Friday, September 6, 2013

A Pumpkin is a Berry. Who Knew?

Not so very long ago (unless you were born after 1990, in which case it was very long ago) people commonly kept an amazing clutter of information in their heads: telephone numbers, directions, appointments, and the multiplication table up to 12 x 12. As cloud-connected electronic aids – aka phones, although this legacy word describes a minor function – have become ubiquitous, much of this clutter has emptied out of once-full mental closets. This is understandable: there is no need to memorize all that when our phones can do it more reliably – so long as we don’t misplace the devices, in which case we are lost.

Constant internet connections also have given us a vast store of virtual knowledge. Suppose someone asks you if a strawberry is a berry. I can’t imagine anyone asking that outside of the Cash Cab, but it could happen in principle. You instantly can check Wikipedia (unless you’re in the Cash Cab) and discover that it is not. Neither is a blackberry nor a raspberry; they are aggregate fruits. However, on the plus side, bananas and pumpkins are berries. What country mines the most bauxite? At the moment it’s Australia. I can imagine bauxite coming up in conversation a little more easily than the question about berries. A little.

The point is that we quickly can discover these answers and, say, the name of Amanda Seyfried’s dog (Finn). We can find that the term “hat-trick” in hockey (scoring three successive goals) was borrowed from a feat in cricket (a bowler taking three wickets on successive balls) for which some teams awarded a new hat. Few people, other than trivia game show contestants, try to store such information in their heads. In those olden days of mental clutter, some folks (I admit to having been one of them) read annual almanacs with statistics on national populations, GDP, and the like, but no one can memorize everything. I’d have been stumped by the berry question. True, I could have looked up the answer in the encyclopedia when I got home, but by then I probably would have forgotten the question.

Still, there is something to be said for stashing even obscure and seemingly useless information in one’s own noggin. It allows one to make connections between this piece of information and that in a way that simulates intelligence. Intelligence is something I like to pretend to have.

About a decade ago, A.J. Jacobs, writer for Entertainment Weekly, had a similar thought. He undertook to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from a-ak to zywiec (33,000 pages, 65,000 articles, 44,000,000 words), writing about the endeavor as he went.“I’m not so deluded that I think I’ll gain one IQ point for every thousand pages,” he said. “But I also believe that there is some link between knowledge and intelligence…I don’t know the exact relation. But I’m sure the Britannica, somewhere in those 44 million words, will help me figure it out.” His resulting book, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to be the Smartest Person in the World, is worth a read – and will take much less time than reading the Britannica.

I don’t have a set of the Britannica on my shelves, but my (much less prestigious) World Book set does stare at me from time to time. I haven’t opened a volume in years; the internet is much faster to access. But now I’m tempted to pick up A, even if much of the information has aged. Jacobs’ conclusion after closing the final volume:

“I know that opossums have thirteen nipples... I know that oysters can change their sex and Turkey’s avant-garde magazine is called Varlik. I know you should always say yes to adventures or you’ll lead a very dull life. I know that intelligence and knowledge are not the same thing – but they do live in the same neighborhood.”

As Mr. Rogers once said, “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.”

Cash Cab


  1. Ah Cash Cab, a fun show and one that provides some serious stumpers. I love when the driver/host puts on his rough and tumble persona when folks first get into the cab. I crack up every time.

    My wife has a serious mind for trivia. I remember only movie related stumpers and even those get lost over time. Still it's fun to know this stuff and to find it out. I hate going to Wikipedia because it always turns into a journey of links that lasts way longer than "i'll just look up one thing".

    1. Our expensive educations do tend to fade over time -- especially now that info is so readily at hand -- though I'm still a little concerned by the uncertainty of the contestants in the vid that Australia is a country.