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 by A. J. Jacobs
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2005, 400 pages

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Maybe by the end of the Bs I'll be smart enough to concentrate on the Big Picture.



Chapter Two: B

Bacon, Francis

I am making sacrifices in my quest for knowledge. No one can argue with that. I wake up early, about 7 A.M., which is the middle of the night for most journalists. I read in the morning, I read at night. I'm on the verge of losing a half dozen friends because I've got no time to call them back. And worst of all, I've missed several hours of crucial television, including what Julie tells me was a particularly riveting Real World episode in which an enraged girl throws a fork at another cast member.

So it's tough, this pursuit of intelligence. But I feel humbled by Sir Francis Bacon, who made the ultimate sacrifice. He died in the quest for knowledge, a martyr to the cause.

I hadn't remembered much about Bacon from school, except that he's suspected by some to be the real Shakespeare. Also, he wore a huge ruffled collar. So, as you can see, it was nice to get a refresher course.

I learned Bacon -- a 17th-century intellectual and politician -- had a troubled public life. He was convicted of taking bribes in 1621 and thrown in the Tower of London. His defense: yes, he took the bribes, but they didn't affect his judgment (not his best moment). As a scholar, he wrote cleverly about language and the philosophy of science.

But my favorite fact about Bacon, the one that will stick with me, is how he died. It happened in March of 1626, north of London. Bacon was riding along in his horse and carriage when he suddenly decided he needed to know whether snow delays putrefaction. So he abruptly stopped his carriage, hopped out to buy a hen, and stuffed it with snow. Unfortunately, this caused him to be seized with a sudden chill, which brought on bronchitis, and he died soon after at a friend's house.

This, to me, is a noble anecdote. Okay, it's a little embarrassing that his death involved frozen poultry. And maybe he displayed a touch of sadism -- I'm just hoping the poor hen wasn't alive when he rammed snow into its gullet. But there's also something great about it. Bacon had such an itch for knowledge, he was so giddy about an idea, that he just went bonkers and bolted out of his carriage. The man couldn't wait another second to find out more about antiputrefaction techniques. I find this inspiring. If you're going to give your life for a cause, furtherance of knowledge has got to be in the top two or three. In Bacon's honor, I put down the Britannica and go defrost a frozen bagel in the microwave.

 

baculum

This is the official name for a penis bone. The baculum can be found in hedgehogs, shrews, and bats. Interesting. I had no idea. The only time I'd ever even encountered the concept of a penis bone was during conversations with my college friend Ileana. Ileana had a very casual relationship with the truth. She liked to tell me stories about the pet llamas in her New York apartment, and her father's love affair with singer Robert Goulet. And once, she told me a detailed story about how her brother had broken his penis bone. He had been standing naked in front of an open window admiring the view from his hotel room, when -- whoom -- the window slid down and snapped his penis bone right in half.

"It's been three months, and he still has to wear the penis cast," she told me. "I was the first one to sign it."

"But Ileana," I said, "the penis doesn't have a bone."

"Oh," she said. That was it -- no apology, no attempt at backtracking, just an "oh." Now, after reading about the baculum, I realize that Ileana's brother was probably a hedgehog.

 

baldness

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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