Misconceptions

27

Rats Aren’t Nearly As Populous As We’re Led To Believe

Listen to the popular horror stories about just how many rats there are in the world’s cities, and it’ll make you not want to go there. From being just a few steps from a rat no matter where you are to being outnumbered by them at least two to one, the popular stories are greatly, greatly exaggerated. While rat populations are still in the millions, they’re also not at the point where you need to worry about them flooding out of the toilet, either.

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The Alchemists Were Right (Sort Of)

Alchemy was, at its heart, the science of trying to find a way to turn lead or other common metals into gold. While they never quite got there, today, we have. With the help of a particle accelerator, it’s completely possible to turn lead into gold—a tiny, tiny, tiny amount of gold, but it’s gold nonetheless. While that’s not very practical, scientists are now going in another direction. By changing the properties of ordinary metals into the properties of rarer, more expensive catalysts, they have the potential to revolutionize not only the mining industry, but every industry that relies on rare, precious, or expensive metals.

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The Confederate Town In New York That Held Out Until 1946

Unusually for a town so near the Canadian border, Town Line, New York voted to secede from the Union in 1861 and join the Confederacy. While the circumstances surrounding the treasonous act is shrouded in urban legend, the secession—ignored by the Union government—remains a curious aberration. Town Line was the only Northern town to turn rebel during the Civil War, and didn’t rejoin the US until 1946, making it the last stronghold of the Confederacy.

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Your Credit Card Data Is Far From Anonymous

We’ve been told that our transaction records are “anonymized” by removing our names and other personal details before our credit card companies share the information with outside organizations. But researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that the locations and dates of just four purchases are sufficient to correctly identify you with over 90 percent accuracy in a database of 1.1 million people with three months of information (even if the data is anonymized). The researchers only need three purchases to identify you if they have price information. In other words, you have little privacy regardless of what you’ve been told.

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The ‘Secret Code’ Of The Underground Railroad

According to the popular story, slaves running north on the Underground Railroad were often sent secret messages through quilts. Conveniently and casually hung on a clothesline or over a railing, the pattern on the quilt would tell them valuable information, like whether or not it was safe to stop. Thing is, it hasn’t really been found to be true, and the earliest reference we have to the idea come from a 1999 book with a single source—a woman who, conveniently, sold quilts.

1,321

You Have To Turn On Your Memory To Make It Work

Many of us believe we’ll remember details of our experiences just because we pay attention to what we’re seeing and doing. However, according to psychologists from Penn State University, we have to make a conscious effort to turn on our memories, as though hitting the “record” button on a camcorder. Otherwise, we’ll suffer from “attribute amnesia,” the inability to remember a bit of information needed to complete a task, even if we just finished it a second earlier.

12

How The Russian Navy Saved The Union In The Civil War

A little-known alliance between the US and Tsarist Russia led to the Russian fleet showing up in force in New York and San Francisco. It arrived at a crucial time in 1863 when Britain and France were on the verge of intervening in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. An actual world war was on the horizon that would “wrap the world in flames” as Secretary of State William Seward put it. The mighty Russian presence deterred the Anglo-French from invading, and the Union was saved.

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No Names Were Ever Changed At Ellis Island

We’ve all heard the stories about names being changed as people passed through Ellis Island. It just isn’t true, though; immigration officers weren’t even responsible for writing down names, only checking them against passenger manifests. Most names were changed either when the manifests were written at the point of departure or by the families themselves when they were naturalized and officially made citizens of their new country.

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No One’s Really Sure What Happened To Van Gogh’s Ear

Everyone knows that van Gogh once took a straight razor to his own ear and lopped off a good part of it. That’s the story that’s been as much a part of pop culture as it has been art history, but a review of contemporary documents suggests that it didn’t happen that way at all. Another theory is that his ear was cut off by his longtime friend and roommate, the French artist Paul Gauguin, whom he was involved in an argument with. Because the two witnesses to the actual event aren’t talking—and never did—we’re left with some pretty interesting speculation.

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You Don’t Just Smell Through Your Nose

We tend to think that we smell with our nose, but we’ve recently found that nearly every single organ in our bodies is capable of smell. More precisely, our organs have been found to contain olfactory receptors that are keyed to react in certain ways to certain scents. When receptors in the skin are exposed to the smell of sandalwood, healing and regeneration increases. When prostate cells smell rose scents, the formation of cancer cells stops. The potential is pretty staggering, considering the same receptors even exist in our kidneys, our muscles, and a lot of other places.