True/False looks at commmonly held beliefs with a scientific mindset and tries to find out if they are, well, true or false. Sometimes the answer is clear, sometimes things are quite murky, and there are often some surprises.

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  • The seventh wave is always a big one

    It isn’t encouraging that the relevant research starts off calling this the myth of the seventh wave. Certainly you will be disappointed if you go down to the beach and expect every seventh wave to be, like clockwork, bigger than all the rest. But while the magic number seven is all washed up, the idea of regular patterns in waves has better prospects. Continue reading.
  • No man is shorter than his mother

    Jenny Chisholm doesn’t mention whether she has a particular man and his mother in mind but she wonders about the truth of this. We’re well conditioned to expect a boy to outgrow his mother, and it’s probably even the usual result, but it isn’t a foregone conclusion. Continue reading.
  • Grape seeds cause appendicitis

    I’m sure I’m not the only one to have wasted the odd youthful hour worrying about the consequences after swallowing a fruit seed. While my concerns centred on unrealistic (though alarming) scenarios such as finding a sapling inching its way up my throat, Linda Caradus has queried a more reasonable fear, that of appendicitis. Continue reading.
  • Spoilers make cars go faster

    Race cars have rear spoilers. Race cars go fast. So that shiny new car with a rear spoiler must go like the clappers, right? Not as fast as a race car — it has no racing stripes after all — but plenty fast all the same. Continue reading.
  • Polar bears cover their noses while hunting

    Polar bears really are very well camouflaged for their wintry habitat — except for that black snout. Their solution, according to oral traditions of local hunters, as well as occasional reports from outsiders, is to cover it with a paw while hunting. A nifty idea, but also rather dubious. Continue reading.
  • Ants won’t cross a chalk line

    Could chalk really be the velvet rope of the ant world? You can’t help feeling someone has just got ants mixed up with demons. In general, a chalk line won’t keep ants out, even if it is part of a pentagram and you stand inside it intoning words of great magick (as the kool kids are calling it now). Continue reading.
  • Headlights use a lot of petrol

    Leo de Vos has heard that driving with your lights on during the day consumes a significant amount of petrol. You do use measurably more fuel running the lights but whether that’s significant depends on how you look at it. We could get the numbers for this by going out with a fleet of cars, carefully road testing them and collating the results in a shiny binder, but I’m already sitting down (and I don’t see you getting your keys) so I’m going with a quick calculation on the back of an envelope instead. Continue reading.
  • Most animals make their own vitamin C

    Vitamins are only vitamins if your body can’t make them itself. Ian M. has heard that most animals make their own ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C. And he’s heard right: inability to make ascorbic acid is the exception rather than the rule throughout the living world. Continue reading.

Or try these...

  • Fish don’t feel pain

    Defining pain scientifically is a tricky business. You stub your toe and it hurts, but there is a lot more to pain than that. Pain begins in special cells that detect noxious stimuli called, thanks to the vagaries of Latin, nociceptors. These transmit signals to the central nervous system which percolate up through the brain. Continue reading.
  • You lose most heat through your head

    If so then a hat is essential in the chilly winter months to stop you from succumbing to the cold. Some versions even put a number on the proportion of heat lost through the head. Depending on how charitable you are feeling, the rumours are either misleading or downright wrong. Continue reading.
  • Coffee keeps you awake

    The idea that coffee keeps you awake is deeply entrenched, but Angela Harding wonders whether coffee really stops you falling asleep. I take it this is a topic suggestion and not a subtle hint to liven up my prose. If you do find yourself drifting off then coffee would be an effective remedy because it will, typically, keep you awake. Continue reading.
  • No pain, no gain

    No pain, no gain was a mantra of the eighties, a ruthless motto for a ruthless decade. And unlike shoulder pads and synthpop it will never go out of fashion because it is quite true — at least so far as physical fitness goes. It needs qualification, though, so don’t rush out and subject yourself to a gruelling training programme just yet. Continue reading.
  • The lion is king of the jungle

    Well, lions prefer savannah to jungle for a start, but that much is obvious to anyone in an age where a lion stalking wildebeest on a dusty plain to the accompaniment of David Attenborough’s breathless narration is just a channel-change away. I’m less interested in where they live than how they live — and they don’t live like kings, let me tell you. Continue reading.
  • Elephants are afraid of mice

    In stories mice routinely scare elephants to illustrate that everyone has an Achilles’ heel, even when they are big enough to crush a car. Ruby Snep wonders if elephants are afraid of mice outside the world of parable and, while at first it seems absurd, it turns out to be quite true. Continue reading.
  • Lemmings commit mass suicide

    They must be a Byronic lot, these lemmings, if they really end it all in a watery mass grave as is commonly believed. Fortunately for the lemmings, nature is not that perverse. The legend of the suicidal lemmings is true so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go all the way to a lofty cliff top overlooking the sea. Continue reading.
  • Ants can lift huge weights

    It may not seem the most obvious contender for the clean and jerk, yet despite its tiny size an ant really can lift and carry many times its own body weight. The exact figure quoted varies a bit, and it does depend on the species and conditions but it is not unheard of for an ant to carry fifty times its own weight. Continue reading.
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