More from The Know-It-All

June 27, 2006 Categories: Books , Commonplace Book | 1 Comment  

“climate and weather
Lightning goes up. It shoots right up from the ground and into the cloud. This is what the encyclopedia says in the section on climate and weather. I reread this passage a couple of times to make sure I hadn’t gone batty – but no, lightning goes up.

To be technical, it does first go down – there’s an initial bolt called the “leader” that zips from the cloud to the ground. But the bright part, the part that flashes, is the “return stroke,” which goes from the ground back to the cloud.

This is profoundly unnerving. When I didn’t know the history of canned laughter or the existence of a sexy Confederate spy, that was mildly vexing. But this is unnerving. This is a whole new level of ignorance. I’ve been looking at lightning all my life, and its sky-to-ground direction seemed about as certain as the slightly asymmetrical nose on my face. To be confronted with this totally counterintuitive information – it makes me paranoid. What other incorrect ideas do I have? Is the sun actually cold? Is the sky orange? Is Keanu Reeves a brilliant actor?”

Remember, those are A. J. Jacobs’ words, not mine, so if you adore Mr. Reeves, please don’t take it out on me!

The French horn is from Germany. The Great Dane has no relation to Denmark. Cold-blooded animals often have warmer blood than warm-blooded animals. Softwood is often harder than hardwood. Catgut is made from sheepgut. Caesar was not born by cesarean section. A cold is not caused by the cold (Ben Franklin pointed this out). Death Valley is teeming with life (more than two hundred types of birds, several types of fish, and so on). Heinz has several hundred varieties, not its advertised fifty-seven. Starfish are not fish. The electric eel is not an eel. The anomalous Zeeman effect in atomic physics is more common than the regular old Zeeman effect.

These are all things I’ve been keeping in my little “Ironic Facts” file on my computer. Irony is named for “the Greek comic character Eiron, a clever underdog, who by his wit repeatedly triumphs over the boastful character of Alazon.” But the stuff above is a different kind of irony. These ironies are a function of our ridiculously imprecise language. I feel we need someone to come in and clean it all up, a Rudy Giuliani of English who would crack down on all lazy, loitering, leftover-from-other-eras words. But that’ll never happen. As I learned in Fahrenheit, the inertia of bad ideas is a powerful force.”

One Comment

  1. Carol in Oregon

    Fascinating! You’ve got me interested!