Robert Boyle was a famous scientist who lived 350 years ago. He helped create the Royal Society, which started as a group of scientists who would share their scientific ideas and carry out experiments, just like scientists today. But unlike scientists today, who usually study just one subject, he studied all branches of science, from how we breathe to how sound travels.

You can give your students some background information about what people believed at the time Robert Boyle was alive.

You can then ask your students to think critically about some of old wives' tales or superstitions they know about.   You can work as a whole class picking a myth yourself or choosing one of these.

Here are some examples of old wives' tales or urban myths and how the students might go about testing them.  Although some call for students to work in small groups you can plan the experiment together, filling in the students' sheet.  Then compare results at the end.

It is bad luck to open an umbrella indoors.
Half the students should open umbrellas indoors (they can hold them over their heads for extra bad luck). The other half should not open the umbrella - this is the control group.  They should all make a note during the day whether they have felt they have been particularly unlucky, or if they have been very lucky.  They can compare their results the following day to find out if the group who opened the umbrella found that they were less lucky than those who didn't.

Crossing fingers makes you luckier in a coin toss.
This would probably need two students, one to toss the coin and the other to guess the result.  Initially the student guessing the result will not cross their fingers.  They can do 50 coin tosses until they see a definite trend that the coin lands face up 50% of the time.  They then will need to repeat with the person guessing with their fingers crossed.

A spoon in a bottle of fizzy drink makes it stay fizzy.
The students will need two bottles of fizzy drink and one spoon.  Without shaking the bottles they need to open them and pour out some of the liquid into identical glasses.  They can count the bubbles on the side of the glass or taste it to see how fizzy it is.  They then need to put a spoon in one and place both in a fridge over night.  The next day they can test again to see if the bottles are still fizzy.  They may decide to have a third bottle that they can put the lid back on and place in the fridge with the other two.

Hot water freezes more quickly than cold water
The students will have two identical ice cube trays.  Fill one with hot water and one with cold.  Place them both in a freezer.  They should go back every hour to see how they are freezing and make notes about what they see - is there still liquid water under the surface?  They may want to carry out the experiment more than once, swapping the position of the trays in the freezer. If you haven't got access to a freezer at school, this is something they could investigate for homework.

The actual results are less important than having the students think about how they would test the theory.

Don't forget safety!

Curriculum Links


Working Scientifically






A study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils' chronological knowledge beyond 1066






Scottish Curriculum


SCN 2-20a

Topical Science


MNU 2-20a

Information handling - Data and analysis

Discussing the variety of ways and range of media used to present data. Interpreting and drawing conclusions from the information displayed, recognising that the presentation may be misleading


MNU 2-20b

Information handling - Data and analysis.

Carrying out investigations and surveys, devising and using a variety of methods to gather information and working with others to collate, organise and communicate the results in an appropriate way.

Social Studies:


SOC 2-04a

People, past events and societies

Comparing and contrasting a society in the past with my own and contributing to a discussion of the similarities and differences.


SOC 2-06a

People, past events and societies

Discussing why people and events from a particular time in the past were important, placing them within a historical sequence


TCH 2-01b

Technological developments in society


Science changed in the 1600s. Until then most 'scientists' didn't carry out experiments to test a theory. Many people believed in superstitions. They believed in witches and magic, both good and evil. The picture below shows a witch trial in America.

Witch trial


Alchemy was popular. Alchemists used materials - chemicals - and mixed them up in the hope they would change into something else, usually something much more valuable, like gold. They wanted to find the 'elixir of life', something to cure illnesses and make them live forever.

Although some of this was based on magic, alchemy started to turn into chemistry and medicine.

At the same time, astrology (looking at star signs) was turning into astronomy (studying stars and planets): people were observing the stars to understand what they were, not to predict the future.

Very famous scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle were alchemists but they were also scientists: they asked questions, carried out experiments and tested their theories.

Despite all the magic, superstition and completely incorrect theories, people started to make progress in understanding how the human body and the world around us worked.


Old wives' tales

How would you go about testing a theory? Think of a superstition, an old wives' tale or an urban legend that you could test.

Download and print out this worksheet to help you.


Ice cubesYou could try:

hot water freezes more quickly than cold water;

if I cross my fingers it makes me luckier when a coin is tossed;

a watched pot never boils;

or, choose your own!




Before you begin, think about what results you expect. Do you believe the old wives' tale?

Make a list of all the materials you will need to carry it out. Don't forget you may need to make measurements.

Write down how you are going to carry out the experiment. Think about each step and write them in a list.

You will probably need to repeat the experiment three times to make sure that the first time you did it wasn't a one off result.

Make sure you keep notes of things like: how much; how long; how many times.

Have a look at your results. Was the old wives' tale true?

Not all old wives' tales are false. Some come from people observing natural cures and how to keep healthy, such as fish is good for the brain, and an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Scientists have tested these theories and found that they are true!