QI: A selection #7

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

The longest and slowest piece of music in history is John Cage’s As Slow as Possible, originally written in 1985 as a 20-minute piece for piano. After Cage’s death in 1992, a conference of philosophers and musicians set themselves the task of seeing just how long the eight-page score could last. As a result, it was adapted for organ and has been playing since 2001 at the church of St Burchardi in Halberstadt, Germany. It is planned to last 639 years, the first organ in Halberstadt having been built 639 years earlier. After kicking off with a 17-month pause, the organ’s six pipes have managed eight chord changes since and a new chord is due on February 5 2011. To check on progress, or to order a (somewhat faster) CD, visit www.john-cage.halberstadt.de.

The highest mountain in the known universe is Olympus Mons, a giant volcano on Mars, almost three times the height of Mount Everest.  Olympus Mons is 15 miles high and 388 miles across. It is wide and flat, resembling a vast island in a sea drained of water. The crater on top is 45 miles wide and nearly two miles deep. The mountain is so wide that its base would cover Italy and the caldera at the top would engulf London, though the incline of its sides is so slight (between one and three degrees) that you wouldn’t even break sweat if you climbed it.

The universal belief that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was tiny came about from a combination of mistranslation and propaganda.  Napoleon’s autopsy, carried out in 1821 by his personal physician, Francesco Antommarchi, recorded his height as “5/2”. It is now thought this represents the French measurement “5 pieds 2 pouces”, which converts to the English measurement of 5ft 6½in (1.69m). The average height of Frenchmen between 1800 and 1820 was only 5ft 4½in (1.64m); Napoleon was thus 2½in taller than his rival Horatio Nelson, who was only 5ft 4in (1.62m).

One of the strangest products of Indonesian agriculture involves the farming of the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). These small, cat-sized mammals are fed coffee berries and their faeces are collected and washed to make kopi luwak (civet coffee). The action of their stomach enzymes lends the resulting drink an unmatched richness of flavour that has none of coffee’s usual bitterness. As a result it is the world’s most expensive beverage, fetching up to £500 per pound. In 2008 an espresso made from kopi luwak went on sale at Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square, London, for £50 per cup. Apparently a similar coffee can be made by feeding coffee berries to muntjac deer, a south-east Asian species now naturalised in southern England. Home-grown English kopi muncak has yet to be reported.

Despite its apparent stately motion, the Earth is pretty nippy: if you stand on the Equator, the speed of its rotation around its own axis is about 1,040mph. This decreases as you approach the poles: stand on either pole and you barely move at all. But remember that as well as spinning, Earth is hurtling around the sun at 67,000mph. Were we able to fly at that speed, we could circle Earth in 20 minutes. The solar system is moving even faster, spinning around the centre of the Milky Way at 492,000mph. Even so, it takes it 225 million years to complete a single orbit (so it has managed 20 in total since the birth of the Sun, and only one since humans evolved).

According to the historian Niall Ferguson, of the 125 major European wars fought since 1495, the French have participated in 50 – more than Austria (47) and England (43). Out of 168 battles fought since 387BC, they have won 109, lost 49 and drawn 10.  The British tend to be rather selective about the battles they remember. Every English schoolboy was once able to recite the roll call of our glorious wins at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415), but no one’s ever heard of the French victories at Patay (1429) and (especially) at Castillon (1453), where French cannons tore the English apart, winning the Hundred Years War and confirming France as the most powerful military nation in Europe. And what about the Duke of Enghien thrashing the Spanish at Rocroi late on in the Thirty Years War in 1643, ending a century of Spanish dominance? Or the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, when General Comte de Rochambeau and American forces prevailed? The British always prided themselves on superiority at sea, but knew they could never win a land war on the Continent. France’s achievements help to explain another French “military victory”. Whether it is ranks (general, captain, corporal, lieutenant); equipment (lance, mine, bayonet, epaulette, trench); organisation (volunteer, regiment, soldier, barracks) or strategy (army, camouflage, combat, esprit de corps, reconnaissance), the language of warfare is French.

Early motoring was very slow. Such was the fear of the damaging effects of the motor car (hugely exaggerated by the railway companies) that a series of laws were passed in the 1860s known as the Red Flag Acts. They limited the speed to 4mph in the country and 2mph in town and required each car to have a minimum crew of three, one of whom was required to walk 60 yards in front of the vehicle, waving a red flag. It wasn’t until 1896 that Bridget Driscoll of Croydon became the first pedestrian to be killed in a road accident in Britain. She was crossing the grounds of Crystal Palace when a car hit her, travelling at 4mph (the speed limit had been raised to 12mph and the red flag abolished).

Cicadas are the world’s loudest insects, with some of the 2,500 species reaching 120 decibels — the equivalent to what you hear when sitting in the front row of a loud rock concert. The longest-living insect is the termite queen: they have been known to live for at least 50 years and some scientists believe they may live to 100. The giant weta (Deinacrida heteracantha), a type of cricket endemic to New Zealand’s offshore islands, is the heaviest insect alive today. The largest specimen, a female, weighed 71g (2.5oz), three times heavier than the average house mouse, and was more than 85mm (3.4in) long.

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One Response to QI: A selection #7

  1. Nickdg says:

    Just a quick comment about early motoring. The series of laws passed in the 1860s (the Locomotive Acts) could not have been aimed at stopiing cars, as these were not introduced into Britain until 1890s! They were in fact aimed at stopping large steam-driven vehicles (limiting them to a maximum of 12 tons!). It wan’t until the production of the first car in Briatin in 1896 that the Locomotives on Highways Act was passed that same year exempting “locomotives” under 3 tons from the previous laws.

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