Knowing Your Places: Geography Expert For many of us, places like Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Caspian Sea may be hard to plot on a map. But not so for the 2005 National Geographic Geography Bee champion. The contest, held in Washington, D.C., ends today.
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Knowing Your Places: Geography Expert

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Knowing Your Places: Geography Expert

Knowing Your Places: Geography Expert

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For many of us, places like Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey may be hard to plot on a map. It shouldn't be so difficult for Nathan Cornelius.

Do you know where the pipeline passes through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey? Can you tell us which two seas does it connect?

NATHAN CORNELIUS (Winner, 2005 National Geographic Geography Bee): It connects the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas.

CONAN: Nathan--that's a pretty easy question for him. Nathan's the winner of the 2005 National Geographic Geography Bee, and he joins us here today by phone from the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC.

Nice to have you on the program, and congratulations.


CONAN: Alex Trebek hosted the geography bee. He, of course, is the host of "Jeopardy!" and asked the questions this time, including the winning question.

(Soundbite of 2005 National Geographic Geography Bee)

Mr. ALEX TREBEK (Host): Lake Gatum, an artificial lake that constitutes part of the Panama Canal system, was created by damming which river?

CONAN: And, Nathan, could you remind us which river that was?

CORNELIUS: The Chagres River.

CONAN: The Chagres River. Now how do you study up for questions like that?

CORNELIUS: Well, I read atlases and geography books and National Geographic magazine, and just hope that along the way I'll pick up what I need to know for the Bee.

CONAN: If you have a question or a comment for Nathan, give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is

And, Nathan, I suppose you know now that you're going through the rest of your life with people coming up to you and, as soon as they understand what you've done, they're going to say, `So what's the capital of South Dakota?'

CORNELIUS: Yeah. It's Pierre.

CONAN: It's Pierre. That much I did know. But this is going to be a burden to some degree for the rest of your life.

CORNELIUS: Yeah, I don't think it'll be that bad.

CONAN: Well, you'll have to wait to see.


CONAN: But at the moment, what do you get out of it?

CORNELIUS: Well, I got $25,000 for college. And I also get $500 for getting to the top 10, and a lifetime subscription to National Geographic magazine.

CONAN: Not bad.


CONAN: What piqued your interest in geography in the first place?

CORNELIUS: Well, I don't know. I've kind of always been interested in it because when I was a kid, I'd draw maps of imaginary places for fun. And I've always been interested in it. And then when we heard about the Bee, I started studying.

CONAN: I remember as a kid that we used to draw those maps on onion-skin paper, tracing them from the books. Is that something you still do, or probably used a computer, I bet?

CORNELIUS: No, I just kind of get a sheet of normal paper and a pen or pencil.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Where did you start? Did you start with the geography of your town, your state?

CORNELIUS: Well, yeah. I'd make maps--well, yeah, whatever town we'd live in, I make a map of that. And...

CONAN: Whatever town you live in. There've been more than one?

CORNELIUS: Yeah. I was born in Wisconsin, and we just lived there for a year. And then we lived in Illinois for a while. And then we've been living in Minnesota for about four years.

CONAN: Well, that in itself is something that would make you more interested in geography, I would think.

CORNELIUS: Yeah, I guess, more than someone who just stays in one place.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, let's see if we can get some callers on the line, and I think they may be trying to stump you, Nathan.


CONAN: Let's see what happens. This is Bear. Bear's calling us from Panama City in Florida.

BEAR (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

BEAR: I'd like to know if your guest knows where the Sabine River is.

CONAN: Nathan, the Sabine River.

CORNELIUS: That is in Louisiana, and it's on the border with Texas. Right?

CONAN: Is that right, Bear?

BEAR: Yeah, it actually runs through Texas, but it probably starts in Louisiana.



BEAR: So I think he's right.

CORNELIUS: Yeah, I think it does form part of the border.

BEAR: Yes.

CONAN: Bear, it's going to be tough to stump this kid.

BEAR: I know that.

CONAN: All right.

BEAR: Congratulations.


BEAR: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Are there any regions that you particularly like?

CORNELIUS: Yeah, I don't think so. I'm kind of about the same on all of them.

CONAN: So you're a generalist. You'd be just as happy answering questions about Kazakhstan as Kansas?

CORNELIUS: Yeah, I think so.

CONAN: OK. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Megan. Megan's with us from Salem, Oregon.

MEGAN (Caller): Hi, there. I wanted to ask you, did you have--were there any questions that other people got during the geography bee that you did not know the answers to, and which ones, if any, and do you know the answers now?

CORNELIUS: Well, yeah. There were a few that other people got that I didn't know.

CONAN: What were they? Do you remember?

CORNELIUS: Well, there was one--it was a photo round. They had a picture of a coral reef, and it said, `The coral reef is in a country about 400 miles southwest of Sri Lanka. Name the country.' And I thought 400 miles will get you all the way across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius...

CONAN: Uh-huh. I think it would...

CORNELIUS: ...but it was really just in the Maldives.

CONAN: That's what I was going to say, yeah.

CORNELIUS: And that was the answer. So I would've gotten that wrong if I'd had it.

CONAN: All of us learned that geography during the tsunami disaster...


CONAN: ...finding out the places that hit. Yeah.


MEGAN: Great.

CONAN: Megan, it sounds like...

MEGAN: Congratulations.


CONAN: Megan, before you go...

MEGAN: Yeah?

CONAN: It sounds like you have some experience with geography bees.

MEGAN: Well, no, math bees and spelling bees. And I thought it was probably going to be the same way with geography.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah, I guess it worked out. Thanks for the call, Megan.

MEGAN: Sure.

CONAN: We're talking with the winner of this year's National Geography Bee. That is, of course, Nathan Cornelius.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Jim. And Jim's on his car phone in California.

JIM (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JIM: Yes, I was asking--in terms of relativity, I love looking at the globe, and I bought one for my grandson. What is farther north, Beijing or Pyongyang, North Korea?

CONAN: Ooh, I'm not sure...

CORNELIUS: I think that's Beijing, right?

JIM: Beijing or Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

CONAN: He said Beijing.

JIM: He says Beijing's farther north?


JIM: I think he's right.


JIM: My next question would be, which is closer, those two cities or San Francisco and Los Angeles?

CORNELIUS: Ooh, I would say it's those two cities.

JIM: You'd say what?

CONAN: He said...

CORNELIUS: I would say it's Beijing and Pyongyang.

JIM: Closer together?


JIM: Yeah, I think you're right there, too. I'm sorry, I'm driving. I don't have the globe (technical difficulties) at hand.


CONAN: Well, I...

JIM: But I'm fascinated by geography and I love that you're into it. Bye-bye.


CONAN: Don't miss your exit, Jim. Thanks very much for the call.

JIM: I won't. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye.

I wonder, do you look at flat maps for the most part, or do you have a globe as well?

CORNELIUS: Yeah, I have a globe, but I don't really use it much for studying, 'cause flat maps will get you much more into detail.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CORNELIUS: Because it'd be hard to make a globe that was at high enough detail for--I mean, you can learn a lot from studying a globe, but I don't really study them much.

CONAN: I liked to throw darts at them when I was a kid, but my parents didn't like that much.

Anyway, here's an e-mail question from John: `Where would you most like to visit someday?

CORNELIUS: Well, I'd like to visit all the US national parks, especially the ones in Alaska and Hawaii. Overseas, I'd like to go to Italy and Tanzania.

CONAN: Why Tanzania?

CORNELIUS: Well, I saw the IMAX films about Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti, and they really looked like a place that would be fun to visit.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. John asks another question: `How many places have you been able to visit thus far?'

CORNELIUS: Well, I've been able to visit seven out of 55 national parks; I've got a long way to go on that. The only foreign country I visited is Canada. And I've visited quite a few states; I don't know exactly how many.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's an e-mail question from Martin Bentley in Kent, Ohio: `My favorite trivia question is: What is the capital of Burkina Faso?'

CORNELIUS: That is Ouagadougou.

CONAN: `Congratulations,' he says, `for bucking the trend of Americans not knowing their geography.' And, of course, you know the former name of Burkina Faso.

CORNELIUS: Upper Volta?

CONAN: Got that right, too. All right. Let's get another caller on the line. And this Sam. Sam's with us from Cedar City in Utah.

SAM (Caller): Well, hello there. I'm very--I'm overwhelmed, actually, of your knowledge. And my question, my geography question, is: Through what Russian republic does the Ufa River flow?

CORNELIUS: Is is Bashkortostan?

SAM: Oh, my goodness. Yes, it is.

CORNELIUS: OK. That was a guess. That one I didn't know for sure.

SAM: Well, yes, that was dead-on.

CORNELIUS: OK. I just knew Bashkortostan was somewhere around there.

SAM: Yeah. Well, and it's right next to Ka--oh, boy. See--how do you retain all this? I mean, I understand how you study, but I mean--'cause most of these geography tidbits--well, this information has very little practical usage, no?

CORNELIUS: Yeah. Well, it really helps, like, if National Geographic runs a story on it, because then it kind of helps you remember. Otherwise, I don't know, I guess God just gave me a good memory. I mean, I think that to be in the Bee, you have to have a pretty good memory.


SAM: I'm going to have to renew my subscription then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Sam, thanks for the call.

Nathan, we're going to let you go. But what's going to happen when you get home?

CORNELIUS: Well, I don't know. I guess all the kids at the National Bee will exchange souvenirs from their states. So I'll probably have to unpack that and maybe some more interviews. I don't know yet. We're kind of--haven't gotten to that yet, I guess.

CONAN: Maybe a party?

CORNELIUS: Yeah, maybe.

CONAN: I hope you have a great time.

CORNELIUS: Well, thanks.

CONAN: And, Nathan, again, congratulations.


CONAN: Nathan Cornelius is the winner of the 2005 National Geographic Geography Bee, and he joined us from National Geographic's headquarters right here in Washington, DC.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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