Flip van Doorn & Jonah kahn –
How Many Tentacles Does an Octopus Have?
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was a great lover and proponent of useless knowledge. He claimed that an apricot tasted so much better to him since learning where both the fruit and the word came from. More than that, Russell believed that useless knowledge made you a better person.
It goes without saying that we wholeheartedly agree. People who like useless knowledge – and especially those who fill books with it – are exceptional people. But is there such a thing as useless knowledge? Isn’t all knowledge useless at the end of the day?
Belly button fluff migrates upwards, a dragonfly isn’t in fact a fly (nor a dragon) and the Philippine tarsier has the biggest eyes relative to its body size of all mammals. However pointless they may seem, these simple facts say more about us than many a scientific thesis. Not only does useless knowledge come in handy during a pub quiz, a round of Trivial Pursuit or a television game show, but it’s the glue that binds us together; it provides a glimpse under the bonnet of society. Speaking of which: the first ever motorist was a woman. During that first car journey, Bertha Benz used a hat pin and a garter to carry out repairs on the prototype developed by her husband Carl.
These are just a few random examples of knowledge with little or no practical value. You can lead a rich and fulfilling life without the faintest idea of these things. But the value lies precisely in their uselessness. Knowledge can be pleasurable in and of itself, regardless of use. ‘It is the useless things that make life worth living,’ says the British writer Stephen Fry.
When selecting our useless facts, we wanted them to meet two criteria: they could have no practical use whatsoever and they had to conjure a smile on our faces. If that was the case, they were perfectly useless.
Flip van Doorn & Jonah Kahn, May 2019
If, in an unguarded moment, someone asks you how many legs an octopus has – and there’s every chance that could happen – you know you need to be on guard. The obvious answer, ‘eight’, is bound to be wrong, that much is clear. But then how many are there?
Marine biologists have discovered that an octopus uses two of its eight tentacles to walk on the ocean floor. It uses the remaining six to eat. So an octopus has two legs and six arms.
Interesting detail: the male octopus also uses one of these six arms to mate. In order to transfer his sperm he inserts this arm into a hole in the female’s head. This ‘mating arm’ usually snaps off during the deed, but fear not, it regrows within a year.
The first car journey
Women at the wheel. For some they’re the butt of jokes, but the very first motorist happened to be a woman. Here’s what happened. In 1886 Carl Benz invented the automobile in his workshop in Mannheim. It resembled a small three-wheeled carriage, except that it was powered by a combustion engine instead of horses. Benz took it on a few test drives around town and applied for a patent, but his invention never caught on. The public was sceptical.
Until, that is, the day his wife decided to get behind the wheel. With her husband still asleep, Bertha Benz-Ringer got into one of the prototypes. Together with their two sons, she drove from Mannheim to her mother’s house in Pforzheim, 104 kilometres to the south. Along the way, she carried out repairs with a hat pin and a garter. When the fuel ran out, she popped into the local pharmacy in Wiesloch to buy a bottle of ligroin, a kind of petroleum spirit. On the way back, three days later, a cobbler relined the brakes with new leather.
Aside from a fun excursion, the road trip undertaken by Bertha Benz and her sons was also an unintended publicity stunt. She proved that her husband’s invention was suitable for covering large distances, and all the press coverage she received put the automobile squarely in the spotlight. Carl Benz later acknowledged that he owed the breakthrough of his vehicle to his spouse’s daredevilry.
Today’s motorists can travel down the same roads as that first car. The Bertha Benz Memorial Route is a tourist itinerary through the Baden region. One of the sights along the way is the Wiesloch pharmacy, which has been officially recognised as the world’s first filling station.
Composer Willem Spark
Never heard a piece of music by Willem Spark? That’s nothing to be ashamed of. The Anglo-Dutch composer never put a note on paper. What’s more: he never even existed. And yet a street was named after him: Willem Sparkweg in Sint-Michielsgestel in the south of the Netherlands.
For the record: Willemsparkweg in Amsterdam was named after the nearby park, Willemspark, which bears the name of King Willem I. During World War II the Germans had a penchant for renaming streets that had been named after members of the Dutch royal family. To prevent this from happening to Willemsparkweg in Amsterdam – in a neighbourhood with composer streets – a group of leading intellectuals invented Willem Spark. It may have been prompted by boredom too. The group of scholars, politicians and writers was being held hostage by the occupying forces at Beekvliet Seminary in Sint-Michielsgestel. The regime was mild, with the hostages free to organise readings, workshops and debates. Willem Spark was a popular subject. A lecture shed light on his life and the impact of his work, while some of his musical compositions were performed too.
Before long the small wood that the hostages had planted outside Beekvliet came to be known locally as Duitse Bos, or German Forest. A new neighbourhood was later built on the edge of this wood. In 1986 there was talk of one of the streets in this neighbourhood being christened Duitse Bos. A local initiative proposed to honour the hostages at Beekvliet instead and an entirely different street name was put forward. The local council agreed and since then Sint-Michielsgestel boasts both a Gijzelaarsstraat (Hostages’ Street) and a Willem Sparkweg.
Translation: Laura Vroomen