Daily Misconception: Sunflowers.

A daily misconception from Wikipedia’s List of Misconceptions, for discussion or enlightenment. Today: Sunflowers.

Flowering sunflowers do not track the Sun across the sky. The heads point in a fixed direction (East) all day long. However, in an earlier development stage, before the appearance of flower heads, the buds do track the sun and the fixed alignment of the mature flowers is a result of this heliotropism.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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12 Responses to Daily Misconception: Sunflowers.

  1. Egnaro says:

    Sad to know that my favorite contrarian tradition from University of Texas School of Law is not based in scientific fact. UT law School graduation is called the Sunflower Ceremony, the story behind it shows that law students as smart asses is not a recent development:

    History of the Sunflower Ceremony
    For fifteen or twenty years after the University was established in 1883, no graduates of any of its schools wore the cap and gown to graduation ceremonies. One spring around the turn of the century, a salesperson called, offering to rent seniors caps and gowns. A committee of faculty and seniors met to consider this offer. At that time, the School of Law was in the basement of the Main building. No one thought to send a message downstairs and invite even a few law seniors to the meeting.

    The committee decided that the senior class would look very good graduating in caps and gowns. An order went out that all seniors were to wear the cap and gown to the commencement.

    The law students met. Because they had not been invited to the original meeting and had not been consulted on the advisability of this new mandate, they rejected the call to wear caps and gowns. Perhaps foreshadowing later events, they then formulated the reason underlying their decision, namely, that caps and gowns at such a time were traditional to, and representative of, the academic school and not the professional school. They granted the point that judges had worn the wig and gown for centuries, but they contended it was worn for a purpose entirely distinct from the purpose here proposed. However, the senior law students did agree to wear white suits. (Today, while many students have traditionally worn white suits at the Sunflower Ceremony, it is not required.)

    The President and the faculty conferred and decreed that the law students must either conform to the wishes of the senior class or wear a significant insignia at the graduation exercises. It was not in a spirit of conciliation or in appreciation of the dignity of the occasion that the sunflower was chosen as the “distinctive insignia.” Once more reasons were advanced, this time to justify the choice of the flower: The sunflower, genus Helianthus, belongs to a family with worldwide distribution. So, also, do lawyers. And as the sunflower always keeps its face turned to the sun, the lawyer turns to the light of justice.

    So I guess the conclusion is that lawyers don’t always turn to the light of justice? (As an aside I have always wanted to be a professor at a graduation just so I could wear my traditional academic regalia of a white suit and sunflower)

    • Alexandra says:

      Okay, your regalia is better than basically anybody’s. Although there are few things more fun than commencement ceremonies with people walking around dressed like medieval scholastics.

  2. kyria says:

    OK, I was going to let this go, but I can’t help myself. Wikipedia has gotten it wrong – again. Sunflowers are growing in my back yard, and they do indeed turn towards the sun. It isn’t until the seeds start to pop out that they stop.

    • It says that in the article, kyria – at the end.

      • kyria says:

        Quoting from the top of the page:

        Flowering sunflowers do not track the Sun across the sky.

        I’m telling you they do. Do I believe Wikipedia or my own eyes? Don’t answer that.

        Why did you change your name, again? I thought Kittehserf pretty much said it all.

      • Okay, when you wrote “It isn’t until the seeds start to pop out that they stop” I misunderstood – I thought you were saying the same thing as the Wiki page did at the end of the article.

        My nym just keeps bouncing back to Unpaid Help on this site; it went into mod when I changed it to Kittehserf. Maybe the Furrinati don’t want something so obvious printed! :P

  3. I hadn’t known that page existed, and I was happy to see things like the “people died at 30″ and “plate armour = barely able to move” rubbish being dealt with. I hadn’t known chain mail was heavier than plate, so that’s a plus!

    There was a wonderful video made in the 80s by the Royal Armouries on the process of putting plate armour on. It’s surprisingly straightforward, because it has little what’d’y’call them, knobs that swiveling latches click onto. It’s sort of like Ikea but simpler and with no Allen key required, plus Tab A really does fit into Slot A.

    Plate is also very flexible, as it has to be. The man wearing it in the video windmilled his arms and swung his sword over his head, no problem; and with a mounting block, had no trouble mounting his horse (which was like a heavy hunter, not a draught horse). With the weight distributed over the body, and worn by someone trained to it from childhood, it wasn’t the huge load legend would have us believe.

    /happy history nerd

    • Yonah says:

      as it has to be

      Right? I’m really interested by how common it is to believe something so weird about people in the past. People behave badly and act on misinformation but to be 100% countereffective on so practical a matter? Somewhere on the internet is a great comic about this – I wish I could find the source or remember more about it – of a Roman legionary about to squat on a toilet seat that has many sharp spikes on it. “When is someone going to invent one of these things without the spikes?” he complains.

      If people are always doing something that makes zero sense, chances are it’s because we misunderstand, or haven’t investigated sufficiently.

      • That’s so true!

        There was a good example of something not being what we think on an old ep of Time Team I watched the other night. There are things called “hipposandals” which were thought to be early types of horseshoes. One design is a solid plate with a sort of metal frame around the hoof and a spike curling up in front, seemingly to let it be tied on. They got a farrier to make a pair and try them on a horse. Turns out there’s no way a horse could wear them: they hinder its walking, make turning dangerous (too easy to cut the fetlocks on the metal) and any faster gait would be impossible. The farrier thought the shoes were most likely meant for holding a poultice around the hoof, because they’d do that job well.

      • martian says:

        I had a docent at a settler historic site tell me that when you find a lot of examples of something, it doesn’t always mean it was in common usage – sometimes it means that the object didn’t work very well for it’s intended purpose. Thus, a lot of examples in good shape will be found. The object we were looking at was a corn shucking contraption, kind of a glove with claws. One of those labour saving devices that really doesn’t, as it turns out.

        I’ve often wondered how well that observation holds up through history.

    • Hugh says:

      The main disadvantage of plate, as far as I can tell, was that it was really expensive, and that there was a limited supply of people who were able to make it. Making relatively light and flexible armour that fits together so intuitively wasn’t at all easy.

      • Yes indeed – the best plate was tailored, and tailoring metal is one hell of a skill. It’s not like it’s going to stretch into shape once it’s being worn!

        Apparently there was also a sort of off-the-rack version for ordinary soldiers – the “pot and back” (breast and back plates) that were worn over a quilted tunic.

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