Misconceptions, Carrots, and Snowflakes

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February 11, 2021 by libroshombre

            “The trouble with the world,” Mark Twain wrote, “is not that people know too little; it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.”  Our world abounds with misunderstandings, and how can that tide ever be turned?  That’s the windmill librarians have tilted against for 5,000 years.  The “List of Common Misconceptions” from Wikipedia refutes the fallacies that Roman vomitoriums were designed for overeaters (“a vomitorium was an entranceway through which crowds entered and exited a stadium”), Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets (the image “stems from the scenography of an 1976 productions of Der rings des Nibelungen opera cycle”), and “The ‘Minute Waltz’ takes, on average, two minutes to play as originally written.  Its name comes from the adjective ‘minute’, as in small, and not the noun.”

Oh, my friends, there are misconceptions proliferating everywhere we look.  Speaking of which, “A WWII Propaganda Campaign Popularized the Myth That Carrots Help You See in the Dark,” a Smithonsian.com article, revealed that “carrots, by virtue of their heavy doses of Vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene), are good for your eye health … But as John Stolarczyk knows all too well as curator of the World Carrot Museum, the truth has been stretched into a pervasive myth.”  Early during WWII, British airmen had great success against the German’s nighttime bombing raids by using the new radar technology and wanted to keep it secret.  So the British Ministry of Information, who coordinated wartime propaganda, concocted the story to send German tacticians on a wild goose chase that their airmen improved their night vision by eating huge quantities of carrots .”  The propaganda was so effective, it was believed by millions of British gardeners and became an enduring urban legend.  And while we’re on the topic, “baby carrots” are “harvested before reaching maturity” while “baby-cut carrots” are large, often deformed, carrots that are lathed down to uniform stogie-shaped sizes.

Then there’s the debates over two snowflakes not being identical and how many words for snow are used by Eskimo peoples.  The Library of Congress site’s article says “The scientific consensus states that the likelihood of two large snow crystals being identical is zero.”  Since around one septillion (a million trillion) crystals snow down every winter, itemizing each is impossible.  Moreover, “not all water molecules are alike … Some water molecules have an atom of deuterium in place of one of the hydrogen atoms” and some utilize slightly different oxygen atoms,” and “snow crystals are sensitive to temperature and will change in shape and design as they fall.”  They add that it’s possible for snow crystals that have “a small number (e.g. 10) of water molecules to be alike, a typical snow crystal contains 1018 water molecules.”  

Deciding the number of words for snow isn’t as clear-cut.  A good place to start is “Counting Eskimo Words for Snow: A Citizen’s Guide,” from Princeton University which differentiates between lexemes and words.  They begin by stipulating that, “While the term Inuit is preferred to Eskimo by many in Canada, the term is retained here because (a) it properly refers to any Eskimo group, not only and Inuit; and (b) its widespread use  in Native communities in Alaska.”  Utilizing UAF professor Steven Jacobson’s “Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary,” they compiled a list of snow-related lexemes.  “Snow” is an English lexeme, and from it spring a bunch of related words: snowing, snowfall, snowflake, etc.  

 “There Really Are 50 Words for ‘Snow’,” according to a WashintonPost.com article.  Like German, Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, “which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information in one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word [i.e. “lexeme”]… In Siberian Yupik, the base ‘angyagh’ (boat) becomes ‘angyaghllangyugtuqlu’ to mean ‘what’s more, he wants a bigger boat.’” So snow words abound, while the lexemes are far more limited, yet Central Siberian Yupik has 40 snow terms, and Inuit speakers in Canada’s Nunavik region have “at least 53.”

Inroads are being made into battling some misconceptions.  Another WashingtonPost.com article from last January 16, “Misinformation Dropped Dramatically the Week After Twitter Banned Trump,” said “Online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73 percent after several social media sites suspended President Trump and key allies last week.”  Trump and his close allies would tweet and retweet each other’s messages, and this “highlights how falsehoods flow across social media sites – reinforcing and amplifying each other.”  The Trump Twitter Archive reports that the president alone issued 26,557 tweets in his term of office, a great many of which contained glaring falsehoods.

Trump had much assistance in his misinformation campaigns by his digital communication directors and other White House staff.  However, tweets don’t make much of a library, and Trump’s hardly a reader or writer of books.  “Trump: The Art of the Deal” was entirely ghost written by Tony Schwartz who spent eighteen months with Trump during the writing, and concluded, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”

Trump’s reliance on Twitter, his administration’s determination to destroy as many records as possible, and his disdain of reading all bodes ill for his dream of a presidential library.  Besides not having much to put in it, an article from Political.com, “Will There Be a Trump Presidential Library? Don’t Count on It,” explains that such edifices are mighty expensive to build and maintain.  Presidents usually establish nonprofits for extended fund raising since “No federal funds may be used to build or equip a presidential library, and no federal property may be used.”  Finding a suitable site is terribly difficult, and it’s also late to start the whole process.  “Most presidents with federal libraries begin planning – even fund raising – before their terms ended,” and many potential private and corporate donors are distancing themselves from the former president.  And all this is before deciding what it would contain and how much of that will be reliable.

Fortunately, you can rely upon our nation’s public libraries.  Our local library continues to battle misconceptions despite the pandemic through their Bookmobile, Home delivery, Book-a-Librarian, and the Fetch program where librarians will search the collection for items you want.  Utilizing your library’s never a mistake, for as Bob Dylan said, “A mistake is to commit a misunderstanding.

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