid was being built.
  • Construction started on the Great Pyramid at Giza in 2560 BC. (Source)
  • The most recent wooly mammoth tooth came from a specimen on Wrangel Island that died roughly 4,300 years ago (Source). Rounding to the nearest century, that means that the mammoth that grew that tooth was alive around 2300 BC.

2. Betty White is older than sliced bread.
  • Betty White was born on January 17, 1922. (Source)
  • Machine-sliced white bread was first sold in 1928. (Source)
Note: Eventually Betty White will die, and six years after that event, this fact will no longer be true.

3. From the time it was discovered to the time it was stripped of its status as a planet, Pluto hadn't made a full trip around the Sun.
  • Amount of time Pluto was a planet: roughly 76.5 years.
    • Discovery of Pluto (February 18, 1930). (Source)
    • Downgrade of Pluto (August 24, 2006). (Source)
  • Length of solar revolution for Pluto (aka "orbital period"): 247.94 Earth years (Source)

4. The lighter was invented before the match.
  • Invention of the lighter: 1823 (Source)
  • Invention of the (modern, friction) match: 1826 (Source)
Note: This one requires the major caveat of it being a modern, friction match. Using sticks impregnated with sulfur to start fires has a faaar longer history, but to modern eyes and users, these wouldn't be considered to be "matches" in the sense that we know them.

5. Anne Frank and Martin Luther King Jr. were born in the same year.
  • Anne Frank born: June 12, 1929 (Source)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., born: January 15, 1929 (Source)
Note: Betty White was born before either Anne Frank or Martin Luther King, Jr.

6. France last used a guillotine to execute someone after Star Wars premiered.
  • Last execution in France by guillotine: September 10, 1977 (Source)
  • Premiere of Star Wars: May 25, 1977 (Source)

7. Harvard University was founded before Calculus existed.
  • Founding of Harvard University: 1636 (Source)
  • Formalization of calculus:
    • By Isaac Newton, publication of Method of Fluxions: 1671 (Source)
    • By Gottfreid Leibniz, publication of Nova Methodus: 1684 (Source)

8. If you have 23 people in a room, there is a 50% chance that 2 of them have the same birthday.
  • Also known as the "Birthday Problem" (Source)
Note: This all presumes that having the year of birth among the people in the room is not considered. Interestingly, the chances that two people in a room have the same birthday increases to 99.9% when your room has 70 people.

9. It’s never said that Humpty Dumpty was an egg in the nursery rhyme.
  • It's true that the rhyme never says that Humpty Dumpty was an egg, and there are some publications of the rhyme that don't show him as an egg:

Presumably, though, our association with Humpty Dumpty being an egg sitting on a wall likely comes from him being portrayed exactly in this manner in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass:
HOWEVER, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and, when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was HUMPTY DUMPTY himself. 'It can't be anybody else!' she said to herself. 'I'm as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face!' (Source)

10. The water in Lake Superior could cover all of North and South America in a foot of water.
  • Water volume of Lake Superior: 2,900 cubic miles (Source)
  • Land area of North and South America: 16,428,000 square miles (Source)
To get the depth of water that would cover North and South America from the water volume in Lake Superior, you need to divide volume by surface area (because volume/surface area=depth):

2,900 cubic miles / 16,428,000 square miles = 0.0001765 miles
0.0001765 miles * 5280 feet/mile = 0.9321 foot

Or almost 1 foot of water. (Due to rounding errors, 1 foot is a good estimate.)

11. North Korea and Finland both border the same country; Russia.
  • Russia has a 17.5 km border with North Korea. (Source)
Note: A more interesting fact (at least in my mind) would be to point out that Poland and North Korea both border Russia, since the Polish border with Russia is with the Oblast (federal state) of Kaliningrad, which doesn't share any land border with Russia itself, even though they are on the same continent. (In this way, it's kind of like how Alaska is with the rest of the US.)

12. When you get a kidney transplant, they usually just leave your original kidneys in your body and put the 3rd kidney in your pelvis.
  • The transplanted kidney doesn't replace any of the existing kidneys. (Source)
Note: The presumption that the donor kidney replaces one of the original kidneys likely is your brain automatically making a rationalization to "fill in" information that you don't have. This is the one thing on the list that surprised me, since I felt that I knew that kidney transplants meant a kidney replacement. (There's that old human brain, working away at fooling us into thinking we know how the world works.)

13. Oxford University is older than the Aztec Empire.
  • Oxford University founded: 1096 (Source)
  • Aztec Empire founded: 1428 (Source)
Note: The Aztec Empire collapsed in 1521, meaning that it was around for only 107 years. In comparison, Oxford University has continued existing for 919 years.

14. National animal of Scotland is a Unicorn.
  • The unicorn is Scotland's national animal. (Source)
Note 1: This fact requires a somewhat loose understanding of what a "nation" is and what a "national animal" is.

Note 2: On the list of national animals in Wikipedia, there are 9 (including Scotlands) that are listed as "mythical": the druk (dragon) of Bhutan (which is also on their flag), the double-tailed lion of the Czech Republic (which is on their coat of arms), the phoenix of Greece, the turul of Hungary, the garuda of Indonesia, the Chollima of North Korea, the Rooster of Barcelos of Portugal, and the Welsh Dragon of Wales.

Note 3: Many of the non-mythical national animals actually have mythical stories associated with them. The animals just happen to be real, though.

15. The Ottoman Empire still existed the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
  • Fall of the Ottoman Empire: 1923 (Source)
  • Last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series: 1908 (Source)

16. The lighter the roast of coffee, the more caffeine it has.
  • Caffeine content in the beans diminishes very slightly as one moves from light to dark roast when comparing the same source of coffee beans. (Source)
Note 1: There is a lot of variation between coffee beans from different parts of the world (and also within a plantation), so making blanket statements about all dark roast coffee always has less caffeine than all light roast coffee is not going to hold water. (And this fact gets around that point by its specific wording, which could refer to how the caffeine levels in one particular batch of coffee beans changes as roasting occurs.)

Note 2: This fact is true about the amount of caffeine in the beans, and - due to expansion associated with roasting - this miniscule difference can be mildly extended when making a cup (or pot) of coffee if you measure your coffee with scoops. However, if you measure your coffee by weight, then the amount of caffeine in the coffee doesn't change beyond this miniscule difference.

17. A speck of dust is halfway in size between a subatomic particle and the Earth.
  • Diameter of a speck of dust: 10e-9 m-10e-2 m (Source)
  • Diameter of subatomic particles
    • Absolute theoretical minimum diameter (Planck's length): 16.162×10e-36 m (Source)
    • Minimum confirmed sizes: 10e-16 m (Source)
  • Diameter of the Earth: 6.4×10e6 m
Due to the wide range of possible diameters for a "speck of dust," we will only deal with orders-of-magnitude when finding the mid-point, and remember your laws of doing math with exponents, and you get (using 10e-16 m) a measure of:

18. If the timeline of earth was compressed into one year, humans wouldn't show up until December 31 at 11:58 p.m.

  • Formation of the Earth: 4.54 billion years ago (plus or minus 40 million years). (Source)
  • Human evolution:
    • Evolution of Homo genus: 2.8-1.5 million years ago (Source)
    • Evolution of Homo sapiens: 400,000-200,000 years ago (Source)
What percent of time was the genus Homo around?

2,800,000 years/4,540,000,000 years = 0.062%

0.062%*525,960 minutes/year = 324 minutes
= December 31, 6:36PM

What percent of time was the species Homo sapiens around?

400,000 years/4,540,000,000 years = 0.0088%

0.0088%*525,960 minutes/year = 46 minutes
= December 31, 11:24PM

I looked around for different numbers to figure out if these values could be minimized even more to approach the "December 31 at 11:58 PM" value listed, but I couldn't really get it down any further. Even using the upper range for the formation of Earth and the lower range for the evolution of Homo sapiens, I could only get the estimate to 23 minutes before midnight.

19. If you were able to dig a hole to the center of the earth, and drop something down it, it would take 42 minutes for the object to get there.

  • It would take 42 minutes to fall all the way through Earth (not to the center). (Source)
Note: This assumes an object falling through a vacuum with all the mass of the Earth centered in a theoretical point in the exact center and no issues caused by the radiative heat in the core.

20. We went to the moon before we thought to put wheels on suitcases.
  • Moon landings
    • First human object on the moon: USSR Luna 2 on September 13, 1959 (Source)
    • First human on the moon: USA Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969 (Source)
  • Wheeled suitcase patent: 1972 (Source)

21. A human could swim through the arteries of a blue whale.
  • The diameter of the blue whale aorta: 9 inches (Source).
Note 1: A human baby could possibly swim through the aorta.

Note 2: At the entry to the heart, the diameter of the aorta is far greater than 9 inches:

22. If you could fold a piece of paper in half 42 times, the combined thickness would reach the moon.
  • Average distance to the moon: 238,900 miles (Source)
  • Average thickness of printer paper: 0.004 inch (Source)
Each fold doubles the previous thickness. So the progression goes:
0 folds: 0.004"
1 fold: 0.008"
2 folds: 0.016"
4 folds: 0.064"
8 folds: 1.024"
16 folds: 262.144"
32 folds: 17179869.18"
42 folds: 17,592,186,044" = 277,654 miles

23. On both Saturn and Jupiter, it rains diamonds.
  • The finding was reported at the 2013 American Astronomical Society meeting. (Source)
Note: But the finding (which is based on calculations) may be wrong.

24. Saudi Arabia imports camels from Australia.
  • Feral Australian camels are exported to Saudi Arabia (and other countries) as a delicacy (Source)

25. You can line up all 8 planets in our solar system directly next to each other and it would fit in the space between Earth and the Moon.
  • Total diameter of the planets: 392,758 km
  • Distance between Earth and Moon: 384,400 km (Source)

26. The youngest known mother was 5 years old.
  • The youngest recorded mother was 5 years, 7 months old, who gave birth on May 14, 1939, in Lima, Peru. (Source)
Note: The son she gave birth to in 1939 died in 1979. She had a second son, who was born in 1972.

27. The Earth is smoother than a billiard ball, if both were of the same size.
  • Close, but perhaps not. (Source)

28. Nintendo was founded in 1889.
  • Nintendo was founded on September 23, 1889. (Source)
Note: The company tried various ventures until it settled on video games in the 1970s.

29. If you take all the molecules in a teaspoon of water and lined them up end to end in a single file line, they would stretch ~30 billion miles.
  • Volume of water in a (US) teaspoon of water: 4.9289 mL (Source)
Now to do some conversions that we learned back in high school chemistry:

4.9289 mL H2O = 0.0049289 mole H2O
0.0049289 mole H2O × 6.02e23 molecules/mole = 2.9672e21 molecules H2O
2.9672e21 molecules H2O × 2.9e-10 m/molecule H2O (Source) = 8.61e11 m
8.16e11 m × 6.21371e-4 m/mi = 5.35e8 miles

535 million miles

Note: If you do the calculation with a US tablespoon volume, you get 1.6 billion miles. It's not until you plug in the volume for a US cup that you get 28.6 billion miles, which is close to 30 billion miles.

30. In Australia, there was a war called the emu war. The emus won.
  • There was an unsuccessful wildlife management operation dubbed by the media as the "Emu War" in Australia. (Source)

In sum, of these 30 facts, I could't find evidence to support the claim for three listings (#18, #19, and #29) Two of the listings were questionable, because of the number of implicit caveats needed to make them each true (#4 and #27).

The rest were all true. But these facts are not terribly useful in telling us anything other than people are not good at conceptualizing numbers. Indeed, most of the time, facts are only useful when you apply them to a framework or to a question. While it may be trivially interesting to know that Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in the same year as Anne Frank, it only gains some sort of meaning when it is framed in the context of a larger framework, such as dangerous outcomes due to the perceptions of race in the early to mid 20th century.

It is because facts by themselves are not really that useful in learning something that most academics are not terribly interested in facts in and of themselves, but rather look at what collections of facts say about questions that are being asked.

So, whether it's this set of 30 facts (of which I couldn't get three to work out) or another set of N facts, their factuality is only of greater use when placed in the context of related facts that surround a question that has been posed within a framework of knowledge. Otherwise it's just something that might (if it randomly happens to get mentioned) get you some points on trivia night. (Maybe.)

No comments: