Science lessons from spinach

Gaurav Sodhi is bitter about spinach but he does credit it with one important scientific lesson.

If you're still bitter about being forced to down volumes of veggies as an infant, do what the Greeks do: blame the Germans. In 1870, as the Prussians fought the French in a bitter war, a German chemist, Erich von Wolf, was analysing the iron content of green vegetables. When rewriting data from his field notes, he misplaced a decimal point. Spinach was subsequently reported to contain enormous amounts of iron – 35 mgs per serving rather than 3.5 – and a long standing myth about the power of spinach was born.

So strong was that myth that it seduced the creators of the popular Popeye comic book, who used spinach as the super food that grants the cranky sailor his anatomically incorrect arm strength. It wasn't until 1937 that the iron clanger was picked up and corrected, and it took decades longer to dispel the myth altogether. All that time, millions suffered of tastelessness.

Another glaring scientific error is one that I only recently learnt of; the Brontosaurus – my favourite childhood dinosaur – never existed. The gentle giant was discovered in 1879 but was, in fact, the same dinosaur that had been discovered two years earlier, the Apatosaurus. Yet for the next century, it was the Brontosaurus that morphed to reality while the Apatosaurus disappeared from history.

The lesson here is that there is nothing immutable about 'facts'. The iron content of spinach, the existence of the Brontosaurus, these were once thought beyond question. In truth, the scientific method is fluid and fallible. Remember that next time you force feed spinach to your poor kin.

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