Turtles All The Way Down


The original article appeared in The Times Weekend Review, September 6, 2003

Let me start with a confession. I - the writer of these words - am not the Stephen Fry you are expecting: long of limb, superior of mien, natty of suit and famed for the easy erudition of his conversation. Here, on these, pages, I'm merely the part of Stephen Fry that hosts a new television series called QI, soon to air on BBC2. Less a corporeal celebrity, more an autocue, the tip of a vast edifice of research, the mouthpiece for all things interesting. Because interestingness is what concerns QI. Or Quite Interesting to give its full name. A modest claim but one the show takes very seriously. Let me explain.

It's a quiz show. There, I've said it. But before you flick to the book reviews or the recipes, pause for a nanosecond. QI is a very odd species of quiz. For a start, it has been devised by John Lloyd, legendary producer of Not the Nine O'Clock News, Blackadder and Spitting Image. Supported by his small, indefatigable team of research elves, the ingenious Mr Lloyd has spent two years gathering a massive database of interesting facts, quotes and stories. This TV 'quiz' is its first public manifestation.

There's not been anything quite like it before. The questions are designed to be impossible to answer, so points are awarded for interesting answers rather than correct ones and points are taken away for dull or obvious blather. And - this is the good bit - the chairman gets to decide, with no right of appeal. It's a bit like Billy Wilder's great line: "an actor walks through a door, you've got nothing. An actor enters through a window, you've got a situation." In the world of quiz shows, QI climbs in through the window.

It's funny, too, without being mean spirited. Each week a panel of card-carrying comedians wrestle with the impossible. Mostly they come off second best, but the jpleasure of QI is that the worse one does, oddly, the more everyone laughs. The lovely, woolly-coiffured Alan Davies has become the resident genius of the show very largely because he has racked up negative scores never before witnessed on terrestrial television outside Japan. He's joined by a rotating team that includes Hugh Laurie, Clive Anderson, Bill Bailey, Rich Hall, Jo Brand, Meera Syall, Jimmy Carr and and Sean Lock. A philosopher might look for a connection between being funny and being interesting. All I'll say is that Woody Allen's remark about the secret of happiness being to tell funnier jokes is very close to the central tenet of QI's philosophy. Looked at in the right way, everything can become interesting (even television). And although it's more important that something be interesting rather than true, true things are much more likely to be interesting.

So what about the questions? Well, it isn't the special subject section of Mastermind. QI isn't about being obscure. A typical question would be 'why do pigeons not like going to the movies?' which might strike you as a bit silly. Which, on one level, it is. The show encourages silliness (Alan Davies's answer that because pigeons don't live long they are probably, even as adults, unable to get into anything other than certificate U films is sublimely silly, but very QI). But there is nothing silly about the actual answer. Pigeons have such acuity of eyesight that a normal film running at 25 frames per seconds appears like a slow slide presentation to them. It would have to run at least 250 frames per second to create the illusion of movement. Which I think is quite interesting. And what about the fact that pigeons are the only birds able to suck up liquids, that both parents incubate the eggs and that along with flamingos and penguins, are they suckle their young (with pigeon milk, honest)? And that's without mentioning that the traditional cure for an adder's bite was to press the fundament of one pigeon after another over the wound. Once the birds stopped dying, you were safe. Worth thinking about the next time you're in Trafalgar Square.

In the course of the first series you'll learn the connection between the Archbishop of Canterbury's left ear and Adam's belly-button, why there are no Alsatians in the Spanish army, what Van Gogh did with his ear after he cut it off, how otters kill crocodiles, the name of the twenty-third tallest tree in the world, the number of crocuses it takes to make a kilo of saffron, the difference between a hydrogen atom and a grand piano and the only words which rhyme purple, silver and orange. Doubtless most of us would have staggered through the rest of our life without knowing the answers to these but what about discovering that the Ancient Greeks invented the steam engine, that Pluto isn't actually a planet, that the earth is orbited by two moons, that algae generate more of the world's oxygen than trees, that everyone who lives there calls Bangkok, Krung Thep, or that Antarctica is drier than the Sahara desert? QI not only makes us look more closely at things, it encourages us to question all the received wisdom we have carried with us since childhood.

Take the universe. The great science writer JBS Haldane once remarked that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. Good news, for many of us. But how are we supposed to deal with Sir Martin Rees' assertion that 'it's embarrassing' that 90% of the universe is unaccounted for'? 2,000 years of experimental science and we still don't know where most of what is, is. Dark, cold, invisible matter, apparently. But at least we do know what colour it is (mostly beige, according to the latest analysis of light from 200,00 galaxies). It's not a lot better than the woman who accosted the philosopher and psychologist William James after he delivered a lecture on the solar system.

"Mr James", she said, "we don"t live on a ball rotating around the sun, we live on a crust of earth on the back of a giant turtle." "If your theory"s correct, madam," replied James politely, "what does this turtle stand on?" "A second far larger turtle, of course!" she snorted back. "But what does that stand on?" pressed the philosopher. "It"s no use, Mr James", snorted the old lady triumphantly, "it"s turtles all the way down!"

The series has thrown up some unlikely heroes. The Ancient Grek mathematician Aristarchus of Samos, who predicted that the earth orbited the sun 1,800 years before Copernicus. Benjamin Franklin, the American scientist and philosopher who invented bi-focals, the modern fire brigade, and believed the secret of happiness would be the discovery of a drug to render human wind sweet-smelling (no wonder Geroge Washington prevented him from writing the final draft of the American constitution). Pliny the Elder, compiler of the first encyclopaedia and a true QI role model, demonstrated such an insatiable thirst for knowledge that he died, engulfed by the fumes from the erupting Vesuvius, a pillow tied to his head with a napkin as a crash helmet. And you've got to love a guy who prides himself on his scientific credentials but can still recommend attaching a foxes genitals to one's forehead as an unbeatable cure for a headache.

Inevitably, given the genre and the constituency, there is a fair admixture of bawdy. The organs of generation, in particular, receive regular scrutiny. It may come as no surprise that the blue whale sports a sixteen foot penis but I wonder how many of us would have picked out the nine-banded armadillo as the proud owner of a tadger almost three quarters of its body length. Or that the male European earwig has a whole spare penis (whether for emergencies or added pleasure isn't entirely clear). And then there's the kangaroo with its three vaginas, the honeybee's exploding phallus... so much to poke one's nose into, as Darwin - or Freud - might have said.

The endless fascination of other languages is another favourite obsession. Who can resist the fact that a 'kylie' is a throwing stick for the Nyungar aborigines. Or that there are twenty-seven different words to describe the shape of a moustache in Albanian, or that among the Andaman islanders, who are the world's most isolated and ancient people, they have only five numbers: one, two, one more, some more and all. (On the other hand, they have twelve words to describe the different stages of ripeness of fruit.)

So, that's the flavour. QI isn't really about pointless information, or shoring up vast banks of trivia, It's about finding undiscovered connections and seeing hidden patterns, just like the best comedy. It ought to become a cherished institution - Have I Got News for You with added fibre - and looking at a bestseller list headed by Bill Bryson and Ben Schott, I have feeling it will find its level as their TV counterpart very quickly. After all, curiosity is hardwired in all of us; we just lose the ability to indulge it. 'The lust of the mind', Thomas Hobbes called it, 'that exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnal pleasure'. There you have it, and from a philosopher not a press release. QI - better than sex.