QI: A selection #4

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

French fries were invented in 17th-century Belgium as a substitute for, rather than accompaniment to, fish. When the rivers froze and fish couldn’t be caught, potatoes were cut into fishy shapes and fried instead. The Dutch call chips Vlaamse frieten (Flemish fries). The first recorded chip shop, Max et Fritz, was established in Antwerp in 1862. The Belgian’s often claim the term “French fry” came from British and US troops exposed to their national delicacy during the First World War, but the expression “French fried potatoes” had been in use in America long before the Great War.

In 2005 the British Cheese Board organised a study involving 200 volunteers in an attempt to nail the old wives’ tale that eating cheese before sleep gives you nightmares. The results revealed a different story: more than three quarters of the participants, who ate 20 grams of cheese before going to bed, reported undisturbed sleep, although the majority of them were able to recall their dreams. More surprisingly, the different varieties of cheese seemed to produce different kinds of dream. Cheddar induced a higher proportion of dreams about celebrities; Red Leicester summoned childhood memories; Lancashire generated dreams about work; while Cheshire inspired no dreams at all. The overall conclusion was that cheese was a perfectly safe late-night snack which, because of its high levels of the serotonin-producing amino acid tryptophan, was far more likely to induce sleep and reduce stress.

 

Clouds are classified according to their height and appearance. The 10 basic categories were first agreed by the Cloud Committee of the International Meteorological Conference in 1896 and published as the International Cloud Atlas. Their classifications were based on the pioneering work of Luke Howard (1772-1864), an English Quaker and pharmacist, who published his Essay on the Modification of Clouds in 1802. In it he gives Latin names to the four main cloud types: cirrus, “curl”; stratus, “layer”; cumulus, “heap”; and nimbus, “rain cloud”. The early theorist of evolution, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) had suggested an earlier system in French but it didn’t catch on – his names included “hazy clouds” (en forme de voile), “massed clouds” (attroupes), “broom-like clouds” (en balayeurs). Before Howard and Lamarck, clouds were simply named after their appearance: white, black, mare’s tail or mackerel. In Iran clouds are good omens. To indicate someone is blessed they say: dayem semakum ghaim, which translates as “your sky is always filled with clouds”.

 

The largest bank note in England is the one hundred million pound note, nicknamed a Titan. It is only used internally at the Bank of England, and there are only 40 in existence.

 

The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) actually lasted 116 years and didn’t acquire its popular name until 1874. It was a series of skirmishes fought between two French families, one of whom claimed the French throne (Valois), while the other claimed both France and England (Plantagenet). The eventual victory of the Valois came at a high price – France’s population was reduced by two-thirds over the period and England was left isolated from the rest of Europe, speaking English rather than French.

 

Giant Sequoia trees are the heaviest living things to have existed on Earth: they can weigh more than 6,000 tons, reach 311 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter. Their bark is up to four feet thick, but the seeds are tiny, weighing 1/3000th of an ounce each, approximately one billionth the weight of the fully grown tree. Also known as Wellingtonia trees, Giant Sequoias are native to California but have been planted worldwide. They are also the fastest growing trees in the world. Paradoxically, forest fires are essential for their survival. Because of their thick bark, sequoias survive fires which completely destroy all other trees, leaving the forest clear of undergrowth, which enables the sequoia’s absurdly tiny seeds to survive. The trees also rely on the heat of the fires to open their tough seed cones and to expose the bare soil. Because of this the US Forest Service now regularly sets fire to their sequoia groves on purpose.

 

Iceland is a bigger land mass than most of us realise. At 39,000 sq m (101010 sq km) it is the same size as Cuba, 25 per cent bigger than Ireland and 50 per cent bigger than Sri Lanka. Despite this its population is slightly smaller than that of Croydon: 310,000. This means that, per head of population, Icelanders read more books, eat more sugar, keep more shotguns, drive more four-wheel drives, produce more poets and have more Nobel Prize winners (just the one) than any other nation. In 2007, Iceland was ranked the most developed country in the world by the United Nations. In 2003 three Icelandic banks – Landsbanki, Kaupthing and Glitnir – began buying foreign assets, building up a joint portfolio of $140 billion (£92 bn). By 2006, the average Icelandic family was three times as wealthy as it had been in 2003, but the prosperity ended abruptly in October 2008, when the three banks failed. Iceland now faces an economy saddled with debts running at 850 per cent of GDP, or £224,000 owed for every man, woman and child in the country. The UK deposited more than £30 bn into Iceland. Educational institutions have been particularly affected –Oxford University alone has lost £50 million.

 

The most plausible biological explanation for kissing is that it allows prospective mates to sample one another’s pheromones and test them for biological compatibility (although experiments have so far been unable to establish if human sex pheromones really exist). It takes a lot of muscular co-ordination to kiss properly – 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles are involved.

 

The early uses for chocolate were medicinal and in recent years bold claims have been made for its therapeutic benefits. Chocolate contains serotonin, phenylethylamine (the so-called ”love chemical’’) and endorphins which, it is claimed, can relieve pain, reduce stress and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, the beneficial chemicals come wrapped in a thick coating of sugar and (often) dairy fat, the negative effects of which more than outweigh the chemical upside. Interestingly, in blind tests where chocolate lovers were given cacao capsules (containing the same balance of chemicals) they didn’t report any of the same psychological benefits they had experienced when allowed to eat a bar of their favourite chocolate. This suggests that the positive effects come from having satisfied a craving; like other sweet and fatty foods, chocolate is habit forming. And yet, so powerful are the pleasure centres in our brain, that sucking on a piece can make your heart beat faster and for longer than a passionate kiss.

 

The astronomical name for our Sun is Sol. Everything about Sol is big: it makes up 99 per cent of the mass of the solar system (all the planets and asteroids added together only account for 1 per cent). It burns 700 million tons of hydrogen a second yet it takes a million years for the energy created in its core to filter out to the surface, which is 3,000 times cooler than the centre (16.7 million C). Every second, Sol produces energy equivalent to 35 million times the annual electricity consumption of North America. Sol is 1.3 million times bigger than Earth and at 93 million miles distance, its rays take just eight minutes and 19 seconds to reach us. Despite these figures, Sol is an average to small star, known as a white dwarf, halfway through its life. Close neighbour Betelgeuse (one of the constellation Orion’s ”shoulders’’) is 700 times bigger and 14,000 times brighter. Sol is only one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is itself just one of an estimated 125 million galaxies in the observable universe.

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

 

French fries were invented in 17th-century Belgium as a substitute for, rather than accompaniment to, fish. When the rivers froze and fish couldn’t be caught, potatoes were cut into fishy shapes and fried instead. The Dutch call chips Vlaamse frieten (Flemish fries). The first recorded chip shop, Max et Fritz, was established in Antwerp in 1862. The Belgian’s often claim the term “French fry” came from British and US troops exposed to their national delicacy during the First World War, but the expression “French fried potatoes” had been in use in America long before the Great War.

 

In 2005 the British Cheese Board organised a study involving 200 volunteers in an attempt to nail the old wives’ tale that eating cheese before sleep gives you nightmares. The results revealed a different story: more than three quarters of the participants, who ate 20 grams of cheese before going to bed, reported undisturbed sleep, although the majority of them were able to recall their dreams. More surprisingly, the different varieties of cheese seemed to produce different kinds of dream. Cheddar induced a higher proportion of dreams about celebrities; Red Leicester summoned childhood memories; Lancashire generated dreams about work; while Cheshire inspired no dreams at all. The overall conclusion was that cheese was a perfectly safe late-night snack which, because of its high levels of the serotonin-producing amino acid tryptophan, was far more likely to induce sleep and reduce stress.

 

Clouds are classified according to their height and appearance. The 10 basic categories were first agreed by the Cloud Committee of the International Meteorological Conference in 1896 and published as the International Cloud Atlas. Their classifications were based on the pioneering work of Luke Howard (1772-1864), an English Quaker and pharmacist, who published his Essay on the Modification of Clouds in 1802. In it he gives Latin names to the four main cloud types: cirrus, “curl”; stratus, “layer”; cumulus, “heap”; and nimbus, “rain cloud”. The early theorist of evolution, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) had suggested an earlier system in French but it didn’t catch on – his names included “hazy clouds” (en forme de voile), “massed clouds” (attroupes), “broom-like clouds” (en balayeurs). Before Howard and Lamarck, clouds were simply named after their appearance: white, black, mare’s tail or mackerel. In Iran clouds are good omens. To indicate someone is blessed they say: dayem semakum ghaim, which translates as “your sky is always filled with clouds”.

 

The largest bank note in England is the one hundred million pound note, nicknamed a Titan. It is only used internally at the Bank of England, and there are only 40 in existence.

 

The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) actually lasted 116 years and didn’t acquire its popular name until 1874. It was a series of skirmishes fought between two French families, one of whom claimed the French throne (Valois), while the other claimed both France and England (Plantagenet). The eventual victory of the Valois came at a high price – France’s population was reduced by two-thirds over the period and England was left isolated from the rest of Europe, speaking English rather than French.

 

Giant Sequoia trees are the heaviest living things to have existed on Earth: they can weigh more than 6,000 tons, reach 311 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter. Their bark is up to four feet thick, but the seeds are tiny, weighing 1/3000th of an ounce each, approximately one billionth the weight of the fully grown tree. Also known as Wellingtonia trees, Giant Sequoias are native to California but have been planted worldwide. They are also the fastest growing trees in the world. Paradoxically, forest fires are essential for their survival. Because of their thick bark, sequoias survive fires which completely destroy all other trees, leaving the forest clear of undergrowth, which enables the sequoia’s absurdly tiny seeds to survive. The trees also rely on the heat of the fires to open their tough seed cones and to expose the bare soil. Because of this the US Forest Service now regularly sets fire to their sequoia groves on purpose.

 

Iceland is a bigger land mass than most of us realise. At 39,000 sq m (101010 sq km) it is the same size as Cuba, 25 per cent bigger than Ireland and 50 per cent bigger than Sri Lanka. Despite this its population is slightly smaller than that of Croydon: 310,000. This means that, per head of population, Icelanders read more books, eat more sugar, keep more shotguns, drive more four-wheel drives, produce more poets and have more Nobel Prize winners (just the one) than any other nation. In 2007, Iceland was ranked the most developed country in the world by the United Nations. In 2003 three Icelandic banks – Landsbanki, Kaupthing and Glitnir – began buying foreign assets, building up a joint portfolio of $140 billion (£92 bn). By 2006, the average Icelandic family was three times as wealthy as it had been in 2003, but the prosperity ended abruptly in October 2008, when the three banks failed. Iceland now faces an economy saddled with debts running at 850 per cent of GDP, or £224,000 owed for every man, woman and child in the country. The UK deposited more than £30 bn into Iceland. Educational institutions have been particularly affected –Oxford University alone has lost £50 million.

 

The most plausible biological explanation for kissing is that it allows prospective mates to sample one another’s pheromones and test them for biological compatibility (although experiments have so far been unable to establish if human sex pheromones really exist). It takes a lot of muscular co-ordination to kiss properly – 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles are involved.

 

The early uses for chocolate were medicinal and in recent years bold claims have been made for its therapeutic benefits. Chocolate contains serotonin, phenylethylamine (the so-called ”love chemical’’) and endorphins which, it is claimed, can relieve pain, reduce stress and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, the beneficial chemicals come wrapped in a thick coating of sugar and (often) dairy fat, the negative effects of which more than outweigh the chemical upside. Interestingly, in blind tests where chocolate lovers were given cacao capsules (containing the same balance of chemicals) they didn’t report any of the same psychological benefits they had experienced when allowed to eat a bar of their favourite chocolate. This suggests that the positive effects come from having satisfied a craving; like other sweet and fatty foods, chocolate is habit forming. And yet, so powerful are the pleasure centres in our brain, that sucking on a piece can make your heart beat faster and for longer than a passionate kiss.

 

The astronomical name for our Sun is Sol. Everything about Sol is big: it makes up 99 per cent of the mass of the solar system (all the planets and asteroids added together only account for 1 per cent). It burns 700 million tons of hydrogen a second yet it takes a million years for the energy created in its core to filter out to the surface, which is 3,000 times cooler than the centre (16.7 million C). Every second, Sol produces energy equivalent to 35 million times the annual electricity consumption of North America. Sol is 1.3 million times bigger than Earth and at 93 million miles distance, its rays take just eight minutes and 19 seconds to reach us. Despite these figures, Sol is an average to small star, known as a white dwarf, halfway through its life. Close neighbour Betelgeuse (one of the constellation Orion’s ”shoulders’’) is 700 times bigger and 14,000 times brighter. Sol is only one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is itself just one of an estimated 125 million galaxies in the observable universe.

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