A surreal illustration of a flat earth in space

Myths aren’t necessarily false. According to the definition given by the Royal Spanish Academy, a myth is a “wonderful narrative which takes place outside historical time and features characters of a divine or heroic nature.” Julieta Fierro Gossman, a researcher from the Institute of Astronomy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), shares her choice of myths debunked by science in an interview for Tec Review.

See more: What is pseudoscience?

Myths debunked by science

It’s widely believed that Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Catholic Church. However, it’s a myth according to this scientist.

“When the International Astronomical Union (IAU) asked the Vatican to reconsider the judgment whereby Galileo was sentenced for saying that the Earth moved around the Sun, something wonderful happened. After opening the trial records, the Vatican said that Galileo hadn’t been condemned, but simply accused of misinterpreting the Bible.”

Fierro Gossman also says that on that occasion, nearly 30 years ago, the Church declared that it respects science. In return, scientists also expressed their respect for the Church.

“There’s still a significant group of astronomers in the Vatican, because religious holidays follow the lunar calendar. For example, we know that there must be a full moon on Easter Sunday. There have always been religious astronomers in the Vatican,” she says.

In ancient times, all the great cultures believed that our planet was as flat as a pancake, because that’s the impression that it gives, at least from an on-the-ground perspective.

“The Babylonians thought that the Earth was perched on top of some elephants, which were perched on top of a turtle, which was perched on top of a snake. But they decided to do experiments, and one of them was to look at the Earth’s shadow. In order to do this, they had to wait for the Moon to pass through the Earth’s shadow, which is called a lunar eclipse. Then, they saw that the shadow cast by the Earth on the Moon was a circle, which means that the Earth is round,” says Fierro.


The sun that goes out

Another debunked myth is that of the ancient Aztecs. They thought that they had to perform rituals to the Sun every 52 years, because if they didn’t, it could deviate from its path in the sky or it could go out. So, they invented the new fire ceremony.

“They tied together 52 canes representing 52 years and put out all the stoves in all the houses. They also broke all the pots (which is why there’s so much volcanic rock in the Mexican subsoil). Then, the priests with the new fire lit the canes and distributed the fire to every home,” says this UNAM researcher.

We now know that this wasn’t necessary, because astronomy maintains that the Sun is a star that will live another 4.5 billion years, without the need for rituals to ensure its existence.

Another debunked myth is that the Earth is the fixed center of the universe, because we now know that it’s in motion. What’s more, we’ve discovered that there are about 4,000 exoplanets, and many of them are like Earth because they have water in the atmosphere, according to Julieta Fierro.

Also on the list are the magical medicines proposed throughout the history of mankind that don’t work at all, other than to make some people believe that they’ll be cured, which still happens to this day.

“Olga Sánchez Cordero (Minister of the Interior) recommended that people take a few drops (of citrus nanoparticles) against Covid-19, and this is a false myth,” says the astronomer.

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Other possible myths

At present, astronomy has explanations that, in a few years’ time, could possibly be declared false. Julieta Fierro explains this in more detail.

“There are vast galaxies like ours that have 100 billion stars. So, if you count all the matter of these stars that are spinning, you conclude that the galaxy should be evaporating, because all the matter of these stars isn’t enough to hold this conglomeration together. The existence of dark matter has been considered, which is a type of matter that neither absorbs, emits, nor reflects light, so it cannot be seen, but scientists maintain that it attracts visible matter.”

However, this matter that supposedly holds the galaxies together hasn’t been directly discovered.

“Some physicists say that it doesn’t exist, that in reality what happens is that we don’t understand the force of gravity as explained by Newton or Einstein. This could be one of the great myths where science has possibly got it wrong,” states the academic.

That’s how experimental knowledge works. “But there’s no need for concern, because science advances by making mistakes,” Julieta Fierro concludes.