January 20, 2012
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in passing that I thought Sherlock Holmes would be the world’s worst Jeopardy contestant. Strictly speaking this contradicts my earlier stated belief that I would be the world’s worst Jeopardy contestant because, in spite of my mind’s ability to retain the most obscure facts about squids, stellar fusion, and Edgar Allan Poe’s grooming habits while also forgetting that I need to stop at the grocery store to pick up milk, with my luck I’m certain that if I were to go on Jeopardy they’d have sixty-one questions about stopping at the store to pick up milk. Since Jeopardy is a game show that tests general knowledge–and which sometimes defines "general" as "painfully obscure"–it would seem obvious that Sherlock Holmes would make the Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, who won more than two and a half million dollars during the longest winning streak in the show’s history, look like an amateur. Holmes, after all, had a quick wit, an eye for detail, and a breadth of knowledge that made rapid deductive reasoning easy even through the cloud of six pounds of tobacco he smoked each day. Regardless of whether Homes is a lanky armchair sleuth with an aquiline profile or a short, pug-nosed pugilist with a penchant for cross-dressing the power of his mind is one thing that never changes. And, to be honest, I’ve only read two Sherlock Holmes stories in my entire life–and both, I’m pretty sure, are the shortest of all the stories, so what I know about him may not be true, but it comes from a friend of mine who’d read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. And this friend of mine was a pretty smart guy. He was so smart, in fact, that when we’d debate something he often had a way of making me feel like the Watson to his Holmes. I didn’t even feel like the Doctor Watson to his Holmes, since he had a way of making me feel like I hadn’t made it out of third grade, much less gotten through medical school.
Anyway, this friend told me that Sherlock Holmes only remembered things he’d consider useful for solving a mystery. I guess Holmes thought of his brain as an attic where he was always afraid his poster of the periodic table would get buried under a box of coffee mugs with kitties on them. This friend went on to tell me that someone once told Sherlock Holmes the Earth was round, and Holmes replied, "Thank you. Now that you’ve told me that I’ll do my very best to forget it." He didn’t consider that useful information. I started trying to think of a mystery that might only be solved by knowing the Earth was round, but quickly gave up, simply because I have a hard time thinking up mysteries. The more I thought about it, though, the more I started to wonder how Holmes decided what information was worth remembering and what wasn’t. And suddenly Professor Moriarty always managing to escape Holmes’s clutches didn’t seem like such a big deal. All Moriarty would have to do would be to run toward the horizon, and Holmes would say, "We’ve got him now, Watson. At that rate he’s bound to fall over the edge." And Watson would reply, "Er, Holmes, you do realize that the Earth is…oh, never mind. No doubt Moriarty will come up with some other plan I can write another story about."
The thing is I’m not sure there’s such a thing as useless information. The quadratic formula, how to decline a Latin verb, and why the sky is blue are all things I learned in school, and while they haven’t come in handy yet they might be useful at some point. When I was a Boy Scout I had to learn to tie several different knots, most of which still seem pretty useless. Take the clove hitch, for instance. To this day I’ve never had a clove that needed hitching. And there was the bowline, which actually I never learned to tie because every time someone tried to teach it to me they’d tell some weird story about a rabbit coming out of a hole, looking around, circling a tree three or four times, checking his mail, and finally deciding to tie a bowline. Then there was the sheepshank, which is a useful nautical knot which got its name from the innumerable number of sheep’s legs that need to be shortened on ocean voyages. Since I wasn’t normally around either sheep or ships I wasn’t sure what good the sheepshank would do me, but there was a voice in the back of my mind that said, "You never know. This might come in handy someday." And it still might even though I’ve now forgotten how to tie all of those knots, but that’s another story. The more I think about it the more I realize I might actually be a decent Jeopardy contestant, but I wouldn’t be as entertaining as Sherlock Holmes, who’d occasionally buzz in to say, "I don’t know anything about French history, Mr. Trebek, but I do know you had eggs benedict for breakfast and that you slept on your couch last night." What I finally realized, of course, is that, in spite of my friend’s smarter-than-thou attitude and his aspirations of being as coolly knowledgeable as Sherlock Holmes, is that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character who could solve any mystery only because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle already knew the solution. That makes my friend’s knowledge of Holmes and his working methods pretty darn close to useless.