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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

What are some fake-science headlines that reappear regularly?

Category: Society      Published: May 15, 2024

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

There are several headlines containing false statements that reappear regularly in popular science media outlets along with their associated articles. I presume that such headlines attract an audience that is so large that this entices media outlets to republish them, despite the fact they are actually not true. I'm not talking about misleading or exaggerated headlines that are technically true. I'm talking about cases where the headline is genuinely false or is pure speculation. Whether you call it fake science, junk science, pseudo-science, fringe science, or clickbait, its surprising that it sometimes shows up in non-fringe media sources. Here are some of the most common.

"The Sun is Green!"

solar spectrum in space as a function of wavelength
This is the spectrum of sunlight in space as a function of wavelength. Sunlight contains all visible colors and is therefore white. Click the image to enlarge it. Public Domain Image, image source: Christopher S. Baird, data source: ASTM Terrestrial Reference.

This is a catchy headline because it seems so ridiculous (you can see with your own eyes that the sun is white) and yet it's being presented by a media source that you trust. Also, the explanation in the associated story sounds convincing once you read it. However, the mundane truth is that the sun is literally white. The sun emits all colors in the visible spectrum in approximately equal amounts, which is exactly what "white" means. You can see this in the image on the right, which shows the spectrum of sunlight. It's not just that the overwhelming glare of the sun is messing with your eyes so that you only think it's white. If you look at the sun through a neutral density filter, which brings the brightness of the sun down to manageable levels without changing the relative amounts of the different colors, the sun is still white.

So why does this headline appear at all? If you pretend that the sun is an ideal blackbody emitter (which it definitely is not), and if you pretend that plotting the sun's color spectrum as a function of wavelength is the only meaningful way to plot it (which it's not), and if you pretend that the peak color of a broad color distribution is the only color that is present (which is entirely false and makes no sense), then the sun is indeed green! However, all of that pretending has led you quite far away from the true physical reality—the sun is white. When astronomers and astrophysicists say that the sun is green, they don't mean that the sun is literally green. They mean that doing all of this pretending gives them a handy way to categorize stars.

Your eyes aren't lying to you. The sun is literally white. This incorrect headline about the sun being green probably reappears regularly because astronomers and astrophysicists sometimes actually talk this way. If you hear reputable astronomers talking like this and you don't understand the underlying physics, then it's natural for you to misunderstand and think that the sun is literally green. This headline grabs your attention because it seems absurd and yet it might be true! However, the truth is that it seems absurd because... it actually is absurd. If the sun were literally green, then everything outdoors during the day would always appear green or black, and not any other colors. The sky would look green. People outside would look green. Snow would look green. Flowers would look green (or black if they reflect zero green light). Rainbows would be just green. Note that each rainbow is formed from sunlight. The fact that you can clearly see all of the colors of the visible spectrum when you look at a rainbow is direct evidence that the sun is white. You can read a longer explanation from me about the color of the sun here.

"Gravity is not Real!"

It seems like every few months a writer stumbles across general relativity, understands it well enough to realize that Newtonian gravity is incorrect, and gets excited enough to write an article about gravity not really existing. The problem? Gravity actually does exist. It's true to say that gravity is not a direct, Newtonian, classical, action-at-a-distance force. But that doesn't mean that gravity is not a force at all. Gravity is an emergent force, meaning that it emerges from something deeper. The "something deeper" in this case is spacetime curvature. Gravity is not just an illusion arising from being in the "wrong" reference frame. A key principle of relativistic physics is that there is no wrong reference frame. All reference frames are equally correct and equally fundamental. If a certain reference frame physically observes a phenomenon, then it is genuinely real. To say that gravity is a non-real artifact of observing motion in a less-fundamental frame is to misunderstand one of the core principles of relativity. All valid reference frames are equally fundamental.

Let's look at the case of earth exerting a gravitational force on the moon. This gravitational force is what keeps the moon in orbit around the earth. The complete explanation is as follows: the earth's mass warps spacetime and the moon then moves in this warped spacetime, causing it to orbit the earth. Even though spacetime curvature is the underlying mechanism that delivers the gravitational force, the gravitational force is still genuinely real and genuinely fundamental. In fact, it is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. In summary, we have one object affecting the motion of another object. If this does not count as a force then the word "force" is meaningless.

None of the fundamental forces are direct, Newtonian, classical, action-at-a-distance forces. Just like gravity, all of the other fundamental forces are emergent forces that arise from field curvatures. For instance, the electromagnetic force between two objects is delivered by curvature in the quantum electromagnetic field. This field curvature can be non-changing, such as in the form of an electrostatic field, or can be fluctuating, such as in the form of light waves. If you insist on saying that gravity is not a real force, then you must logically say that all of the fundamental forces are not real forces. The truth is that the four fundamental forces genuinely exist and are all emergent forces.

gravity is not real meme
The emotional urge to be smarter than the masses makes people want to be this guy on the right, despite the fact that he is incorrect. Gravity is indeed real. Gravity is a real, emergent force that arises from spacetime curvature. Click the image to enlarge it. Public Domain Image, image source: Christopher S. Baird.

So why does this headline and its associated story keep reappearing? In addition to this headline having a catchy, absurd-but-true tone that gets a lot of clicks, I believe it's because people love to know a clever fact that few others know. It makes them feel smarter than the masses; like they belong to a small, elite group of people who are in the know. In short, the meme above is so popular on social media because people love to see themselves as that guy on the right.

gravity is not real meme corrected
I've edited the original gravity-isn't-real meme to make it correct and this is the result. Click the image to enlarge it. Public Domain Image, image source: Christopher S. Baird.

It's the same emotional urge that drives some people to believe in conspiracy theories such as the earth being flat. However, unlike the statement that the earth is flat, the statement about gravity not being real appears in otherwise reliable media sources. The image above shows what this meme should really look like. You can read a longer explanation from me about why gravity is indeed a real force here.

"Atoms are 99.99999% Empty Space!"

hydrogen atom orbital
This plot shows the electron density distribution for a single excited electron bound in a hydrogen atom. Everything shown in this image is a single electron. The electron fills the whole atom. There is no empty space in atoms. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

This regularly reappearing myth has stubbornly refused to die for a hundred years. The statement that atoms are mostly empty space would only be true if electrons were literally tiny hard balls whizzing around in atoms. But they aren't. Science has known this for about a hundred years. Electrons are quantum objects that behave partially wave-like and partially particle-like. When in a stable state inside an atom, an electron acts almost entirely like a wave and not like a particle. An electron in a stable atomic state spreads out as a three-dimensional, cloud-like quantum wave that fills the atom. Atoms literally have no empty space because they are full of electrons spread out into quantum waves called orbitals.

The wave nature of the electron is a well-established principle of physics that has been one of the cornerstones of mainstream science for almost a hundred years. Much of modern chemistry depends on this being true. The electron is not in the orbital. The electron is the orbital. An atomic orbital is one of the various possible shapes that an electron can turn into. The word "orbital" is literally just shorthand for "an electron in a stable, wave-like, quantum atomic state." The word "orbital" can be misleading. It has nothing to do with orbits.

The survival of this myth (that atoms are mostly empty space) is particularly surprising to me because most people learn about orbitals in a high school chemistry class. Either they didn't pay attention, they didn't understand what was being taught, or they simply refused to believe it. The survival of this myth is also surprising to me because the existence of orbitals has been known for so long—almost a hundred years! You can read a longer explanation from me about why atoms have no empty space here.

"NASA Engineer Discovers New Propulsion Drive That Defies the Laws of Physics!"

This headline is wrong in many ways. First of all, this headline claims that a particular new discovery has been made but then leads to an article about pseudoscience without a genuine discovery. Secondly, nothing can defy the laws of physics. That's what it means to be a law of physics. Discoveries can certainly expose people's flawed understanding of the laws of physics, or make them realize that what they thought was a law of physics really isn't one. But the true laws of physics can't be defied. No amount of clever engineering will ever break the law of conservation of energy and make free energy machines possible. When a headline from a reputable media outlet says that an experimental result "defies the laws of physics," they are really saying that an experimental result contradicts our current understanding of physics.

There are also some red flags in this headline. First instance, engineers are not scientists. Don't get me wrong, engineers do amazing things and develop significant advances in technology. But they aren't trained to discover new physics. It's like saying, "Dentist discovers new approach to brain surgery!" It's technically possible, but highly improbable. My point is that this is a red flag. Think about it. NASA employs a large number of world-class scientists, so why would they hand off a big "new physics" project to an engineer?

Here's another red flag: The headline does not say "NASA team discovers…" or "NASA collaborators discover…" but rather says "NASA engineer discovers…" In our day in age, after all the easy science has already been discovered, big discoveries require big teams of experts. Even the small labs that are making small discoveries almost always have more than one person working there.

Why does this headline keep reappearing? I think the answer has to do with the innate desire in most humans to explore the universe and not feel eternally trapped on earth. The sad truth is that if you were to use the fastest spacecraft ever built and travel at its top speed the entire time, it would still take you seven thousand years to travel to the nearest star outside of our solar system. Future technology may bring this travel time down a little, but not by much. This is why a headline about an amazing new propulsion system is so enticing (and pulls in such a big audience)—the propulsion system may enable us to travel to other stars in our lifetime! I'm not saying this is impossible. I'm just saying that a lone engineer tinkering with pseduoscience isn't going to make it happen, especially not by magically defying the laws of physics.

"Scientists Working on a Warp Drive."

This headline is similar to the previous one in that it appeals to people's desire to travel to the stars in their lifetime. Also, warp drives are fun! Also, serious scientists seem to be involved! This headline and its associated story seem like real science because there's a lot of truths from general relativity mixed into the explanation. However, the bottom line is that a warp drive (i.e. a drive that achieves faster-than-light travel through nonlocal effects) would only be possible if a certain type of exotic matter existed that actually doesn't exist and fundamentally can't exist. The stark reality is that the universe doesn't work that way. If you make the one trifling allowance that some fantasy matter exists that warps spacetime in the wrong way, then general relativity indeed says that warp drives can create faster-than-light travel through nonlocal effects. But that one trifling allowance is not so trifling. Exotic, backwards-gravity matter does not exist in the real universe and cannot exist. Warp drives are purely science fiction for the same reason that white holes are purely science fiction: you can't warp spacetime the wrong way. In other words, gravity is never locally repulsive. The universe simply does not work that way.

Also, the statement about "scientists working" on a warp drive does not actually mean that scientists are in a lab with wrenches in hand, building a working prototype. It simply means that some scientists did a toy-universe calculation for the fun of it. It's a little like if a bunch of scientists got together at a Star Wars convention to do some fun calculations about the wavelength of the Death Star's laser and a journalist proclaims with a straight face, "Scientists Working on Death Star Laser!" They're not really building anything.

"The Universe is a Hologram!"

This headline implies that the entire universe is literally a hologram of light; in other words, it's a 3D pattern of light that looks like a regular object but is really just an illusion that contains no matter. The universe is not literally a hologram of light. If you go back to the raw statements made by reputable scientists working in this field, you find that this headline should actually say, "Scientists are exploring the possibility that some aspects of our universe may be mathematically similar to a hologram." They don't mean that the universe is literally a substanceless hologram of light, as if some creature in a different universe turned on a Princess-Leia-style hologram machine and the result was our entire universe. The scientific holographic principle, which is only hypothetical and unproven at this point, states that the entropy of ordinary matter may be proportional to area and not volume, and therefore some aspects of our spatially three-dimensional universe may be mathematically encoded on a two-dimensional surface.

"The Universe is a Simulation!"

This headline is similar to the previous one in that its appeal comes from suggesting that the universe is really an illusion, but you're one of the few people who knows it. The truth is that there is zero physical evidence that the universe is literally a simulation. Furthermore, the universe being a simulation is not part of any established scientific law or theory. Also, in order for the universe to be a simulation running on a computer, there would have to be a computer oustide the universe that is bigger than the entire universe, which is not plausible. Even if this was true, there would be no way for us to know it. This headline and its associated story probably reappear regularly because the movie The Matrix was so popular.

Summary

As far as I can tell, these are some of the most common science headlines containing false statements that reappear regularly in otherwise reliable media outlets. Sadly, a clever lie will often be far more popular than a boring truth. I personally find the true, underlying science to be more exciting and more beautiful than the popular myths. Believing a clever lie sets you up for disappointment, confusion, or disillusionment in the future. I hope that the next time that you see one of these headlines, you'll know enough to ignore it.

Topics: atom, gravity, headline, pseudoscience, sun

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