23 “Fun Facts” That Aren’t Actually True


Yellowstone isn’t overdue for an eruption, because that’s not how volcanoes work.

1.

NASA didn’t spend millions developing a pen that could be used in space while the Soviets simply told their cosmonauts to use pencils. American astronauts originally used pencils (just like their Soviet counterparts), but due to public outcry about their cost and the practical limitations of pencils in space, NASA made the switch to the Fisher Space Pen, which they didn’t spend a cent designing.


Cpg100 / Wikimedia Commons

NASA’s mechanical pencils of choice cost $128.89 each, and the public wasn’t pleased when they found out where their tax dollars were going. In addition, the flammability of pencils and the tendency of their tips to break off and float away made the switch to pens imperative. The Fisher Pen Company invested $1 million to design the “AG-7 ‘Anti-Gravity’ Space Pen,” but “none of this investment came from NASA’s coffers.” 

The agency was hesitant to purchase the product, but after extensive testing, they decided to buy 400 of them. A year later, the Soviets placed an order for 100 space pens. The two dueling agencies “received the same 40 percent discount for buying their pens in bulk. They both paid $2.39 per pen instead of $3.98.” So while NASA was looking for an alternative writing utensil when the space pen came along, they neither overlooked the possibility of using pencils nor invested an absurd amount in the invention of the product. 

2.

Walt Disney did not create Mickey Mouse. His close friend and collaborator Ub Iwerks did, though he was “denied credit” for creating this major piece of pop culture history.


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Iwerks came up with the character in 1928, after Disney lost the rights to his “first hit character,” Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When Disney “kept on making up bigger and bigger whoppers to stretch the Mickey Mouse creation story,” up to and including claiming he was the one who came up with him, Iwerks quit Walt Disney Studios, embittered by his friend’s behavior. In 1940, a decade after he left, Iwerks returned. He and Disney rekindled their friendship and worked together until Disney’s death in 1966. 

3.

Good news, everyone! Humans don’t swallow eight spiders a year on average while they sleep. Ironically, this fake statistic gained popularity when it appeared in a 1993 article by Lisa Holst…as an example of the kinds of things gullible people will read online and believe.


Kencor04 / Getty Images / iStockphoto

Arachnid experts speaking to Scientific American said that such a claim “flies in the face of both spider and human biology.” Spiders “regard us much like they’d regard a big rock,” since we’re so comparatively huge that we’re “really just part of the landscape” to them. Additionally, the vibrations of a sleeping human (snoring, breathing, and the beating of a heart) are terrifying to spiders. As far as humans go, even if the rare brave spider does wander across your face whilst you snore, you’d most likely feel it there and wake up before it crawled inside your mouth. 

4.

The lines on a red Solo cup aren’t there to measure the correct servings of liquor, wine, and beer.


Pamwalker68 / Getty Images / iStockphoto

A representative from the manufacturers, the Dart Container Corporation, told Snopes.com that, “The lines on our Party Cups are designed for functional performance and are not measurement lines. If the lines do coincide with certain measurements, it is purely coincidental.” 

5.

Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play War of the Worlds didn’t cause mass hysteria in the United States.


CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

You may have heard that millions of Americans were tricked into thinking that aliens had invaded Earth, but in reality, “the supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast.” Newspapers covered the story gratuitously, hoping to strike a blow against radio, the popularity of which had carved into their profits. But very few people actually tuned into the broadcast, and even fewer earnestly believed what they were hearing. Multiple anecdotes about the panicked reactions of the public (including suicide attempts and hospitals treating multiple listeners for shock) were later disproven. 

6.

Yellowstone isn’t overdue for an eruption. It’s had three major explosions in its existence (2.08, 1.3, and 0.631 million years ago), and if you average out those numbers, that means an eruption every 725,000 years, meaning we’d still have a good 100,000 to go. But that number is based on such little data that it’s “basically meaningless,” and also, volcanoes don’t work like that.


Ed Freeman / Getty Images

A volcano doesn’t operate like a fault line, and the accumulation of liquid magma and pressure necessary for an eruption “does not generally happen on a schedule.” Because of that, it can’t be overdue. 

7.

Albert Einstein never flunked a math class as a child. When the adult Einstein was shown a newspaper article claiming he had, he replied, “Before I was 15, I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”


Getty / Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

While Einstein achieved high grades throughout his childhood education, he “hated the strict protocols followed by teachers and rote learning demanded of students” at the schools he attended. The math class myth may have originated with the fact that Einstein did fail the entrance exam to Zurich Polytechnic the first time he took it, when he was still a year and a half from graduating high school and hadn’t learned much French (the language in which the exam was administered). And, for the record, he did well on the math section, but struggled in language, botany, and zoology. He later graduated from high school and gained admittance to Zurich Polytechnic in 1896. 

8.

“Irregardless” is totally a real word.


Daniel Grill / Getty Images / Tetra images RF

The fine folks at Merriam-Webster wrote a whole article defending its existence. They point out that other major dictionaries include it as well, and that the word meets its criteria for inclusion, because lots of people use it, it’s been around for a long time, and it has a “specific and identifiable meaning (‘regardless’).” The fact that it’s considered awkward or unnecessary doesn’t matter, since it is “not a dictionary’s job to assess whether a word is necessary before defining it.” 

9.

The fact that bees can fly doesn’t violate the laws of aviation, and it isn’t a scientific mystery. If bees flew like airplanes, then yeah, their flight would be impossible. But they don’t fly like airplanes. They fly like bees.


Joel Saget / AFP via Getty Images

The opening narration of Bee Movie informs us that a bee shouldn’t be able to fly, because “its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground.” But like so much of Bee Movie, this is complete nonsense. The myth may have originated with entomologist August Magnan, who in the 1930s noted that “a bee’s flight should be impossible.” But Magnan didn’t know that bees flap their wings back and forth instead of up and down, a motion which creates “mini-hurricanes” that help lift the bee upward. 

10.

Twenty accused witches were executed during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, but none of them were burned at the stake.


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That isn’t to say they didn’t have a rough time. Nineteen of the victims were hung on Gallows Hill, and the twentieth, an elderly man named Giles Corey, was pressed to death with stones after he refused to plead either guilty or innocent. In addition to those executed, “more accused sorcerers died in jail while awaiting trial.” This misconception probably originated with the fact that burning witches at the stake was a “disturbingly common practice” during European witch trials. 

11.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t publicly or seriously advocate for the turkey to be the national bird of the United States. According to the Franklin Institute, Franklin “defended the honor of the turkey against the bald eagle” in a private letter to his daughter, but his pro-turkey leanings didn’t go any further than that.


Getty / GraphicaArtis / Bettmann

In the letter, Franklin criticized the design of the bald eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, pointing out that it resembled a turkey. He then went straight for the bald eagle’s jugular, writing that it is, “a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.” The noble turkey, in comparison, is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. … He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” Ultimately, Franklin kept his reservations about the honor of the eagle out of the public sphere. 

12.

Despite the fact that his name has become synonymous with “angry short man,” Napoleon Bonaparte was actually of average height for the time period in which he lived.


Rischgitz / Getty Images

His contemporaries described him as being 5’2″, but the French measured height differently back in the day, so he was actually around 5’5″. That made him just “an inch or so below the period’s average adult male height.” The popular perception of the diminutive general probably came in part from the successful work of the British cartoonist James Gillray, whose mocking caricatures of a “tiny Napoleon” were so popular that Napoleon himself said that Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.”

13.

Twinkies definitely don’t last forever. In fact, their shelf life used to be only 26 days, though it’s currently around 45.


Scott Olson / Getty Images

Though the snack cakes have a reputation for being unnatural, they’re made of “mostly flour and sugar” and their rate of decay “is absolutely typical of all processed foods.” The NPR Science desk kept one for 18 months to observe its supposed invincibility, and they wrote of their findings, “The subject shows no signs of disintegrating — or of still being edible: It’s now hard as a rock.” So if you were planning on including Twinkies in the pantry of your doomsday bunker, you should probably take your business elsewhere.

14.

Thomas Edison wasn’t the sole inventor of the lightbulb. He’s been credited with its discovery partially because he assembled the “first research and development team at Menlo Park, N.J.”


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The public perception of Edison at the time was that he was a “lone genius” and a “wizard,” further contributing to the belief that he, and he alone, came up with the lightbulb. Edison himself contributed to his legendary image, in part because claiming the patents meant that he could “control the market share.” 

15.

Isaac Newton didn’t discover gravity because an apple bonked him on the head. Rather, he witnessed an apple falling and wondered why objects always fall down instead of up or sideways, a thought that inspired his Law of Universal Gravitation.


Print Collector / Getty Images

When he saw the apple drop, Newton was in the orchard of his childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor. He had been studying at Cambridge University, but the school was temporarily closed due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague (we’ve all been there, buddy). 


Juan Silva / Getty Images

Birdseed expands more than uncooked rice when soaked (40% versus 33%), so if bursting birds were a problem, we’d already know about it. Besides, lots of birds eat uncooked rice “all the time with no ill effects,” because their stomachs aren’t hot enough for the grains to absorb much liquid. So don’t worry about our avian friends too much the next time you find yourself at a wedding with a handful of grain. 

17.

The “X” in “Xmas” has nothing to do with “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” In fact, it literally means “Christ.”


Siri Stafford / Getty Images

In Greek, “the word Christos (Christ) begins with the letter ‘X,’ or chi.” The abbreviation isn’t a modern or secular invention; it’s been around since 1021 as “XPmas,” later further shortened to “Xmas.” 

18.

Paul Revere didn’t yell “The British are coming!” on his midnight ride through colonial Massachusetts.


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First of all, Revere’s mission was a stealth operation that needed to be conducted “as discreetly as possible,” and there is nothing less discrete than a man on horseback screaming about imminent doom. Then there’s the fact that at the time, the American colonists still thought of themselves as British, so Revere’s supposed warning would be nonsensical at best. What he may have said is that “the Regulars” (British soldiers) were en route, but either way, he didn’t yell about it. 

19.

William Taft didn’t have to be rescued by six men after getting himself stuck in a White House bathtub.


Mpi / Getty Images

In 1934, a White House staffer named Irwin Hoover published a memoir, in which he wrote about how Taft would “‘stick’ in the bathtub and have to be helped out,” though he didn’t mention “who did the helping or how they pulled him out.” Another White House staffer, Lillian Rogers Parks, helped spread the story, but she’d only heard it secondhand from her mother. That being said, Taft was known for his love of the tub, and he brought a custom one with him on a trip to Panama. There was even a “verified bathtub incident” where Taft accidentally flooded a hotel’s dining room by getting into an overflowing tub and spilling water everywhere. So there is a kernel of truth to the story of him getting so firmly stuck he needed the help of a half-dozen men, but it’s mostly the product of other anecdotes, plus a healthy dose of gossip. 

20.

Sharks can get cancer. The myth that they cannot is perpetuated partly by people trying to sell shark cartilage as a cancer treatment, even though it’s been proven to be ineffective.


Getty Images / Barcroft Media

As one shark researcher put it, “Sharks get cancer. Even if they didn’t get cancer, eating shark products won’t cure cancer any more than me eating Michael Jordan would make me better at basketball.” The marketing of shark cartilage as a cancer treatment both misleads patients and results in more sharks being killed by humans. 

21.

Lightning can and does strike the same place twice, “especially if it’s a tall and isolated object.”


Gary Hershorn / Getty Images

The Empire State Building gets struck 25 times a year on average. And speaking of lightning striking once and coming back for more, one unlucky fellow by the name of Roy Sullivan was struck by lightning a shocking (…sorry) seven times. That’s the most lightning strikes any one person’s ever survived. 

22.

The Mexica people (known as “Aztecs” post-conquest) didn’t believe that Hernando Cortés and the other conquistadors were gods. Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés’s secretary and a man who had never been to Mexico, came up with that story in 1552.


Pawel Toczynski / Getty Images

In de Gómara’s version of history, Cortés was seen as “a god named Quetzalcoatl, who long ago had disappeared in the east.” But there is no evidence that the myth of Quetzalcoatl existed before the Europeans’ arrival, and the Mexica responded to the “technology gap” between them and Cortés’s forces with “intelligence and savvy rather than wide-eyed talk of gods.” The story both glorified the Europeans and alleviated their guilt by recasting them as returning gods rather than invading conquerers. 

23.

John F. Kennedy never proudly told West Berlin that he was a jelly donut. What he said in the 1963 speech (Ich bin ein Berliner) is “not only correct, but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the President intended to say.”


Getty / Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

A Berliner may be another word for a jelly donut, but “it’s not a term that was used in the area surrounding Berlin.” Instead, Berliners (the people) preferred to refer to the treats as “Pfannkucken.”  The urban legend may have gotten its start in a 1983 spy novel, and in 1988 it reached a wider audience by being referenced in both Newsweek and the Times. The sugary falsehood has stuck around ever since. 

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