Saturday, April 05, 2014

The largest commonplace book

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, compendia, miscellanies

This post's title refers not to the book but to its source. Do you know what a commonplace book is? The term first appeared in print about 1750, and is still in use, but is primarily found in historical diaries. Starting during the Enlightenment in Europe, nearly every literate person (usually male) had a book of blank pages that he carried with him. When reading, he would copy into the book any interesting or clever or apt item. I've read references to their use in the biographies of Newton, Franklin and Faraday, among others. Keeping a commonplace book is a particularly effective means of self-education, and was the only education Michael Faraday had – and he became the premier scientist of his day. (This blog serves as one part of my own commonplace book)

John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, and James Harkin took up the practice years ago, and brought it into the modern era by putting everything into a computer database. Their compendium, accessible at, is enormous, by their own report, but they don't say just how big. They host a show in Britain called Quite Interesting, where their factoids are used in a variety of ways. Now they have a book, 1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off.

The rationale for selecting 1,227 items seems to derive from the first in the book:

is called Geranium

Well, why not? It is one of the more fetching names to have been bestowed on an asteroid.

At the QI website, you can get background information to verify the items, which are as condensed as the writers could make them and still be meaningful and intelligible. As I read, I picked 7 that I'll comment on, for various reasons. From p. 53:

Fidel Castro
estimated that he saved
ten working days a year
by not bothering to shave.

That's likely. You can reckon the figure two ways:
  1. A working day is 8 hours. 80 hours is 4,800 minutes. Castro's time to shave is then 4,800/365 = 13.15 minutes.
  2. Also possible: 10 full days of 1,440 minutes each. That comes to three times as long, or 39.5 minutes.
Fidel Castro must have been a rather slow shaver, or perhaps he shaved twice a day until he quit doing it. I shave in 5-7 minutes. As I've gotten older, my beard growth has slowed, so I seldom shave more than 3-4 times a week. That comes to about 1,100 minutes yearly, just under 2.3 working days.

By the way, slower beard growth is from reduced testosterone production as I enter my late 60s. Considering the troubles I had in younger days, "low-T" is a blessing! I still produce enough testosterone to keep my head bald (loss of all "T" would allow my hair to grow luxuriantly).

A pair of items from p. 102, that I'll count as one:

Neutrinos are 100,000 times
smaller than electrons,
but there are so many of them
that they may outweigh
all the visible matter in the universe.

If an atom were the size
of the Solar System,
a neutrino would be the size
of a golf ball.

I at first thought that the word "smaller" ought to be "lighter", because the electron is considered to be a point mass with zero radius. But the neutrino has a rest mass no greater than 0.14 eV, while the electron's rest mass is 512,000 eV, or some 3.6 million times greater. So let us suppose size really is meant. Of course, the electron does have to have a nonzero radius. The classical (non-quantum) radius is related to the ratio of its mass and charge, and comes to 2.82 fm (femtometers). However, quantum electrodynamic calculations indicate it can have a radius no greater than about 1/58,000 of this. It requires a quantum law not yet discovered to keep the charge confined to this volume (or less) without either a catastrophic collapse or a catastrophic explosion. At any rate, I found references that place the maximum radius of a neutrino all over the map, from about 3/4 that of the electron to 1/154. Accepting the latter figure, a maximum neutrino radius might be about 0.00000032 fm.

Now, an atom of neutral iron has a radius of 126,000 fm, so the ratio is very near 4x1012. Picking Neptune's orbit at 4.5 billion km the neutrino's maximum size would be 0.0011 km, or about 1.1 meters. That's about 26 times the size of a golf ball, so the QI reference must be positing a neutrino "size" in a range close to a billionth of a femtometer. Maybe.

This one appeals to the geologist in me (p. 119):

There is no known scientific way
of predicting earthquakes.
The most reliable method is
to count the number of missing cats
in the local paper: if it trebles,
an earthquake is imminent.

This method is pretty good in countries where cats are kept as pets. In more than half the world, cats are eaten, and it is more likely that unrest among elephants or other sensitive domestic creatures is a better measure.

I've seen this with alligators (p. 142):

A hammerhead shark
can be rendered completely immobile
for 15 minutes by turning it over
and tickling its tummy.

A caveat here: The alligator wrestlers I talked to say not to try it with a gator heavier than half your weight, and only if you are exceptionally well muscled. I suspect that goes for the shark also. Adult hammerheads weigh half a ton or more. How do you turn one over???

Sad but true (p. 163):

The US has only 5%
of the world's population,
but almost 25%
of its prison population.

Kinda puts a dent in the whole notion of "Land of the free"…

This is one you can have all kinds of mathematical fun with (p. 212):

Crime, disease, and average
walking speed increase by 15%
as a city doubles in size.

This must refer to measurements of a single city over time. Otherwise, consider cities such as Rapid City, SD (currently, about 70,000) and Chicago (2,700,000+). I sidestepped NYC because one could argue that each borough ought to be treated separately. Those two population points represent about 5.25 doublings. Let's just use 5. The fifth power of 1.15 is very close to 2.0. I can readily believe that crime and disease rates in Chicago might be twice what they are on Rapid City (where I've lived), but walking speed? Even a country mosey is some 2.5 mph or about 4 kph. Is it really possible that Chicagoans zip along the sidewalks at 5 mph / 8 kph? Not hardly. I've been there also, and they don't.

And last, but by no means least (p. 305):

Wars kill more civilians
than soldiers: in a war,
the safest place to be
is usually in the army.

Here, context is everything. Where is the war and which set of civilians are we talking about? A nation's active military force is typically less than 1% of its population. It may be true that the number of civilian deaths is greater than the number of military deaths, in any particular war. But the death rate? Not hardly!! The only major war fought on US soil was the Civil War in the 1860s. Close to half a million civilians died. There were about 200,000 combat deaths of soldiers. Even in this, our bloodiest war in terms of American civilian casualties, it was way, way safer to be a civilian.

That's what I like about a book like this. I suppose I am a rather rare sort, who can get great enjoyment from dictionaries, encyclopediae, and factoid collections such as this one. The material is so thought-provoking! Great job, QI guys! (and all your elves and other helpers)

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