Practical Knowledge

He's getting closer, but the odds are still in our favor.

He’s getting closer, but the odds are still in our favor.

Sometime during the second or third year of life, kids latch onto a word that drives their parents crazy:  “Why?”  If you’ve spent time with toddlers, you have probably had a “why” conversation.   If not, here’s an example…

You:  “OK, let’s put on your raincoat.”  Kid:  “Why?”  You:  “Because it’s raining.”  Kid:  “Why is it raining?”  You:  “Because those clouds up there have water in them.”  Kid:  Why?”  You:  “Because, uh… it’s something to do with condensation caused by, uh — look, just put your raincoat on!”

Here’s a transcript of an actual exchange between mother and son in my household, back in the ’70’s…  Son:  “Can I go outside and play?”  Mother:  “Yes.”  Son:  “Why?”  That one may have just been his attempt at socializing, but child-development specialists attribute much of the “why” talk to the natural appetite human beings have for knowledge.

Ever since Plato, philosophers have tried to distinguish between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge.  To put it very briefly, practical knowledge is knowing how to swim; theoretical knowledge is knowing that since 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it might therefore be prudent to know how to swim.

A case could be made (and probably has been by some guy with a beard and a tweed jacket) that all theoretical knowledge has value because at some point it can become practical knowledge.  The concept of humans flying had been around for many centuries before Orville Wright finally got cleared for takeoff.

So because we all have this innate hunger for knowledge, and you never know when it might become useful, here are a few answers to questions that may have occurred to you…

Why does it say “57 Varieties” on bottles of Heinz ketchup?  Most people assume that the H.J. Heinz Company makes 57 products, including ketchup.  Nope.  Here’s the official explanation, taken from the company’s website:

“While riding a train in New York City in 1896, Henry Heinz saw a sign advertising 21 styles of shoes, which he thought was clever.  Although Heinz was manufacturing more than 60 products at the time, Henry thought 57 was a lucky number.  So, he began using the slogan ‘57 Varieties’ in all his advertising.  Today the company has more than 57,000 products around the globe, but still uses the magic number of ‘57′.”

Why do I yawn when I’m tired or bored?  We yawn when our brain stem senses that there is not enough oxygen and too much carbon dioxide in our bloodstream.  The brain stem alerts the yawn impulse — a deep inhale of oxygen and exhale of carbon dioxide results.  That temporarily revives us.  And makes everyone else in the room yawn, too.

What are the odds of being killed by a shark?  There is one chance in about 264 million.  That depends on where you are, of course.  The odds are even longer if you’re a hermit living on a mountaintop, or if you don’t know how to swim and therefore stay out of the water.

How do you tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth?  There are several differences, including coloration and time of peak activity.  The easiest way, though, is to see them at rest.  The resting posture of a moth is with its wings spread out to its sides.  Butterflies tend to fold their wings up above their backs.

I hope you find these tidbits of knowledge useful.  If nothing else, maybe they will be practical in getting a 3-year-old to stop saying “why” sometime.

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2 responses to “Practical Knowledge

  1. SCUBA dive instructors like to tell students that it’s more likely you’ll die by a coconut falling on your head than being eaten by a shark. This was on my mind on a loop in Thailand when I had a massage under a coconut-laden tree.

  2. I don’t know if the instructors can prove that is factually accurate, but of course the point is that the odds of either of those things happening are extremely remote. By the way, your comment reminded me of another tidbit of knowledge — SCUBA is an acronym for “Self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.”

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