Stories tagged myths


All week, the comic strip "Non Sequitur" has been running gags about whether or not a duck's quack echoes. The joke is that once someone asks you the question, you can't stop thinking about it until you know the answer. It's Friday, and I've resisted the temptation to look it up until now, but I've caved!

I can't think of a single scientific reason why a duck's quack WOULDN'T echo, but I had to look it up anyway. The good news? I'm hardly the first person to do it. When I googled "Does a duck's quack echo?" I got 105,000 hits, including links to some real research.

Here are some of the best sources of info:

BBC news: "Sound science is quackers"

Salford University: "The duck's quack echo myth" (This is an awesome page.)

The Straight Dope: "Is it true a duck's quack won't echo?"

Science Made Simple: Does a duck's quack echo?" (Urban Legends and Folklore): "A duck's quack doesn't echo"

MadSci Network: "Why won't the quack of a duck echo?"

SPOILER: Yes, a duck's quack, like any other sound, echoes. But the WAY a duck quacks, with the long "AAAAAACK" sound at the end of the call, tends to mask echoes, making them hard to hear.


Tornado: Image courtesy NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

Tornado season is here for those of us living in the Midwest. Tornadoes fascinate me – they’re so incredibly powerful and stunning and scary all at once. I used to have all sorts of elaborate emergency escape plans to the basement when I was a kid, and even had a pecking order for what prized possessions I would save and how. I also remember as a kid being told that if there was the threat of a tornado to open up a window a crack before heading to the basement so that the pressure inside the house would normalize with the pressure outside generated by the tornado thus preventing the roof from being blown off. I did this all the way up until last summer – but no more.

It turns out that a majority of damage to homes is the result of wind blowing into open (or broken) windows pushing up on the roof at the same time as winds are blowing over and under them, generating a lifting force, which increases the chances of the roof being blown off. So, all this time I’ve been making my house less safe, rather than safer. Doh.

Although it is likely wishful thinking on my part to hope that a single pane of glass is going to remain intact during a tornado, especially with all the debris that will be flying around. It makes more sense to close them to keep the rain out than to save the house from tornado damage, but it feels good to do something during those times when you have no real control. Better still to just forget the windows and get to the basement. With my most prized possessions.

For more information on tornadoes, and tornado safety, check out these sites:
Tornado Project Online
NOAA’s online Tornado FAQ’s Tornado page


Elijah McCoy
Elijah McCoy

It's an annual tradition here at The Science Museum. Every February for Black History Month we roll out a panel honoring Black Americans in science. And every February, Gene complains that the panel contains an error.

Part of the panel pays tribute to Elijah McCoy. The son of runaway slaves, McCoy studied engineering and went on to invent many devices, including a lubricator for railroad engines.

The panel also cites Elijah's invention as the origin of the phrase "the real McCoy." Unfortunately, that does not seem possible:

  • The phrase first appears in Scotland, in the form "the real McKay," in 1856, when Elijah was only 12 years old.
  • The phrase changed from "McKay" to "McCoy" around 1908 — more than 30 years after Elijah patented his invention.
  • The lubricators were not sold under the McCoy name until 1920, well after the phrase had become established.
  • Elijah's name was not connected to the phrase until 1985.

Make no mistake — Elijah McCoy's inventions were a boon to railroading. It's only right that we honor his contribution to engineering. But, as a science museum, we really need to be more careful with the facts. It's a small thing, but as a label writer, mistakes like this bug me.

(NOTE: I am writing this post from the wilds of mid-Michigan. I haven't seen the panel this year — it's possible that the error has been corrected. If so, I will amend this post.)