Common Knowledge

Posted on March 15, 2014


ChangsMore than sixty percent of the Earth’s crust is made up of a rock called feldspar. At least this is what I’ve read. It isn’t clear to me how anyone could be certain about something like that, because they’d have to go around digging up the whole world in order to verify that they haven’t miscalculated, and that would be a lot of work. If you do any gardening at all, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve tried to simply accept the information and move on to other matters, but I can’t remember the last time I even saw any feldspar. If it comprises more than half the planet’s crust, we should be tripping over the stuff. I’m starting to wonder if there might be a shortage of feldspar, and they’re just not telling us.

In a similar way, water is supposed to be the most common compound in the entire universe. This, too, seems unexpected. I’ve watched a lot of movies about astronauts in outer space, and they always look kind of dehydrated. That’s why I was relieved to discover how plentiful water really is. A journey to another star system can be a pretty stressful thing to do, and after such a long flight, a warm bath or a brisk swim might be a good way to loosen up those tired muscles. Even a quick jaunt to Venus — where temperatures hover close to nine hundred degrees — would be unpleasant without something cold to drink once in a while.

Speaking of cold, and stones, some species of penguin give each other pebbles as a gesture of courtship. I used to think this was another one of those things that’s true only in cartoons, but they actually do it. More than a mere token of affection, the gift serves as a kind of engagement ring. The females would prefer diamonds, I suspect, but with all that ice around, those are a little hard to spot.

Here’s another thing I just found out. In the United States, the most popular name for boys is Mason, and for girls it’s Sophia. When you look at the entire world, Mohammad is the first name given most frequently, while people with the last name Chang outnumber all others. The most common full name, anywhere, is James Smith. After reading these statistics, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that I don’t know anyone.

There’s a widespread belief that it’s impossible to fold a sheet of paper in half more than seven times. It’s quite astonishing how many people think this is true. Yet, just this morning, I was able to fold twenty-nine sheets of paper in half. I stopped only because I got tired of wasting my energy on such a stupid activity, and also because I got a really bad paper cut on my left index finger.

Another famous misconception is that an egg can be stood on end only on the day of the spring equinox. This is ridiculous, of course, and illustrates our abysmal grasp of basic scientific facts. I recently opened a carton of eggs and all twelve of them were standing on end. And that was in January. I was at the supermarket, and before putting the eggs into my shopping cart, I checked to make sure none of them was broken. My mother taught me to do this when I was about eleven. Since then, I’ve noticed that everyone does the same thing, which means we’ve all seen eggs standing up — hundreds of times. So it’s hard to fathom the confusion.

You can count on one thing, though. The moon will pass between the Earth and the sun on April 29th, producing a solar eclipse. Most people are aware that it’s dangerous to look directly at a solar eclipse, because doing so can damage the retinas and result in permanent blindness. Less well-known is the fact that listening to an eclipse can cause significant hearing loss. (Okay, it isn’t exactly a fact, but it’s one of those foolish impulses that I don’t think is worth the risk.) Next month’s event will be best seen from a tiny corner of Antarctica, which I imagine will severely limit the number of viewers. If you happen to be there, please wear eye protection. And warn the penguins, too. But most likely, they’ll be too busy collecting pebbles to bother with the eclipse. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have all the feldspar.