That person was right. But so was I. How can two conflicting statements both be correct? That’s this month’s subject.
The Milky Way’s rotation swiftly carries the Sun and Earth toward Deneb. However, if one merely considers the 200 nearest stars around us in space, we have a separate little motion relative to them. This slow sideways drift is toward Vega; some say the constellation Hercules. Years ago, scientists only knew that local motion.
The problem — and it never ends — is limited space. If science writers pause to fully explain such facts, we’ll never get to the point of the article. Hence, much that appears in science magazines is true in just one sense. Falsehoods include the simplest “facts” everyone thinks they know.
For example, we say Earth rotates in 24 hours. However, our planet actually spins in 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds. The discrepancy isn’t caused by rounding off. Clocks are deliberately built to include an extra few minutes of spin. This compensates for Earth’s orbital path, which places the Sun toward a new direction each day. If we want Sol to always be highest when clocks say noon, we must let Earth spin once completely and then add an extra 3 minutes and 55.9 seconds of rotation. Only then will we face the Sun at the same clock time the next day. Timepieces were thus designed to keep our lives aligned with the Sun. Don’t imagine that they register our actual rotation.
The sky is blue, right? Well, buy a spectroscope on eBay. This wonderful instrument reveals what’s really in the light we see. Point it at the daytime heavens. Bam — all the colors of the rainbow. Vivid greens and oranges come from the sky. Its composition resembles sunlight, but with red scattering four times less than blue, the latter color is visually dominant. So it’s not strictly correct to say, “The sky is blue.” It would be better to say, “The sky looks blue.”
But that’s probably too picky. After all, we happily say, “The Sun is rising,” despite knowing that “the horizon is falling” would be more accurate. We don’t want to sound stilted or obnoxious. Still, shouldn’t we draw the line when a statement is more wrong than right?
science magazines is
true in just one sense.
Such nuances can’t be clarified in a few words. If I fully explain, any article will read like the legalistic “don’t use your new laptop in a hot tub” part of an instruction booklet. The alternative is to be flat-out wrong in some way. There’s no good solution.
Does Jupiter orbit the Sun? Actually, it orbits the barycenter where the jovian and solar gravities balance. Have you ever seen a meteor? Actually, you’ve seen only the glowing air around the seed-sized meteoroid.
Excessively condensed science is everywhere. You’ve always read that humans breathe out carbon dioxide. Turns out, we exhale roughly 78 percent nitrogen, 17 percent oxygen, 4 percent carbon dioxide, and 1 percent argon. We exhale far more oxygen than carbon dioxide. Performing mouth-to-mouth to fill someone’s lungs with our air would be pointless if there wasn’t a lot of oxygen in that offering.
It’s downright misleading to say, “Out-breaths are carbon dioxide.” Yet no science writer has ever to my knowledge taken the time to clarify this.
So next time you spot something suspicious, be aware that science prose is simplified for brevity and filled with trade-offs. (And, on this page, designed to sneak in some cool little-known facts.) Is everything totally true?
Yes, sure. Also, no.
Contact me about my strange universe by visiting http://skymanbob.com.