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Urban Myths: Do you believe mammoths can be cloned or The Great Wall is visible from the Moon?

Wooly Mammoth
Wooly Mammoth

Scientists last week debunked the “10 second rule”, by which many people judge something to be safe to eat if it has only been on the floor for a few moments. It’s not true, say researchers. Harmful bugs can stick to food in an instant.

Despite this evidence, many will continue to gobble up food that’s only been on the floor briefly.

So what other “facts” and tales are nonsense? The Sunday Post’s team of mythbusters has been finding out.

Walt Disney’s body was frozen after his death

Walt was cremated on December 17, 1966. The myth probably arose as the first human to be cryogenically preserved, Californian Dr James Bedford, underwent the procedure soon after Disney’s death, on January 12, 1967.

If everyone in China jumped at once it would knock the earth off its axis

On July 20, 2006, Torsten Lauschmann, a German artist living in Glasgow claimed to have signed up 600 million people for World Jump Day with the idea of knocking the world off its axis to combat global warming.

If you didn’t notice anything it’s because it wouldn’t matter if the entire population of the planet jumped at the same time, it would hardly create enough energy to register on the Richter Scale let alone topple the Earth from its axis.

Pet alligators in New York escaped into the sewers and thrive there

This myth dates back to the 1930s, when two boys supposedly saw an alligator nosing its way out of a sewer. The story goes that rich New Yorkers who bought small alligators as pets while on holiday in Florida tired of them when they got too big and flushed them away.

Experts say there is no way the animals could survive in the cold water that flows through the system, but similar stories crop up from time to time.

Alligators do not live in New York sewers..
Alligators do not live in New York sewers..

We only use 10% of our brain

According to neuroscientist Dick Swaab, author of We Are Our Brains: From The Womb to Alzheimer’s, that’s complete nonsense. We use our whole brain day and night, but different parts are used for different purposes.

Cracking knuckles leads to arthritis

Generations of knuckle crackers have been told the habit will lead to stiff, gnarly fingers in later life. But research shows that isn’t the case – and in fact knuckle-crackers might actually be less likely to develop arthritis.

The noise created comes from bubbles forming in the joints but isn’t likely to cause long-term harm.

It’s possible to clone a woolly mammoth

Not unless we find a live one. We might be able to create something very like a mammoth, but it wouldn’t be a clone. The cloning process requires a living cell, so we can only clone animals we have collected samples from while they were alive. What scientists can do is edit a genome, or genetic blueprint. The Asian elephant is already 99% mammoth, so it would be about identifying that last 1% and making it look like a mammoth.

Chewing gum will stay in your stomach for seven years

Anyone who’s accidentally swallowed gum will recall this warning from childhood. While the main ingredients of chewing gum are indigestible, it’s unlikely to not find its way out of our bodies naturally. Be warned, though, there have been some instances where habitual gum swallowers have found themselves with intestinal issues due to a build-up of the sticky stuff.

Albert Einstein failed maths

When the genius physicist heard the rumour that he’d failed maths in school he was highly amused.

He explained: “I never failed in mathematics. Before I was 15 I mastered differential and integral calculus.”

Einstein was so obsessed with maths he neglected his other studies and failed a university entrance exam, which is probably where this myth originated.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

Toads give you warts

It was thought toads could pass on whatever it was that made their own skin warty to humans, but that turned out to be an old wives’ tale. Warts come from the human papillomavirus, a collection of 150 related viruses which cause growths on the skin.

You swallow eight spiders a year in your sleep

Thankfully, this isn’t true. Experts say the three or four spider species commonly found in homes are scared of humans so stay away from occupied beds – and having a spider crawling over your face would almost certainly wake you.

Eating cheese before bed gives you nightmares

A study by the British Cheese Board found a cheesy snack before bed could actually aid sleep. None of those who took part in the study could recall having a nightmare but two-thirds remembered having dreams.

The type of cheese seemed to make a difference, with eight out of 10 saying Red Leicester gave a good night’s sleep and six out of 10 had fond childhood memory dreams.

JFK said I’m a jelly doughnut when trying to say I’m a Berliner

The American President’s speech in West Germany in June 1963 was supposed to have included the unfortunate foul-up when he said Ich bin ein Berliner. But it was all to do with the grammar and language experts insist he got it right.

JKF (AP Photo)
JKF (AP Photo)

Dipping a sleeping person’s hand in a bowl of warm water will cause them to wet the bed

A well-known holiday prank, but it doesn’t work. A more likely explanation is that if the person sleeping is not disturbed by having his or her mates putting their hand in water they have most likely been drinking and it is this which causes the damp bed clothes.

Placing a silver spoon in a bottle of champagne can keep it bubblier for longer

Champagne drinkers unable to finish the bottle swear by the trick of placing a teaspoon, handle down, into the bottle’s mouth keeps bubbly bubbly. But students at Stanford University carried out extensive tests in 1994 and the legend fell flat.

Elephants are afraid of mice

It’s not clear where the idea came from, but many have suggested that elephants might be terrified of mice because they fear the wee critters will crawl up their trunks. However elephants in captivity frequently come face-to-face with mice, in their hay feed, and keepers have seen mice scuttling around the trunks and faces of elephants with no reaction.

The Great Wall of China is visible from the Moon

Only if you had vision 17,000 times more powerful than 20/20. The Great Wall of China is nine metres across, seeing it from the Moon would be the equivalent of seeing a human hair from two miles away. It’s so narrow that experts think it’s not even visible from Earth’s orbit.

The Great Wall of China (Getty Images)
The Great Wall of China (Getty Images)

Bulls get angry when they see the colour red

Just like other cattle, bulls are colour blind when it comes to red and green. So why does a bull go doolally when a matador shakes his red cape at it? It’s nothing to do with the colour, it’s the movement of the cape that gets the bull in a rage. The bulls used in bullfights are also raised in a way that means any sudden movements spur them to attack.

It’s dangerous to wake a sleepwalker

It’s a common myth that if you see someone trudging around the house at night in a dream it is dangerous – possibly even deadly – to wake them up. Some fear it may cause a heart attack, shock or even brain damage. While waking them won’t do any of these things it might be distressing for the sleepwalker, so just lead them gently back to bed.

Sugar makes kids hyperactive

Many parents swear a bag of fizzy sweets or can of cola turns their little darling into a hyperactive Tasmanian Devil. But scientific studies have proved sugar doesn’t change kids’ behaviour. What is important is parents’ expectations. After hearing that their children had just guzzled sugary stuff, parents were more likely to say their child was hyperactive.


If you go out with wet hair you’ll catch cold

Your Gran may have warned you about this, but the common cold is caused by a virus, not a sudden drop in temperature. You’ll certainly feel uncomfortable if you leave the house without drying your hair on a cold day, but unless you’re so cold you get hypothermia, which could make you susceptible to infection, it shouldn’t do lasting damage.

Soon we won’t be able to get rid of head lice and we’ll all be plagued by them as massive “superlice” are becoming immune to all the potions to kill them

Scientists in America have reported that in some states lice have developed a measure of resistance to some over-the-counter treatments.

However, the insecticides which were used to treat head lice have been replaced by silicone and oil-based treatments which have a physical rather than chemical action on lice. There’s no sign that lice are getting any bigger.

If you throw rice at weddings, birds will eat it and then they’ll explode

This seems to have gained momentum after someone in the US tried to outlaw the practice.

Yes, rice does expand when you cook it in boiling water. It does so much more slowly in a bird’s stomach (which doesn’t contain boiling water) and is quickly broken down by the digestive process before this can happen.

Water swirls down the plughole in opposite directions, depending on whether you are in the northern or southern hemisphere

This is nonsense. The force caused by the spin of the earth, the Coriolis effect, is much too weak to affect water in a sink. The direction of swirl is dictated by the shape of the bowl.

On holiday, a woman got what she thought was a mosquito bite. Her leg swelled up then burst – and hundreds of tiny spiders ran out

It’s an arachnophobe’s nightmare, but thankfully completely untrue.

Human skin is not the right place for a spider to lay eggs, and it’s not the way their biology works. They normally lay eggs in sacs and keep these close by.

The Sunday Post Queries Man busts myths and answers questions like these every week.

Do you have a myth that needs busted or an argument that should be settled?

Write to The Queries Man, The Sunday Post, 80 Kingsway East, Dundee, DD4 8SL.


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