True or False, Fact or Fiction

Urban legend … a form of modern folklore consisting of stories usually believed by their tellers to be true

A lot of what we “know” to be true can sometimes turn out to be no more than an ‘urban legend’. The internet has been especially good at propagating certain things which aren’t true as “facts”. But can you tell whether they’re fact or fiction ?

Take the quiz below to see if you know the “truth” … then again maybe this article is propagating more ‘urban legends’ … you decide.

Koala bears’ fingerprints are virtually indistinguishable from humans

Firstly Koala’s aren’t really bears. They are actually marsupials, and specifically members of the suborder Vombatiformes. While it might be expected that chimpanzees, gorillas and other primates have fingerprints, as they’re so closely related to humans, it may not be obvious that koalas even have fingers. In fact, they do have five digits on each paw, with arguably two opposable thumbs’ and three fingers’ on each of their front paws (plus, of course, some rather sharp claws). It wasn’t until as recently as 1996 that someone – Maciej Henneberg, a scientist at the University of Adelaide – actually bothered to look at a koala’s paws (using both ink and an electron microscope) and noticed the presence of prints.


TRUE : While humans have markings on their fingers and all over their palms, koalas’ prints, indistinguishable from humans’ to the naked eye, are not quite so extensive. The presence of fingerprints in koalas, so similar to those in humans, represents an example of convergent evolution. In other words, the two organisms have independently adapted to similar conditions.

Vincent van Gogh only ever managed to sell one painting

Van Gogh was only active as an artist for the last decade of his short life, between 1880 and 1890. Art had interested him from an early age. However, he had been taught drawing at school in the Netherlands and in 1869, aged just 15, he joined art dealers Goupil & Compagnie. He first worked for the company in The Hague, before moving to London in 1873 – where he lived in Stockwell – and then to Paris. In 1876, after becoming increasingly surly, he was fired. After a period of timewasting he studied theology and worked as a missionary, bringing the message of Christianity to the benighted people of Belgium, His brother Theo then persuaded him to become an artist, although much of his time seems to have been spent falling out with relatives and being accused of making various women pregnant.


FALSE : Van Gogh did carry out commissions for which he received money. But when it came to the famous oil paintings which he created for art’s sake rather than on demand, they weren’t exactly money-spinners, so he relied on his brother Theo to support him financially.

After being inspired by the Impressionists in Paris, Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888 where his most famous works wore painted, and where he cut off part of his ear following numerous quarrels with Paul Gauguin.

In February 1890, he had his big financial success, when he learned from his brother Theo that the Belgian painter Anna Boch had purchased The Red Vinyard in Brussels for 400 francs. Shortly after The Red Vinyard was sold, he moved back north, to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died a day and a half after shooting himself in the chest.

The Red Vineyard was was not the only painting that the artist sold, since we know that he ‘paid’ for medical treatment, board and lodging with paintings, and Paul Gauguin later recounted how in 1886 a penniless Vincent van Gogh took 100 sous (5 francs) for a painting of a pink crayfish, which may have been similar to (or possibly even the same painting as) what is known today as Still Life with Mussels and Shrimps.

In 17th century Holland, a tulip could cost you as much as a house

A common ‘tourists eye-view’ of the Netherlands today is the colourful prospect of fields full of tulips. Thousands of them. It seems difficult to believe that some 400 years ago, these could have represented a cash crop that might have made the country the richest on the planet.

During the 17th century, the United Provinces (later to emerge as the modern-day Netherlands) represented the world’s dominant trading nation, certainly a contender for being the richest. The wealth generated from international commerce, which centred on the up-and-coming city of Amsterdam, in combination with a relatively high tolerance for intellectual and religious differences, led to a spectacular flourishing of science and the arts as the seventeenth century progressed. It was the so-called Golden Age of Rembrandt, Huygens and Descartes (who lived and worked in Holland from 1628 to 1649).


TRUE : It’s the fact that certain varieties of tulip weren’t widely available that made them for a while exceptionally valuable in the Dutch provinces during the 1630s. The flourishing of Dutch commerce during this ‘Golden age’ meant that people were looking for investment opportunities’, and what better concept than the tulip?

The flower is believed to have been introduced to the Low Countries in the 1590s by botanist and doctor Carolus Clusius (also known as Charles de l’Ecluse), who had got hold of some bulbs from the Ottoman Empire. Elaborate breeding, especially with the controlled introduction of a virus that caused flame-like patterns on the flowers’ petals, led to numerous rare and extravagant varieties emerging, which were highly prized by the wealthy upper classes. As traders jumped on the bandwagon, exploiting the fact that people were prepared to pay vast amounts of money for this must-have accessory, ‘tulipmania’, or ‘tulipomania’, emerged.

Soon tulips were traded even before they had become flowers: while the bulbs were still growing in the ground or often before planting, they were bought and sold for small fortunes via promissory notes, creating what famously became known as windhandel (‘trading in the wind’), because of the invisible nature of the commodity. These deals were the fore-runners of modern-day futures contracts.

At the height of tulipmania, deals were often made in terms of livestock and property rather than hard cash. The full effects of speculation can be seen by charting the progress of the most famous tulip variety, the elusive Semper Augustus. By 1624 the much prized variety Semper Augustus was being sold in for in excess of 3,000 guilders per bulb. By 1633 they were selling for 5,500 guilders a bulb, rising to the extraordinary price of 10,000 guilders a bulb in January 1637: enough money to buy, one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam’, a city where property was perhaps the costliest in the world.

In February 1637, however, the tulip market crashed with astonishing speed and severity – and within a matter of days, many speculators found themselves facing bankruptcy and destitution.

Incidentally the word ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish pronunciation of the Persian word for ‘turban’.

George W. Bush’s favourite book is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”

The rumour stems from survey conducted in 1999 by Pizza Hut, when Bush was running for president.

The restaurant chain asked the governor of each US state what their favourite books had been when they were growing up.


FALSE : The Texan governor listed “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” along with “Sarah’s Flag for Texas” (Jane Knapik and Jo Kay Wilson), “James and the Giant Peach” (Roald Dahl), “My Side of the Mountain” (Jean Craighead George), “Tuck Everlasting” (Natalie Babbitt), “The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) and Rudyard Kiplings “Just So Stories”.

A month or so earlier, he had been asked by a student at Royall Elementary School in Florence, South Carolina, what his favourite book had been as a child. The future presidents response was: ” I can’t remember any specific books.” So when Pizza Hut called, the Texan governor had the ideal opportunity to set the record straight. Except that, as was widely noted at the time, four of his selections (including “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) were first published when he was an adult.

So, to be fair, he has never actually claimed that it is ‘his favourite book’.

Almost all banknotes have traces of cocaine on them

Lock up your kids! … Just accidentally sniffing your wallet will make you instantly addicted!

It’s not as bad as all that, is it? Well, yes and no…

Studies carried out in the last 20 years have shown that staggering proportions of banknotes are contaminated with traces of cocaine – all around the world. Research carried out in the mid-1990s at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois found that 78% of one-dollar bills collected in the Chicago suburban area tested positive for cocaine. In 1999 more than 99%of notes sampled in London were found to be affected. A study conducted by the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research in Nuremberg found that within days of the launch of the euro currency in January 2002, 3% of notes were already contaminated, rising to 90% after just seven months, across the whole of the eurozone.

In 2006 Spanish researchers analysing 10, 20 and 50-euro notes collected from Barcelona Bilbao Madrid, Valencia and Seville found the contamination rate to be 94%. The top position in the drugs-on-banknotes league is the Republic of Ireland, where research from Dublin City University published in 2007 revealed that 100% of the sampled euro banknotes were contaminated with cocaine.


TRUE : So really it is true, most notes are contaminated with cocaine. But what’s going on ? Surely note everyone in society is a coke head ?

These scary-sounding statistics need to be treated with caution. Scientists can’t check every note in circulation, so the percentages are extrapolated from sample sizes ranging from the representative (700 notes in the case of the Nuremberg research) to the scientifically dodgy (just 45 in the case of Ireland).

Analysis methods are improving, too: in the case of Dublin in particular, the techniques employed enabled the detection of even smaller cocaine residues than previous studies. Most important, though, is the fact that the widespread contamination is not necessarily an indication that every note has at some stage been rolled up and poked into the nostril of an overpaid, under-imaginative TV producer: traces of the drug can very easily be passed from a single note to many others in wallets, cash dispensers, tills and counting machines used in banks.

In summary: wash your hands

Author: Robert

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