By ROBERT McHENRY.
WE OFTEN SAY “as white as snow,” but the Japanese, repeating the phrase on January 31, 1925, laughed; and on December 6, 1926, the French thought of the expression and howled. For on the given date, snow fell on Japan and it was gray; and at the cited time, snow fell on France and it was black!
“Dr. Fujiwara of the Tokyo Observatory explained that the phenomenon was due to a mixture of snow and ashes from nearby volcanoes. On the other hand the French could offer no explanation. They just looked at the snow and shrugged their shoulders.”
Now there’s a fascinating fact. Or, rather, a set of them; plus just a bit of editorial license. The entry comes from The Book of Fascinating Facts for Boys and Girls, published in 1949. The inclusion of girls is notable for the time, although the editor was not entirely consistent on the point.
Maine is the only state that touches only one other state.
There are no tigers in Africa.
There are probably no people on Mars.
(Not so much a fact, really, as a reassurance; this was only a decade after the panic over Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast.)
Millions of bacteria can fit on the top of a pinhead. (While presumably still leaving room for the angels.)
Lope de Vega wrote more than two thousand plays.
The highest point and the lowest point in the United States are only 86 miles apart.
NONE OF THESE facts (even the ones that are true), nor the whole book’s worth together, would suffice to permit the reader to graduate from middle school. The purpose of the book, writes the editor, is “to stimulate a child’s interest in the wide range of those interesting facts which make up the sum of today’s knowledge.” He may be forgiven for oversimplifying how knowledge comes about and what it comprises, but he’s on the right track in pinpointing where it begins — observed facts about the world.
Water, a liquid, is composed of two gases.
Most insects have no ears.
(In charity we should bear in mind that one man’s idea of fascinating may not be another’s, and we should remember that these snippets are meant to charm children. On the other hand, when our editor goes on about insects to explain that
[i]nstead, insects have feelers which vibrate when a noise is made near them. In this way, they can tell when danger is near, even though they can’t hear a sound
we may question how carefully he has thought this out.)
THE BOOK’S LITTLE preface is headed “We’re sure you’d like to know…,” echoing Aristotle’s dictum that “man by nature desires to know.” But that was a philosopher’s generalization, and perhaps an optimistic one at that. In fact, in some the desire only smolders and is easily quenched. Hence the appealing notion of stimulating that desire early on.
There’s a chicken v. egg question here, though. Does a collection of random facts — however fascinating — stimulate the drive to knowledge, or is a book like this read and re-read mainly by those whose curiosity already burns hot?
We might imagine how, through the ages that preceded the rise of Greek philosophy and science, there were pre-Presocratics preparing the way by busily compiling facts about their world. Or perhaps there weren’t. But it is the case that a group of researchers in Texas has spent decades feeding facts to a computer and waiting for it to wake up one morning, bright and informed and chatty.
As it turns out, a pile of facts is to knowledge as a pile of lumber is to a house. Still, who doesn’t delight to know, and repeat, that
Miles Darden weighed over a thousand pounds.
Anyhow, all else failing, the editor mentions that the book “will be a splendid companion for stay-in-bed days or train rides.”
About that black snow in France: It is not unknown for an editor (by convention, reference books have editors, not authors) to let slip a comment from time to time. I think I’d rewrite that last sentence: “They just looked at the snow and, sounding very like John Cleese, mumbled ‘Hein!’ ironically.”
Robert McHenry is the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He is the author of How to Know (Booklocker, 2004). His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the American. He is the “Q.V.” columnist at The Fortnightly Review, where he provides notes and comment on reference works.