The great scientist you never heard of

The myth that Columbus proved that the world was round is not something that I encountered in my education in Sri Lanka. It seems to be a largely American creation, likely for all the reasons that cartomancer and jkrideau list. My first experience with hearing it was when one of the undergraduates in my class casually inserted it as an element in the argument he was making about something else, if it was the most obvious thing in the world. I stepped in to question him and was astounded in the ensuing discussion to find that quite a few members of the class believed the same thing. They said that they had learned it in elementary school.

I suspect that many such myths are learned early in life. Here’s an amusing story from when my daughter was in third grade. She came home from school one day and told me excitedly how the teacher had explained how white light was made up of different colors. The teacher had also told her that the great scientist who discovered this was Roy G. Biv! To say I was surprised is putting it mildly. I tried to gently correct her about who the scientist was without seeming to disparage her teacher, but my daughter was skeptical. Who was she more likely to believe: her teacher, a fount of authoritative knowledge, or her dopey old father? (Incidentally, in Sri Lanka Roy G. Biv never appeared. We learned the order of the colors by saying ‘vibgyor’ pronounced phonetically so that it sounded vaguely Hungarian.)

Teachers in elementary schools are not scientists or historians of science and so are likely to pass on erroneous folklore as fact though, as my forthcoming book will point out, even professional scientists are not immune from that failing. As Richard Feyman said after outlining the origins of quantum electrodynamics:

[W]hat I have just outlined is what I call a “physicist’s history of physics,” which is never correct. What I am telling you is a sort of conventionalized myth-story that the physicists tell to their students, and those students tell to their students, and is not necessarily related to the actual historical development which I do not really know! (QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, p. 6)

But not all scientists are as aware as Feynman that they are merely propagating myths and not the full story. As we well know, if you repeat a ‘myth-story’ enough times and it gets passed on from generation to generation, it can acquire the status of a fact.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says


    In school in England, we were taught “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain”.

    As for the historical development of quantum field theory (including QED), I think Weinberg does a fairly good non-mythical job in his The Quantum Theory of Fields I.

  2. cartomancer says

    The thing about history is that it is so very useful in propping up our desired world views. Professional historians try as hard as they can to examine their own biases and preconceptions when analysing history, and even they will ultimately fail. The impetus to do so and clear away the appealing just-so stories is seldom felt by those outside the historical fraternity. Critically examining history is just not something we are naturally inclined to do.

    The history of science in particular has been very vulnerable to this, because science is all too often viewed as some kind of pure, objective and rational process that transcends the society and culture it comes from. The history of science in the West suffers more than most subjects from the “great men” model of historical progress. The history of science becomes little more than a string of brilliant geniuses -- Aristotle, Newton, Faraday, Einstein -- whose insights stem from their personal intellectual ability and have nothing to do with the currents of culture, economics or philosophy of the day. This notion, drawn in equal parts from the Roman tradition of inspirational biography (de viris illustribus) and Enlightenment conceits about modernity, is tailor made to stroke the egos of scientists. That’s probably why so few of them think to question it.

  3. flex says

    Actually, the Columbus myth is particularly American because Washington Irving’s largely fictional book, “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus” was accepted as fact (or at least a reasonably facsimile of fact) by subsequent historians. It contained “truthiness”.

    We get the myth of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree from the same author, as well as a lot of nonsense about the Dutch in New York City. I’m torn in my liking of Irving because he was a fair author, but he’s the source of so much erroneous knowledge taught in grade-school that I’d almost wish he never wrote a line.

  4. flex says

    Oops. I left out that Irving wrote that the European’s thought the world was flat at the time. Which was, of course, untrue.

    Columbus was an idiot who didn’t understand the math and thought the circumference of the earth was smaller than all the educated people at the time. He was a crank who got lucky, and thought to his dying day that he had, in fact, sailed to India.

  5. flex says

    And I see that Cartomancer covered all that in the earlier thread…. Now I wish there was a delete function.

  6. says

    “Who was she more likely to believe: her teacher, a fount of authoritative knowledge, or her dopey old father?”

    Her dopey old father who just happened to be a theoretical physicist? 🙂 But, yeah, I’m sure to her you were just dopey old father.

    Otherwise, the Wikipedia page regarding the Columbus myth claims, per James Hannam, the following:

    The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth is flat appears to date from the 17th century as part of the campaign by Protestants against Catholic teaching. But it gained currency in the 19th century, thanks to inaccurate histories such as John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Atheists and agnostics championed the conflict thesis for their own purposes, but historical research gradually demonstrated that Draper and White had propagated more fantasy than fact in their efforts to prove that science and religion are locked in eternal conflict.

  7. Owlmirror says

    Did you ever find out for certain if the problem was your daughter misunderstanding the teacher, or if the teacher was so fundamentally confused that they actually thought that a mnemonic was a person?

    It’s also worth noting that the division of the visual spectrum into 7 colors, specifically, was done to match the seven notes of the major musical scale. So ROYGBIV is actually pretty arbitrary.

  8. Heidi Nemeth says

    Teachers passing on erroneous facts: These are often part of the curriculum as based on State standards.

    In high school (1970) I dated a Floridian who told me there are 5 rivers in the world which flow north. One was the St. John’s River, a river in Florida which does indeed flow north. He was taught the 5 north-flowing rivers in school. He swore there were only 5 rivers in the world which flowed north.

    Much later my church’s minister was a native Floridian of the same vintage. I asked him about rivers which flow north. “Yes, there are 5!” and he started naming them. This, despite the fact that he had lived in Rocky River (near Cleveland) where all the nearby rivers flow north into Lake Erie. When confronted with that fact that the Rocky River flows north and was not on his list, he said, “Perhaps it isn’t a river. Perhaps it is too small to be counted.”

    In no way is the St. John’s River of Florida one of the top 5 north-flowing rivers in the world.

    It must have been required Florida curriculum to teach schoolchildren about a set of 5 rivers in the world which flow north -- and were considered to be important by Floridians of the time -- without ever mentioning that they were not the only 5 rivers that flow north. So, in the minds of those well taught schoolchildren (and adults when the schoolchildren grew up) there are only 5 north flowing rivers in the world.

    In elementary school I was taught that any number divided by zero equals zero. And my daughter Audrey was taught the same thing at the same elementary school. Her teacher even tried to prove it to me. Her math textbook publisher simply would not agree that it was appropriate to say anything about division by zero -- even in the teacher’s manual.

  9. says

    I hope you don’t mind me going on a bit, but this is a short, theoretically humorous, radio piece I did ages ago…

    Return to Vespucciland
    Columbus, of course, didn’t discover America: he didn’t intend to discover America, didn’t think he had discovered America and most decidedly wasn’t even the first European to reach America. So naturally we just celebrated Columbus Day—presumably to help him get over the awful misery of his triple disappointment.

    Not only that, but it has just been revealed that, as is usual with almost anything that is widely accepted as an historical fact, the widely accepted derivation of the name “America” is utterly, utterly wrong. A couple of years ago a very sensible (by which I of course mean English) chap called Rodney Broome proved that all that rubbish about Amerigo Vespucci is way off--and I for one greet the news with glee, I mean I’ve never been completely happy referring to the States as “Vespucciland” but the alternative of calling them by his first name when I’ve never even seen the man, let alone been introduced to him, seems much too familiar. I mean to me, saying “America,” which doesn’t even get his first name right, sounds like I’m being rude and trying to be a bit more authentic by saying “Ameriga” sounds like I’m being rude and have bad a cold.

    Given these awful alternatives I am so happy to learn that the name “America” was actually applied to this continent (probably well before Columbus didn’t discover it) by merchants from the city of Bristol in the west of England as a compliment to a fellow merchant of Welsh extraction. And I’m absolutely delighted to hear that with absolute propriety they used his surname!
    Yes you can forget all that first-name-basis-bloody-casual-pretending-to-be-“jest-friendly-’Mercans” stuff, and pull your socks up and learn to be a bit more formal from now on, because America was not established as a continent on a first name basis but instead was named for the Anglo-Cymric Richard Amerike (or as his ancestors would probably have said in Welsh ‘Ap Merric, look you’) using his last name. And (the gilt on the gingerbread), even though the continent didn’t use it, he did have a decent first name! Since Amerike apparently directly financed John Cabot’s voyage of discovery, America it turns out celebrates and commemorates one of it’s first financial backers rather than just someone who merely scribbled something on a map. Now that (considering the traditionally business friendly atmosphere here) is what I call appropriate.

    Oh! and before you start getting all PC at me, tut-tuting about my use of the word “discovery”, let me reassure you that discovery is essentially a European activity. Peoples have been wandering all over the world being the first to do something, or go somewhere, probably as long as there have been people, however it is a purely European weirdness to then go around claiming that you did it first and that your dad can beat up the other guy’s dad. Note, for example, that the most important act in the claim that Columbus discovered America was the printing and wide dissemination of a letter claiming that he’d done it and that his dad could beat up anyone else’s dad. And poor Richard Amerike missed out because the Bristol merchants didn’t print and widely disseminate anything claiming that they had ever done anything nor that their dads could beat up anyone

  10. KG says

    Rob Grigjanis@1,

    Coincidentally, I’ve just been reading a book on the discovery of Richard III’s remains (under a car park in Leicester), and that mnemonic kept popping into my head -- but I couldn’t recall what it was a mnemonic for! However, in the course of reading the book, I did discover that Richard III was never “Richard of York” -- he was Duke of Gloucester before he became King of England, but, unlike his dad, never Duke of York.

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