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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

11. Columbus discovered America

At 2 am on the 12th of October 1492, land was sighted aboard the Pinta and the discovery of America was attributed to Christopher Columbus.

But Native Americans had settled the Americas before Columbus (obviously). There is also cartographic evidence that Portuguese explorers visited the Americas and mapped the area in 1424. Additionally, Norse explorer Leif Erikson set foot on the shores of Newfoundland in Canada, long before 1492. Remains of Viking-type settlements were found in 1963, and dated to about half a century before Columbus.

12. Edison invented the light bulb

Actually, historians list up to 22 inventors of the incandescent lamp before Thomas Edison, starting with Sir Humphry Davy in the early 19th Century.

But in 1878, Edison challenged himself and his workers to produce a commercially viable and longer lasting light bulb, based on the work of inventors before him. In October 1879, by creating an extremely high vacuum inside a bulb and using a carbon filament, he filed a US patent for the first practical high-resistance lamp capable of burning for hundreds of hours.

So while he didn’t actually invent the lightbulb, he did produce the first version that was practical for everyday use.

Photo from Wikipedia

13. Gutenberg invented the printing press

Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg, Western civilization has enjoyed books for centuries, and they are only now being replaced (slowly) by E-readers.

But Gutenberg was not the first to invent the printing press or movable type. Print technology originated in China in 593 AD, and the Chinese were printing from movable type in 1040 AD.

Gutenberg was, however, the first European to use movable type in 1439, and probably invented it independently of the Chinese. But unlike in Eastern culture, prints had a larger influence in the West, making people believe it was invented in Europe.

14. Thanksgiving is not all peaceful and humble

Thanksgiving Day in America is a time to offer thanks, and gather with family around holiday meals of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. A chance to reflect on the old tradition of colonial settlers and Native Americans coming together to give thanks for a successful season’s harvest.

Because of this celebration, people often think relations between colonialists and native people were fair and friendly. But relationships between Europeans and Native Americans never had a happy ending, and the role of European disease, cultural conflict, and disputes over land and resources defined their long-term interaction. The relative peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag began to deteriorate as early as the 1660s, resulting in war by 1675.

The first Thanksgiving story is but one small piece of the long and often tragic history of relations between native people and European colonists.

Photo by CharmainZoe

15. Cleopatra was Egyptian

Cleopatra is widely known for being a beautiful, charismatic queen of Egypt and the wife of Julius Caesar. But she wasn’t Egyptian.

Born in 69 BC, the last Pharaoh of ancient Egypt was actually of Macedonian Greek heritage, daughter of Ptolemy XII. She gave herself the title of Pharaoh, and was one of the few rulers to learn the Egyptian language. (Most others preferred to use Greek.)

16. Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake”

There is no historical evidence she said this when asked about the starving French peasantry who were suffering from a bread shortage. The phrase originally appeared in one of Rousseau’s “Confessions”, when Marie Antoinette was only 10 years old. Today, most scholars believe Rousseau coined the phrase himself, or that it can be credited to Maria-Theresa, the wife of Louis XIV.

Nevertheless, because Marie Antoinette was an unpopular queen with a reputation for being hard-hearted and disconnected from her subjects, the starving French of 1789 willingly attributed the words to her. She was executed by guillotine in 1793 after the French Revolution.

Photo from Wikipedia

17. Napoleon was short

In reality, Napoleon was of average height for a Frenchman at that time, around 5′7″. The confusion came from a difference in measurements: both the English and the French used inches (pouces in French), but the pouce was a little longer than the British inch. After Napoleon’s death, the autopsy conducted by French and British doctors assigned a height of 5’2” in British measurements rather than French; a mistake which British propaganda was happy to propagate.

Furthermore, Napoleon was often surrounded by tall bodyguards, as was the requirement for the Imperial Guard. His soldiers also called him “Le Petit Caporal” (The Little Corporal), which was more a term of affection than a description of his height.

18. Water in the sink turns in a different way depending on the hemisphere

This statement is based on the Coriolis Effect, an apparent force caused by the Earth’s rotation that makes objects appear as though they are moving on a curved path. This effect has a major influence on large, long-lived phenomena such as hurricanes or ocean currents, but is insignificant in the case of draining water, which lasts only a few minutes and can hardly be considered large.

The only factors which affect the direction of the water as it empties down a drain are the shape of the container it’s draining from, and the way the water was introduced into the container.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

19. Plants only respire at night

Another common misconception is that plants photosynthesize during the day and respire only at night.

Photosynthesis is a process that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugar using energy from sunlight, and releases oxygen as a waste product. Cellular respiration is a process by which cells harvest the energy stored in food. Like most living beings, plants must respire in order to grow and produce energy. Cellular respiration occurs continuously in plants, not just at night.

20. Bats are blind

Despite tiny eyes and a nocturnal lifestyle, none of the 1,100 known bat species are blind, and while most rely on echolocation to hunt, some use primarily their vision. Scientists have determined bats can distinguish between different patterns and shapes, and possibly between colors too.


What other common misconceptions are there floating around? Share some examples in the comments below.

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About The Author

Daniel Nahabedian

Daniel left behind his cubicle in 2009 to start a RTW journey & follow his true passion: photography. He is currently settling down in Thailand to work on his Travel Photo Blog Canvas of Light & become a full time freelance Travel Photographer.

  • Hal Amen

    set it straight!

  • Turner

    Nice. I was just thinking about the primary colors, driving myself insane with all the possible combinations.

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      Thanks! Yeah, friends often argue with me about it. For a good proof, just look at an old TV screen!

  • Jeff

    Isn’t the accepted statement “drink before you are thirsty”? By the time you feel thirsty, you are already behind the proverbial hydration 8-ball.

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      You think? It’s like saying: “Eat before you get hungry!”.

      I think the body knows when it needs water, just have to drink when it asks for some.

      • Charles

        No, he’s actually right. Hunger and thirst are both indications that your body is already deficient in some respect. Your body can’t predict ahead of time that you’re about to run out of a nutrient. Your brain, however, can. You should both drink and eat regularly throughout the day to maintain optimal body function. Futher, you should drink more water during the winter months since the dry air will cause you to dehydrate at a faster rate than you think. Your body can survive more irregular schedules, but it will not be operating at peak ability.

      • Vince

        No, the body is dehydrated before you get thirsty.

        It’s now taught in health classes (especially in Arizona, where I live) that you should drink water all throughout the day. I carry a water-bottle with me and take a drink from time to time.

        Likewise, we are recommended three square meals a day with snacks in between; it’s a common misconception to eat when we are hungry. Hunger is a sign of malnourishment just as thirst is a sign of dehydration. Most problems with over-eating occur when people only eat when they’re hungry and then are unable to limit their intake, whereas those who snack healthily all day do not have the urge to over-eat.

      • John

        Staying hydrated is never a bad thing, considering it helps your body function better.

        • McBob

          But there is such a thing as too much water. It’s called Water Intoxication.

    • Gregg W

      Yeah, that’s actually a misconception propagated because it sounds interesting, I guess. You really only need to drink when you are thirsty.

      If you just drink a bunch of water when you’re not thirsty, you’re just going to pee it all out. It literally goes straight through you (notice how it makes your urine clearer).

      The caveat to this is if you have problems with kidney stones, then you might want to drink a steady stream of water to keep your urine dilute and to keep stones from forming.

      Other than that, just drink when you’re thirsty.

      (Source: Medical school)

    • stew

      Thats only relevant if you’re in the desert. The heat makes the body dehydrate quicker.

      • Liz

        Actually the NYTimes reported last year listed the 8 glasses a day rule as a health myth that doctors believe. Apparently there are no good studies that proves any quantity as beneficial. We know it is good to drink some water, and “experts” may agree,” but that is far from being a scientific known.

  • Nick Rowlands

    Nice! I never knew that about the colours, and always bought into the propaganda that Napoleon was short.

    • Hans

      Napoleon was short, he was 1.67 m.
      I was at his museum in Cendrieux, France and saw his personal belongings and clothing. The man was tiny,
      Thing is, so were most men in Europe back then, so relatively, his height was (slightly below) average.
      His tomb by the way, is huge.. Saw it in Paris at Les Invalides, very impressive.

      • Daniel Nahabedian

        Of course, Napoleon would appear short now, but he wasn’t short in his time. Many personalities would be considered short today.

        • asdf

          Of course , of course

  • Amanda

    Duude, you should turn this into a coffee table book!!

  • ala

    the idea is that you can see the great wall from a satellite or a space station, which indeed is possible.

  • spaced_out

    “Astronauts in orbit are still subject to the Earth’s gravity, it’s just that the effect is less powerful. ” Uh, not right. The reason the astronauts experience zero gravity is not because they are further from earth. The reason is they are in a constant state of free fall as the orbit the earth. If they were at the same altitude, but not going 15,000 mph, they would fall like a rock.

    • out_spaced

      Actually that is true, you are incorrect. The farther you are from an object, the lower the effect of its gravitational pull. Gravity is only ~9.8m/s at sea level of our planet. It is lower while orbiting the planet.

      You would fall like a rock if you suddenly stopped orbiting, however you would fall like a rock at that altitude — a rock accelerating at less than 9.8m/s

      • Jon

        At minimum on the space station they would fall at 8.5m/s^2, I’d say thats fast enough to be called a rock. Heck, with the low amount of air they may even accelerate to a faster speed than a rock would fall (before burning up of course).

  • James

    I was not taught any of this in school and my school was crap. Half this BS were just generalizations used by teachers to ensure important information is retained. Example: The Great Wall of China can be seen from space with the naked human eye. In this case, from space meaning just outside the ozone layer in orbit. No one ever said it can be seen from the moon. The rest were taught in school like 30 years ago and have long since been corrected.

    Fail at fact checking. Fail and trying to appear smart at the expense of out dated and ill-conceived information.

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      Education varies from country to country, or even from school to school.
      I can give tons of examples about things taught in American schools that are different to what you learn in European or Asian countries.

      We can also argue for hours about the meaning of “space”. In any case, as it is also mentioned on the NASA webpage linked in the article (I think they are in good position to prove it), the Wall is not hardly visible from low earth orbit to the unaided eye. Here’s an image:

      Thank you.

  • MAC

    Good list, but astronauts aren’t weightless because gravity is that much less power in low Earth orbit; it’s because they’re in free fall, also called microgravity. Their orbital speed gives them centrifugal force that exactly matches the force of gravity that’s trying to pull them back to Earth, so they’re actually “falling” around the planet while its surface keeps curving away beneath them. If they were to somehow stop dead in their tracks, their ship would plummet into Earth’s gravitational well faster than you can say Death to Smoochy.

  • Arthur Dent

    “Astronauts in orbit are still subject to the Earth’s gravity, it’s just that the effect is less powerful. On the Moon, gravity is about one sixth the strength of Earth. The image of the “weightless” astronaut is a myth.”

    This one isn’t quite right. Astronauts in orbit are actually experiencing nearly the full force of Earth’s gravity. After all, they only orbit a few hundred kilometres above the surface. The reason they are weightless is that they are in orbit, which means they are in a state of perpetual free-fall. “Weight” is defined as the normal force of the ground pushing up on an object to counteract the force of the object being pulled by gravity. In free-fall, there is no force pushing back, so you become weightless. It is important to make the distinction between gravitational force and weight. You can be weightless while still experiencing the full force of gravity. Astronauts in orbit ARE weightless, except for the force generated by course corrections and atmospheric drag. Astronauts walking on the moon aren’t weightless, only because they are no longer in free-fall.

  • Thom

    Red, Green and Blue are referred to as primary colors in Science class. you won’t be able to paint much with these colors in Art class.

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      Of course, I agree.
      That’s why I mentioned RGB are primary colors of LIGHT.
      As for the primary colors of pigment, CMY would give you all the colors you want, even better than RYB.

      • Howard

        In fact, There are additive and subtractive color systems. Additive color systems (ie: TVs, monitors, projectors, etc) deal with the direct transmission of light where subtractive color systems (ie: paints) deal with how light is absorbed. The problem is that your 2 sets of primary colors are from different color systems. Primary colors for the additive color system are Red, Green, Blue and the primary colors for the subtractive color system are Red, Yellow, Blue.

        Here are wikipedia links for both:

  • Phillip

    The gravity one is either misleading or incorrect. It seems to imply that the astronaut’s distance is responsible for a large enough decrease in gravity that the weightless effect occurs; however, at the distance the ISS orbits, gravity is still about 5/6 it’s strength on earth. The weightless effect would occur even if gravity was 10 times stronger than it is on earth’s surface! It’s because they are in free fall that they feel weightless, not because gravity is weaker.

  • Mike

    From #7:

    “Astronauts in orbit are still subject to the Earth’s gravity, it’s just that the effect is less powerful. On the Moon, gravity is about one sixth the strength of Earth. The image of the “weightless” astronaut is a myth.”

    While your original statement that there is gravity in space is accurate, your statement here is wildly misleading and I would argue plain wrong.

    Astronauts are indeed “weightless” while IN ORBIT. The force of gravity is countered by there circular movement around earth. Should they suddenly stop over a single point over Earth, not only would they fall, they would fall really quickly.

    If I were to assume your statement is correct, how in the world would the earth put enough gravitational force to possibly keep the moon in orbit? I mean hell, astronauts are 350km from the surface. That’s less than 6% the radius of the earth.

  • David

    While the point of #7 is accurate, I think the example regarding astronauts in orbit is somewhat inaccurate. True, an astronaut in orbit is subject to the Earth’s gravity, and true, the effect diminishes the further away from the Earth one is. However, the weightlessness that astronauts experience while in orbit is because they are essentially in a state of free-fall as they hurtle around and around in Earth’s orbit. It’s like when you experience that brief state of weightless during a plunge in a roller coaster — except it lasts the entire time they are in orbit. (Please, someone, correct me if I am wrong!)

  • Dude..

    The great wall isnt visible from space? I remember reading an article with testimonials from various astronauts who claimed to be able to see individual cars on highways. Apparently in space, due to the lack of gravity pulling on the eyes, you can see much more clearly. This was tested by putting up big white blocks the size of an average house in various points scattered around a state…i think it was texas…and the individuals from orbit where able to pick every single one of them out. SO FUCK! Wish i could remember wherest i read that….maybe im wrong. :3

  • Mike

    You’re wrong about the primary colors. One of the definitions of a Primary Color is that it cannot be created by a combination of other colors. No combination of colors can create Red, Yellow or Blue, but Green can be made from a combination of Blue and Yellow.

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      The pixels on a TV screen are Red, Green and Blue (like the RGB cables). If it was impossible to create Yellow with these 3 colors, we would have really weird looking colors on screen!

      Light and pigments don’t add the same way.
      RGB are the primary colors of light. You can create every color with those. For “painting” it’s better to use Cyan, Magenta and Yellow.

      • Mike

        Oh, okay. Thanks for clearing it up!

  • 1way

    Another misconception: We need to cut Social Security benefits to balance the budget. Social Security payments are from taxes paid your entire work life and there should be a huge surplus of funds. The problems is that the government has taken the money (robbed the fund, and us) and wants you to believe there is a natural shortfall of funds and that SS is a “government handout”.

  • http://none Srdjan

    Correcting your correction. Seasons ARE caused by the precession of Earth’s equinoxes, but not solely, or even for the most part due to the change in the distance from the sun. Much more important is the ANGLE of the sun rays. The lower the angle, the more they reflect off the Earth’s athmosphere back into space.

  • McBob

    Another common misconception in the United States is that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity. Electricity was rather well known in Europe for at least 60 years before Benjamin Franklin’s Kite Experiment, with many so-called doctors going around to society parties with hand-cranked electric generators, touting it as a cure for everything from headaches to impotence. What Benjamin Franklin did discover is that lightning is made of electricity.

  • Nick Rowlands

    Thanks to everyone who pointed out the misleading phrasing in #7. This was an editorial issue rather than a mistake of the author’s. It’s now been corrected.

  • Heather

    Another one to add- how about the ‘fact’ we’re taught in school that people during Columbus’s time thought the world was flat?

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      Yes! I hesitated to add that one. Maybe in another 20 misconceptions again?

  • Spanky

    Just an FYI:
    Let Them Eat Cake : a Reference to the burnt scrapings left behind in bread ovens.
    Sugar was expensive and wasnt exactly something the poor could afford, let alone eat Sweet Cake….

  • Robert

    Primary colors of light are additive, their frequencies combine to make new colors. Primary colors of pigments are subtractive, they absorb some frequencies so that what’s left makes a new color.

    A number of places still call Europe and Asia separate continents even though back in 1984 it was officially recognized that they are just regions on the single continent of Eurasia. (Along with India.) If you look up the definition of continents, you’ll see it’s obvious they are one continent. I suspect the initial error lies in an ancient European map that showed the Ural Mountain Range as a small isthmus only a few tens of miles wide. (Old cartography wasn’t very good.)

    Greenland isn’t very large. It’s a common misconception from looking at the Mercator projection maps that distort things as you get farther away from the equator. (Antarctica is also horribly distorted.)

  • Miller

    Damn man! Everybody’s a critic. I thought it was a fun to read article and if some of it is incorrect or left to interpretation then I’m replacing wrong with wrong and that seems to even out. When I was in art school we were taught the primaries the same way you described them. RGB for light and CMYK for pigment, the K being black. It was an enjoyable read, thanks Daniel.

  • DJ Dynamin

    If you have ever been to Ecuador at the true equator line, they drain water 5 feet away from the equator (youtube it). In one hemisphere, it drains counterclockwise and in the other, it drains clockwise. The water is sitting in a basin, so it’s not introduced in a certain direction, it’s just sitting there. They just pull the plug out from the bottom of the basin and let it drain. They put leaves in the water to show you the way the water rotates. On the equator itself, the water drips straight down.

    Clearly, it does not need to be water in large quantities (i.e. hurricanes) for it to rotate or spin in a certain direction.

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      It’s not only the way the water is introduced but also the shape of the basin. It’s just science: The Coriolis force is absolutely minimal in small objects like water in a sink. Better try it personally it home and avoid touristy places to experience the effect ;)

      • DJ Dynamin

        Sure, but the basin was the same in both scenarios and the water clearly spun a different way. Therefore, the way water was introduced and the basin itself were constant. So, what explains the difference and what explains the fact that water went straight down (without rotating) on the true equator line?

  • Glen

    Actually, Edison didn’t even make the usable light bulb. He was a huge jerk. If you’re going to write something about misconceptions, then your history should be correct. Heinrich Goebel actually tried to sell his light bulb patent to Edison, and Edison refused. Goebel died, and Edison bought the patent from Goebel’s wife who was poor after his death. Edison then had rights to the light bulb, but someone else was in the way … Joseph Swan invented and patented a working light bulb, and Edison formed a partnership with the Ediswan United Company, and when he had enough money he bought Swan out of the partnership so Edison had complete control over the light bulb rights and took sole credit.

    Edison was a truly evil man who stole ideas from others however he could and received the fame for it. Read an in-depth history of the man. He did this over and over again, always stealing the sole credit.

    There are a number of extremely famous historical figures (Einstein is another one … he stole credit for and made famous the theory of relativity) that would make for an interesting article to set the facts straight.

  • Gary Daulton

    18. Water in the sink turns in a different way depending on the hemisphere?

    You are correct! Explanation:

  • Allan

    When did Caesar have time to marry Cleopatra? There is some conjecture as to whether they had a child together; Caeserion – however that could’ve been propaganda set up by herself and Marc Anthony. Doesn’t matter though Octavian handled the brat.

  • Deathstyle

    I don’t know where you’re from, but your education system is apparently a terrifying mess.

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      The world is big and education varies from country to country. I was horrified/laughing when I heard some of the stuff that are taught in American schools or European schools.
      Also, please remember that education has improved and changed. Not everyone just got out of school and many older people learned wrong stuff in the past.

      I’m sure some younger people would laugh at us if we said today: “There are 9 planets in the solar system”.

  • Visitor

    There’s an error in point 12; portuguese explorers did not arrive to America prior to Columbus. That’s just… well, another myth.

    Interesting list, BTW.

  • Visitor

    Point 11, sorry.

  • Megan

    Another interesting mistaught fact.

    There is no such thing as centrifugal force. – This is incorrect.

    Good cartoon here (with explanation):

    • Jon

      Centrifugal forces only exist in the accelerating reference frame (like you sitting in a car) but are absent when considered from the static reference frame used in physics class.

      It is more of an illusionary force than a real one. That is, the car is accelerating, not you. You just don’t notice from your seat.

  • Jack

    For the one about the colors: It is true that in terms of light and mixing red, green, and blue are the primary colors. However, the way they are classified in art is with red, yellow, and blue being primary and orange, green, and purple being secondary.

  • ed

    how do u explain this for no.18?

    • Daniel Nahabedian

      Charlatans are very good at demonstrating non-existent theories. It’s their job to get money from gullible tourists, isn’t it?

      Here’s the answer to your question:
      (read the second part, it explains how they proceed to trick you).

  • Charles

    Seems like half of these have been busted. Good try though ;)

  • lala

    What about Ohm’s Law, V= I * R ?
    When I studied it in the university I couldn’t belive its real complexity (about magnetic flux).
    And Newton’s Laws about universal gravitation?
    Einstein demostrates than masses don’t interact one on another. A mass makes a distortion in the space and the time around it.
    I can stay for a week with that kind of science samples…

  • Exxos

    Napoleon was short. It does not matter if that was average or not, anything under 6’3″ is short outright.

  • Miranda

    Great list. Of course there were mistakes and of course everyone is going to obsess over that, but I guess that’s human nature… or something.

    Really though, great list.

  • Pile of Pooh

    Actually, the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit does have a slight second-order effect on seasons. It’s very small relative to the effect of the axial tilt, but it does exist.


    SO that’s why HP cartridges are called CYAN MAGENTA and YELLOW !

    If they called them RED BLUE YELLOW my printer wouldn’t print !!!

  • Rand Mart

    If you were taught most of these things in school, you went to a very bad school.

  • marvin nubwaxer

    re: #20. Bats suck up tiny flying insects at dusk and later. Try catching a mosquito even in a well lit room.

  • Sophie

    Fun (and useful) article, Daniel :)

    Re no 11: The settlements at l’Anse aux Meadows date not only half a century, but half a millennium before Columbus.

  • Kirsten

    I think I like reading the comments almost as much as the articles on Matador. Thanks for keeping it interesting, and almost always civil.

  • Issa

    The theory that Columbus discovered America has been on a quest to be disapproved by many, and has been..even Discovery Channel has aired segments on the topic. For this reason, I appreciated that you pointed it out and added it to your list. I remember learning about it in school and seeing how books idolized Columbus as the sole “hero” and to come think of it… now it all sounds like a handed down story told by many. Like a fairytale that isn’t real, except for the fact that the journey did take place. Anyways, its disappointing that the educational system does give away vague representations to children and its still happening today.

    I don’t remember them mentioning that Roughly somewhere around 1442′s Spain was going through a turmoil with the expulsion of jews out of the country.. Queen Isabella the reason, she also is the source who funded Christopher Columbus expedition. With out her assistance and approval his journey would have never taken place. Food for thought..

  • Guest

    At my school in England we were also taught the continents wrong, I only recently found this out from my own research.
    We were taught Oceania is a continent, which is incorrect. Oceania is a region, and Australia is the continent. New Zealand does not belong to a continent.
    The education system needs sorting out since people are frequently being taught things incorrectly, and people are not being taught valuable life skills.

  • Jennifer Woehl

    This is funny, and true!

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