Eight things you think are true, but science scoffs at

The five-second rule won’t save you from germs and the blue whale isn’t actually the earth’s largest living organism


1. The five-second rule

The often-repeated “five second-rule” holds that it is basically fine to eat food you clumsily dropped on the floor, so long as it is back in your mouth before you can say “Campylobacter”. Jillian Clarke of the University of Illinois won an Ig Nobel in 2004 for testing the rule by inoculating a tile with E coli and dropping food on it. She found food became contaminated after even the briefest of encounters. On the plus side, she also found her university’s floors to be surprisingly clean. A more thorough 2006 study tested both bread and bologna (aka baloney) on salmonella-tainted wood, tile and carpet. It found that “99% of bacterial cells were transferred from the tile to the bologna after five seconds of bologna exposure to tile”. The sausage faired a little better on wood, and surprisingly well on carpet.



2. Alcohol kills brain cells

Let’s be clear, pure alcohol will most certainly kill brain cells, as well as many other cells (which is why we use it as disinfectant). But a few pints – while having a host of other effects, both positive and negative – will not have a significant effect on your brain cells. Excessive alcohol consumption can damage dendrites, the structures at the ends of neurons that conduct electrochemical stimulation between cells, and this could indeed cause serious problems. Incredibly, one study found that the brains of long-term alcoholics bounce back quite quickly after a sustained period of abstinence.


3. You should drink eight glasses of water a day

Alongside the five fruit and veg per day, eight glasses of water daily is one of the best-known pieces of health advice, repeated even by the NHS. Yet there is apparently no real basis for suggesting that there is anything special about the number eight. The amount of water a person needs is dependent on so many variables that putting a figure on it borders on pointless. That said, doctors do report seeing an increase in problems caused by a failure to drink enough water.



4. Moths are attracted to artificial lights

This one may not actually be as clear cut as I originally thought. The leading theory is that moths are simply confused by artificial light as they evolved using the moon as a navigation aid (to be fair to moths, humans would also be quite confused by the sudden appearance of numerous mysterious moons). However there are other theories, one of which suggests that moths are attracted to the light. A 1977 paper written by Philip Callahan, an entomologist then working with the US department of agriculture, suggested that the infrared light emitted by a candle flame contains some of the same frequencies given off by female moths’ pheromones (Callahan had previously shown that the pheromones are very faintly luminescent). This still wouldn’t explain why they are attracted to light bulbs though.


5. The great wall of China is the only man-made structure you can see from space

Simply not true. Even NASA says so. There is the inevitable difficulty of defining what we actually mean by space, but it is clear that the wall cannot be seen by the unaided eye in low Earth orbit. By the time you get to the moon, no human-made object is visible.


6. Humans have five senses

While commonly accepted that we have a suite of five senses, scientists have debated potential additions to the list. Other senses include the ability to detect temperature (thermoception), our own movement (proprioception), pain (nociception), balance (equilibrioception) and vibration (mechanoreception). All of that is to say nothing of our various internal chemoreceptors (eg for detecting salt and CO2 concentrations in our blood). Other animals possess some unusual sensory abilities. Dolphins, for example, can detect electric fields in water using receptors on their snouts. These receptors, which evolved from whiskers, can detect even small movements, such as the muscle contractions of potential prey, allowing the dolphin to feed on animals on the seabed where sediment limits their other senses.


7. There are three states of matter

Just as we have a plethora of senses, matter has many more states than GCSE science had led me to believe. In addition to the standard gas, liquid, solid, there is also plasma, as well as a host of additional states that exist only in certain extreme conditions. One such state is “superfluid”, where a liquid close to absolute zero loses all viscosity and apparently attempts to climb out of its container. Indeed, a new state of matter – called Jahn-Teller metals – was discovered only a few weeks ago.


8. The blue whale is the earth’s largest living organism

At up to 30 meters long weighing more than 180 tons, the blue whale is easily identifiable as the biggest living thing on this planet. Yet that title truly belongs to a honey fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. The edible yellow-brown mushrooms growing above ground are merely the visible part of a much larger organism searching for food down below. After finding that trees as far as 2.4 miles apart were killed off by the exact same organism, scientists realised that this was one humongous fungus among us, covering an area of 3.7 square miles. Imagine the risotto you could get out of that.

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