Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Book of General Ignorance by John Mitchinson and John Lloyd








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I didn’t get more than a few pages into John Mitchinson and John Lloyd’s The Book of General Ignorance before I felt humble about what I don’t know. I’ve concluded that I’m both generally and specifically ignorant. After being burned a few times, I tried to become more alert to the technicalities and the careful word choices in posing questions. I still failed more often than I succeeded. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 88-90:


What color is water?

The usual answer is that it isn't any color; it's clear or transparent and the sea only appears blue because of the reflection of the sky.

Wrong. Water really is blue. It's an incredibly faint shade, but it is blue. You can see this in nature when you look into a deep hole in the snow, or through the thick ice of a 'frozen waterfall. If you took a very large, very deep white pool, filled it with water, and looked straight down through it, the water would be blue.

This faint blue tinge doesn't explain why water sometimes takes on a strikingly blue appearance when we look at it rather than through it. Reflected color from the sky obviously plays an impor­tant part. The sea doesn't look particularly blue on an overcast day.

But not all the light we see is reflected from the surface of the water; some of it is coming from under the surface. The more impure the water, the more color it will reflect.

In large bodies of water like seas and lakes the water will usu­ally contain a high concentration of microscopic plants and algae, j Rivers and ponds will have a high concentration of soil and other; solids in suspension.                                                   

All these particles reflect and scatter the light as it return
to the surface, creating huge variation in the colors we see. It
explains why you sometimes see a brilliant green Mediterranean sea under a bright blue sky.

What color was the sky in ancient Greece?

Bronze. There is no word for "blue" in ancient Greek.

The nearest words— glaukos and 4yanos— are more like expressions of the relative intensity of light and darkness than attempts to describe the color.

The ancient Greek poet Homer mentions only four actual col­ors in the whole of the Iliad and the Odyssty, roughly translated as black, white, greenish yellow (applied to honey, sap and blood), and purply red.

When Homer calls the sky "bronze," he means that it is daz­zlingly bright, like the sheen of a shield, rather than bronze-colored. In a similar spirit, he regarded wine, the sea, and sheep as all being the same color—purply red.

Aristotle identified seven shades of color, all of which he thought derived from black and white, but these were really grades of brightness, not color.

It's interesting that an ancient Greek from almost twenty-five hundred years ago and NASA's Mars rovers of 2006 both approach color in the same way.

In the wake of Darwin, the theory was advanced that the early Greeks' retinas had not evolved the ability to perceive colors, but it is now thought they grouped objects in terms of qualities other than color, so that a word which seems to indicate yellow or light green really meant fluid, fresh, and living, and so was appropri­ately used to describe blood, the human sap.

This is not as rare as you might expect. There are more lan­guages in Papua New Guinea than anywhere else in the world but, apart from distinguishing between light and dark, many of .-them have no other words for color at all.

Classical Welsh has no words for brown, gray, blue or green. The color spectrum is divided in a completely different way. One word (glas) covered part of green; another the rest of green, the whole of blue and part of gray; a third dealt with the rest of gray and most, or part, of brown.

Modern Welsh uses the word glas to mean blue, but Russian has no single word for blue. It has two —goluboi and sinii—usually translated as "light blue" and "dark blue," but, to Russians, they are distinct, different colors, not different shades of the same color.

All languages develop their color terms in the same way. After black and white, the third color to be named is always red, the fourth and fifth are green and yellow (in either order), the sixth is blue, and the seventh brown. Welsh still doesn't have a word for brown.

What I’ll do with all the trivia I encountered on the pages of The Book of General Ignorance, I don’t know. I do know that I’ll be a little more humble about things that I think I know.


Steve Hopkins, February 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2008 issue of Executive Times


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