17 science ‘facts’ you might’ve learned in school that aren’t true

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Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

  • Science is an ongoing process, which means new discoveries often upend old theories.
  • Contrary to what many people learned in school, Pluto is not a planet (well, sort of), dinosaurs didn’t look like the pictures in your textbook, and atoms aren’t the most basic components of matter.
  • Here are some science “facts” you may have learned in school that aren’t true.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If you were to file into a classroom and open your notebook for science class today, the subject matter might be a little different from when you were in school.

Science is a body of knowledge that’s constantly growing and changing. New discoveries or studies often lead to changes in old theories and sometimes even invalidate them altogether. That means some of the “facts” you learned in school aren’t necessarily true anymore.

For example, dinosaurs probably didn’t look the way your textbook depicted them. The origins of Homo sapiens aren’t as neat as the timeline you might have learned. And many of the nutrition and exercise guidance from your health classes has been debunked.

Here are some science facts you may have learned in school that aren’t true anymore.


Myth: We don’t know what caused the dinosaurs’ mass extinction.

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An artist’s impression of a 6-mile-wide asteroid striking the Earth. This type of cosmic impact, near what is now the town of Chicxulub in Mexico, ended the age of dinosaurs.
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Don Davis

Scientists used to scratch their heads about what caused the extinction that ended the age of dinosaurs – theories ranged from low dino sex drives to a world overrun by caterpillars.

But in 1978, geophysicists stumbled upon Chicxulub, a crater in the Yucatan Peninsula made by the 6-mile-wide asteroid that likely triggered the dinosaurs’ demise.

Since that discovery, researchers have uncovered more details about the asteroid’s impact. The collision caused a mile-high tsunami, sparked wildfires, and released billions of tons of sulfur into the atmosphere, blotting out the sun for years.


But the asteroid may not be the full explanation.

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Lava fragments fall from lava fountains during an eruption of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii in June 2018.
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USGS via Reuters

Some scientists argue that volcanic eruptions in modern-day India also contributed to the dinosaurs’ downfall.


Myth: Dinosaurs were scaly, earthy-colored lizards.

Dinosaurs – even the Tyrannosaurus rex – likely had feathers.

Feathers are rarely preserved in the fossil record, but scientists have uncovered feathered dino fossils in China and Siberia, suggesting plumage was common across the great lizards.

“Probably that means the common ancestor of all dinosaurs had feathers,” Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist who wrote a 2014 study on a key Siberian fossil, told National Geographic.

Underneath the feathers, dinos could have had brightly colored scales, like many modern-day lizards.


Feathers have never been found on a T. rex specimen, but fossils of other tyrannosaur species do have preserved feathers. So paleontologists can assume the T. rex had them too.

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A life-size model of a T. rex with patches of feathers — the most scientifically accurate representation to date — at the American Museum of Natural History exhibit “T. rex: The Ultimate Predator.”
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D. Finnin/American Museum of Natural History

Though adult T. rexes were mostly covered in scales, scientists think they had patches of feathers on attention-getting areas like the head and tail.


Myth: The T. rex was a running, roaring lizard like the one you saw in “Jurassic Park.”

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A full-grown T. rex weighed 6 to 9 tons and was up to 43 feet long.
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Illustration by Zhao Chuang/courtesy of PNSO

Though a terrifying predator, the “king of the dinosaurs” probably did not roar or sprint.

The dinosaur’s long stride could carry it as fast as 25 mph, but it never reached a suspended gait, since it always had at least one leg on the ground.

A 2016 study suggested that instead of roaring, the T. rex probably cooed, hooted, and made deep-throated booming sounds like the modern-day emu.


Myth: Neanderthals were dumb brutes who didn’t mingle with Homo sapiens.

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A hyperrealistic face of a Neanderthal male displayed in the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia, in 2010.
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REUTERS/Nikola Solic

Evidence of Neanderthal cave art in Europe significantly predates similar paintings by Homo sapiens.

Our extinct cousins also crafted tools and ornaments out of stone and bone, made tar glue from birch bark that allowed them to attach wooden handles to stone tools, and cooked with fire (though they may have relied on lightning strikes to start the flames).

Perhaps this intelligence is what inspired early humans to breed with Neanderthals and Denisovans, another early hominin species.


Myth: Homo sapiens first emerged 200,000 years ago in east Africa.

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Two views of a composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils, from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.
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Thomson Reuters

Groups of Homo sapiens may have evolved at the same time all over Africa instead of in one primary location, a 2018 paper suggested. A skull discovered in 2017 also showed that was happening about 300,000 years ago, further back in history than previously thought.

Not all of these groups would have looked identical, but they may have been close enough to all be considered Homo sapiens. The groups would have interacted with one another and migrated across the continent.

So instead of emerging in one area in eastern or southern Africa and then spreading from there, distantly related groups of humans across the continent could have become more similar over time.

Read more: A handful of recent discoveries has transformed our entire understanding of human history


Myth: Camels store water in their humps.

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A herd of two-humped camels in Russia’s Tuva region.
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Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

Camels humps store fat, which the animals burn for fuel when traveling long distances with limited resources. A camel can use that fat to replace about three weeks’ worth of food, according to Animal Planet.

It’s the camel’s red blood cells that enable it to go a week without drinking water. Unlike other creatures, camels have oval-shaped blood cells that are more flexible and enable them to store large quantities of water.


Myth: Bats are blind.

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Grey-headed flying foxes, a type of fruit bat.
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REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang

Many bats rely on echolocation to navigate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t see.


Myth: The food pyramid is the gold standard of nutrition.

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Many elementary-school textbooks featured this US Department of Agriculture dietary guide.
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USDA

The US Department of Agriculture released the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992, but much of the nutritional advice it offered has since been debunked.

The pyramid made no distinction between refined carbs like white bread and whole grains like brown rice. There is also no distinction between the healthiest proteins (like beans, nuts, and fish) and red meat, which can increase one’s risk of cancer and heart disease.

The chart also banished healthy fats to the “use sparingly” tip of the pyramid, lumping them in with added sugars and trans fats from processed oils and packaged foods. In the mid-1990s, Harvard researchers estimated that trans fats led to roughly 50,000 preventable deaths each year in the US. And research has found that the healthy unsaturated fats found in foods like nuts, seeds, and avocados are crucial to a balanced diet.


Myth: Milk is good for your bones.

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A person shopping for milk in a supermarket in Brooklyn, New York.
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Getty Images/Spencer Platt

Much of the hype about milk comes from dairy industry marketing campaigns, though the USDA helped too. A page on the department’s website tells us that adults should drink three cups of milk per day, mostly for calcium and vitamin D, and that kids should drink two to three cups to build strong bones.

However, multiple studies have found no association between drinking more milk (or taking calcium and vitamin D supplements) and experiencing fewer bone fractures. Some studies have even found an association between drinking milk and higher overall mortality; that doesn’t mean milk consumption was the cause, but it’s not an endorsement.

Another page on the USDA’s website has changed the three-cup recommendation to encompass the entire dairy category, which includes yogurt and cheese.


Myth: Crunches and sit-ups are great for your core.

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People demonstrating the wrong sit-up action.
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Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

A lot of us practiced this move in gym class, but many experts have told Business Insider that crunches are not efficient core-builders and that they can damage your back and neck if you do them wrong.

The nonprofit American Council on Exercise says that when it comes to crunches, a lot of people “perform this movement too rapidly” and cheat by using their hip flexors.

“This technique tilts the pelvis anteriorly, increasing the stress on the low back, and should be avoided,” the council says on its website.

Read more: Traditional sit-ups and crunches are terrible for you, according to personal trainers – here’s what they suggest instead


Myth: Drinking alcohol kills your brain cells.

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US Vice President Mike Pence drinks after a toast with Australian Governor-General Peter Cosgrove in Sydney in April 2017.
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Jason Reed/Reuters

Alcohol can damage the connections between your brain cells, but it doesn’t actually kill them.

Still, many studies have found that excessive drinking over long periods can damage the brain, and children with fetal alcohol syndrome often have fewer brain cells.

Studies have also found that heavy (and even moderate) drinkers can have increased brain shrinkage.


Myth: Diamonds come from coal.

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The world’s largest diamond miner by volume, Alrosa, operates a mine in the world’s second-largest man-made pit, near the town of Mirny in Siberia.
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Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty; Shayanne Gal/Katie Warren/Business Insider

Diamonds and coal are both made from carbon, but most of Earth’s diamonds are much older than its coal.

Diamonds also form much deeper in the Earth’s high-pressure mantle, via a process that has nothing to do with coal.

Coal, meanwhile, is found in Earth’s crust.

Read more: Russia is the world’s largest producer of diamonds. I toured a mine in Siberia that produced 1.4 million carats of diamonds in 2018 – here’s what it was like.


Myth: Pluto is the ninth planet. (Well, this one’s complicated.)

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A close-up of Pluto’s heart-shaped plain as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015.
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NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The International Astronomical Union originally classified Pluto as the ninth planet that orbits the sun.

But in 2005, Eris, another really big space rock that orbits the sun, was discovered. It’s 27% more massive than Pluto, though a 2015 finding later revealed Pluto to be slightly larger. That forced the IAU to rethink what a planet actually is.


The IAU decided on criteria that neither Pluto nor Eris met, so neither could be considered one of the major planets that orbits the sun. Instead, they’re both dwarf planets.

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An artist’s impression of the dwarf planet Eris.
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ESO/L. Calçada and Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

So yes, Pluto is a planet – it’s just a dwarf planet.


Myth: Mars is a desert of red dust with no liquid water.

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The surface of Mars inside the Gale Crater.
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REUTERS/NASA

Three years’ worth of radar data suggests that a lake of liquid water might lurk beneath Mars’ polar ice caps, a study published last year said.

Previous findings also indicated that liquid water might flow seasonally across Mars’ surface, though the discovery has been thrown into question.


Myth: Nothing moves faster than light.

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The blue glow of a nuclear reactor core is caused by Cherenkov radiation, an emission that happens when particles move faster than light through a substance (in this case, neutrons through water).
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Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Light moves at 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum, but it slows down when it travels through various substances. For example, light moves at about 75% of that speed through water and about 41% of that speed through diamond.

Electrons, neutrons, or neutrinos can outpace photons of light in such media – though they have to bleed off energy as radiation when they do.

The expanding fabric of space also once exceeded light-speed during the Big Bang, and physicists think wormholes and quantum entanglement might defy the rule as well.

Read more: The speed of light is torturously slow, and these 3 simple animations by a scientist at NASA prove it


Myth: The phases of matter are liquid, solid, and gas (and maybe plasma).

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A huge loop of plasma “rain” falls on the sun in this screenshot from a video captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft in July 2012.
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NASA/SDO

This may not be elementary-school-science material, but there are many more states of matter, like quark-gluon plasma, superfluids, Bose-Einstein condensates, fermionic condensates, photonic matter, and possibly even supersolids – just to name a few.

Liquid, solid, and gas are just the states you can observe in everyday life.

Plasma, which some people learned about as the state of matter for lightning, is the most abundant form of matter in the universe.


Myth: Atoms, the building blocks of matter, can be broken down only into electrons, protons, and neutrons.

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A jet of electrons and other subatomic particles are emitted from the heart of galaxy M87, 50 million light-years from Earth. The photo was taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope on July 6, 2000.
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Ho New/Reuters

Matter gets much smaller and more complex than that. Quantum physics predicts 18 types of elementary particles, 16 of which have been detected by experiments.

Protons and neutrons are made up of quarks, which are held together by gluons.

Dave Mosher and Aylin Woodward contributed reporting to this post.

This article has been updated to accurately reflect the size and mass of Pluto and Eris. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Eris is larger than Pluto.