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…
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.
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…
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.