WTF Fun Fact 13395 – German Mythology’s Nøkken

In Germanic folklore, the Nøkken or Nix is a creature associated with bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and streams. Depictions of the water spirit show it as a shapeshifter, capable of assuming various forms to lure unsuspecting victims.

The mysterious Nøkken

The Nøkken is believed to be an elusive and mysterious creature and possesses the ability to transform into different forms. It often appears as a beautiful horse, a seductive human, or even a monstrous water serpent. The shape-shifter uses its ability to entice and deceive unsuspecting individuals who venture too close to the water’s edge.

Legends describe the Nøkken as a mischievous being with a penchant for playing enchanting melodies on musical instruments, such as the violin or harp. Its hauntingly beautiful music can mesmerize listeners and draw them closer to the water’s edge, where they may fall victim to the Nøkken’s traps. Some believe the Nøkken’s music possesses a hypnotic quality, luring people into its grasp.

Both good and bad

According to folklore, those who encounter the Nøkken must exercise caution and resist its enchanting allure. If someone falls under its spell and touches the Nøkken, they become stuck, unable to escape its clutches. Some believe that only the power of the cross or religious symbols can break the Nøkken’s hold and save the victim from certain doom.

The Nøkken is not always portrayed as an evil entity, though. Some tales depict it as a guardian of nature or a water spirit with the ability to bestow blessings upon those who respect and honor the waters it inhabits. Some legends even depict the Nøkken as a helpful creature, offering valuable advice or teaching musical skills to talented individuals.

Throughout history, the Nøkken has captivated the imaginations of storytellers and artists alike. Its portrayal in literature, music, and visual arts has contributed to its enduring presence in folklore. The Nøkken serves as a symbol of the beauty and danger that reside within the natural world, reminding us of the inherent mysteries and complexities of the human imagination.

It’s important to note that folklore and legends may vary across different regions and cultural traditions. The Nøkken’s characteristics and legends associated with it can differ from one storytelling tradition to another. These stories are an integral part of cultural heritage, passed down through generations to preserve the rich tapestry of folklore.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Nix” — Encyclopedia Britannica

WTF Fun Fact 13238 – Coffee Not the Second Most Traded Commodity

Sometimes the “fun fact” is that an often-repeated piece of information is just not true. For example, you’ll see plenty of otherwise reputable sources state that coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world behind oil. But it’s not. Not even close.

Why do we think coffee is the second most traded commodity?

Well, in short, we think coffee is the second most traded commodity (after oil) because it’s been published as fact so many times. Representatives from Starbucks even reported it to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Coffee is incredibly important, however.

The website Perfect Grind Daily looked into the truth behind trade and found that “coffee is neither the world’s second-most traded product nor the world’s second-most traded commodity.”

“According to MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC)coffee is the world’s 98th most-traded product. Green coffee comes in at 114, while roasted coffee ranks 301st. (All data appears to be from 2015.) Sure, we’re talking about products here. But there are plenty of commodities above coffee in this list: oils, metals, crops…”

They even found that “coffee isn’t even the world’s second-most traded agricultural product. That would be wheat, at position 70, after soybeans at number 54.”

The data isn’t there

Plenty of people have tried to explain and justify the claim, but the evidence just isn’t there, even if you look at future contracts.

However, it may be the case that coffee was once the second most traded product or commodity from a specific country or region (likely Latin America) at some point in the past, but it’s unclear which one and if the math works out by volume or by value.

If it is indeed true for Latin America, the data would be old anyway. You’d have to go back to the 1970s for coffee to potentially come in second place.

According to Politifact, some people have tried to set the record straight.

“Science writer Mark Pendergrast included the errant claim in his 1999 book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. Ten years later, he wrote a correction (and fixed the error in the second edition).”

Pendergrast isn’t the only person to admit he was wrong or try to later debunk the myth. However, it’s a fun fact to throw out there. And once you say something catchy, it has a way of taking on a life of its own.

No matter how much people try to correct themselves, the myth lives on. But now you know the truth.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Coffee Isn’t World’s 2nd-Most Traded Commodity (But It’s Important)” — Perfect Daily Grind

WTF Fun Fact 12820 – Do We Only Use 10% of Our Brains? No.

For some reason, Hollywood writers and purveyors of pseudoscience really love to say humans only use 10% of their brains. Why? Well, because it opens the door to making us think there’s a wealth of unlocked potential if only we could [insert Hollywood storyline] or buy some junk supplement to unlock the rest.

But it’s just not true. What an evolutionary waste that would be if it had any basis in fact!

Myth becomes “fact”

According to Britannica (and many, many scientific sources and fact-checking websites): “It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite bits of pseudoscience: human beings use only 10 percent of their brain, and awakening the remaining 90 percent—supposedly dormant—allows otherwise ordinary human beings to display extraordinary mental abilities. In Phenomenon (1996), John Travolta gains the ability to predict earthquakes and instantly learns foreign languages. Scarlett Johansson becomes a superpowered martial-arts master in Lucy (2014). And in Limitless (2011) Bradley Cooper writes a novel overnight.”

We don’t blame Hollywood – they make stuff up to sell movies all the time. It’s the fact that we started believing the plots of films that’s truly disturbing. In fact, Britannica reports that “65 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, ‘People only use 10 percent of their brain on a daily basis.'”


Why do we believe we only use 10% of our brains?

Let’s not look to place blame on anyone but ourselves. Most of us repeat interesting things we hear without ever investigating whether or not they’re true.

But next time you hear someone spout off this garbage “fun fact,” you can hit back with some actual science.

For starters:

  • If only 10% of our brains were functional, why does nearly every brain injury affect our lives in some way? If we only used 10%, we could damage the rest with no repercussions.
  • Why would humans have evolved our most unique characteristic – the very thing that makes us human – to be 90% useless? It makes no evolutionary sense. That space could be used for more useful things if it were just empty grey matter.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans show that there is activity in far more than 10% of our brain. In fact, there is no part of the brain that lacks some sort of electrical activity (even if we don’t yet know precisely what it does).

The origins of the 10% myth

So, the 10% myth is just complete bull. But It likely has its origins in the American self-help industry.

People like to blame 19th-century psychologist William James (or even Albert Einstein) for implying that there is unlocked potential in the human brain. And while they may be true, that doesn’t indicate inactive brain matter. It just means we could think harder if we really tried.

Britannica also states that one early claim that the self-help industry glommed onto appeared in the preface to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Since then, “The idea that we have harnessed only a fraction of our brain’s full potential has been a staple for motivational gurus, New Age hucksters, and uninspired screenwriters ever since.”

But it’s a load of bologna.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Do We Really Use Only 10 Percent of Our Brain?” — Britannica

WTF Fun Fact 12815 – Is A Hammer Used When a Pope Dies?

The death of the pope is a pretty big deal to the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world. But there’s lots of mystery surrounding the traditions that take place when the pope dies. One common belief is that Vatican staff bumps him on the head three times with a silver hammer to ensure he’s dead and not just taking a really solid nap. But is it true?

Is it really such a strange question?

Ok, first let’s dispense with the joke of it all. While it may seem silly, the Catholic church has many millennia-old rituals that they carry on simply for the sake of tradition.

At the start of the papacy, it’s not totally out of the question that there would be some sort of way to guarantee a man that important was truly dead.

And, frankly, we wouldn’t put it past some papal dynasties (we’re looking at you, Borgias) to use the hammer to *ahem* ENSURE someone was dead (even if they didn’t start out that way).

All we’re saying is that who knows what people were doing in late antiquity and the Middle Ages? But this doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

Do we know what happens when the pope dies?

So, we’re not surprised that there’s a ritual to ensure the pope is truly dead. But what is it?

These days, we’re pretty sure technology is employed to make sure there is no brain activity in the body. That’s what we do for almost everyone else.

Even Snopes – the revered fact-checkers and rumor-killers – took on the task of trying to find out if this is all bologna or not. And they couldn’t make a determination.

Investigating the legend

According to Snopes (cited below): “Disagreement exists as to whether such a procedure is part of the parting process. We do know that once a Pope appears to have left this world, a pronouncement is made in Latin that he is dead, with this news certified by a physician. The camerlengo (chamberlain) calls out the pontiff’s baptismal name three times over the corpse in an effort to prompt a response. Failing to get one, he defaces with a silver hammer that particular Bishop of Rome’s Pescatorio (Ring of the Fisherman), along with the dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters. The pope’s quarters are then sealed, and funeral arrangements are begun by the camerlengo.”

Ok, so here’s where we get the silver hammer part. The ring and his seals are destroyed to avoid any fraud on behalf of the dead pope. That makes sense, even if there are now better ways to render these pieces of metal unusable.

The rumor that the hammer then meets the forehead appears to have been popularized by Stephen Bates, a journalist who wrote an article in The Guardian on rituals associated with the pope’s death.

But here’s the kicker. There’s only one source that fully denies the rumor is true. It’s a correction from The Guardian a few weeks later, stating:

Yet The Guardian ran the following correction a few weeks later:

“The article below included the assertion that the corpse of a Pope is ritually struck on the head with a silver hammer to ascertain that there is no sign of life. According to the Vatican, this is a myth.”

There’s no identification of the source at all.

Since the so-called denial, which is impossible to check, there have been more articles asserting that the ritual is real. Or, at the very least, it was up until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

But who knows? The Vatican isn’t one to share its secrets – that’s why people keep writing books about them.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Is a Deceased Pope Tapped with a Silver Hammer to Verify He’s Dead?” — Snopes

WTF Fun Fact 12732 – Everyone Thinks Archimedes Created A Death Ray

There’s a great New York Times article from 2003 that begins with the line “For the last time: Archimedes did not invent a death ray.”

Of course, it disappointed a lot of people. The reason someone had to say it was that the obsession with this particular invention had to be debunked so many times that even President Obama got involved and called on Mythbusters (who debunked it a third and final time on their show alone). Alas, people still believe it existed (presumably just because they think it sounds really cool and don’t care much for evidence).

Archimedes did invent a number of very wacky weapons though – we just have little to no evidence that most of them were ever used. Take the “claw of Archimedes,” for example. The ancient Greek inventor did come up with an idea to build a giant claw that would work like a crane to reach out into the sea and “grab” enemy ships to destroy them.

But while there are ancient accounts describing it (and even Wikipedia and some engineers and a handful of ancient historians might have you believe it was used), there isn’t so much as a single drawing or scrap of wood that would prove it was ever really built. There are, however, written accounts. It’s just that no one can be sure they aren’t recalling tall tales told during times of jubilant victory. But, hey, maybe underwater archaeologists will find one. It’s not entirely impossible.

So, about this death ray. The invention was basically a series of mirrors that would use the sun to point a ray of searing sunlight at enemy ships in order to incinerate and sink them as they launched an amphibious assault. It would work a bit like using a magnifying glass to burn an ant but on a very large level. We’ll admit, it does sound cool, but again, there would be a lot of evidence if someone had managed to construct something like that.

If you want to know why people remain obsessed with the “death ray” (which is not a name Archimedes used), blame some 12th-century historians and MIT students.

However, according to Sciencing: “Twelfth-century historians John Tzetzes and John Zonares credit Archimedes with using a system of mirrors to direct the heat of the sun at Roman ships, setting them ablaze. Zonares goes so far as to claim that Archimedes destroyed the Roman fleet this way. Many modern historians and scientists consider these claims dubious. However, a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering students were successful in replicating the feat of setting a ship ablaze using only mirrors in a 2005 set test, lending plausibility to the legend that Archimedes invented a death ray using mirrors.”

Aspiring historian Spencer McDaniel has also convincingly debunked the myth using writing sources, noting that: “The Greek historian Polybios of Megalopolis (lived c. 200 – c. 118 BC), the Roman historian Titus Livius (lived 64 or 59 BC – AD 12 or 17), and the Greek biographer Ploutarchos of Chaironeia (lived c. 46 – c. 120 AD) all give detailed accounts of the Roman siege of Syracuse and not one of them ever mentions anything about Archimedes having built a death ray to defend the city.”

Only people writing 400 years after Archimedes’ death started writing about a “death ray.” Sorry. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Archimedes’s Death Ray” Debunked” — Tales of Times Forgotten

WTF Fun Fact 12572 – Einstein Never Failed Math

It’s incredible how pervasive myths about Albert Einstein are. In fact, very few of the quotes attributed to him are even accurate. It turns out if you just say something about the man and it gains traction, it becomes fact in some people’s minds.

And we’ve always loved the story that even though he was a genius, Einstein failed math as a schoolboy. Algebra, to be specific.

Apologies to anyone who has used their own math grades to portend their future genius, but Einstein failing any class is just flat-out wrong. He was a genius as a child, too, especially in math.

His school records were retrieved from his Swiss school by the New York Times, showing excellent grades in every subject. They state:

“The records, contained in a collection of the great theorist’s papers now being prepared for publication at Princeton, confirm that Einstein was a child prodigy, conversant in college physics before he was 11 years old, a ”brilliant” violin player who got high marks in Latin and Greek. But his inability to master French was the bane of his school days, and may have been chiefly responsible for his failing college entrance examinations.”

So, where did we get this idea? Well, it wasn’t invented out of thin air. Instead, it was the result of a misunderstanding.

The first biographers who saw Einstein’s records were likely confused by the grading system used by his school in Switzerland. At age 16, he received a 1 out of 6 in arithmetic and algebra. But what the scholars didn’t realize is that 1 was the highest, and 6 was the lowest.

Now, there’s a further explanation that makes us realize it was an honest mistake. The following year, Einstein’s grades in math were 6 on a scale of 1 to 6. However, the school reversed the grading system that year, making 6 the highest grade. – WTF Fun Fact

Source: “Einstein Revealed as Brilliant in Youth” — The New York Times

WTF Fun Fact 12571 – The Myth of Early Alien Panic

The story goes that when H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds was turned into a radio play and broadcast by Orson Welles in 1938, millions of people around the country heard the altered opening line “Martians have invaded New Jersey!” and freaked out. In fact, we’ve long been told that it started “a panic” that night because many people had never heard a radio play and believed it was the news and that the alien invasion was true. It has even been reported that people ran from their homes in fear, caused stampedes, and even committed suicide!

Say what you want about New Jersey, but there was no great panic over it being invaded by extraterrestrials nearly 85 years ago.

We’ll grant you that it’s a believable story. In the radio era, with no way to see what was happening, some people were very likely freaked out. But did they panic, run from their homes, and cause a national hysteria?

Well, there’s no evidence of it if they did.

Numbers are thrown around with abandon when it comes to listeners, and there are some estimates that around 12 million people were listening to Welles’ broadcast that night. And even if 1 in every 12 people believed it, 1 million people freaking out would be a big deal, right? The newspapers reported it, but it’s quite likely that it belongs in that (increasingly overused) category of “fake news.”

Yet even Smithsonian Magazine, which can often be trusted to research the accuracy of historical events, propagated the myth of the panic, saying of Welles:

“He’d heard reports of mass stampedes, of suicides, and of angered listeners threatening to shoot him on sight. ‘If I’d planned to wreck my career,’ he told several people at the time, ‘I couldn’t have gone about it better.’ With his livelihood (and possibly even his freedom) on the line, Welles went before dozens of reporters, photographers, and newsreel cameramen at a hastily arranged press conference in the CBS building. Each journalist asked him some variation of the same basic question: Had he intended, or did he at all anticipate, that War of the Worlds would throw its audience into panic?”

The only proof offered up is some old script drafts from the days when Welles and his colleagues were trying to turn the novel into a play. There are links to newspapers, but no interrogation of the reporting and whether it could be trusted or backed up. And while the magazine does have a fascinating story on how the play came to be, Slate has poked holes in the rest of the story.

Most important is the lack of a large enough audience to cause anything but a slight kerfuffle. Slate says:

“There’s only one problem: The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.

It turns out that a poll taken that night showed that 98% of 5000 surveyed households were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938. “Welles’ program was scheduled against one of the most popular national programs at the time—ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show,” Slate notes. And to top it off “several important CBS affiliates (including Boston’s WEEI) pre-empted Welles’ broadcast in favor of local commercial programming.”

Even if people were turning the dial during musical interludes, as some have claimed, we have no way of reliably extrapolating that to 12 million people. No death has even been attributed to listening to the play and reports of people being treated for panic remain unsubstantiated.

So what’s the deal? It’s likely that newspapers weren’t so happy about radio cutting into their readership base. Slate put one final nail in the coffin, noting “Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”

Over time, the myth grew and grew and old fake news was turned into historical evidence. But that still can’t make it true. – WTF Fun Fact

Source: “75 Years Ago, “War Of The Worlds’ Started A Panic. Or Did It?” — NPR

WTF Fun Fact 12411 – The Green Man

The urban legend of the Green Man, also known as “Charlie No-Face,” was partly made up to scare kids. But many people who tell the tale of a man without a face walking the highways at night have no idea that the story is based on a real man.

Raymond Robinson wasn’t green, but he was missing most of his face.

On June 18, 1919, the 9-year-old was playing with friends behind his parents’ home when the boys decided to climb the poles of some nearby railroad tracks. And you can probably imagine all of the horrible ways that could have ended.

Robinson had no idea the equipment was electrified. Alas, when he hit an electrical line, he was gravely injured. The boy survived, but not only was his face massively disfigured (he lost his nose and eyes), he also lost an arm.

He didn’t want to let the accident ruin his life, so he tried to live as normally as possible and enjoyed taking walks near his home in Western Pennsylvania along State Route 351. Some locals tried to get a peek at him, and people knew of his disfigurement, hence the stories.

Robinson took up weaving and continued to spend time with his family, even going out in the daytime (sometimes with and sometimes without big glasses).

His nephew said: “He never discussed his injuries or his problems at all. It was just a reality, and there was nothing he could do about it, so he never spoke about it. He never complained about anything.”

Some locals accepted him, but others would pick him up and drop him in random locales, beat him, and even hit him with their cars. But he never let that stop him from taking his beloved walks. – WTF Fun Facts

Source: The Legend Of The Green Man: Raymond Robinson Had No Face, Friends — History Daily