The Book of General Ignorance

The Book of General Ignorance

by John Lloyd, John Mitchison


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Misconceptions, misunderstandings, and flawed facts finally get the heave-ho in this humorous, downright humiliating book of reeducation based on the phenomenal British bestseller.

Challenging what most of us assume to be verifiable truths in areas like history, literature, science, nature, and more,The Book of General Ignorance is a witty “gotcha” compendium of how little we actually know about anything. It’ll have you scratching your head wondering why we even bother to go to school.

Think Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe, baseball was invented in America, Henry VIII had six wives, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain? Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again. You’ll be surprised at how much you don’t know! Check out THE BOOK OF GENERAL IGNORANCE for more fun entries and complete answers to the following:

How long can a chicken live without its head?
About two years.

What do chameleons do?
They don’t change color to match the background. Never have; never will. Complete myth. Utter fabrication. Total Lie. They change color as a result of different emotional states.

How many legs does a centipede have?
Not a hundred.

How many toes has a two-toed sloth?
It’s either six or eight.

Who was the first American president?
Peyton Randolph.

What were George Washington’s false teeth made from?
Mostly hippopotamus.

What was James Bond’s favorite drink?
Not the vodka martini.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385366069
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/26/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 89,208
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

JOHN LLOYD is the producer of the hit British comedy shows Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, and Spitting Image.JOHN MITCHINSON writes for the British television show QI, and drinks in the same pub as John Lloyd.

Read an Excerpt

What's the name of the tallest mountain in the world?

Mauna Kea, the highest point on the island of Hawaii.

The inactive volcano is a modest 13,799 feet above sea level, but when measured from the seabed to its summit, it is 33,465 feet high—about three-quarters of a mile taller than Mount Everest.

As far as mountains are concerned, the current convention is that "highest" means measured from sea level to summit; "tallest" means measured from the bottom of the mountain to the top.

So, while Mount Everest, at 29,029 feet is the highest mountain in the world, it is not the tallest.

Measuring mountains is trickier than it looks. It's easy enough to see where the top is, but where exactly is the bottom of a mountain?

For example, some argue that Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania—at 19,340 feet—is taller than Everest because it rises straight out of the African plain, whereas Everest is merely one of many peaks topping the enormous base of the Himalayas, shared by the world's next thirteen highest mountains.

Others claim that the most logical measure ought to be the distance of a mountain's peak from the center of the Earth.

Because the Earth is a flattened rather than a perfect sphere, the equator is about thirteen miles further from the center of the Earth than the poles.

This is good news for the reputation of those mountains that are very close to the equator—like Mount Chimborazo in the Andes—but it also means accepting that even the beaches in Ecuador are higher than the Himalayas.

Though massive, the Himalayas are surprisingly young. When they were formed, the dinosaurs had been dead for twenty-five million years.

In Nepal, Everest is known as Chomolungma (Mother of the Universe). In Tibet, it is called Sagamartha (Forehead of the Sky). Like any healthy youngster, it is still growing, at the not very exciting rate of less than a quarter of an inch a year.

How do moths feel about flames?

They're not attracted to them. They are disoriented by them.

Apart from the odd forest fire, artificial light sources have been in existence for an extremely short time in comparison with the age of the relationship between moths and the sun and moon. Many insects use these light sources to navigate by day and night.

Because the moon and sun are a long way away, insects have evolved to expect the light from them to strike their eyes in the same place at different times of day or night, enabling them to calculate how to fly in a straight line.

When people come along with their portable miniature suns and moons and a moth flies past, the light confuses it. It assumes it must somehow be moving in a curved path, because its position in relation to the stationary sun or moon, has unexpectedly changed.

The moth then adjusts its course until it sees the light as stationary again. With a light source so close, the only way this is possible is to fly around and around it in circles.

Moths do not eat clothes. (It's their caterpillars that do it.)

Where is the driest place on earth?

Antarctica. Parts of the continent have seen no rain for two million years.

A desert is technically defined as a place that receives less than ten inches of rain a year.

The Sahara gets just one inch of rain a year.

Antarctica's average annual rainfall is about the same, but 2 percent of it, known as the Dry Valleys, is free of ice and snow and it never rains there at all.

The next-driest place in the world is the Atacama Desert in Chile. In some areas, no rain has fallen for four hundred years and its average annual rainfall is a tiny 0.004 inch. Taken as a whole, this makes it the world's driest desert, 250 times as dry as the Sahara.

As well as the driest place on earth, Antarctica can also claim to be the wettest and the windiest. Seventy percent of the world's fresh water is found there in the form of ice, and its wind speeds are the fastest ever recorded.

The unique conditions in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica are caused by so-called katabatic winds (from the Greek word for "going down"). These occur when cold, dense air is pulled downhill simply by the force of gravity. The winds can reach speeds of 200 mph, evaporating all moisture—water, ice, and snow—in the process.

Though Antarctica is a desert, these completely dry parts of it are called, somewhat ironically, oases. They are so similar to conditions on Mars that NASA used them to test the Viking mission.

Where are you most likely to get caught in

a hailstorm?

The Western Highlands of Kenya, in Africa.

In terms of annual average, Kericho, Kenya, has more hail than anywhere else on earth, with hail falling on 132 days each year. By comparison, the United Kingdom averages only 15 hail days in a year and the worst affected area in the United States, the eastern Rockies, experiences an average of 45 hail days a year.

What causes the abundance of hail is not fully understood. Kericho is the home of Kenya's tea plantations, and a 1978 study showed that organic litter from the tea plants gets stirred into the atmosphere, where it acts as a nucleus around which hailstones can grow.

Another theory is that the high altitude of the region could be to blame, as the shape of the terrain causes a large uplift of warm air that quickly condenses. This, and the reduced distance between the freezing level (about three miles up) and the ground, reduces the chance of hailstones' melting.

The average hailstone is about a quarter of an inch across, but they can grow large enough to dent cars, shatter greenhouses, and even injure people.

The largest single hailstone ever recorded in the United States was 7 inches in diameter, 18.75 inches in circumference, and weighed in at just under a pound. It fell into the backyard of a house in Aurora, Nebraska, in June 2003. This is off the end of the official U.S. scale for describing hailstones, which starts at "pea" and rises progressively through mothball, walnut, and teacup to softball. The Aurora hailstone was the size of a small melon and would have hit the ground at 100 mph.

Hail costs the United States $1 billion each year in damage to property and crops. A hailstorm that struck Munich, Germany, in July 1984 caused an estimated $1 billion worth of damage to trees, buildings, and motor vehicles in a single afternoon. Trees were stripped of their bark, and whole fields of crops were destroyed. More than 70,000 buildings and 250,000 cars were damaged, and more than 400 people were injured.

However, the world's worst hailstorm occurred in the Gopalanj district of Bangladesh on April 14, 1986. Some of the hailstones weighed more than two pounds, and at least 92 people were killed.

What's the largest living thing?

It's a mushroom.

And it's not even a particularly rare one. You've probably got the honey fungus (Armillaria ostoyae) in your garden, growing on a dead tree stump.

For your sake, let's hope it doesn't reach the size of the largest recorded specimen, in Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It covers 2,200 acres and is between two thousand and eight thousand years old. Most of it is underground in the form of a massive mat of tentacle-like white mycelia (the mushroom's equivalent of roots). These spread along tree roots, killing the trees and peeping up through the soil occasionally as innocent-looking clumps of honey mushrooms.

The giant honey fungus of Oregon was initially thought to grow in separate clusters throughout the forest, but researchers have now confirmed it is the world's single biggest organism, connected under the soil.

What's the biggest thing a blue whale can swallow?

a. A very large mushroom

b. A small family car

c. A grapefruit

d. A sailor

A grapefruit.

Quite interestingly, a blue whale's throat is almost exactly the same diameter as its belly button (which is about the size of a salad plate), but a little smaller than its eardrum (which is more the size of a dinner plate).

For eight months of the year, blue whales eat virtually nothing, but during the summer they feed almost continuously, scooping up three tons of food a day. As you may remember from biology lessons, their diet consists of tiny, pink, shrimplike crustaceans called krill, which go down like honey. Krill come conveniently served in huge swarms that can weigh more than 100,000 tons.

The word krill is Norwegian. It comes from the Dutch word kriel, meaning "small fry" but now also used to mean both pygmies and "small potatoes." Krill sticks have been marketed with reasonable success in Chile but krill mince was a bit of a disaster in Russia, Poland, and South Africa owing to dangerously high levels of fluoride. It came from the krill's shells, which were too small to pick off individually before mincing.

The narrow gauge of a blue whale's throat means it couldn't have swallowed Jonah. The only whale with a throat wide enough to swallow a person whole is the sperm whale and, once inside, the intense acidity of the sperm whale's stomach juices would make survival impossible. The celebrated case of the "Modern Jonah" in 1891, in which James Bartley claimed to have been swallowed by a sperm whale and rescued by his crewmates fifteen hours later, has been nailed as a fraud.

Aside from its throat, everything else about the blue whale is big. At 105 feet in length, it is the largest creature that has ever lived—three times the size of the biggest dinosaur and equivalent in weight to 2,700 people. Its tongue weighs more than an elephant; its heart is the size of a family car; its stomach can hold more than a ton of food. It also makes the loudest noise of any individual animal: a low frequency hum that can be detected by other whales more than 10,000 miles away.

Which bird lays the smallest egg for its size?

The ostrich.

Although it is the largest single cell in nature, an ostrich egg is less than 1.5 percent of the weight of the mother. A wren's egg, by comparison, is 13 percent of its weight.

The largest egg in comparison with the size of the bird is that of the little spotted kiwi. Its egg accounts for 26 percent of its own weight: the equivalent of a woman giving birth to a six-year-old child.

An ostrich egg weighs as much as twenty-four hen's eggs; to soft-boil one takes forty-five minutes. Queen Victoria tucked into one for breakfast and declared it among the best meals she had ever eaten.

The largest egg laid by any animal—including the dinosaurs—belonged to the elephant bird of Madagascar, which became extinct in 1700. It was ten times the size of an ostrich egg, nine liters in volume and the equivalent of 180 chicken's eggs.

The elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus) is thought to be the basis for the legend of the fierce roc that Sinbad battles in the Arabian Nights.

How long can a chicken live without its head?

About two years.

On September 10, 1945, a plump young cockerel in Fruita, Colorado, had his head chopped off and lived. Incredibly, the axe had missed the jugular vein and left enough of the brain stem attached to the neck for him to survive, even thrive.

Mike, as he was known, became a national celebrity, touring the country and featuring in Time and Life magazines. His owner, Lloyd Olsen, charged twenty-five cents for a chance to meet "Mike the Headless Wonder Chicken" in sideshows across the United States. Mike would appear complete with a dried chicken's head purported to be his own—in fact, the Olsens' cat had made off with the original. At the height of his fame, Mike was making $4,500 a month, and was valued at $10,000. His success resulted in a wave of copycat chicken beheadings, though none of the unfortunate victims lived for more than a day or two.

Mike was fed and watered using an eyedropper. In the two years after he lost his head, he put on nearly six pounds and spent his time happily preening and "pecking" for food with his neck. One person who knew Mike well commented: "He was a big fat chicken who didn't know he didn't have a head."

Tragedy struck one night in a motel room in Phoenix, Arizona. Mike started to choke and Lloyd Olsen, to his horror, realized he'd left the eyedropper at the previous day's show. Unable to clear his airways, Mike choked to death.

Mike remains a cult figure in Colorado, and, every May since 1999, Fruita has marked his passing with a "Mike the Headless Chicken" Day.

What has a three-second memory?

Not a goldfish, for starters.

Despite its status as a proverbial fact, a goldfish's memory isn't a few seconds long.

Research by the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth in 2003 demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that goldfish have a memory span of at least three months and can distinguish between different shapes, colors, and sounds. They were trained to push a lever to earn a food reward; when the lever was fixed to work only for an hour a day, the fish soon learned to activate it at the correct time. A number of similar studies have shown that farmed fish can easily be trained to feed at particular times and places in response to an audible signal.

Goldfish don't swim into the side of the bowl, not because they can see it, but because they are using a pressure-sensing system called the lateral line. Certain species of blind cave fish are able to navigate perfectly well in their lightless environment by using their lateral line system alone.

While we're dealing with goldfish myths, a pregnant goldfish isn't, hasn't, and can't be called a "twit." Goldfish don't get pregnant: they lay eggs that the males fertilize in the water.

In principle, there could be a word for a female fish with egg development, but none is listed in any proper dictionary.

What's the most dangerous animal that

has ever lived?

Half the human beings who have ever died, perhaps as many as 45 billion people, have been killed by female mosquitoes (the males only bite plants).

Mosquitoes carry more than a hundred potentially fatal diseases, including malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, encephalitis, filariasis, and elephantiasis. Even today, they kill one person every twelve seconds.

Amazingly, nobody had any idea that mosquitoes were dangerous until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1877 the British doctor Sir Patrick Manson—known as "Mosquito" Manson—proved that elephantiasis was caused by mosquito bites.

Seventeen years later, in 1894, it occurred to him that malaria might also be caused by mosquitoes.

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The Book of General Ignorance 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoy reading "useless information" books, and this one is by far the best I've ever read.
wearylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a great book for anyone who is interested in the truth. The book corrects many myths, some interesting, some not so much. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in history.
barpurple on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Perfect book for bathroom reading as you can dip in and out. A dangerous book in the hands of a ten year old, who will delight at coming out with random snippets of information, much to the general confusion of those around them.
kevinashley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Slightly better than some of these "isn't it curious"-type books but not a lot. Facts are often stretched to make an interesting story and it reads like something written by journalists. Amusing as a bedtime book in very small doses.
phoebesmum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not by Mr Stephen Fry at all (as advertised at the time of publication), although he does provide an introduction. If we kept books in the loo, this would be the book we kept in there. But we don't. So it isn't. (Maybe we should?)
theboylatham on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago

Five out of ten.

Reference book of urban myths and strange tales. Based on the TV series.

Ella_Jill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a really interesting book. In my experience, there aren't many such general Q&A books that are fully accurate. I haven¿t found this book to be so either, but it was the best of its kind that I've come across. Of course, I haven¿t checked all the information in it, but I did try to check the most surprising answers. Here are some of the most interesting facts I¿ve gleaned from this book:Contrary to what I had assumed, not all of Antarctica is covered with snow and ice. There are areas there called the Dry Valleys which haven¿t seen any precipitation whatsoever for 2 million years, due to winds reaching 200 mph which evaporate all moisture from the air. NASA tested their equipment for a Mars probe there. All the plague epidemics that came to Europe from Asia started with a Mongolian species of marmots which is particularly susceptible to this bacteria. They give the disease to fleas which give it to rats which give it to humans. Actually, just a year ago there was a case of a Chinese road construction worker who shot, cooked and ate a marmot, soon felt ill and was rushed to the hospital where he died from plague ¿ not being a local he didn¿t know about the dangers of marmots. What most surprised me is that apparently nobody there is calling for the wholesale extermination of marmots. Here, in the US, the far more harmless wolves, coyotes and black bears are treated like public enemies, and in China and Mongolia apparently people are content just to try to be careful with the animals that can give them the plague! The first steam engine in the world was invented by an Alexandrian called Heron or Hero in 62 CE. His contemporaries viewed it as an amusing, but useless novelty. (He also discovered the formulas to calculate the area of a triangle and other 2- and 3-dimensional figures). The telephone was apparently invented by an Italian-American Antonio Meucci in 1860. He couldn¿t afford to pay for a definitive patent and filed a one-year renewable notice of an impending patent, but later on, badly injured when a ferry¿s boiler exploded and living on charity, he couldn¿t afford even to renew that. He sent sketches and working models to the Western Union telegraph company, but didn¿t get a response from them and was later told that they had been lost. When Bell, who had shared a laboratory with him, filed a patent for a telephone, Meucci sued, and fraud charges were initiated against Bell, but then Meucci died and the lawsuit was dropped. In 2002 a vote in the US House of Representatives declared Meucci the inventor of the telephone. (However, this book says that the vote took place in 2004, and implies that Bell worked in the Western Union lab where Meucci sent his documents and from where they ¿mysteriously disappeared.¿) Penicillin was first discovered by a French army doctor Ernest Duchesne in 1897. He saw Arab stable boys deliberately trying to cultivate mold on saddles, and they explained that it helps cure horses¿ sores. Duchesne conducted research, identified the mold as Penicillum glaucum, and used it to cure typhoid in guinea pigs and kill colonies of E.coli. He wrote a report to Institut Pasteur which ignored it (Pasteur himself had died 2 years previously). Military duties prevented Duchesne from promoting his discoveries more vigorously, and then he died at 28 from tuberculosis ¿ an illness later cured with antibiotics! When Alexander Fleming had rediscovered penicillin in 1928, his findings were also ignored till World War II started, and the pressing need for antibacterial drugs prompted Ernst Chain and Howard Florey to work to isolate the active compound within the mold (which Fleming had been unable to do). Production of penicillin began in 1942; in 1945 Fleming, Chain and Florey received the Nobel Prize. In 1949 Duchesne was honored posthumously, but remained in obscurity. There are 3,000-4,700 tigers in India and 12,000 tigers kept as private pets in the USA, with 4,000 living in captivity in Texas alon
dougcornelius on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A cheeky collection of trivia presented in a gotcha manner.For example, what's the tallest mountain in the world?No, not Everest. It's Mauna Kea in Hawaii. It's only 13,799 feet above sea level, but 33,465 feet when measured from the seabed. "Highest" means measured from sea level to summit, but tallest means measured from the top to the bottom. Each entry goes on to discuss more trivia and information about the topic. As you might suspect, some are more amusing than others.
JeffV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fact-finding websites such as Snopes help us sort out heresay, folk lore, and plain fiction from the truth. The Book of General Ignorance weaves a path through myths, some well-known, others not, sometimes with tenuous segues. It's a short, but fun and interesting.
libasst on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Something for everyone; learn something new.
TiffanyAK on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book can blow your mind. There are a lot of questions that I felt completely sure I knew the answer to, only to be completely flummoxed to find out I was wrong. You may not be interested in all the facts in this book, but I do feel there's quite a bit here for just about anybody. Definitely a fun and entertaning read, that'll also make you feel that much smarter for having read it.
ValSmith on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wonderful collection of little known facts, or correcting "general ignorance" or just plain wrong information people have about a very wide range of subjects.
fieldri1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
John Lloyd, one of the co-authors of this book seems to specialise in slightly frothy, snippet based books which can be read in tiny bite sized pieces (I refer the reader to The Meaning of Liff with Douglas Adams). In this case the book is a series of questions, many of which you probably think you know the answer to, but which you are then disavowed of.For instance, what is the 'Ring a-ring a-Roses' about.I, like most people thought it was about the Black Death (Bubonic Plague). But it dates back much further than that and its genesis has been lost in the mists of time.
knitgeisha on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great light read. It really reminds you how much you don't know. I think it reads as if it were written by the narrator of the Hitchhiker's Guide movie.
boo262 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A book to dip in and out of for funny snippets, interesting stories and making yourself feel dumb.
psiloiordinary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the best typeset books I have ever seen. Definitely the best typeset book I was ever given by the person who did the actual typesetting. Thanks Paula.If you like the tv series you will probably like the book - they are pretty much identical.The main advantage of the book over the tv series is that you don't have to wait until late at night for your fix of the strange and interesting.Think you know how many nostrils you have? Think again.A good laugh.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Knocks your socks off.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
QI is a comedy quiz show from the BBC hosted by Stephen Fry. If you're a fan of the show, you'll probably know some of these already, but it's still "quite interesting"! (If you don't get this, at least google the show) If you like this book, which everyone must, I can guarantee you'll love the TV series. John Lloyd is a genius for coming up with this book and the show.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book to read about facts and our supposed "general knowledge" of mankind. The Book of General Ignorance is a book that I recommend to everyone who enjoys reading about facts and common knowledge. This book proves that the things that we think we know (Magellan - the 1st man to circumnavigated the world, baseball was invented in US, there are 50 States in the U.S, etc), is actually wrong.
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