Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1687:
CYBER MYTHS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we wonder which story might be true. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A friend led me to a neat website: www.snopes.com. It's all about sorting fact from fancy. We've always been suckers for the written word, and the Internet provides a lot of written words these days. Naturally, a great deal of what we read is sheer fancy.

information box/manThe site keeps track of cyber myths and flags them as true or false. It's arranged in categories: Horrors, Language, History, Science, and so forth. So let's dip in and see what's here: Under the History heading is one you may've seen. It's a convoluted explanation of why railroad tracks have the same spacing as the wheels of Roman chariots. Actually, railroad track spacings are not the same everywhere, but they're close. The kinship with Roman roads occurs because, when wheels are too far apart in any vehicle, the turning radius is too great. With wheels too close together, vehicles become unstable. We've replaced the drama of a long train of connections with two common constraints.

But surprises remain. For example it's true that, in 1970, a Texas senator, angered by colleagues voting on legislation they hadn't read, wrote a resolution commending Albert de Salvo for unselfish service to his country. After his cohorts passed it, they learned that de Salvo was the name of the Boston Strangler!

The offer of something for nothing goes on all the time. We read that Bill Gates is offering a thousand dollars to all who forward his e-mail message -- or that the Miller Brewery gave away two million cases of free beer to celebrate the year 2000. However, it really is true that if you click on any of several advertising banners, the organization will contribute a small sum to a charity.

One claim had me fooled. We read that sales of the Chevy Nova were doomed in Spanish-speaking countries because no va means "doesn't go." The problem is, any Spanish speaker will read Nova and no va as completely different linguistic entities. It's like our English word notable for a famous person. No one ever sees that as not able, even though the spellings are identical.

Like so many cyber myths, the Nova story is too good not to be true. Another story tells of the student who finds that the instructor has left an unsolvable math problem on the blackboard. He thinks it's his homework and solves it. That was not just a plot idea for the movie Good Will Hunting. It actually has happened.

Speaking of movies, remember Nicolas Cage in It Could Happen To You? In place of a tip, a policeman promises a waitress half his winnings if a lottery ticket pays off. It really did, both in the movie and in real life. There's also the story about the man who stops to help a stranger in a stranded limo. The stranded man turns out to be Donald Trump, who thankfully pays off the man's mortgage. Well, only in the story. That one never happened.

So we continue to search the web for excitement. So many stories! So many stories, and some of them actually prove to be true.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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I am grateful to Stephanie Kazanegras at KUHF-FM for suggesting the www.snopes.com site to me. Details of all of the cases mentioned above may be found at that site.
Man with a lamp searching for the truth



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.