Being interesting: a QI masterclass
John Mitchinson, the ubiquitous and ultra-bright co-founder of QI, made his way up the hill at Glastonbury to tell a packed tent how to find any subject interesting. Here are his ten insights into how to investigate the world through the lens of QI’s patented curiosity goggles.
1. Everything is interesting if you look at it in the right way. Look closely and even the smallest thing can be captivating. John gave the example of the tardigrade – a tiny, water-dwelling creature that moves by being splashed.
2. Ask more, better questions. Kids ask questions until around about the age of 8. To stay interested, we need to keep on asking questions as adults.
3. Find new connections between things. Everyone knows about William the Conqueror and 1066. But investigate a little further and you discover that the name William was unknown at the time in Britain. William swiftly became a popular child’s name, suggesting that the Norman conquest represented a complete takeover of the existing culture.
4. Be precise. Apparently, zoologists have no use for the concept of ‘fish’, as what we call fish is just one type of fish. Plus, there are 21 types of possible fish that qualify as ‘sardines’. The closer you look at something, particularly something familiar, the more interesting it becomes.
5. What you leave out is as important as what you put in. Everyone knows that kangaroos can jump. But did you know they have three vaginas? Search out lesser-known facts and you’ll be rewarded.
6. Take your time. Be persistent and get into the zone. John told us that researchers trawled through books about basketball. Eventually they discovered that, for the first 21 years after the invention of the game, there was no hole in the bottom of the basket.
7. No one knows as much as they think they know. As Socrates said: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” We swim in a sea of ignorance, but questions are our lifeboat.
8. Walk towards the gunfire. Don’t be afraid of asking awkward questions and challenging accepted wisdom.
9. The digressions are the point. For example, why don’t pigeons go to the movies? They probably wouldn’t enjoy films made for humans as they have three times our visual processing speed.
10. We live surrounded by wonder and mystery. There’s no reason ever to be bored. The brain plus time plus desire equals progress.
Thanks to John and the Free University of Glastonbury for a fascinating talk. I’m off to swim in my own sea of ignorance and see what I discover next…