8 Scientific Facts That Have Changed Since You Were In Grade School

by Aaron Kaufman

When the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto’s status from planet to “dwarf planet” in 2006, I felt as if my entire understanding of the universe should be called into question.

How could my first grade teacher mislead me so? Were there other scientific “facts” that I built my entire educational foundation atop that warranted further review?

Regrettably, there were. I discovered these eight amended truths that left me nostalgic for a simpler time when I could proudly claim Triceratops as my favorite dinosaur (Spoiler Alert: It didn’t exist).

1. There Are Actually Five Oceans

Apparently four oceans weren't good enough for those inquisitive maritime enthusiasts at the International Hydrographic Organization. For years, the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans reigned supreme. In 2000, they had to make room so that the neophyte Southern Ocean could join their ranks.

Rumor has it that this was the result of a major lobbying push by Antarctica to claim its own massive body of water, jealous of the North Pole and infuriated by amateur oceanographers and cartographers who mistakenly believe its shores border the icy Arctic Sea. Just because they’re both cold doesn’t justify confusing the two. Kidding, but seriously, they added a fifth ocean.

2. The Map of the World Looks Way Different Than You Think it Does

Speaking of cartographers, I have a bone to pick with them.

Remember when your third grade teacher made you stand in front of the entire class and asked you to point out Ethiopia on the map? And when you wrongly pointed to Buenos Aires, everyone erupted in laughter and you had to call your mom to pick you up because you were so mortified that you ended up crying in the corner, balled up in the fetal position?

Maybe that was just me.

Still, I contend that my poor grasp on geography actually stems from my reliance on the most widely used, yet inherently flawed, Mercator world map.

The Mercator map inflates country sizes depending on their distance from the equator, an effect that makes Greenland appear larger than Africa, despite the fact that Africa is actually 14 times larger than its icy nemesis.

The Peters projection, which displays land masses on a flat plane depicting their relative sizes more accurately, gained notoriety in the middle of the last century as analysts observed that the Mercator map appeared to exaggerate the size of prosperous nations and trim the size of less powerful countries. Peters advocates argue that the Mercator map impedes global social equality.

Who knew maps could be so political?

While organizations have stepped up lobbying efforts in recent years to replace the Mercator map, Mercator persists as the preeminent map found in classrooms throughout the United States.

3. Mount Everest Might Not Be the Tallest Mountain in the World

If you were searching for yet another excuse to not add climbing Mount Everest to your bucket list, you’ve come to the right place.

It turns out that you halfhearted adventurers with an aversion to frostbite need not shy away from setting out to summit the world’s tallest peak. In fact, you can drive to the top of it as you soak up the sun in balmy Hawaii.

While Everest climbs higher above sea level (29,029 feet) than any other mountain in the world, the inactive Hawaiian volcano called Mauna Kea is significantly taller, clocking in at a whopping 33,465 feet when measured from its seabed base.

Unfortunately, only 13,799 feet of the mammoth Mauna Kea rises from the surface of the Pacific. Still, the United States is technically home to the world’s tallest peak. How’s that for American exceptionalism?

4. Pluto is Just a Big Space Rock

From outskirts of Timbuktu to the cannibal tribes of Papua New Guinea, everyone in the world has heard the news that Pluto is a planet no more. So-called astronomers at the IAU decided eight years ago that Pluto just wasn’t good enough anymore to play caboose in the planetary order.

If you’re at all like me, you probably shed a few tears over our exiled celestial friend. For no other reason than to preserve our most beloved planetary mnemonic device, “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas,” the IAU should have left Pluto alone.

Discovered and accredited as our solar system’s ninth planet in February 1930, scientists began to reevaluate Pluto’s classification in 1977 when the minor planet 2060 Chiron was first spotted. Around that same time, numerous icy interstellar objects that resembled Pluto and followed eccentric orbits were identified.

The final nail in Pluto’s coffin came about with the 2005 discovery of Eris, a scattered disc object 27 percent more massive than Pluto. After identifying Eris, the IAU decided that it needed to create a new dwarf planetary subclass of which would differentiate smaller planets from larger ones.

5. Brontosaurus and Triceratops Were Cast Out of the Dinosaur Kingdom

It turns out that two of our most exalted Jurassic friends were misidentified as unique species. Scientists John Scannella and Jack Horner believe that the Triceratops was actually just a juvenile Torosaurus, finding that as Triceratops aged, its skull underwent a significant transformation, which contributed to the belief that it was an entirely different species.

Ultimately, the Triceratops brand proved stronger and scientists decided to get rid of the Torosaurus name altogether. Don’t be fooled by this public relations ploy. Torosaurus is the real OG.

Brontosaurus shares a similar origins story. In the late 1800s, two rival paleontologists engaged in a series of disputes that came to be known as the “bone wars.” It was in their haste to outdo one another that Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope became careless, sometimes combining the bones of different animals to claim new discoveries.

Marsh discovered fossils of an enormous, previously unknown dinosaur in 1877 that had four legs and a long neck, naming it Apatosaurus. Two years later, he uncovered another incomplete skeleton. Wanting to outshine Cope, he named his discovery Brontosaurus, or “thunder lizard.”

Unfortunately, Cope had mistakenly attached the head of another marine reptile to the newly discovered skeleton’s tail instead of its neck, leading him to believe that it was an entirely distinctive creature. In truth, the Brontosaurus never existed, a myth contrived from human error and overzealousness.

6. Salem Witches Weren’t Actually Burned at the Stake

The lore that the Puritan colonists of 17th century Salem, Mass., were holding witch barbeques on the weekends has proliferated through historic accounts for some time now. The stories are tantalizingly barbaric, but nevertheless untrue.

Alleged witches were put to death during the Salem trials, which lasted from the early months of 1692 to the spring of 1693, but all were either hanged, or in the case of one 80-year-old man accused of witchcraft, crushed to death by heavy rocks. A total of 160 individuals were accused of witchcraft in Salem, considered at the time to be a capital felony against the government under English law, with a total of 100 individuals imprisoned for the crime.

It is believed that the myth of Salem witches being burned at the stake arose from European nations’ purported penalties for accused witches, which included burning and drowning.

7. The Food Pyramid is a Relic of the Past

While this isn’t necessarily a scientific fact, it no less played a significant role in my early childhood education in nutrition. Remember that old food pyramid that the government hung in our school cafeterias to guide our nutritional decisions? Turns out it we were terribly misled.

Thanks, Obama.

Actually, the food pyramid was first introduced during the first Bush administration in 1992. In the time that has followed, dieticians and nutrition experts have criticized the pyramid for its allowance of alimentary choices that have been linked to heart disease and other health ailments. These same experts determined that the pyramid fails to provide sound counsel on recommended portions of various food groups, leading them to call for a total overhaul of the educational campaign.

In June 2011, in a collaborative project launched by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and the US Department of Agriculture, the food pyramid was dismantled in favor of the new Food Plate.

The Food Plate offers a simplified nutrition plan that encourages a proportional diet consisting of the five main food groups – fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy – while encouraging individuals to eat a variety of foods.

8. The Great Wall of China is Not the Only Man-Made Object Visible From Space

How this rumor has persisted still vexes me, but I have to admit that I drank the Kool-Aid alongside everybody else.

In truth, astronauts see a plethora of man-made objects from space. At night, cities beam like Christmas lights speckled across the globe and spacewalkers attest to being able to spot out dams, bridges, airports and highways even in the light of day.

Ironically, these same cosmos mavens say that the Great Wall of China is nearly impossible to identify with the naked eye. The legend that the Great Wall is the only visible object from space actually began circulating well before the Space Age, allowing it to gain traction even in the modern scientific age, despite its inaccuracy.

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