No smoke without fire – unless you are talking about a traditional saying...

The discovery of gold particles in eucalyptus leaves has discredited the idea that money doesn’t grow on trees. But what other received wisdom doesn’t stand up to scrutiny?

Science Editor

The discovery of gold particles in eucalyptus leaves has discredited the idea that money doesn’t grow on trees. What other received wisdom doesn’t stand up to scrutiny?

Bread always falls buttered-side down

The sentiment is that if something unlucky can happen, it will. It also known as “Murphy’s law”, supposedly named after an American aerospace engineer in the 1940s who managed to put everything back to front in something he was fixing. Most people know it more simply as “sod’s law”.

There has been a long and surprisingly detailed analysis of this law, focusing on buttered toast and whether it does indeed always fall buttered-side down. Of course it doesn’t, but there does seem to be at least a grain of truth in the notion based on the height of the average kitchen table.

Earlier this year, Professor Chris Smith of Manchester Metropolitan University dropped 100 slices of toast from a table 30in (76cm) high and found that in 81 per cent of the cases, they fell buttered-side down. “Our research shows that Sod’s Law really does exist when it comes to dropped toast,” Professor Smith said.

This latest empirical support for Murphy’s Law follows earlier work carried out by science writer Robert Matthews, a visiting fellow in mathematics at Aston University, who demonstrated that toast knocked off a standard-sized kitchen table will tend to fall buttered side down because at normal velocity it will usually rotate by one half-turn before hitting the floor.

He then went on to show mathematically that the same unlucky trend can be applied to Murphy’s law of odd socks – if they can be created they will – and Murphy’s law of maps – if the place you are seeking can lie in an awkward part of the map, it will do.

There’s one born every minute

The meaning behind this popular phrase is that there are many fools or suckers in the world. But can there really be one born every minute?

There are about 250 babies born every minute in the world on average, and a good proportion – maybe a majority – will grow up to do very foolish things. It would probably be more accurate to say that there’s one born every second.

A leopard can’t change its spots

The idea that someone cannot change a particularly unfavourable aspect of their personality is summed up by the idea that a leopard cannot change the spots on its coat even if it wanted.

Leopards, like many big predators, engage in camouflage so that they can creep up or take their prey by surprise. This is particularly true of forest-dwelling big cats that operate in low light conditions, with lots of dappled shade.

Rudyard Kipling had a point in his fable of how the leopard got his spots. “You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular.”

While it is indeed true that an individual leopard cannot changes its spots, scientist believe that coat markings in the big cats are highly mutagenic, meaning that they can mutate or change rapidly during the course of evolution. The wide variety of coat marking in the big cats, from the striped tiger to the lion’s plain coat, is testament to the idea that leopards can indeed change their spots – over a long period of time.

Leopards cannot change their spots, but their coat markings are highly mutagenic, meaning they can change rapidly during the course of evolution Leopards cannot change their spots, but their coat markings are highly mutagenic, meaning they can change rapidly during the course of evolution

A fish rots from the head down

This may refer to the corruption at the head of a party or state, but it has little basis in piscatorial fact. Every fisherman knows that a fish rots from its guts, which is why they are promptly removed.

Buses always come in threes

It’s one of those phrases that you instinctively believe. We all remember the times when we wait for what seems like hours for a bus to arrive and then they come in convoy.

The “clumping effect” is a well-known problem in mathematics. Buses start out evenly spaced from a bus station but small delays mean that more passengers build up to board the delayed bus which then takes longer to complete its route because of the extra boarding times involved.

Meanwhile, with a smaller gap growing with the bus behind, there are fewer passengers for the second bus to pick up, which only exacerbates the problem as it gathers ground on the first bus. The effect is passed down the chain until, eventually, two or three buses end up trailing the first one.

Mathematicians point out that it is passenger behaviour that really controls clumping of trains and buses. The answer seems to be to persuade passengers to catch the less-crowded bus or train following behind, they may not arrive any faster but at least they arrive a little less stressed.

Buses do sometimes come in threes Buses do sometimes come in threes (AFP/Getty)

Third time lucky

This has no basis in probability theory. Tossing a coin will give you a 50:50 chance of winning no matter how many times you toss it. The only way it might work is in a game of skill, not chance, where a couple of practice shots may help in the third go.

The darkest hour is just before dawn

Figuratively, the idea behind this proverb is that there is a moment of lowest ebb when all seems lost, and that it often occurs just before things get brighter. The earliest record of it comes from the English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller, writing in 1650: “It is always the darkest just before the Day dawneth.”

Scientifically it is nonsensical. The darkest part of the night, if you take clouds, stars and the Moon out of the equation, must be when the point where you are on Earth is facing directly away from the Sun, which means roughly half-way between sunset and sunrise.

This point in time varies depending on the time of year, but it will never be the darkest hour just before dawn unless there are exceptional circumstances, like a full moon that sets just before dawn.

Great minds think alike

Try telling that to Albert Einstein. His two theories of relativity came out of nowhere, with no other great mind of his day even close to him.

Great minds like Einstein don't think alike Great minds like Einstein don't think alike

Women and children first

The first documented account of this seafaring command concerned the sinking of HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa in 1852, which was carrying 480 British troops and about 26 women and children. The commander ordered the men to “stand fast” and allow the women and children onto the few lifeboats available. The women and children survived but almost all the men drowned.

This led to the “Birkenhead drill” of “women and children first” when a ship had to be abandoned at sea. But when scientists came to study 18 maritime disasters between 1852 and 2000, involving some 15,000 passengers from more than 30 nations, a very different picture emerged.

The survival rate of women on board these ships was more than half the rate of men, and children had the lowest survival rate of all.

One notable exception was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 when about 70 per cent of the women and children survived compared to about 20 per cent of the men – although there were reports of officers using guns in the melee to uphold Captain Smith’s order to save women and children first.

So, apart from one or two noble exceptions, the general rule of the sea seems to be: “Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.”

Women and children have the lowest survival rates in maritime disasters. The sinking of the Titanic was a notable exception Women and children have the lowest survival rates in maritime disasters. The sinking of the Titanic was a notable exception (ITV)

You are what you eat

Patently rubbish. We are creatures of nature, nurture and the complex interaction of nature and nurture, which goes by the name of epigenetics, or the interaction of genes and the environment. Food is a small part of the environmental influences that help to shape us.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick