Here is the full transcript of Dr. John van Wyhe’s talk titled “Historical Myths” at TEDxNUS conference.
Author Dr. John van Wyhe’s talk titled “Historical Myths” delves into the common misconceptions surrounding pivotal moments and figures in the history of science. He debunks widely believed narratives, such as Columbus proving the Earth is round, Newton discovering gravity from an apple falling on his head, and Darwin’s theory of evolution being inspired by finches in the Galapagos.
Van Wyhe clarifies that these stories, while popular and captivating, are either completely false or significantly distorted versions of the truth. He emphasizes the importance of critical thinking and rigorous historical research in understanding the true nature of scientific discovery. Ultimately, van Wyhe’s talk invites us to question the romanticized versions of history that are often taken for granted, highlighting the gap between popular myths and historical realities.
Listen to the audio version here:
The Columbus Myth
First of which will be the story, the traditional story that every school child has heard for many generations, which is that when Columbus set sail into the Atlantic towards the Americas, everyone in the world then believed the Earth was flat. His arrival in the Americas was a sort of miracle and, in a way, disproved the traditional stereotype or view that was held until then.
In fact, according to the legend, Columbus had such a difficult time getting his voyage sponsored and to get people to man his ships because, of course, no one was crazy enough to go on a ship that was going to go straight off the edge of the Earth, which is what the legend tells us. Indeed, some versions of the story have it that his crew almost mutinied because they were so afraid that the ship would go off the edge of the Earth, and only Columbus, with his special faith in the accuracy of his views, was confident that the Earth was round.
Now that’s a wonderful story. It’s romantic, it has sort of traditional superstition being trounced by empirical evidence and so forth. The problem is that everything about that story is completely wrong. Everyone in Columbus’s day knew that the Earth was round. Here are just two examples from his time. First is a globe built in Germany, which happens to still survive today; it’s the oldest known globe in the world, obviously it’s a globe, it’s round. There was no doubt about that.