Saturday, May 02, 2009

Why I know things about Ostriches

I was driving home from the train station yesterday evening when it suddenly struck me that my car is the tenth car I've ever owned. As I've been driving for 30 years, that means I've averaged one car per three years. What's more, I can remember their make, model, colour and even their registration numbers starting with my maroon Ford Cortina GXL (COX401K), then an orange Vauxhall Chevette (ERL471V) ... and so on. That led on logically to the fact that I can quote you my driver number - yes, that big long 15 character one on my driving licence - and can tell you what each part of it means. I also know my National Insurance number, my blood type (AB+), my NHS number, the passwords and log-ins for some 30 different internet accounts at home and at work, the phone numbers of almost anyone I know, my bank account number and sort code, and the fact that the scientific name for an ostrich is Struthio Camelus. By the time my train of thought had reached flightless birds, I'd reached home and I walked indoors to find Dawn busy at her laptop updating a website.

'Do you know the dial up address for my FTP server?' she asked.
'Yes', I said, and told her.
'I knew you'd know', she said. 'You're a human skip.'

Now, I took some umbrage with this as a skip is a place for things you don't need or you want to be rid of. But surely anything that we learn increases the depth and breadth of our knowledge? I don't believe that any information is useless. I'll admit that knowing the Linnaean name for an ostrich is of little value in my everyday life. But knowing that Camelus is Latin for 'camel' is revealing. It tells me that early biologists called it the 'camel bird' because it lived in the desert. I also know that the earliest recorded western name for the giraffe was the Camelopard; literally a camel/leopard cross. Knowing a little of how the ostrich earned its name tells me a little about where it lives. Alone, facts are just facts. But, when joined to other facts, and assembled into chains and structures, they start to paint a bigger picture. That's how we make sense of the world. It's that ability to research, collate and extrapolate that has driven science and exploration. And whether it's football scores, the Latin names of animals or finding the Higgs Boson, it all comes down to one simple human desire ... the need to know 'Why?'

It's a question I've been asking myself a lot recently. After all, I wrote a book that deals almost entirely with connecting facts to each other. But why do I collect information the way I do? How do I remember it when I often forget what Dawn has sent me to the shops for just minutes previously? Is trivia actually trivial?

I've avoided the 'T' word until now because, sadly, and despite its noble etymology*, it has come to symbolise worthlessness and uselessness. Personally, I blame that bloody board game for adding the 'L' to the end of the word 'Trivia'. As a matter of interest, I don't own any books of so-called 'trivia'. What I do own is a pretty extensive library of books on a wide variety of subjects from sea mammals to hypnotism. It just so happens that in using them as reference, an occasional extraordinary fact will leap out at me and slap me with its flippers or burn itself into my brain.

I recently read Mark Mason's excellent book The Importance of being Trivial in which everyone from neuroscientists to London tour guides, and pub quizmasters to the creators of QI give their insights into why we have such a fascination for facts. I'd be stealing his thunder if I revealed what his investigations uncovered but I can say that there really does appear to be a male/female split involved. It would be wrong to generalise because we all have unique brains but test after test, experiment after experiment has shown that it is mostly men who collect facts in this seemingly pointless way. However, it may not be as unproductive and fruitless as it seems. Our brains have not significantly changed since we were hunter-gatherers just a few thousand years ago. The subtle mores and traits of society have changed around us but, biologically, we're still cave dwellers. And by looking at our ancestors and so-called 'primitive' societies that still exist, we can see patterns of behaviour. Men are generally concerned with gathering information. They like to know how everything works, right down to the minute details. Women meanwhile take a much more holistic and intuitive view of the world around them. I guess the two approaches could be called analytical and emotional. It maybe explains why men understand machines while women understand people. It may also be the reason we can marvel at the atom-perfect presentation of a Michelin-starred male chef ... but what we really, really love is Mum's homemade Steak and Kidney pie. As I say, it would be terribly misleading to say that this is a definitive difference because, obviously, it isn't. The sliding scale between logic and emotion is set differently for every single person. But there is, at least, an identifiable trend. Which is maybe why the guys at QI find it hard to find female panellists despite seven years of constant trying ... but the show is watched by more women than men. It's fascinating stuff and I look forward to exploring the subject in greater depth.

Meanwhile, it may also explain why I know that the capital of Liberia is Monrovia but Dawn knows what to buy our nephews and nieces on their birthdays.

Mark Mason's book is on sale at Amazon here. Read it! And I did blog about this subject in a similar vein just a few weeks ago here. See? Can't even remember what I've written half the time. But I do know that a badger is Meles meles.

*Trivia means 'The Three Ways' and comes to us from education. In mediaeval universities, students were taught the four Artes Liberales, namely arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, which were known as the Quadrivium (four ways). They were then taught the secondary Trivium or Artes trivialles of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The term 'Trivia' therefore came to mean facts that would have been 'of interest only to an undergraduate'. It's not quite the same meaning as today is it?


Rob The Builder said...

I'm up to fifteen cars in 24 years and, yep, I can remember model, colour and registration number for each one, from Alfasud CBT283R onwards ( the only one I took directly to the scrapyard ). It comes down to what is significant to you, and there's definitely a male / female split.

I can still name most of the players from my 1979 Panini sticker album, but can't hold a mental shopping list long enough for the 6 mile trip to Waitrose. I think men close down parts of their brain better, thats why we're generally less stressed than females.

Debby said...

As a person who has to stop and think about her own telephone number (I do not call myself...), I find it fascinating when I 'meet' a person with a brain that works like yours. It's sort of like watching a magician pull a verbal rabbit out of his hat, over and over again...

Stevyn Colgan said...

Rob - an interesting viewpoint and sure to get some discussion going no doubt.

Debby - Nice to hear from you! Oddly enough, I envy watching people like yourself get straight to the heart of an issue without all that embarrassing dancing around that I have to go through.

Persephone said...

I think this comment may have been made on QI: "We now move on to our Trivia Category, or, as it was once known, General Knowledge..."

I try to keep this in mind when I can identify the exact words of a Shakespearean quote and the play from which it comes, but can't find my phone bill.

chris hale said...

A Human Skip, eh? They used to call me Skip, for reasons of which you will be aware. I maintained it was because everyone wanted to dump their unwanted baggage, problems, etc. on me.

Oh, and the Tibetan Blackbird is Turdus Maximus.

Anonymous said...

My husband (who's roughly your age) knows the history of every single rock or pop band on the planet. He can talk for hours about their albums, specific songs and concerts and what the various band members did before and after being members of a particular band. Also, he knows about sports: football, rugby or cricket sides from the 1960s onwards, snooker results, athletics' world records and championships - you name it, he knows it. Very convenient for playing Trivial Pursuit. We usually win. I just wish he would apply his amazing memory to such trivial facts as where we keep the glasses in our kitchen or where to find the hoover ...