Do Elephants Jump?, by David Feldman

Do Elephants Jump

Over the years I’ve read almost all David Feldman’s Imponderables books, though it’s been quite a few years since the last one I read. I’ve never loved them, but I’ve always liked them as very easy, fun reading.

The Imponderables books are sort of trivia books, but of a specific sort. They’re about answering oddball questions—mostly explanation-seeking questions—in mundane and generally insignificant areas. They’re the sort of everyday things you might wonder about, or more likely wouldn’t even notice enough to think about. For instance, from Do Elephants Jump?: Why do pianos have specifically 88 keys?, Why does the refrigerator section but not the freezer section of a refrigerator have a light?, Why do you only hear about kids and not adults getting head lice?, Why is the comic strip Peanuts called that?

As the author notes in the introduction, now that the Internet is so widely used to find information, his whole way of researching the answers to these questions (which come from readers) has changed.

Actually my thought was it makes the whole idea of books like this rather quaint, like going through index card files to look for a book in a library instead of using their computer indexing system. I mean, why send in a question to him as the “Answer Man” and then hope he researches it and puts it in his next book? Isn’t Google a heck of a lot more convenient and faster?

I suppose some of these things, though, happen never to have been posted about on the Internet. Plus there’s the matter of reliability. You can see if your question has already been posted on Yahoo! Answers or whatever—or post it now yourself—but how sure are you that the responses are accurate, and not just someone guessing or unknowingly passing along some common falsehood or urban legend?

Certainly there are ways to use the Internet critically in cases like that and infer roughly the degree of confidence one ought to have in what one reads, but that’s kind of where Feldman comes in. He says he does his preliminary research online, but generally then follows up with sources that are best-placed to know the answers, e.g., professors in relevant fields, people at the companies that manufacture the products being asked about, etc.

Still, probably the bulk of these things you could just look up yourself pretty easily nowadays. But it’s still a fun read. He writes in a breezy, friendly style and throws in some corny humor.

Sometimes the “imponderables” that stand out to me are the ones I think he got wrong, or at least the ones I’m not convinced he got right.

For example, one of the questions addressed in this book is why people rub their eyes when they’re tired. He discovered in researching it with medical people that there was no consensus about this, but that experts suggest three possibilities. All three theories involve releasing some kind of chemical or altering something in the brain. One is that it affects the brain in a way that makes us even more tired so we can sleep, another is that it wakes us up, and a third has to do with regulating our circadian rhythm.

I’m skeptical that it’s any of these. I think it’s just eyestrain. You rub your eyes for the same reason you rub anything that’s sore or strained. I would think people do it not just when they’re tired, but especially when they’ve been doing a lot of reading or close-up work. Besides, the longer you’ve been awake, the longer the little muscles or whatever that keep your eyes open have been working.

Your eyes are tired and sore and crave a little massage.

I don’t know really what more to say about this book, or this series. You either find this kind of thing interesting or you don’t. If you like the Imponderables series, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by Do Elephants Jump? Though it’s the tenth book in the series, I don’t get the sense Feldman is straining for material, like each book has had slightly less interesting questions and answers than the one before. They all seem about the same level of quality to me.

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