Never spoil a good yarn with the truth. This is the Australian version of a saying that probably most human cultures have come up with at some point or another. And it speaks to a curious aspect of our brains: we prefer a good yarn to the absolute truth. Unless the truth is, in itself, a good yarn.
Before the emergence of the first global scientific community in the 16th c entury (well, continental I guess, it was mostly just Eur ope, though some data did filter back and forth across the frontier with the Islamic world), human cultures loved making up new myths and legends.
Myth is different to religious scripture because there’s an understanding that while the events that take place in the myth may not have actually happened, the story the myth tells speaks to a deeper truth. Myths were what we used to understand the world around us.
Science has since stepped into that role, but - to use another old expression - old habits die hard. We still wanted good stories, stories with strong mythic structures. The bad guy is unambiguously bad. The good guy wins. The explanation for the strange phenomenon was neat and left no loose ends and didn’t open up even more questions...
Science, unfortunately, has little regard for poetic license, or the three-act structure, or even aesthetic balance. Many of the “stories” science told us, especially in the early days, had the same ending: “...and so, until we can get more data, we just don’t know.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising at all that science falls victim to so many tweaks-of-the-truth. After all, that’s what poetic license is, isn’t it? When an artist introduces a little, shall we say, creativity into something, to make it a better story.
This issue is all about correcting some of those, um, poetic misunderstandings. The real facts are often less pleasing, and sometimes more tediously complicated. And sometimes, fascinating.
Not included in our top 10 is my personal favourite myth. Perhaps you’ve heard it. The story goes like this:
“When NASA discovered that ballpoint pens don’t work in zero gravity, they spent a million dollars designing a pen that could write in space. The Russians used a pencil.”
Leaving aside the misuse of the term “zero gravity”, this little myth feels so true because we know the Americans spent billions on a hugely complex space program, while the USSR had to be frugal and efficient, right?
If only were that simple. The reality of this myth could take up an entire six-page feature, but in short: both nations were worried about pencils in space because wooden pencils were a fire risk in the oxygen-rich environment of a capsule, and the graphite in the “lead” could snap off, drift across the cabin, and short out a piece of vital electronics. Or jam in someone’s eye. An American named Paul Fisher noticed the problem with pencils and independently - with no government funding - developed his nowfamous AG-7 “Space Pen”. It used a pressurised cartridge for the ink, and a tungsten-carbide ball in the nib, and worked in a wide range of temperatures and cabin pressures.
NASA said thanks so much for spend a million bucks of your own money developing this, we’ll take about 400 of them at $6.00 each. Granted that’s in 1960s dollars, but still...
Not that Paul Fisher complained. You might recognise his brand: Fisher Pen. By the time of his death in 2006, he’d sold millions of the things.