Read Do You Think You're Clever? Online

Authors: John Farndon

Tags: #Humour

Do You Think You're Clever? (2 page)

The Questions

Do you think you’re clever?

What happens when I drop an ant?

Why is the pole vaulting world record about 6.5 metres and why can’t it be broken?

If you could go back in time to any period of history, when would it be and why?

Are you cool?

If there was an omnipotent god, would he be able to create a stone that he couldn’t lift?

Should someone sell their kidney?

Is it moral to hook up a psychopath (whose only pleasure is killing) to a reality-simulating machine so that he can believe he is in the real world and kill as much as he likes?

Should obese people have free NHS treatment?

Why did they used to make the mill chimneys so tall?

Why can’t you light a candle in a spaceship?

If I could fold this paper an infinite number of times, how many times must I fold it to reach the moon?

Can history stop the next war?

Where does honesty fit into law?

What books are bad for you?

What would happen if you drilled through the earth all the way to the other side and then jumped into the hole?

Does a Girl Scout have a political agenda?

What does it mean to be happy?

Smith sees Jones walking towards a cliff. Smith knows Jones is blind but doesn’t like him, so allows him to walk off the edge. Is this murder?

How would you measure the weight of your own head?

What is fate?

How would you describe an apple?

The stage: a platform for opinions or just entertainment – what are your thoughts?

I am an oil baron in the desert and I need to deliver oil to four different towns which happen to lie in a straight line. I must visit each town in turn, returning to my oil tank between each visit. Where should I position my tank to drive the shortest possible distance? Roads are no problem, since I have a sheikh friend who will build me as many roads as I like for free.

Think of a painting of a tree. Is the tree real?

Does a snail have a consciousness?

Why is there salt in the sea?

What is the point of using NHS money to keep old people alive?

You have a 3-litre jug and a 5-litre jug. Make 4 litres.

Was it fair that a woman’s planning application for painting her door purple in a conservation area was declined?

Do you think Chairman Mao would have been proud of the China of today?

Why isn’t there a global government?

Is the Bible a fictional work? Could it be called chick lit?

Is feminism dead?

What percentage of the world’s water is contained in a cow?

If you’re not in California, how do you know it exists?

When are people dead?

Chekhov’s great, isn’t he?

What is the population of Croydon?

Why are big, fierce animals so rare?

Are there too many people in the world?

How many animals did Moses take on the Ark?

How many grains of sand are there in the world?

Was Romeo impulsive?

How would you describe a human to a person from Mars?

What do you like most about the brain?

Why do so few Americans believe in evolution?

How would you reduce crime through architecture?

Would you say greed is good or bad?

If my friend locks me in a room and says I am free to come out whenever I like as long as I pay £5, is this a deprivation of liberty?

How would you travel through time?

Can a computer have a conscience?

What would happen if the Classics department burned down?

Don’t you think
is a bit long? Well I do.

Is there such a thing as ‘race’?

Is nature natural?

Is the environment a bigger crisis than poverty/AIDS etc?

Why do the words ‘God’ and ‘I’ have capital letters?

Is it more important to focus on poverty at home or poverty abroad?

What makes you think I’m having thoughts?

Do you think you’re clever?

(Law, Cambridge)

This is really a tormentor of a question! Answer, modestly, ‘no’ and of course the interviewer might take you at your word and deny you a place at Oxbridge where, naturally, only clever people are admitted (so rumour has it). Answer ‘yes’ and you risk suggesting that you are really quite a fool. For a start, the interviewer is bound to be, by virtue of his position (on the other side of the interview), cleverer than you – and by suggesting you might be on his level, you are heading for a fall! And for another thing, anyone who has too much certainty of their own cleverness is unlikely to be wise, or even open enough to learn, which is what, of course, the best students must do. And yet, if you hedge your bets with a non-committal answer, you look like someone who is too vacillating and lacking incisiveness to be an Oxbridge star …

Ever since the days of Ancient Greece, being clever has had rather negative overtones. Cleverness, according to Aristotle, was the mere capacity for figuring out how to achieve something, without the attending touchstone of virtue. It was impossible, he thought, to be wise without being good as well as clever. Plato was equally scathing, saying: ‘Ignorance of all things is an evil neither terrible nor excessive, nor yet the greatest of all; but great cleverness and much learning, if they be accompanied by a bad training, are a much greater misfortune.’ Ever since, cleverness has had the image of being a rather dubious quality, linked
with underhand cunning on one side and braggadocio on the other. Milton’s Satan was dubbed ‘clever’. So was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The devil may be clever, but only angels are wise.

So admitting that you are clever can be tantamount to announcing that you are either devious or a braggart – or even a fool because no one who was wise would believe that they were clever, and no one who was really clever would openly admit to being clever. As Rochefoucauld says, ‘It is great cleverness to know when to conceal one’s cleverness’. In a hugely pompous tract on
Great Works of Art and what makes them great
, dating from 1925, F.W. Ruckstull summed up the general attitude to displays of cleverness: ‘Manet might have become a great artist, but moral myopia doomed him to remain in the ranks of trivial though clever craftsmen.’ So that’s Manet for you … Even the brilliant Oscar Wilde had to announce his cleverness with self-deprecating wit, saying, ‘I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I’m saying’, which is probably the perfect answer to the question.

Of course, if the question had asked, ‘Do you think you’re intelligent?’ I might answer in a different way. Intelligence has far fewer of the negative overtones of cleverness. Cleverness is competitive. Intelligence has an image of objectivity. Yet actually, there are almost as many problems, because there is no universally agreed way of defining what intelligence is or of measuring it. Intelligence tests now have only a little more credibility than Trivial
Pursuit as true measures of intelligence, because they have been shown to be so much influenced by coaching – and the range of tests, too, is so culturally dependent. So if you were to be asked ‘Do you think you’re intelligent?’ and you answered, ‘Yes, I have an IQ of 155’, the tutor would be more likely to recommend you join Mensa than an Oxbridge college.

Of course, despite all this, my interviewer might be bowled over by the sheer panache of a candidate who said, ‘Yes, I’m as clever as you want me to be’ and then proceeded to demonstrate it with the wit of Cyrano de Bergerac celebrating his nose. After all, the clever minds of Oxbridge are already doomed to be viewed with some suspicion and envy, so why wouldn’t they welcome someone who was prepared to revel in the very thing that marks them out? According to Wordsworth’s niece Elizabeth in a little ditty from 1890, the die is cast anyway:

If all the good people were clever
And all clever people were good,
The world would be nicer than ever
We thought that it possibly could.
But somehow it’s seldom or never
The two get along as they should.
The good are so harsh to the clever,
The clever so rude to the good.

What happens when I drop an ant?

(Physics, Oxford)

You could answer this question in all kinds of ways – the humorous and human, the absurdly trivial or the grandly existential. But this was a physics question, so it makes sense here to address the science of formicine precipitation.

The first answer, then, might be to say that the ant, which if it’s the wingless kind can’t fly, falls to the ground – accelerating earthwards as it’s pulled down by the mutual gravitational attraction between the ant and the earth. Splat. But there is more to it than that. Ants are so small and light that their fall is considerably slowed on the way down by air resistance – by the collision of the ant with countless air molecules. So while a human skydiver can reach a maximum, or ‘terminal’, velocity of, say, 50–90 m/s, most ants are so light that their terminal velocity is slow enough for them to drift earthwards gently and for them to survive both the speed of the fall and the impact with the ground.

In fact, recent research in tropical Peru has shown that wingless worker ants are among the world’s flying, or rather gliding, animals. When an ant is dropped, it first tumbles vertically. But like a skydiver in the first stages of freefall, it splays its legs to increase drag and gain control. Eventually, by moving its legs to control direction through drag, it eases into a gentle glide at about 4 m/s. It apparently glides backwards because its hindlegs are longer than its forelegs.

The physics doesn’t stop here, though, because even in a simple action like dropping an ant, there is a complex assemblage of forces, reactions and consequences. We must remember, for instance, that gravity is a mutual force. So when you drop an ant it might fall towards the ground, but at the same time the earth is moving upwards to meet the ant. Of course, the mass of the ant is so small and the mass of the earth so great that the movement of the earth is immeasurably small, but we can be sure from other fine measurements that it really does happen. Moreover, as Newton’s Third Law of Motion makes clear, there is an equal opposite reaction to every action. So the act of dropping the ant will have its own, undetectably small, kick-back on your hand.

And as we talk about undetectably small movements, we are reminded of chaos theory and Edward Lorenz’s famous suggestion that ‘the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas’ – as the tiny movement of the air caused by the butterfly’s wings sets in train an escalating, multiplying whirl of movements in the air that culminates in a tornado far away. So, even such a small-scale event as dropping an ant could have manifold unpredictable consequences on every scale from the minuscule to the gigantic. So, actually, it’s impossible to say, on a certain level, what happens when you drop an ant.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity adds another aspect to this seemingly trivial event. Einstein explained gravity as working through the distortion of the fabric of
spacetime. So even a small movement of mass – the mass of the ant towards the earth – will minutely alter the fabric of spacetime. And of course the movement of the ant and the movement of the earth will, as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity shows, cause an (unimaginably small) shift in the time relation between you and the ant …

Ultimately, it all depends on what you want to know.

Why is the pole vaulting world record about 6.5 metres and why can’t it be broken?

(Computer Science, Cambridge)

Even a kangaroo can’t get very high from a standing jump. That’s why both conventional high-jumpers and pole-vaulters use a run-up. Instead of accelerating against gravity from zero, the jumper uses the momentum of the run-up to boost upward acceleration. The vaulter’s pole enables the maximum possible momentum to be converted into upward acceleration. In terms of physics, it uses the leverage of the pole to convert the kinetic energy of the sprint run-up to combat gravity, or more specifically gravitational potential energy. And it’s in the physics that the limits to the heights that can be achieved by a pole-vaulter lie.

Ideally, a vaulter would convert all the kinetic energy of his sprint into vertical acceleration to combat gravity. Of course, in practice, even if he achieves the perfect lift-off
some energy will be lost to friction and in things such as the bending of the pole. So pole construction and design is important. Nonetheless, it is possible to calculate the maximum height a vaulter could reach in the ideal circumstances. The limit ultimately depends on the run-up speed.

You can calculate the maximum kinetic energy the vaulter has available from his mass (that is, his body weight) and his velocity, using the formula: half mass times the velocity squared, or KE = ½mv
. You can calculate, too, the gravitational potential energy that it has to be converted into using the formula: the acceleration due to gravity times the vaulter’s mass times the height, or PE = gmh, where g = 9.8 m/s
. The vaulter’s mass appears on both sides of the equation, and so cancels out. And so you can say the maximum height the vaulter can reach is half of the square of his velocity when divided by the acceleration due to gravity, h = (½v
/g). You’d have to make small adjustments according to the vaulter’s own height and centre of mass, but this way you can get a very rough figure of the height the vaulter could potentially reach.

Experts suggest the best that vaulters will ever achieve is about 6.4 metres, because of the limits to their run-up speed. The world record currently stands at 6.14 metres, set by Ukrainian Sergey Bubka on 31 July 1994. Altogether, just seventeen men have ever exceeded 6 metres in a vault. Women, who are generally shorter and able to reach slower run-up speeds, can vault less high. Just one woman, Yelena Isinbayeva, has ever exceeded 5 metres, and experts think the highest that women vaulters are likely to reach is about 5.3 metres.

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