I am no poet but, if you think for yourselves
as I proceed, the facts will form
a poem in your mind.
MICHAEL FARADAY (1791–1867)
The son of a village blacksmith from the backwoods of Cumbria in northwest England, Michael Faraday was one of the greatest scientists in history and the greatest experi-mentalist of them all. He left school at 14 with only the most rudimentary education, and taught himself everything he knew by reading the books that passed through his hands during his seven-year apprenticeship to a London bookbinder.
From these humble beginnings he rose to become the greatest scientist of his day, the man to whom we owe the electric motor and our daily use of electricity itself. A century later, Albert Einstein kept a picture of him on his study wall, alongside Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell.
The authors of this book work for Quite Interesting Ltd, a British company that makes QI, the BBC's multiple award-winning TV game show about interesting information.
Like Faraday, we read a lot of books — on any and every conceivable subject, and the more madly random the better.
None of us claim to have an ounce of Faraday's genius, but all three of us, despite the fact that we each went to college (43, 31, and 16 years ago respectively), count ourselves as essentially self-educated.
We have achieved this together over the last ten years by applying the QI Research Method, which can be expressed in a single line. It is to "read all of anything (even the footnotes) but write down only what you, personally, find interesting." This not only reduces, by several orders of magnitude, the essentially infinite amount of available information in the universe, but it also has the delightful side effect that we really do "learn something new every day."
For instance, until 20 minutes ago, when we started writing this introduction, none of us knew that Michael Faraday (as in so many other ways) was more than 150 years ahead of us. For he did exactly the same thing as we now do: he read every book he came across, but noted down only what he found "singular or clever."
Core QI research always begins like this, in nuggets. Each bit is then added to our database, expressed in the clearest and sparest form that we can manage.
This simple way of distilling knowledge leaves behind a rich residue of astonishment and delight, a small selection of which is before you.
Much of what we find lays bare, surprisingly often, what is not known, rather than what is known. Such information (or lack of it) can be returned to again and again without ever becoming dull. It bears thinking about, often. When Newton was asked how he had discovered the universal law of gravitation, he replied, "By thinking on it continually." Or, as another of our heroes, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, put it: "Do not become a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin."
So here, in bite-sized pieces, nestling among the known and the numbered, are the mysteries of the enormous and the minuscule; of human comedy and tragedy; of heat, light, speed, life, art, and thought.
As Faraday urged his students, we also try to think for ourselves. But more uncannily than that, coaxing these 1,227 items into an order that felt comfortable and right has had the strange result that they have indeed come to form a kind of poem in the mind.
We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed putting them together.
And, if you solve any of the mysteries, let us know.
is called Geranium.
The ozone layer
smells faintly of
The center of the galaxy
like a vuvuzela.
18 million times faster
The Queen is the legal owner
of one-sixth of the
Earth's land surface.
The name of the first human being
in Norse mythology
the Spanish Inquisition —
they were legally obliged
to give 30 days' notice.
have three hearts.
have three vaginas.
Three of Fidel Castro's sons,
Alexis, Alexander, and Alejandro,
after Alexander the Great.
The opening words of
Jerome K. Jerome's
Three Men in a Boat are:
"There were four of us."
40% of the human race
did not survive
beyond its 1st birthday.
One in ten European babies
in an IKEA bed.
The human heart
pumps enough blood in a lifetime
to fill three supertankers.
The word "time"
is the most commonly used
noun in English.
10% of all the photographs
in the world
were taken in the last 12 months.
Between 1838 and 1960,
more than half the photos taken
were of babies.
The words written on
Twitter every day
a 10-million-page book.
In 2008, a man in Ohio
was arrested for
having sex with a picnic table.
The average person walks
the equivalent of three times
around the world
in a lifetime.
The world's population spends
500,000 hours a day
typing Internet security codes.
The first book ever printed in Oxford
had a misprint on the first page:
they got the date wrong.
For 100 years, the flag of the
tropical Turks and Caicos Islands
in the West Indies
mistakenly featured an igloo.
From 1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson and James Harkin. Copyright 2013, 2012 by QI Ltd. First American Edition. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.