What's the name of the tallest mountain in the world?
Mauna Kea, the highest point on the island of Hawaii.
The inactive volcano is a modest 13,799 feet above sea level, but when
measured from the seabed to its summit, it is 33,465 feet high--about
three-quarters of a mile taller than Mount Everest.
As far as mountains are concerned, the current convention is that
"highest" means measured from sea level to summit;
"tallest" means measured from the bottom of the mountain to
So, while Mount Everest, at 29,029 feet is the highest mountain in the
world, it is not the tallest.
Measuring mountains is trickier than it looks. It's easy enough to see
where the top is, but where exactly is the bottom of a mountain?
For example, some argue that Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania--at 19,340
feet--is taller than Everest because it rises straight out of the
African plain, whereas Everest is merely one of many peaks topping the
enormous base of the Himalayas, shared by the world's next thirteen
Others claim that the most logical measure ought to be the distance of a
mountain's peak from the center of the Earth.
Because the Earth is a flattened rather than a perfect sphere, the
equator is about thirteen miles further from the center of the Earth
than the poles.
This is good news for the reputation of those mountains that are very
close to the equator--like Mount Chimborazo in the Andes--but it also
means accepting that even the beaches in Ecuador are higher than the
Though massive, the Himalayas are surprisingly young. When they were
formed, the dinosaurs had been dead for twenty-five million years.
In Nepal, Everest is known as Chomolungma (Mother of the Universe). In
Tibet, it is called Sagamartha (Forehead of the Sky). Like any healthy
youngster, it is still growing, at the not very exciting rate of less
than a quarter of an inch a year.
How do moths feel about flames?
They're not attracted to them. They are disoriented by them.
Apart from the odd forest fire, artificial light sources have been in
existence for an extremely short time in comparison with the age of the
relationship between moths and the sun and moon. Many insects use these
light sources to navigate by day and night.
Because the moon and sun are a long way away, insects have evolved to
expect the light from them to strike their eyes in the same place at
different times of day or night, enabling them to calculate how to fly
in a straight line.
When people come along with their portable miniature suns and moons and
a moth flies past, the light confuses it. It assumes it must somehow be
moving in a curved path, because its position in relation to the
stationary sun or moon, has unexpectedly changed.
The moth then adjusts its course until it sees the light as stationary
again. With a light source so close, the only way this is possible is to
fly around and around it in circles.
Moths do not eat clothes. (It's their caterpillars that do it.)
Where is the driest place on earth?
Antarctica. Parts of the continent have seen no rain for two million
A desert is technically defined as a place that receives less than ten
inches of rain a year.
The Sahara gets just one inch of rain a year.
Antarctica's average annual rainfall is about the same, but 2 percent of
it, known as the Dry Valleys, is free of ice and snow and it never rains
there at all.
The next-driest place in the world is the Atacama Desert in Chile. In
some areas, no rain has fallen for four hundred years and its average
annual rainfall is a tiny 0.004 inch. Taken as a whole, this makes it
the world's driest desert, 250 times as dry as the Sahara.
As well as the driest place on earth, Antarctica can also claim to be
the wettest and the windiest. Seventy percent of the world's fresh water
is found there in the form of ice, and its wind speeds are the fastest
The unique conditions in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica are caused by
so-called katabatic winds (from the Greek word for "going
down"). These occur when cold, dense air is pulled downhill simply
by the force of gravity. The winds can reach speeds of 200 mph,
evaporating all moisture--water, ice, and snow--in the process.
Though Antarctica is a desert, these completely dry parts of it are
called, somewhat ironically, oases. They are so similar to conditions on
Mars that NASA used them to test the Viking mission.
Where are you most likely to get caught in
The Western Highlands of Kenya, in Africa.
In terms of annual average, Kericho, Kenya, has more hail than anywhere
else on earth, with hail falling on 132 days each year. By comparison,
the United Kingdom averages only 15 hail days in a year and the worst
affected area in the United States, the eastern Rockies, experiences an
average of 45 hail days a year.
What causes the abundance of hail is not fully understood. Kericho is
the home of Kenya's tea plantations, and a 1978 study showed that
organic litter from the tea plants gets stirred into the atmosphere,
where it acts as a nucleus around which hailstones can grow.
Another theory is that the high altitude of the region could be to
blame, as the shape of the terrain causes a large uplift of warm air
that quickly condenses. This, and the reduced distance between the
freezing level (about three miles up) and the ground, reduces the chance
of hailstones' melting.
The average hailstone is about a quarter of an inch across, but they can
grow large enough to dent cars, shatter greenhouses, and even injure
The largest single hailstone ever recorded in the United States was 7
inches in diameter, 18.75 inches in circumference, and weighed in at
just under a pound. It fell into the backyard of a house in Aurora,
Nebraska, in June 2003. This is off the end of the official U.S. scale
for describing hailstones, which starts at "pea" and rises
progressively through mothball, walnut, and teacup to softball. The
Aurora hailstone was the size of a small melon and would have hit the
ground at 100 mph.
Hail costs the United States $1 billion each year in damage to property
and crops. A hailstorm that struck Munich, Germany, in July 1984 caused
an estimated $1 billion worth of damage to trees, buildings, and motor
vehicles in a single afternoon. Trees were stripped of their bark, and
whole fields of crops were destroyed. More than 70,000 buildings and
250,000 cars were damaged, and more than 400 people were injured.
However, the world's worst hailstorm occurred in the Gopalanj district
of Bangladesh on April 14, 1986. Some of the hailstones weighed more
than two pounds, and at least 92 people were killed.
What's the largest living thing?
It's a mushroom.
And it's not even a particularly rare one. You've probably got the honey
fungus (Armillaria ostoyae) in your garden, growing on a dead tree
For your sake, let's hope it doesn't reach the size of the largest
recorded specimen, in Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It covers 2,200
acres and is between two thousand and eight thousand years old. Most of
it is underground in the form of a massive mat of tentacle-like white
mycelia (the mushroom's equivalent of roots). These spread along tree
roots, killing the trees and peeping up through the soil occasionally as
innocent-looking clumps of honey mushrooms.
The giant honey fungus of Oregon was initially thought to grow in
separate clusters throughout the forest, but researchers have now
confirmed it is the world's single biggest organism, connected under the
What's the biggest thing a blue whale can swallow?
a. A very large mushroom
b. A small family car
c. A grapefruit
d. A sailor
Quite interestingly, a blue whale's throat is almost exactly the same
diameter as its belly button (which is about the size of a salad plate),
but a little smaller than its eardrum (which is more the size of a
For eight months of the year, blue whales eat virtually nothing, but
during the summer they feed almost continuously, scooping up three tons
of food a day. As you may remember from biology lessons, their diet
consists of tiny, pink, shrimplike crustaceans called krill, which go
down like honey. Krill come conveniently served in huge swarms that can
weigh more than 100,000 tons.
The word krill is Norwegian. It comes from the Dutch word kriel, meaning
"small fry" but now also used to mean both pygmies and
"small potatoes." Krill sticks have been marketed with
reasonable success in Chile but krill mince was a bit of a disaster in
Russia, Poland, and South Africa owing to dangerously high levels of
fluoride. It came from the krill's shells, which were too small to pick
off individually before mincing.
The narrow gauge of a blue whale's throat means it couldn't have
swallowed Jonah. The only whale with a throat wide enough to swallow a
person whole is the sperm whale and, once inside, the intense acidity of
the sperm whale's stomach juices would make survival impossible. The
celebrated case of the "Modern Jonah" in 1891, in which James
Bartley claimed to have been swallowed by a sperm whale and rescued by
his crewmates fifteen hours later, has been nailed as a fraud.
Aside from its throat, everything else about the blue whale is big. At
105 feet in length, it is the largest creature that has ever
lived--three times the size of the biggest dinosaur and equivalent in
weight to 2,700 people. Its tongue weighs more than an elephant; its
heart is the size of a family car; its stomach can hold more than a ton
of food. It also makes the loudest noise of any individual animal: a low
frequency hum that can be detected by other whales more than 10,000
Which bird lays the smallest egg for its size?
Although it is the largest single cell in nature, an ostrich egg is less
than 1.5 percent of the weight of the mother. A wren's egg, by
comparison, is 13 percent of its weight.
The largest egg in comparison with the size of the bird is that of the
little spotted kiwi. Its egg accounts for 26 percent of its own weight:
the equivalent of a woman giving birth to a six-year-old child.
An ostrich egg weighs as much as twenty-four hen's eggs; to soft-boil
one takes forty-five minutes. Queen Victoria tucked into one for
breakfast and declared it among the best meals she had ever eaten.
The largest egg laid by any animal--including the dinosaurs--belonged to
the elephant bird of Madagascar, which became extinct in 1700. It was
ten times the size of an ostrich egg, nine liters in volume and the
equivalent of 180 chicken's eggs.
The elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus) is thought to be the basis for the
legend of the fierce roc that Sinbad battles in the Arabian Nights.
How long can a chicken live without its head?
About two years.
On September 10, 1945, a plump young cockerel in Fruita, Colorado, had
his head chopped off and lived. Incredibly, the axe had missed the
jugular vein and left enough of the brain stem attached to the neck for
him to survive, even thrive.
Mike, as he was known, became a national celebrity, touring the country
and featuring in Time and Life magazines. His owner, Lloyd Olsen,
charged twenty-five cents for a chance to meet "Mike the Headless
Wonder Chicken" in sideshows across the United States. Mike would
appear complete with a dried chicken's head purported to be his own--in
fact, the Olsens' cat had made off with the original. At the height of
his fame, Mike was making $4,500 a month, and was valued at $10,000. His
success resulted in a wave of copycat chicken beheadings, though none of
the unfortunate victims lived for more than a day or two.
Mike was fed and watered using an eyedropper. In the two years after he
lost his head, he put on nearly six pounds and spent his time happily
preening and "pecking" for food with his neck. One person who
knew Mike well commented: "He was a big fat chicken who didn't know
he didn't have a head."
Tragedy struck one night in a motel room in Phoenix, Arizona. Mike
started to choke and Lloyd Olsen, to his horror, realized he'd left the
eyedropper at the previous day's show. Unable to clear his airways, Mike
choked to death.
Mike remains a cult figure in Colorado, and, every May since 1999,
Fruita has marked his passing with a "Mike the Headless
What has a three-second memory?
Not a goldfish, for starters.
Despite its status as a proverbial fact, a goldfish's memory isn't a few
Research by the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth in
2003 demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that goldfish have a memory
span of at least three months and can distinguish between different
shapes, colors, and sounds. They were trained to push a lever to earn a
food reward; when the lever was fixed to work only for an hour a day,
the fish soon learned to activate it at the correct time. A number of
similar studies have shown that farmed fish can easily be trained to
feed at particular times and places in response to an audible signal.
Goldfish don't swim into the side of the bowl, not because they can see
it, but because they are using a pressure-sensing system called the
lateral line. Certain species of blind cave fish are able to navigate
perfectly well in their lightless environment by using their lateral
line system alone.
While we're dealing with goldfish myths, a pregnant goldfish isn't,
hasn't, and can't be called a "twit." Goldfish don't get
pregnant: they lay eggs that the males fertilize in the water.
In principle, there could be a word for a female fish with egg
development, but none is listed in any proper dictionary.
What's the most dangerous animal that
has ever lived?
Half the human beings who have ever died, perhaps as many as 45 billion
people, have been killed by female mosquitoes (the males only bite
Mosquitoes carry more than a hundred potentially fatal diseases,
including malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, encephalitis, filariasis,
and elephantiasis. Even today, they kill one person every twelve
Amazingly, nobody had any idea that mosquitoes were dangerous until the
end of the nineteenth century. In 1877 the British doctor Sir Patrick
Manson--known as "Mosquito" Manson--proved that elephantiasis
was caused by mosquito bites.
Seventeen years later, in 1894, it occurred to him that malaria might
also be caused by mosquitoes.
Excerpted from "The Book of General Ignorance" by John Mitchinson. Copyright © 2007 by John Mitchinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.