NNFN: Tangling with truth – a guest post by Anne Rooney

Today’s guest post by Anne Rooney considers the truth in non-fiction – how do we decide what a fact is, and what does that hold for the future?

Anne Rooney writes information books for young and old people, and fiction for young people. She has published around 200 books, with a slight concentration on science topics. She is Chair of the Educational Writers Group of the Society of Authors and was recently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge University.


“Non-fiction books – information books – tell you things that are true. But truth is a very slippery thing. It’s fun to play with the idea of ‘what’s true?’ – but it can get your brain in a tangle. You can’t believe everything you read. And you can’t quite believe everything that’s true!

Here are some ‘facts’ that show just how complicated ‘true’ can be:

  • A centaur has the top half of a human and the legs and body of a horse.
  • The sea is blue.
  • A black hole is an area of powerful gravity that can suck in anything that strays too close.
  • The Sun is at the centre of the solar system.

  • These are all true. Well, true-ish…

    A centaur doesn’t actually exist: it’s a mythical creature from Greek legend. In the legends, it does indeed have the top part of a human and the body and legs of a horse. But how true is the statement, if there are not really any centaurs? It’s not as true as the statement ‘A zebra has stripes.’

    John LaFarge, Brooklyn Museum; public domain

    John LaFarge, Brooklyn Museum; public domain

    The sea looks blue to us – at least, in the daytime when we have our eyes open. That’s because it reflects light of a certain wavelength that our eyes and brains see as blue. Is the sea blue at night, when there is no reflected light? Was it blue 700 million years ago, when there were no creatures with eyes on land to look at it? What if aliens visiting Earth saw blue as we see red? Would the sea still be blue?

    A black hole is probably an area of very strong gravity. But we aren’t absolutely sure they exist. Lots of ‘facts’ are really theories – experts think they are true, but we aren’t totally sure.

    The Sun is at the centre of the solar system – that’s true. But for thousands of years, most people believed that the Sun goes around the Earth. If you had taken an exam in astronomy 1,000 years ago, you would have been marked wrong if you had said the Earth goes around the Sun! So what we consider ‘true’ also depends on how much we all, as humans, know.

    Bartolomeu Velho, 1568, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; public domain

    Bartolomeu Velho, 1568, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; public domain

    There are probably things we believe now that will be proved untrue at some point in the future. And there are lots of true things that are still to be discovered.”


    Our thanks go to Anne Rooney for today’s post. Here’s hoping that this month’s focus on encouraging young people to try writing their own non-fiction books will feed in to non-fiction writers of the future sharing those true things we’re still waiting to discover!

    creaturesfrompastYou can find out more about Anne and her books on her website, www.annerooney.com and you can follow her on Twitter, @annerooney. One of her most recent books is Creatures from the past published by HarperCollins (Big Cat).

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