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The grade-school science you held true

As a dinosaur enthusiast from the tender age of 5, it was with an existential sense of upheaval that I read the recent news about my favorite prehistoric herbivore, Triceratops. Turns out that gentle giant is simply the teenage version of the not-nearly-as-famous Torosaurus. As educational publishers gnash their teeth and I throw away my VHS copy of “The Land Before Time” (I’ll always love you Cera!), Need to Know spotlights 5 things you learned in school that heartless scientists have since ripped away…

1. Triceratops
Montana State University paleontologists John Scannella and Jack Horner announced in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology that the dinosaur we’ve always known as Triceratops was, in fact, just a juvenile Torosaurus. It was an easy mistake, they say. Like humans, some dinosaurs also had awkward teenage years. In their case, it wasn’t just “backne” or a bad perm, but the shape of their skulls was actually significantly different from that of mature animals. Traditionalists can take solace in the fact that the Torosaurus lost the name battle and both juveniles and adults will now be known as Triceratops.

2. Pluto
Remember the days of My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas? Gone. All gone. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union removed “Pizzas” from the planetary mnemonic when they voted in a definition of planet that demoted Pluto from the celestial hierarchy. Now, it’s just a “plutoid.” And apparently, there are a couple of new dwarf planets we’re supposed to learn, named Ceres (formerly an asteroid) and Eris (larger than Pluto, discovered in 2005 and originally known as Xena). In 2008, 10-year-old Maryn Smith of Great Falls, Mont., won a National Geographic Children’s Books contest for a new solar system mnemonic — My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants. Childhood-destroying collaborator and songstress Lisa Loeb even wrote a tune about it.

3. Five kingdoms of biology
Back when I was dissecting flatworms and building baking soda & vinegar volcanoes, there were five kingdoms I had to memorize for my biology test — Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista and Monera. But since then, scientists have decided that’s just not good enough. In the ‘70s, a new group of organisms was identified and named the Archaea. These microscopic guys can live in extreme environments like deep sea rift vents and the digestive tracts of cows and are genetically very different from the bacteria formerly classified under Monera. Now, the taxonomic system is in debate. According to a 2008 article in American Biology Teacher, an educator in Massachusetts said, “In my district, for example, a 1997 textbook I had been using in seventh grade life science presents five kingdoms; its 1999 update includes six; and our high school biology text, from 2004, uses the three-domain system.” Are you happy now, scientists?

4. Four tastes
One of the earliest science class demonstrations I remember was the tongue map. We took cotton swabs dabbed in different tastes — sweet, salty, sour and bitter — and put them on our tongues in what, retrospectively, was probably the vector for our second-grade outbreak of strep throat. Receptors on the tips of our tongues were supposed to be sensitive to the sweet taste. Salt and sour were on the sides, and bitter was supposed to light up the back. Turns out, that’s all a lie based on a century-old misconception that no one bothered to challenge until 1974. Actually, the entire tongue is sensitive to all of those tastes. And that’s not all. There are fifth and sixth tastes. Umami, or savory, is what makes bacon and soy sauce so delicious, and the taste of fat is also a distinct flavor. Mmmmmm…

5. Gravity
What’s next for those ivory tower snobs to destroy? In a paper from January 2010 entitled “On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton,” string theorist and University of Amsterdam physics professor Erik Verlinde takes issue with gravity as a fundamental force. He’s not the first to do this — Einstein wreaked havoc with Newtonian physics a century ago — but he’s one of the most recent to provoke heated discussion. Verlinde told a New York Times reporter, “We’ve known for a long time gravity doesn’t exist. It’s time to yell it.”

So, will my tears shed over the loss of grade school science still fall to the ground? Admittedly, it might only be sentimental geeks like me that mourn the passing of the tongue taste test or the nine-planet solar system. Most people seem to be moving on just fine. Elizabeth Carney, the editor of Scholastic’s SuperScience classroom magazine for 3rd to 6th graders says they have to stay on top of the science. “Here, when Pluto was demoted we did articles. We made a new poster. Fortunately, kids aren’t as married to these things as adults are. They took it all in stride.”

We’ll see how those kids feel 20 years from now when their precious Kingdom Archaea turns out to be a crock.


  • Art Smart

    I think #1 should be: “The dinosaurs went extinct.” Science now tells us that at least some of them evolved into birds. I haven’t looked at a bird in the same way ever since I learned that.

    To me, that should be #1, yet it’s completely missing from your list. The issues of Pluto and biological kingdoms are minor, just definitional changes. But dinosaurs evolving into birds? That’s really, really big.

  • StuJay

    Gravity has not (yet) been overturned. No one is rewriting text books. Professor Verlinde’s paper is a piece of provocative speculation attempting to provide a new way of looking at a long standing problem: why Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity cannot be (yet?) resolved into one complete theory of Physics. No one is hailing professor Verlinde’s paper as the whole Truth, not even the good doctor himself. What we have here is a (potentially) promising avenue for exploration not a completed theory.

  • steve

    Personally I’m fine with it. Science, by definition is a constantly evolving way to think. New evidence changes the rules of the game. To stand pat on old, disproven concepts makes science no better than religion at explaining the world around us. Do we really want dogma to supercede reality?

  • Manawyddan

    “When the facts change, I change my opinion.” -Lord John Maynard Keynes

  • Amy B

    Yeah, I thought that tongue thing was bogus from day one!

  • Brian

    This just reminds me how much I can’t wait until I have children. I’m looking forward to helping them with their homework, not just to take an active role in their learning, but to learn for myself about all the things I’ve forgotten or which have been changed in the time since I was their age.

  • Mary

    It took me more than a year to accept that Pluto was no longer a planet. I, like you, have certain truths on which I have built my very large store of trivia and these scientists are messing with them! Does the dissolution of gravity mean that we can all stop dieting? I’m certain we will all weilgh less. Now that I know that the tongue,which is firmly planted in my cheek, can taste even more than before, especially fats, that lack of gravity thing will allow us to enjoy it even more!!

  • Celeste

    I love science, but we can only always base new “truths” on our human perception of reality and our current understanding of the physical world around us. God probably gets a good chuckle out of how smart we always think we are.

  • Matt

    My grandfather had taught me the planets as “Many Very Earnest Men Jumbled Silk Underwear Near Paris.” I’m sad to think that that’s no longer true… Lol!

  • Alex

    Verlinde’s theory hasn’t even been thoroughly investigated theoretically. To quote Carl Sagan:

    “Too much openness and you accept every notion, idea, and hypothesis –
    which is tantamount to knowing nothing.”

    Some theorists say Lorentz Invariance is broken at high energies, but would it be appropriate to claim that relativity has been overturned? Certainly not without a very large amount of evidence (both theoretical and experimental).

  • tracy heyer

    how about this for discussion….. why did that crazy president nixon make a tv show implimenting we went to the moon. if we cant travel that distance now how did we back then? apollo zero on youtube! look into it. the government is out to get our kids and make them zombies by dumbing them down with vaccines and drugs! also everyone should look into eugenics! the elite who rule the world, there the ones who want complete control. look up mwo and northamerican union. like the european nation. its here. get prepared for our country becomming a 3rd wold country filled with starving people. we need to rise agaist the new worl order. true patriots need to stand together. thanks for reading my ranting.

  • Nicole

    Thanks for the laugh Tracy.

    The gravity one is new… and sounds like it’s debatable. Otherwise pretty good article :) . When we were at a presentation at the planetarium my 5 y/o brother blurts out “And you know, PLUTO is not a planet!”

  • Heather

    Tracy, right there with ya. It’s been known for hundreds of years, but the media just dumbs down people. The song by Muse called “Uprising” is about that. You should google the lyrics to the song and youtube the song. This is no laughing matter. And as long as we care about who Jen Aniston and Angelina Jolie are dating or cheating on, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears rehab stints, then yes, we’ll all be distracted from what’s right under out nose!

  • Alyssa Freeman

    It’s more accurate to say, since the name “Triceratops” came first by 4 or 5 years, that “Torosaurus” is mearely an adult Triceratops (just as “Brontosaurus” is an adult Apatosaurus because the name Apatosaurus came two years before the name Brontosaurus), and so Triceratops exists, but Torosaurus does not. The rules of nomenclature in science say that, unless there is a previously named 2nd plant or animal with a certain name, when an animal has two names whichever name it was given first is the official name.

  • M M Blanchard

    Personally I’ve been relying on gravity for years, and it has never disappointed me; let me down? yes, every time I tripped too hard over an obstacle, or sat down, or any number of other ordinary activities or events. I rejoice that my car (usually) stays right on the pavement where it belongs. On the other hand, at 60 I have learned that gravity always wins eventually. Body sag is the incarnation of the principle of gravity. Did you ever see the shape of a tattoo on
    someone in their nineties who had been tattooed when they were young? Gravity is an inexorable force. It’s not pretty.

  • Thomas Devine

    The fact that it is knowledge itself that continues to bring about this revision of what we thought we knew, when we knew everything there was to know…is the bright underlying stream of gold coming from our collective run through human history. In time we will know that we will never know how this miracle of life exists through all time and space…It’s hoped that one big fact soon comes into focus….before it doesn’t matter anymore~

  • Heather Armbruster

    When we did that tongue tasting experiment, I remember trying to figure what I was doing wrong because I could taste equally in all areas of my tongue. It wasn’t until I started teaching Anatomy and Physiology that I learned the truth. Boy was I relieved! Nothing wrong with me, just more attentive!

  • RJ

    How about that fact that people won’t even listen to science anymore. They are too hung up on thinking the government us out to get them, which is enough proof for them to not believe in evolution or climate change or anything else based in actual reason.

  • Pikemann Urge

    The label ‘planet’ is an artificial one anyway. Just like ‘weed’ or ‘race’ (as in Aryan, Caucasian, Asian, etc.), planets don’t exist in nature. Not a big deal in the end!

  • Laurel Kornfeld

    You are doing a tremendous disservice to both educators and children by misleadingly portraying one side of the ongoing Pluto debate as fact when it is not. Planet Pluto is NOT gone, and there is no reason to accept the controversial IAU decision as anything other than one viewpoint in this controversy. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star. The spherical part is important because objects become spherical when they attain a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. This is a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto meets this criterion and is therefore a planet. Under this definition, our solar system has 13 planets and counting: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Significantly, the New Horizons mission continues to refer to Pluto as a planet. The best approach for educators to take is to teach the controversy.

  • Maria

    In response to Matt: Why not modify your grandfather’s mnemonic slightly to: Many Very Earnest Men Chaotically Jumbled Silk Underwear Near Eritrea/England/Eden?

  • Bryan

    How many times has Science told us “We used to think ________, but now we KNOW_______” ?

  • Shawn

    Hey, this was much more clever and humorous than Borowitz usually is. Erin should be his head writer.

  • Steve

    The one thing I remember most from my eighth grade science class (almost 30 years ago) is the teacher telling us “there is no such thing as scientific fact, only scientific theory that can be reproduced in a controlled environment.” It’s kind of kept things in perspective for me over the years as definitions have changed.

  • Paul

    Every scientific fact, theory, hypothesis, stands to be upheld or disproved. That’s science.
    Still . . . poor Pluto.

  • Sam

    The negative tone in this article is alarming.

  • Jim

    Saying that gravity is not a fundamental force is not at all the same thing as saying that it does not exist as the article implies. No matter the underyling cause, gravity as a concept is useful. Things still fall towards the earth at 9.8 m/s^2.

  • Lori

    I knew it !! ** years ago, I took paleontology and anthropology courses in college. I knew then that there was a higher than scientifically acceptable ammount of (pure bull) speculation being passed on as fact. Always be skeptical.

  • Cera

    If I read another article stating in the headline that “Triceratops never existed” I might have to bash my head through a brick wall. Two brick walls if that article then goes on to say, “By the way, it’s Torosaurus who would become the invalid genus, not Triceratops.”

  • Lefay75

    I find it kind of ironic that the person complaining about a government conspiracy to dumb down our society can not spell correctly. I’d read a few more books and take some college level classes and not worry so much about the government.

  • Vlad

    nonsense. table salt is made of Na and Cl. That is a scientific fact.

  • Anonymous

    So you’ll always love Cera, eh? Well, I’ll always hate her and anyone who loves her.