diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 08, 2020

One of the many art projects in the Olympic Park was called Fantastic Factology.
"A number of benches distributed throughout the Park will display plaques describing a fact. Nuggets of knowledge, from astrology to zoology, will be drawn from the broad experience of the local community and global specialists from a variety of fields. These will be statements to excite, bewilder, inform and inspire."
The facts were gathered from the public during a series of workshops in spring 2011, and also from experts including Sir Patrick Moore and Johnny Ball. Over 2000 facts were submitted and about 50 made the cut. Here's my favourite fact, stuck to a bench on the City Mill River facing the Olympic Stadium.

I remember learning this distance as a small child, but is it correct?

The Earth's orbit is famously elliptical, being closest to the Sun in the first week of January (at perihelion) and furthest in the first week of July (at aphelion). Aphelion this year was on 4th July, i.e. last Saturday, at which point Earth was 94,507,600 miles from the Sun. You could call that 95 million miles, or better still 94½. Perihelion was on 5th January when the distance was 91,398,200 miles, which you could call 91 million miles, or better still 91½. These distances vary slightly each year, but the average of the two is always around 92,955,000 miles, or as near to 93 million as makes no odds.

At time of blogging, it being the start of July, this Olympic Park bench is actually 95 million miles from the sun. On average however, and working to the nearest whole number, 93 million is perfectly OK.

A surprisingly high number of these plaques are astronomy-related. Perhaps Sir Patrick Moore submitted a job lot, or maybe really big numbers make for particularly fascinating facts.

Again let's check the data. Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, is indeed Earth's most distant manufactured object. It beats its sibling Voyager 2 by four billion kilometres, and is currently about 22½ billion km from home. It was somewhat closer in 2011 when the plaque was made, but careful wording on the part of the fact writer means that "more than 17 billion kilometres away" remains perfectly true. A further example of how things have changed since 2011 is that no right-minded Olympic project these days would ever use the word "man-made", but society wasn't programmed to complain at the time so there is is.

This is more like it, and makes a pleasant change from the usual fact about Eskimos having fifty words for snow. Horses are at the very heart of Mongolian life, which may explain why the Wikipedia page 'Horse culture in Mongolia' is over 9000 words long. Mongolians never give their horses individual names, apparently, but describe them instead by their characteristics. At least 100 words are used to describe the different colours horses can be, including 63 for 'brown horse' and about a dozen for red. Then there are 48 words to describe how horses move, such as galloping, trotting, sprinting, loping, etc, and all I can say is thank goodness we Britons don't name our cats and dogs in the same way.

No, I'm not having this. It reads less like a fact and more like a ghastly motivational platitude, or maybe the phrase inside a particularly lacklustre Valentine's card. What's more, it's not true.

Here's my proof. Suppose everyone is someone's favourite. Then there exists a one-to-one mapping from the entire human population onto itself such that each person both has a favourite and is somebody else's favourite. But somewhere on earth is a popular human being, let's call them X, who is the favourite person of more than one individual. This means there aren't enough one-to-one pairings left to match up everybody else, so at least one person will be left over, i.e. there must be at least one human being who is not someone's favourite, QED.

I'm not etnirley cvnoinecd by tihs etiehr. It's fnie so lnog as you olny jggule the itneranl lretets aruond a bit, but ocne you iatporrncoe woslleahe rnamernearegt of cnibrdealosy ltheegnir wdros tehn clebrinshoeptiimy bmocees clagglennilhy ptbmaliorec.

This is less a fascinating fact, more a recipe for ragù alla Bolognese. Whilst I have enormous respect for the ability to squeeze an entire set of ingredients and instructions into so few characters it is really quite hard to decipher, and who the hell needs a recipe for pasta while sitting on a bench anyway? I feel I've done some kind of public service by taking a photo and uploading it to the internet where it might be more useful.

Back to the proper facts. I wasn't previously aware of the shape of goats' pupils (the rectangular slit apparently creates a sharp panoramic view ideal for spotting carnivores across a broader field of vision). The banana fact is based on sequencing genomes, and could have featured a higher percentage (chicken 60%, mouse 85%, chimpanzee 96%) but bananas will never not be funny. As for Dolbear's Law this dates back to 1897 and was originally derived in Fahrenheit, but this is the correct metric version. That's not how you spell Celsius, though, and you won't be hearing any crickets in the Olympic Park no matter how long you listen.

The benches in the Olympic Park feature several more of these Fantastic Factology plaques, but alas no longer the full 56. The metalwork's only thin, and not especially rigorously attached, so dozens of the plaques have disappeared over the last eight years. I've only managed to find 13, which is barely a quarter of the original total. Furthermore the Fantastic Factology website which used to catalogue the project has also been extinguished so it's no longer possible to skim through the whole set. But if you want to know where you might smell cis-3-hexenal or how fast a woodpecker pecks, the answer is still out there on a bench.

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