Excerpt from The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Know-It-All

One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

By A. J. Jacobs

The Know-It-All

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By this time, Julie has long since departed for the safety of the living room. But Mom, being my mom, is stuck listening. She's supportive of everything I do, not counting the time my sister and I took hang gliding lessons from a Deadhead or all those open car windows in arctic temperatures.

I explain to Mom that the Bible talks about Jesus' birth coinciding with the Star of Bethlehem, which wasn't a star at all, but an astronomical phenomenon. It was either a nova that occurred in 5 B.C. or the combined light of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, which all nearly lined up in 6 B.C.

"Well, then, Happy 2007," she says.

God bless Mom. I have to remember to hang out with her more often.

As for the gift exchange, I get a sweater and some pants. My sister Beryl and her husband, Willy, give me a couple books that I can't even imagine reading until 2008 or so.

Julie -- a master gift buyer -- had scoured catalogues and stores to get my family exceedingly appropriate presents. I was happy to take partial credit. In my defense, I did help write the cards, including my masterpiece, the one to Beryl, which started: "Dear Be3Al2(SiO3)6."

"This is for me, right?" Beryl asks.

"Yep. That's the chemical symbol for the beryl mineral."

"I thought that might be it."

"One of the largest beryls was found in Brazil -- two hundred tons. So compared to that, you're very skinny."

That came out wrong. I had somehow just called my sister fat, which she isn't, and which I would like to take back, but it's too late.


After the gift exchange, we all clean up the mess of wrapping paper and ribbons that has accumulated on the floor.

"So I've officially passed you," I say to my dad, as we take out the holiday detritus. "I'm in late B's."

"Anything interesting?" he asks.

"I was just reading about broccoli. You know, it's officially classed as a type of cabbage."

My dad nods his head. "I've got a good fact for you," says my dad. "You know the speed of light, right?"

"Yes. 186,000 miles per second."

"Yes, but do you know it in fathoms per fortnight?"

"What?"

"Do you know the speed of light in fathoms per fortnight?"

"Uh, don't think I do."

My dad tells me that he has calculated the speed of light in fathoms per fortnight so that he can be the only person in the world who knows that particular piece of information. That, as my mother would say, is "very Arnie."

"It's 1.98 x 1014" he says.

"Wow. Really fascinating." My tone is definitely snappish, aggressive. My dad looks a little hurt. I'm not sure why I said it the way I did -- I guess I felt he'd one-upped me -- but it wasn't in the holiday spirit, that's for sure.

 

bruise

My left eye has turned a bright lobster shell red. I'm not positive it's tied to my exhausting marathon reading sessions, but I like to think it is. I consider it my first Britannica-related injury, and I wear it proudly. Though I don't want to go blind like your average early blues singer (Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Lemon Jefferson), a little manly eyestrain seems appropriate.

Julie got concerned and has bought me several bags of baby carrots to help my rods and cones. Carrots, by the way, are a close cousin of hemlock (both in the Apiaceae family), so I'm hoping Julie didn't mix the two up.

 

Brutus

I was familiar with Brutus, the one featured in Shakespeare's classic line "Et tu, Brute." But what I didn't know was that there were two Brutuses who took part in Caesar's assassination, Brutus Albinus and Brutus Marcus. But only one Brutus -- Marcus -- gets all the headlines. That poor sap Brutus Albinus -- also a protégé of Caesar's -- needed a better publicist. "Et tu, Brute. Et tu, Brute, too?" I can't be certain, but the forgotten Brutus seems to have been the more powerful one at the time. After the assassination, this Brutus led an army against Antony; he lost, and was killed by a Gallic chieftain on Antony's orders. Ignored by history or killed by a Frenchman -- I'm not sure which is sadder.

From The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs.  Pages 7-30 of the hardcover edition.  Copyright © 2004 by A.J. Jacobs

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