If you think we've made a mistake in the TV show or one of our books, you can submit it to the Quibbles forum to be checked.
If it turns out the elves got something wrong, we'll post up a correction here.
Series A, Episode 3
Ian Dunn writes...
In Series A, Episode 3 ("Aquatic Animals") you say that the driest place on Earth is the Dry Valleys Region of Antarctica.However, according to new research, the driest place on Earth is in a different area of Antarctica - Ridge A.
The air is 100 times drier than it is in the Sahara. It is also the coldest place on Earth, with an average winter temperature of -70°C (-94°F), and the calmest place on Earth as well.
An elf replies...
Thanks for that Ian, well spotted.
The Ridge A area of Antarctica was obviously discovered after the filming of that show, but we're happy to set the record straight.
The elves are a well-travelled bunch and no matter where we are, we're looking out for facts. In fact, last year I travelled around the world to all the countries beginning with H (with the exception of Honduras who inconsiderately decided to have a military coup as I was about to set off). This year I've already been to Iceland, and am hoping to go to Italy, Ireland, Israel, Ivory Coast, India and Indonesia – Iran and Iraq are fairly unlikely I guess.
But neither I, nor any of the elves have ever been to Ridge A – in fact, no human has ever been there! It's 13,000 feet above sea level and has an average winter temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. The reason it interests scientists so much is not only its extremes, but that it has no clouds and has a sky that is so much darker and drier than anywhere else on earth that an average sized telescope there would be as powerful as the largest telescopes anywhere else on earth. It's an astronomer's dream.
Series A, Episode 4
Susan Allen writes...
I have a bone to pick with you. In one episode of QI, Stephen Fry states that Chameleons do NOT change their colour to match their background & that the colour is determined by their mood. Please see this photograph [originally part of a Sky News article]. I think you will find that you, once again, are incorrect... That is, unless the Chameleon was in a 'pink' mood that day.
I would believe Sky News to be a somewhat credible source, wouldn't you?
An elf replies...
It's good to see, sometimes, that we are not the only ones who can be tricked by an internet hoax, as we have been once or twice in the past. Sadly on this occasion, it is Sky News that have been duped.
The video from which that still was taken was created by a company called 'Never Hide Films' and was part of a viral marketing campaign for a particular brand of sunglasses. It was first released through their own Youtube channel.
Each species of chameleon displays distinct colour patterns to indicate specific reactions or emotions, but that's not quite the end of the story. In fact, recent studies have shown that every now and then, at least one species of chameleon does in fact change in keeping with its environment. The Smith's dwarf chameleon has been shown to engage in background matching when presented with fake predators. Not so often when faced with a pair of sunglasses though...
Series B, Episode 7
James Nowell is a fan of QI and certainly someone in the show's spirit. When we said that Jaffa Cakes were made from apricot juice and not orange juice, he wrote to McVities, and received these replies...
Dear Mr Nowell,
Thank you for your enquiry, we understand there are no apricots in the recipe, they would be listed in the ingredients. However, apricots are used in other products manufactured within the factory, is it something you are allergic to?
No no, nothing like that. We were watching QI (also mentioned in their book) who mention that the jaffa cake centre is made from apricots but someone had said that its not listed in the ingrediants so we were curious to find out if it was correct?
Dear Mr Nowell
Thank you for your reply, perhaps they are referring to another make of Jaffa cake and not McVitie's?
Well these are quite sketchy messages, we think. The original assertion appeared in the Daily Telegraph in September 2002. We even asked in The Book of General Ignorance: 'If it's not true, perhaps someone from McVitie's would like to get in touch with us and correct this heinous slur?' No e-mail has arrived as yet.
We did write to and phone McVitie's during the research for this question and were told they never revealed precise details of their recipes 'for obvious reasons'. A correspondent on our website later said:
'I asked my dad to speak to the guys in the batch room just to confirm once and for all. It appears the book of GI was correct for this one, althought there are oranges used in the mix, the jelly is 70% apricots. So there ya have it..... Apricot Cakes!'
So as far as we're concerned the matter is still open. Again we implore someone at McVitie's to tell us either way. If we're wrong we can amend our output, if right then surely the public has the right to know that they've been enjoying delicious apricots all these years.
Series A, Episode 4
While there is little doubt that Stephen is a man of great intelligence, for which he is rightly lauded, not many people realise the depth of Alan's knowledge, and how important it is that he is clued-up in order for the show to work. In order to get the wrong answers, the person in Alan's seat needs to know exactly what we're asking – there's no point having someone there who just says: “I don't understand.” It certainly wouldn't make great TV anyway.
As well as having a large general knowledge, Alan has his own specialist subjects – one of which is diving – but like us all, he is prone to the odd mistake. For instance, he said this during the first series:
Alan: I've been scuba diving, and if you get nitrogen narcosis, it means you're getting bubbles of nitrogen--
Stephen: Yes. "The bends."
Alan: --in your veins.
Alan: And people think "the bends" is 'cause you go a bit--[slumps and writhes in his seat]--like that, but actually, you get stuck--[freezes]--in odd positions, 'cause your body can't move properly, 'cause it's full of nitrogen, which is lethal.
I'll leave it to our correspondent, Agate Gecko to point out what many divers are currently thinking as they slap their hands on their foreheads:
'While in essence he is correct as nitrogen causes both nitrogen narcosis and the bends the two conditions are different.
'Nitrogen Narcosis is where the nitrogen in the air tank at depth affects the brain also referred to as Rapture of the Deep. It is often described a bit like being drunk, effects such as euphoria, lapses in memory and bad judgement. It has killed divers when they removed equipment or went deeper due to lack of judgement. Diving with a buddy does not help as the buddy may also become affected and not notice that you are doing something stupid. You can get narced (as we called it) without getting the bends.
'The bends is where the tiny bubbles of air that are in your body at depth, expand as you surface. If you have been diving deep or for a length of time then it is more likely you will have more of these bubbles in your body. As you surface the pressure on your body decreases and the bubbles expand. Surface faster then your body can deal with the bubbles and they cause the symptoms and signs of Decompression Sickness. As a diver we were told to surface no faster then the smallest bubble you were exhaling. Also stick to dive tables and don't push limits. (they were designed using fit, athletic US navy divers most of us don't fall into that category) You can get the bends without having had Nitrogen Narcossis on the dive. The bends can also appear some time after a dive.'
Thanks for that Agate. But given the number of times we've been a little mean to Alan over the years, I think we can forgive him this little blip.
Series C, Episode 3
Simon Halse writes...
In season 3 episode 2 or 3, Steven Fry says that marsupials aren't mammals, but they are. Marsupials are an infraclass in the mammalia class, infraclass being a further division of subclass...
An elf replies...
This quibble is probably a good time to give an explanation of how we deal with alleged mistakes. I wasn't in the studio for this particular show, and it's a long time since I saw it on television, so the first points of call are the show transcripts written by the fantastic Sarah Falk at http://sites.google.com/site/qitranscripts/ - this is what was said:
Jimmy: I'll tell you what, though. All the indigenous mammals in Australasia are marsupials.
Stephen: Er... are therefore not mammals.
Jimmy [stares at Stephen in disbelief]
Whoops. Even if it wasn't blatantly obvious; a cursory google shows that this is totally incorrect. So how did we make the mistake?
The next thing to check is our database of facts, to see if the error is in there – all of our facts are sourced and need to be amended if they're wrong – but the fact is not in there and so it seems likely that it was a slip of the tongue by Stephen.
Next port of call are our research boards at http://www.qi.com/talk, to see if the mistake has been mentioned before. Sure enough, QI creator John Lloyd, is at hand with an explanation of sorts...
'Stephen is not perfect. Like anyone else he makes the occasional mistake. Almost always these are spotted and corrected, sometimes they are not.
The mammals/marsupials thing is different. I know perfectly well that marsupials are classified as mammals, but I let it stand because I am a mean bastard.
If Stephen wants to show off, that's his look out.
I would like to apologise profusely to Stephen for my behaviour.'
Usually, if a mistake such as this is made, we would correct it in the recording itself. If we miss it there, it would be cut out in the editing suite, but in this case it was left in. Whether you think it was deliberate, or whether you take Mr Lloyd's explanation with a pinch of salt, hopefully the odd mistake that makes it to air doesn't detract from the show too much.
Series C, Episode 8
In series three we asked our panellists if they could name three things that were invented in China. Seeing as it seems that almost everything has an origin in the orient, it was almost inevitable that we would make a mistake somewhere. The e-mails that came in mostly complained about this exchange:
'Stephen: Well, the flush toilet: invented in China. The Chinese also invented loo paper. Now, name three more Chinese inventions. That's all you have to do.
Alan: Pot Noodle.
Bill: Er, whispers!
Stephen: Very good!
Stephen: "Chess" is good. I'll give you one for "chess". '
This was a difficult question. The notes that we provide for each show have to fit on the A5 cards that you see Stephen occasionally fiddling with during the show. It is the bane of an elf's life to try to get these cards packed full of facts, but at the same time make them easy enough to read such that Stephen will be able to find the information at the drop of a hat. As you may have guessed, the history of chess was not a subject which we had anticipated would come up.
In actual fact, nobody knows where Chess comes from - some say Persia, some say India (which we concede is the most popular theory) but others do indeed say that Chess originated with a game called Xiang QI that is still played in China.
So I can only say that while we agree that it is very likely that chess originated in India; that it comes from China is put forward by *some* chess historians. And we rather like the idea that this most cerebral of games began as one whose name contains the letters 'QI'.
Series C, Episode 8
When the guests were asked to identify the statue on the Shaftesbury Memorial, Alan (once again to his misfortune) misidentified it as a representation of Eros, the Greek god of sensual love. Stephen then misidentified it again as the Angel of Christian Charity. The statue, as originally designed by Alfred Gilbert, is of Anteros, Eros' brother and the Greek god of requited or selfless love, thought as apt to represent the generous and benevolent 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, with Gilbert describing Anteros as portraying 'reflective and mature love, as opposed to Eros or Cupid, the frivolous tyrant.'
An elf replies...
You're right, Dan, the statue was originally called "Anteros", was renamed to "The Angel of Christian Charity" as a PR exercise, and is now known as "Eros,” I guess we could've made this more clear.
Alfred Gilbert had already sculpted the piece when he was commissioned to produce the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain. The statue was modelled on a 16-year-old Italian and represented the brother of Eros. However, some people felt that the statue was too sensual to be a memorial to the sober and respectable Earl. Many objections were quietened when the statue was renamed The Angel of Christian Charity, which was the nearest approximation that could be invented in the Christian pantheon for the role of Anteros in the Greek. So the points that Alan lost may seem a little unfair.
The QI points system may be something of a joke – we certainly don't treat it too seriously – but there is method in the madness. A panellist gets a point for a correct answer, a couple for an interesting fact, and, perhaps rather unfairly, loses 10 if they hit a klaxon. You'll never keep count though, as we record almost 2 hours during which the guests are picking up and losing points, but only 30 minutes (or 45 for QIXL) make it to air. It's unfair enough a scoring-system without us taking points off someone for an incorrect answer!
Series C, Episode 9
Nick Evans writes:
I was recently watching an episode of QI and Stephen fry stated that all living creatures have an even number of chromosomes. If you check the data for mules you will find that they have an odd number (63) of chromosomes as they get half of their chromosomes from a horse, which has 64 chromosomes, and the other half from a donkey, which has 62.
An elf replies...
Thanks for that. Very interesting, and not something the elves had thought of.
Stephen actually said:
'This is an interestingly precise number! I think I'm right in saying that in all animals' chromosomes are paired, so I think we're looking for an even number'
He wasn't sure of the fact, but you're right to point out that he was wrong. And it's my job to clarify things around here, so here goes.
As Nick rightly points out, a mule – which is a result of mating a horse and a donkey - has an odd number of chromosomes. They don't match up well, so during reproduction the meiosis (splitting) of the cell cannot take place - it can't get a copy of each sex chromosome into the sperm or egg as the thay are just too different to align. This is the reason that mules, like many hybrid animals, are born sterile.
Other hybrids that have the same problems include Ligers, Zorses and Wholphins. The Bananas that we eat are similar; they contain 3 copies of each chromosome and so when the cells divide to make seeds, the additional chromosome cause all sorts of problems. However the sterility in this case is an advantage; the seeds do not form, and so we get the seedless bananas that we see in the supermarkets today.
So as far as the show is concerned, maybe we were a little unfair to ridicule Alan for not realising that all animals have an even number of chromosomes. Especially as we didn't realise at the time that actually some exceptions exist. Sorry Alan.
Series C, Episode 9
A few years ago, QI created its heftiest tome to date. The QI Book of the Dead. The research was intensive and in the course we came across many useful facts as well as one or two surprising ones. One massively interesting life was that of Florence Nightingale, but in reading her many biographies we noted one mistake that had been made in a previous show. She didn't, no matter what we may have said, invent the pie-chart.
The issue has also been brought up by some of our esteemed community of pedants on qi.com. Florence was certainly one of the first to use pie charts, as a way to communicate information and sway the opinion of politicians, but while she was a skilled statistician, she was merely using a device invented by Scottish engineer William Playfair dozens of years before she was even born.
Moreover it has been pointed out to us that even the Florence Nightingale museum puts us right:
'The best-known pioneer of statistical graphics was William Playfair, who published what must be the first "pie chart" in 1801. It was in a graphic showing that, by comparison with other countries, the British paid more tax'
A heinous error and no mistake, but when we found ourselves reading hundreds of biographies, we were bound to find a few errors in our earlier work. It's just a matter of statistics.
Series C, Episode 10
Jon Kyffin writes:
Just watched the repeat of QI where the question about berries was asked. (And where Alan lost a lot of points). There were a few errors in what Stephen gave as berries though.
A berry is a fruit that is formed from a single ovary where the entire ovary wall ripens into an usually edible outer layer called a pericarp, the seeds should be embedded in the fruit. The flowers of berrys have a superior ovary (i.e. attached above the other flower parts, like a poppy)
An elf replies:
Yes, at first glance - especially going off wikipedia's definitions - we appear to have made a couple of mistakes in this question, most notably mistaking epigynous berries (or false berries) for true berries. You'll be glad to know, though, that the only points that Alan lost were legitimate according to all sources - for "BLACKBERRY", "STRAWBERRY", and "RASPBERRY".
Blackberries, strawberries, raspberries as well as loganberries, tayberries, wineberries, dewberries and boysenberries are not true berries, they are drupes - fleshy fruits containing a single stone or pit. But as you point out, bananas, cucumbers or watermelons are not "true berries" either; they are made in "inferior ovaries" that lie below the other floral parts of a plant and as such are usually referred to as "false berries".
The question really lies in the terminology. Are false berries "berries" or are only true berries "berries?" If you look deeper into the subject then you find differences of opinion. According to the dictionary of Agricultural Terminology by A.K. Singh, they both come under the subheading of "Berry," the Oxford English Dictionary gives a cucumber as a specific example of a botanical berry - something that other sources name as a typical "false berry" - and the Encyclopaedia Britannica agrees with wikipedia, calling such fruits "berry-like." The "fruit" section of the Cambridge Biological Series lists both false and true berries in its list, but rather sneakily then says "some distinctions must be noticed between some of the above examples."
In conclusion, the elves are not quite ready to throw in the towel on this one. We have found many reputable sources that agree that bananas, cucumbers and melons are berries, albeit not "true" ones. We accept that we could have gone further in distinguishing between "true berries" and "false berries" but then maybe that's what the quibble blog is for....
Series C, Episode 10
Each QI episode contains dozens and dozens of individual facts, so it's perhaps not surprising that we do get things wrong. Where we perhaps open ourselves up most are when we give a long list of facts, for instance, when we listed a number of Scottish inventions in series 3.
We said that the following were Scottish:
Adhesive stamps, the Australian national anthem, the Bank of England, bicycle pedals, Bovril, the cell nucleus, chloroform, the cloud chamber, cornflower, a cure for malaria, the decimal point, the Encyclopedia Britannica, fountain pens, fingerprinting, hypnosis, hypodermic syringes, insulin, the kaleidoscope, the lawnmower, lime cordial, logarithms, lorries, marmalade, matches, motor insurance, paraffin, piano pedals, the postmark, pneumatic tyres, RADAR, the reflecting telescope, savings banks, the screw propeller, the speedometer, the steam hammer, raincoats, tarmac, teleprinters, tubular steel, typhoid vaccine, ultrasound scanners, the United States Navy, universal standard time, vacuum flasks, wave-powered electricity generations, and wire rope
Inventions are often a tough call, as ideas can independently come to different people at similar times, and we have already tackled the idea that matches were invented in Scotland. But perhaps the most controversial claim in that list is probably that the US Army was invented by a Scotsman.
Our reference is to a man called John Paul Jones who, it turns out, was not strictly the creator of the US navy, but he was certainly an important early figure in it. The invention of the Navy is usually ascribed to an act of October 13, 1775 – which interestingly makes it older than the United States itself – this explains why Navy Day is celebrated on October 13 every year. The US Navy, recognizes the Continental Congress as its founder and claims no one person "invented" it.
So what of this John Paul Jones fellow? Well he is known in a number of places as “A founder” of the US Navy, rather than “The Founder” while in others he is called the ''Father of the American Navy:'' he was born at Arbigland, Kirkcudbright, Scotland, 6 July 1747. He was commissioned first lieutenant in the Navy in 1775 and was the first to hoist the Grand Union flag on a Continental warship. It was the first time that the Stars and Stripes, the flag of the new nation, was officially recognized by a foreign government.
The mention of the US Army took up a split second of the show, but behind those words was a fascinating story (read more about Jones in the links below, if you're interested). Such is often the case with QI, there is always so much more of interest behind even the most innocuous sounding of factoids.
Series C, Episode 10
David Hadfield writes...
Mount Fuji dose not mean mountain mountain. The name fuji means immortal or neverending. Fuji-san as it's known in Japan (SAN is the chinese reading of the kanji or character for mountain,not Fuji
An elf replies...
Yes, you're spot on David. This is a fairly simple correction, and the mistake was down to Stephen simply getting a little bit muddled.
The question originally was:
'There is a small hill in Cumbria called Torpenhow. Or "TOP-pen-hur", it's sometimes pronounced, but there you see it. Torpenhow. And I want to know why it's not only quite interesting, but it's twice as interesting as Mount Fujiyama.'
But then the muddle occurred:
John Sessions: Just like Fujiyama; the word "mountain" is included in the word.
Stephen: "Fuji" is "mount", so "Mount Fuji"....That's why it's twice as interesting.
Of course, as is rightly pointed out above, it is the "Yama" part of Fujijama (which as a word, we know, is not really used in Japan, but is still common in the West) that means mountain.
Actually, as an elf who until recently lived in the Lake District, I also have a problem with the Torpenhow fact, but we may well visit that in a forthcoming episode of the show. If not, you can be sure that it will find itself into a future quibble blog entry.
Series C, Episode 11
If you're a regular reader of the quibble blog, then you'll know that we've locked horns with one of our favourite websites, snopes.com, before. Another time that they disagreed with us was regarding the make-up of Cinderella's slippers, but this time we have to bow down to their greater authority.
The work on this question was done by QI maestro John Lloyd when the idea of QI was in its infancy, luckily we still have his original files to hand:
“In the "original" 9th century Chinese story "Yeh-Shen" they're made of gold thread with solid gold soles. In the Scottish version "Rashie-Coat" they're made of rushes. In The German version they’re embroidered with silk and gold thread. There's one story in which she loses one of her galoshes and, in India, it's her nose-ring.
In the mediaeval French version used by Perrault, so the story goes, her shoes are described as pantoufles de vair – 'slippers of squirrel's fur'. Supposedly Perrault mis-heard the word as verre 'glass' and so it has erroneously remained ever since.
One source says this error occurred before Perrault and he merely repeated it. Others suggest that the mistake occurred when Perrault was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729. The latter is definitely not the case: the Perrault story is entitled “Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre”.
Two sources – snopes.com and Maria Tatar’s authoritative “The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (2002)” – think glass slippers were Perrault’s own idea and that he intended them all along.
How anyone will ever definitely know after all this time, I dunno, but the supposed mistake is a good story and I’m reluctant to let it drop without peer review. It would be an awful lot of wasted work.”
The work gives an idea of how QI tries to seek both sides of every story, and how we remain sceptical, even, of our own questions. In this case we have to admit that it is true that most fairy-tale historians (yes, they do exist) do not believe our theory that Cinders' shoes were made from fur, rather than glass, but we wanted to put the argument forward. Sadly the confines of a 30 minute show meant that this didn't really come across.
Series C, Episode 12
Last week we mentioned how our picture elves need to be equally accurate with their work, as we have eagle-eyed viewers that will pick up on even the slightest inaccuracy. A perfect example of this came from the final episode of series three when we talked about Rolls Royce's use of chickens to test how its engines react to bird-strikes.
QI has a talkboard where some of the most erudite internet users from around the world come together and talk about anything from N-rays to N-dubz. It is an area where interestingness is abound and pedantry is positively encouraged, and is also somewhere where you can discuss the show with the people who actually make it. Many of our longest-serving posters are people who happened upon the site when wanting to point out a mistake in the show, so we positively encourage such posts.
Anyway, a couple of years ago, we had a poster called Glassrat arrive on the talkboards with the following comment that we just loved for its pedantry and geekyness, it really sums up what the boards are for, and also shows again why our picture researchers need to be on top of their game...
In the question involving chickens and Rolls-Royce gas turbine engines, the picture in the background is not an RR engine.
All RR engines rotate clockwise when viewed from the front, but the one pictured would go anti-clockwise. The photo wasn't inverted because the blade numbers were the right way round.
It could possibly have been a V2500 (made by IAE) or a BR700 series (BMW-Rolls-Royce), both of which rotate anti-clockwise & are manufactured by RR joint ventures. Probably more likely to be a General Electric or Pratt & Witney engine, and quite an old one too, as it has clappers between the fanblades.
Your eagle-eyed rodent,
Wow. Great stuff we think. Why not watch the next episode of QI with the same attention to detail and then head over to qi.com/talk – we host a quibble of the year award every year, so as well as finding a whole host of interesting people discussing the interesting issues of the day, you might just win yourself some piece of QI memorabilia (ahem, that I half-inched from the set).
Series D, Episode 1
Meghan Roache writes...
In the first episode of D series, it is mentioned that the average Brit gets six to seven a night, while those who were living in 1900 got an average of nine hours. The conclusion is then drawn that getting less sleep will make you live longer, following the idea that we are getting less sleep now and our life expectancy is much higher than it was a century ago. However, this is fallacious; in this case it must be pointed out that in no way is correlation equal to causation. There are a number of other factors which have caused the increased life expectancy we enjoy now, improved medical care and better water only being two examples. If one were to follow the logic that leads to the conclusion that getting less sleep will increase a person's life expectancy, one can also conclude that the decrease in pirates over the last few centuries has caused global warming, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.
An elf replies...
We did mention that people in the 1900s slept for longer, but we didn't mean to imply causation; it was just an unfortunate effect of the editor's knife. What we meant to say is that people who sleep fewer hours live longer, and also that your grandparents slept longer that we do today – not that the two were linked.
The elves´information on this subject came from a 2002 study by Professor Daniel Kripke, reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry and the American Association for the advancement of Science. And later in the Daily Telegraph.
In a study of 1.1 million people, he showed that a significantly larger number of people who slept for 8 hours (as opposed to 4-7 hours) died during the six year study.
But as is so often the case, it's not the final word on the subject. There has been some very recent work that seems to show that sleeping for fewer than six hours a night can cause “an early death.” A meta-study of 1.5 million people showed that people regularly having such little sleep were 12% more likely to die over a 25-year period than those who got an "ideal" six to eight hours.
So how long should you sleep? We're still sticking with 7 hours, though we must admit to not always sticking to it – especially after aftershow parties!
Series D, Episode 4
Gareth Lamerick writes...
It was stated on the show that dolphins don't drink anything.. This is presumably because they spend their lives in water and some wonderfully in-depth research indicated that they don't drink the water around them... however.....
Dolphins being mammals (classified by a couple of unique attributes, not the least of which being sweat and mammary glands), produce milk, and the Dolphin calves do indeed drink this milk throughout the early stages of their life.
An elf replies...
For a show that airs in the winter and records in summer, you might be surprised to hear that research on QI usually begins in January of every year. The elves get together once a week where we go through everything that we have learned in a week; this continues for a couple of months before we're ready to start turning the work into a script.
It is in these meetings that I get the chance to tell everyone about the various quibbles we receive in a week. There's often a bit of a groan – especially if we've made a bit of a howler – but never had a quibble elicited such a groan as this one
Dolphins are unable to drink seawater as it is too salty. They get their water from the foods they eat - squid and fish and have no direct source of drinkable water. However Gareth's is a quite brilliant point – of course we'd missed the point that baby dolphins drink milk.
Dolphins can drink milk while their mother is on the move. It is squirted directly into the calf's mouth and the babies' tongues have a frilled margin to seal them to their mother. The milk has a low lactose content and contains up to ten times the fat and protein found in cows' milk, as a result it is much thicker and richer. It sounds like perfect milk for the lactose intolerant amongst us, but it does smell of fish and tastes particularly oily, perhaps not so great on your cornflakes.
Series D, Episode 4
Ian Dunn writes:
I argue that despite what was said on the "Dictionaries" episode in Series D (Episode 4), Saturn isn't the biggest floater under the sun. I refer to Robert Anwood's book Emus Can't Walk Backwards: Another Round of Dubious Pub Facts (Pages 92-95).
“This nonsense about Saturn floating in the bath is based purely on the idea that its average density is less than that of water - but it doesn't take account of the fact that the planet is not an approximately consistent density all the way through being part gas and part solid. While Saturn is in its current position in the solar system, the outer layers of gas are attracted by the gravitational pull of its core; but the minute you stick it in a bath on a more massive planet, the centre of gravity will be at the centre of [the new planet], meaning that both the core and the outer gaseous layers are all pulled towards it, at which point the difference in the relative densities and states of Saturn's core (a solid much denser than water and Saturn's outer layers) and its outer layers (gases much less dense than water) would come into effect. Do you really care, though?”
An elf replies...
The idea that we were attempting to put across here was that the massive planet Saturn has a density that is less than that of water. This is beyond doubt and is very simple to work out, by measuring the planet's radius and the way it interacts with the other bodies of the solar system. The best way for us to explain this was to explain that in an imaginary word where one could somehow find enough water, you would see it floating. Mr Anwood argues against a slightly different idea. His experiment requires a real-life bath in order to hold the water and a real-life planet to hold the bath, while our explanation only requires one to imagine a large expanse of water.
However, to take his argument for a second, there are many problems. Firstly, he says that Saturn's core (a solid much denser than water and Saturn's outer layers) would sink below the water. However, while a small icy metallic core is the most likely make-up of the centre of the planet, in actual fact no-one really knows how the centre of Saturn is composed. The models that have been composed for the planet indicate that a core has a mass of less than 22 x the mass of the Earth, but no lower limit can be found. There are theories that Saturn doesn't have a core at all.
Assuming Saturn does have a core though, would it be attracted by gravity to the planet holding the bath, as Mr Anwood infers? Actually, there can be no such planet. The maximum radius of a rocky planet depends on composition, but generally the figure is given as only around 3 Earths – anything bigger and the core shrinks under its own mass. This would be much too small for a bath that could hold Saturn.
Basically what we're saying here is that to put such a thought-experiment under so much scrutiny is a fruitless task, nobody who ever made the claim that Saturn would float ever actually thinks it could in real-life, it is simply a way of explaining a concept.
Series D, Episode 4
Ian Dunn writes:
I believe I have come across a QI error. In Series D, Episode 4, ("Dictionaries"), you said that raindrops were, "Completely spherical" in shape. However, according to a BBC Four documentary called "Rain", broadcast as part of three documentaries on British weather, a raindrop is in fact oval in shape with a flat base...
An elf replies...
The elves spend almost 6 months of the year researching for a series of QI. We eventually write scripts which consist of Stephen's autocue as well as the cards that contain everything he has to know about all of the subjects that we might cover. The final documents come to somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 words. Once it reaches the air, an individual question can sometimes consist of only a few sentences before it descends into a comedy routine, and that is what happened in this episode.
Looking back at our research at the time, we found that raindrops are spherical as they begin to fall, and that small drops under 2mm (0.08in) keep the shape. Larger raindrops become distorted by aerodynamic drag - flattened at the base and rounder at the top. A little bit like a burger bun. When they get very large – larger than a radius of about 4.5mm, they become distorted into a shape like a parachute with a tube of water round its base, before eventually breaking up into smaller drops. Of course, only the very first factoid, that the smaller raindrops are spherical, made it to air – for this reason we over-simplified, which was a shame.
The point of the question was really that rain drops are not pear-shaped, as is the weather forecaster's convention. If raindrops were really shaped like teardrops, we wouldn’t see rainbows as we do. Although a teardrop shape can have a circular cross-section in the horizontal plane, and so could produce tiny vertical sections of the rainbow, the big arch that we see could not form from teardrops.
A couple of years after we recorded this episode, more research was done in France, which was reported in the BBC4 show that Ian cites. The researchers found, using high-speed cameras, that a large, round drop gradually flattened out and, as it got wider, eventually "captured" the air in front of it to form the shape of an upturned bag. This bag then "inflated" and burst apart into many smaller droplets. As you can see, this is consistent to what we originally wrote, but it is also not exactly consistent with what Stephen said. Sometimes the confines of a 30 minute show can make even the most well-rounded research appear slightly pear-shaped.
Series D, Episode 10
Chris Herbert writes:
In one episode the Chinese Mandarin names were given for England, America, France etc and Mr Fry waxed lyrical about their meaning.
I was always told that the names were simply based on phonetics and were how the Chinese interpreted the sounds to match Chinese usage and inflections.
The same can be said for translating Christian names into Chinese - the pretty sounding explanations are added later.
An elf replies...
Yes, Chris, you're quite right. In Mandarin, someone from the USA is known as a meiguroren, which means lovely country person, but really the word was just chosen because it sounds a bit like American. Similary, the word for the English, Yingguoren, may mean hero country person, but it doesn't mean that Chinese people regard the English as coming from a heroic country. Perhaps we should've been a little more clear on the fact.
With around 40,000 characters, and because a single spoken syllable can be translated in about 20 different ways, transliterating new words into the language can be something of a challenge, especially for companies selling their wares in the country's ever-growing economy. Most famously, Coca-Cola had difficulty making its name make sense in the language, eventually going for K'o K'ou K'o Lê which literally means “allowing your mouth to rejoice” but it was not before some shop-keepers had gone with other slightly less salubrious translations such as “female horse fastened with wax” and even “bite the wax tadpole.” Nice.
Shame we didn't make this whole interesting subject clear on the show. Perhaps it's appropriate that the Mandarin for “sorry” can be written: “Dui Bu QI”
Series D, Episode 13
Philip Milbourn writes:
Hello, hope this is alright, but I've been meaning to quibble this for a while. It seems QI has perpetuated a large myth to a larger audience, to the point it is mentioned quite a lot around Christmas now on other forums.
During a Christmas special the Mithraic Mysteries were mentioned, but having had a look around, it seems that just about everything said was untrue - it is interesting that Mithras has acquired so many myths.
An elf replies...
QI is filmed in May and June every year for a show that is generally shown in the Autumn and Winter and so for one particular summer evening every year, Stephen, Alan and all the crew have to don silly hats, wade through fake snow and listen to Slade endlessly. As such, you can sometimes expect a little bit of bah humbug from the elves.
One controversial question that we ran many years ago in a christmassy QI was relating to Mithras, the Roman (or some say Persian) god whose life, we said, mirrored that of Jesus Christ rather suspiciously. We have had a number of rather angry letters saying that the entire subject has been debunked, and they're certainly right that the idea is out of favour at the moment. We were aware of the controversy at the time which is why Stephen said: “There are amazing things claimed about Mithras,” and that “Christian scholars claim it's nonsense.”
However, in order to give both sides of the story: there is an argument that an similarities are due to Mithras taking Catholic symbols and not the other way around. While some claim that the religion began around 100 BC, the earliest Mithraic artefact dates to about 90AD, which would clearly mean it postdates the birth of Christ. If this is true, any derivative influence must have flowed the other way (i.e. Mithras is based on Christ, rather than vice versa).
Moreover, due to the secretive nature of the cult of Mithras, we don't really know all that much about what they did. The evidence comes from their temples and artifacts, and it is certainly possible that early historians simply made it sound similar to the cult of Jesus Christ as that was the contemporary culture that they knew most about.
While there can be little doubt that Christianity, as with all successful religions, took aspects of other cults and integrated them into their doctrines. It seems like the Mithras claims that we mentioned are controversial to say the least. An interesting subject which was not given the full scholarly debate that it deserves, we think. The question was “Why do we celebrate Christmas on 25th December” - the answer should perhaps have been more simple: “When you're recording QI, you don't.”
Series F, Episode 3
Shellie Austin writes...
Poor Andy Hamilton!
It seems he was correct about the Statue of Liberty. It originally operated as a lighthouse from 1886 to 1902. In fact, it was the first lighthouse to use electricity.
An elf replies...
Andy is without doubt one of our most knowledgeable guests, and I think we owe him an apology in this case. You're quite right that the Statue of Liberty operated as a lighthouse for some time at the end of the 19th century.
As you look at the set, taking Stephen as the central point, the elves are sat in a little booth, just off set, to the left (Stephen's right). We all have laptops (and on special occasions a glass of wine) and are listening to everything that is being said – checking on the go, as it were.
The most common facts that need to be checked are those given by the guests themselves, as there is a reasonable chance that we have not come across them in the course of our research: as soon as Andy mentioned this, we began to beaver away on Google (other search engines are available), to see if he was correct.
When we find the answer we have a couple of options; we could talk in Stephen's earpiece or place a message on a screen in his desk (you'll notice that it's the one he uses to check the scores), and did so in this occasion. Whether we were a little late for Stephen to mention it, or whether we mentioned that Andy was right and it was lost in the edit, I can't remember, but sadly it never saw the light of day. So sorry Andy, hopefully this blog is apology enough to keep your reputation as one of QI's most erudite panelistas intact.
Series F, Episode 5
Susan Pickford writes:
I have a couple of qibbles with the France episode. First of all, I'm sure this has already been pointed out to you, but Stephen's French in the grapefruit question was grammatically pretty lousy. Secondly, and more obscurely, the stilt-walking shepherd, Sylvain Dornon, was widely believed to have cheated.
An elf replies...
Well yes, we have been told that Stephen's grammar was less that exact - slightly embarrassing especially as he had just pulled Alan up on a previous mistake. In actual fact, we changed that opening exchange on the day of recording, and asked a friend of the show, who is half-French to translate for us. Perhaps our correspondent suffered from the following problem that may of his countrymen do: in 2008 it was reported by the University of Arizona that...
"Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed only 1 of them. Some of the words had been anecdotally identified as tricky cases, but others were plain old common nouns."
Anyway.. Sylvain Dornon, the French baker who supposedly walked on his stilts from Paris to Moscow is an equally slippery character. His story was doubted by some of his contemporaries: the German press reported he took a train at least through most of their country, and though he blamed this on anti-French sentiment; his own account of the journey – the book 58 jours sur des échasses de Paris à Moscou - is dubious to say the least. However all we have is his word, and who are we to doubt? It was a golden age for slightly mental French exploits: another correspondent who e-mailed us (and read about this for their Phd - regrettably whose name I have lost, if you read this, please get in touch, so I can credit you) tells us of a man who walked from Paris to Versailles on his hands and one who roller-skated from Paris to Clamecy, a couple of hundred miles away. All of these events happened in the 1890s.
To complete something of a tricolour of éclaircissements Français (ahem, can you tell French isn't my first language?!), in the same show, Stephen says that the Arc de Triomphe is the largest triumphal arch in the world. However we have been told of another arch of triumph, it is the one found in Pyongyang, North Korea. The Arc de Triomphe is 49.5 metres high and 45 metres wide while The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang is 60 metres high and 50 metres wide. It was built to honour Kim Il-sung's role in the resistance against Japanese rule of the country, and no doubt to claim a world record for the Dear Leader. So there you have it, three French errors. Franc-ly, we must do better.
Series G, Episode 1
One of the commonest questions we get on Twitter and Facebook, as well as in our inbox is “When is QI coming to America?” Well at the time of writing, there are no definite plans, but as we reach out across the world, surely it is only a matter of time before we find some sort of platform. Flying the elves out to LA might be a good start? *Ahem*
Anyway, if we're going to sail over the pond one day, then we'll have to make sure that our USAian facts are watertight: perhaps the most common complaint in recent years was our claim that only five places in the USA have apostrophes in their name.
The first thing to clarify, which we didn't necessarily do during the show, is that we were referring to possessive apostrophes – places such as Coeur d'Alene in Idaho which use the apostrophe to indicate the omission of letters were not counted. We definitely should've made this more clear. Also, many Hawaiian words appear to have apostrophes – indeed Hawai'i itself is usually written thusly, but the thing which appears to be an apostrophe is a letter of the alphabet in Hawai'ian and so technically it's not actually an apostrophe. (They call it 'okina, and it should be written the other way round).
Secondly, we have had many many e-mails from people who say that a place they have visited, or indeed lived, has an apostrophe and was left out. Often we were given a wikipedia page as proof, but were able to point correspondents in the direction of the US Geographic Names Information System, which shows the official names of towns: to a quibble, so far, we have been vindicated. The closest we came to having to make a full retraction came from a certain Aubrey Smith, who, fully in the spirit of QI, sent an e-mail to the US Geological Survey to get the official ruling on whether or not Lee's Summit has an apostrophe. The e-mail was then sent around to half of the US Board of Geographic Names. It turned out that they didn't even seem sure on the "official" name.
Can you find another possessive apostrophe? The link is below. If you can, then please let us know.
Series G, Episode 2
In the G Animals show of series 7 of QI, we asked “Why are there no insects in the sea?” About five-sixths of known animal life is made up of insects and they have managed to live everywhere else, so why not in the Oceans? There are sea spiders after all, so why not sea flies or sea beetles? Our answer was that since the vast majority of plant life in the ocean consists of simple plants like single-celled green plankton and seaweed, the absence of flowers made life in the sea impossible for insects.
The answer caused controversy. Some said that it was due to crustaceans taking up their niche and some that the question was fundamentally flawed – should evolution mean that insects find their way into the sea, they simply won't look the same was as our terrestrial insects and we wouldn't call them such. A more robust quibble with the question was that sea-spiders are not the same as terrestrial spiders, belonging to a totally different family, but there are actually some true spiders that live in the sea – the desidae family of South East Asia for instance.
The definitive quibble on the “Why are there no insects in the sea” question arrived soon enough, and it came from Dr Peter C Barnard, Director of Science, The Royal Entomological Society. He wrote:
“On seeing last night’s Q.I. programme about animals [7 December], my antennae quivered with indignation when I heard Stephen Fry assert that there are no insects living in the sea. Not so! Several groups of insects live entirely in the intertidal zone, some of which travel far out to sea. There are over 60 species of bugs living in this environment, together with many beetles and other groups. Admittedly insects have not yet taken over the oceans in the way that they dominate most terrestrial habitats, but give them time!
There is in fact a substantial book on “Marine Insects” by Lanna Cheng (1976).”
Many thanks, Dr Barnard. Even if it is something of a fly in the ointment.
Series G, Episode 3
QI has, on more than one occasion, been described as the antithesis to today's reality-television and celebrity-obsessed society. So perhaps it's no surprise that we stumbled a little in the show when we mentioned a particular moment in Big Brother.
Danny Malone was the first of many who wrote to tell us of our mistake:
In your recent show airing the 10th of December (S7E03 entitled "Games") i feel the section about Games Theory was slightly misunderstood. Fry rightly stated the influence of the mathematician J.F.Nash, however, he also said that in the example of the Big Brother dilemma (highlighted below) that the best strategy would be to say "share" rather than "take all" the money.
£50,0000 offered between 2 people. The deal is as follows:
Person A shares - Person B shares = A +25,000 & B +25,000
A shares - B takes all = A +0 & B +50,000
A takes all - B shares = A +50,000 & B +0
A takes all - B takes all = A +0 & B +0
Stephen Fry says that the best strategy is to share the money. Whilst this is the option that is collectively is beneficial to everyone involved in the "game" it is not the best solution for the individual, and that is what Games Theory is about - going against competitors and trying to "win" and beat them.
Indeed Danny. Our notes for this question were correct, but Stephen got a little muddled in this episode.
People often ask how much of a rehearsal we go through before each show, and the answer is quite a lot. To begin with we do a full rehearsal with the elves as panellists and the floor manager as Stephen to check the technical elements of the show; then Stephen goes through the entire show with the elves – in order to make sure he is happy with the material; and then finally, the panellists and Stephen have a very quick warm-up with fake questions. It is in the second of these rehearsals that we should've made sure Stephen was completely happy with the concept. Perhaps on this day we were a little lax in the warm-up.
It's a shame that one of the only TV shows that can tackle Game Theory on prime time television ended up making a little gaff on this particular aspect of it. Maybe it was the mention of reality TV that threw us. But at least we know that thanks to our eagle-eyed viewers, Big Brother will always be watching us!
Series G, Episode 3
Stephen says that the ouija board declined in popularity in 1972 because of the film The Exorcist. How could that be? The Exorcist wasn't released until 1973!
An elf replies...
Well spotted Vera. We stand by the fact that The Exorcist was a major player in the decline of the Ouija Board, and that they were extremely popular up to 1972, but as you have pointed out, the movie's American debut was on Boxing Day 1973, so it was probably 1974 when lots of people decided they didn't want their ouija board any more.
Ouija boards were tremendously popular from WW1 until the early ‘70s; at one time virtually every household in the US had one. 3 million of them were sold in 1920 alone when it was reported at the University of Michigan that ouija boards were “replacing Bibles and prayer books,” and a local nerve specialist had treated female students for “extreme nervousness” brought about by “too close association with the ouija board and too great belief in its wandering.” Some of the women were “in a serious condition.” Throughout he 20th century they were made by literally hundreds of companies. In 1972 they outsold Monopoly – but in that year The Exorcist depicted them as a tool of the Devil, millions of boards were thrown out, and the fad ended abruptly.
It seems curious to modern ears that a tool for conjuring dead people should be sold as a children’s toy, even though the manufacturers have been quite careful to avoid claiming that it is anything other than a game. Parker Brothers (now Hasbro) stopped making "classic" ouija boards in 1999, but still hold the rights; all they now market though is a glow-in-the-dark version.
Series G, Episode 4
When we first start QI research each year, the elves have a meeting where we discuss which guests we would like on the show. Our suggestions and ideas then go on through the producers and onto our lovely celebrity booker, Lizzie, who does what she can to get us some balanced panels. A particular risk was the “Fight and Flight” episode of series six where we pitted Pam Ayres up against Johnny Vegas. We think she acquitted herself brilliantly but she wasn't helped by our gentle joshing about flying fish. It turns out that we owe Pam an apology.
Stephen: So do they fly or glide?
Pam: I've seen them and they fly for ages! When I saw them them, erm, my first flying fish, I couldn't believe they were really fish because they flew for so long, and they weave, and they sort of duck and dive like that and I thought, they cannot possibly be fish 'cause they flew for so long. They flew for minutes and minutes and minutes, and then suddenly they all go "plonk!", and they're gone, so you know they were really fish.
Stephen: I don't know what you were eating or drinking on that occasion but I have it here on pretty solid authority that 30 seconds is a long time for them to stay in the air in one go.
Johnny [behind cupped hand]: Who's gonna tell Pam that she probably witnessed a duck?
By an amazing co-incidence, it was the very next day after we had recorded this episode that flying fish hit the news. The world record for longest recorded flight was beaten as a TV crew captured a flight of over 45 seconds. Not the “minutes and minutes” that Pam claimed, but 50% longer than our figure, and so it gives a little more credence to Pam's story. Maybe as people study the fish more, Pam will be shown to be right, and it will be Johnny and us who will be shown to be lame ducks.
Series G, Episode 4
Clare Sobala writes:
This is a rather hesitant and delayed reaction to something Stephen said in the fairly recent episode Geography. They were talking about Robert Peary and he finished by saying that nobody had since matched Peary's time to the north pole so it was a doubtful claim. I was under the presumption that Tom Avery ( http://www.tomavery.net/ ) had beaten the time in 2005, replicating the conditions Peary made his trip in?
An elf replies...
Firstly, lets look at what Stephen actually said in the show:
“And in the case of Peary, riches and ambition, he was psychotically ambitious. And now most people believe he didn’t even get to the North Pole himself. Because the story he tells, he would have had to have gone at a speed that no one has subsequently ever gone on an Arctic exploration.”
Fairly unequivocal I should think. The questions we need to answer are firstly do “most people” believe that he didn't get to the pole, and secondly, what do the elves think?
Well there is certainly a growing group who believe that Commander Robert Edwin Peary made it to the pole after all, one of whom is Tom Avery, as Clare rightly points out. After his 2005 journey, Avery was quoted as saying: “Having now seen for myself how he travelled across the pack ice, I am more convinced than ever that Peary did indeed discover the North Pole." Others, however, are not so sure. Opponents claim that while Avery did indeed beat Peary's time, it was only due to the fact that Peary was stuck at a point called Big Lead for five days during which time Avery caught up. Avery also was flown to his starting point, supplied by airdrops en route, and airlifted home as soon as his team had reached their target.
So did Peary make it? Of course, no-one will ever know. And while we don't want to sound authoritative either way, we still doubt his account. Apart from his miraculous speed – unlike Avery, he had already lost eight of his toes to frostbite - there's the fact that he didn't have a trained navigator and while he seems to have had a sextant with him, he didn't take the thing on the last push to the Pole. Even if he'd gotten close it's hard to see how he reached the true pole. The elves would love to think that the first person to reach the pole was the wonderfully named Yorkshireman Sir Wally Herbert who crossed the Arctic all the way from Alaska to Spitzbergen taking the pole in on his way. In 1969, 60 years after Peary, Wally was employed by National Geographic which had supported Peary's claim, to write a biography of the great man. But as he researched Peary's life he came to the conclusion that the American's records were unreliable. So not only did Herbert besmirch Peary's name, he also may have supplanted his own as the first to reach the most Northern part of the planet. We like his style!
Series G, Episode 5
Conrad Zimmer writes:
In the section about the the claims of Paul McCartneys death, Mr. Fry stated that in all new versions of Abbey Road, the cigarette is missing from Paul's hand. This is not true. On the new remastered versions of the CDs, the cigarette is on plain view on the front cover and on the front of the accompanying booklet.
An elf replies...
Well what can we say. We obviously have an old version of the album. Thanks for pointing out that this ridiculous example of political-correctness-gone-mad has been changed.
Actually, this additional piece of information from our G for Groovy show, gives us a chance to talk about another part of research that is often ignored in the show – music research.
QI is slowly beginning to be shown around the world - in Australia and New Zealand for instance – but it isn't as simple as taking the show and just showing it on a foreign channel. There are certain copyrighted parts of the show, pictures for instance, or indeed the music played – be it for a particular question or from the panellists' buzzers – and if we haven't cleared these for international usage, then it can cause a real headache. As such, you may well find in newer shows that we have become a little bit more creative with the buzzer sounds.
Often on the day of recording, a group of elves or other production staff will gather around a microphone in the soundbooth to record some noise or other. Listen out this series – if you hear a voice in one of the buzzers, it may well be QI supremo John Lloyd, producer Piers Fletcher, or even one of us lowly elves...
Series G, Episode 5
Last week we were indebted to Conrad Zimmer for letting us know that the cigarette has returned to the Beatles' Abbey Road album cover, but this was not the only Beatles-related quibble relating to our G series Christmas special.
We asked the question: “What does puff the magic dragon have in common with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds?” with the answer that neither is about drugs, but we were pointed in the direction of a 2004 interview with Paul McCartney where he said that it was "pretty obvious" that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was inspired by LSD. However it seems like there was a certain amount of disagreement amongst the songwriting duo: Lennon once said: “It was purely unconscious that it came out to be LSD. Until someone pointed it out, I never even thought of it. I mean, who would ever bother to look at initials of a title? It's not an acid song.” Julian Lennon also stands by the story that he took a picture home from school and showed it to his father, explaining: "It's Lucy in the sky with diamonds."
Puff the Magic Dragon on the other hand is surely without question about a dragon named Puff. According to Peter Yarrow who wrote the song: “Even if I had had the intention of writing a song about drugs -- which I may have had at a later time -- I was 20 years old at Cornell in 1959 when it was written and I was so square at that time, as was everyone else. Drugs had not emerged then. I know Puff was a good dragon and would never had had drugs around him. Now you've heard that from the mouth of the dragon's daddy.”
So we stand by the question, but accept that there is a certain amount of controversy on the matter of “Lucy...”. If the Beatles couldn't agree between themselves, what hope can the rest of us have?
Series G, Episode 5
In our “Groovy” special of Series G we tackled polygamy, and it caused something of a stir both on the talkboards of qi.com and also in our inbox. Our stance was that Mormons no longer practise polygamy, and if they wanted to they couldn't as it is illegal in the US. The issue is a complicated one and perhaps worth clarifying here.
Firstly, can anyone have more than one wife in the USA? We say not: In order to be admitted to the Union the state of Utah had to recognize that plural marriages were against federal law. So we think that whatever individual Mormons or the Mormon church thinks, only the first marriage has legal status. If you think you've married “up to nine” women then you're wrong – only the first one is really your wife.
Secondly, irrespective of their legal status, do mormons still practise polygamy? There are certainly people who live in this way, and it is true that sometimes the state turns a blind eye, but while those smaller sects - there are about a dozen of them - which do indulge in a form of polygamy do identify themselves as Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints will tell you that only members of its church are Mormons, and that to be such, they must agree to their doctrines against polygamy.
The waters are muddied though with the question of common-law marriage. Does this count as a marriage? Well it seems that it does when it is convenient to be so. The state of Utah refuses to accept that a mormon is married to his many wives unless they want to prosecute, in which case they say that the fact that two parties are legally incapable of entering into a common law marriage, because they are already married, does not preclude criminal liability for bigamy or polygamy. Confused? Well it's little wonder that we couldn't give the entire story in a 30 minute panel show – it's impossible to do it even in this blog - but hopefully this has begun to redress the issue.
Series G, Episode 6
Julian Griffin writes:
Dear elven folk [I am unsure of the appropriate PC phrase - Dear elf/elfen, Dear elf/elfina, ... - I hope I have not offended]
I was extremely interested in the question that, the very lovely, Mr Fry posed at the end of episode 11 in series "E" - "Endings". Namely, "How many poles are there at the ends of the earth?"
I could not wait the research this topic....
An elf replies...
One of the great joys of working on QI, is receiving e-mails from people with the same inquisitive nature as ourselves. One such came from Julian Griffin in response to our question: “How many North Poles does the earth have?”
Our answer was that we have four: Geographic - where the Earth's axis of rotation meets the surface; also known as 'True North'. Geomagnetic - point where the Earth's magnetic dipole meets the surface. Magnetic - where geomagnetic field lines point vertically into the ground. And the 'Northern Pole of Inaccessibility,' the farthest point from any coastline. All told, we came up with 12 poles that exist somewhere on the Earth's surface.
However Julian took it upon himself to search for further poles. On top of our two geographic poles, two magnetic poles, two geo-magnetic poles, two poles of inaccessibility, two celestial poles and a Ceremonial South Pole, he found two cartographical poles and four, not two, poles of inaccessibility: Northern, Southern, Oceanic and Continental.
He came up with the upper limit of 15 – can you do better? We'd love to hear from you if you can: there's nothing better than hearing from those who will go to the ends of the earth to prove us wrong.
Series G, Episode 6
Mrs E Compton-Williams writes:
“I was watching the Genius episode of 'G' series and wondered what it was about cat genetics that made CC the cloned cat look so different to her mother. The main two points that I would like to highlight are: i) CC does not stand for CopyCat but Carbon Copy. And ii) The tabby shown in the picture on QI was the surrogate mother of CC, not the cat from whom she was cloned.”
An elf replies...
There are around half a dozen QI elves that dig out facts throughout the year, but some of the less-heralded yet equally important work is done by the “Picture elves” - a couple of specialist researchers who spend the months running-up to the show trawling through picture libraries and poring over photoshop in order to get the very best images for the show. You may have already noticed that our guests sometimes find just as much material from the pictures on our big screens as they do from our “Quite Interesting” questions.
But just as they are vitally important for the show, so they must try to keep their work as error-free as possible: our eagle-eyed viewers will always let us know should they make a mistake. And that's what they have done on this occasion. Mrs Compton-Williams is quite right to say that the cats on the screens in this show were CC and her surrogate mother Allie, not her genetic mother Rainbow. Rainbow looks much more similar to CC, but is still not identical as the colour of a cat is down to a mixture between genetic and environmental factors.
The colour of a cloned cat may not sound like the most interesting topic of conversation, but actually it is vitally important for the researchers involved. Cats' coats are related to the X and Y sex chromosomes of the animal: The orange-coat gene, for example, is carried on the X chromosome, which makes it sex-linked. In male cats it can cause black or orange coats, while in females it can produce three colours: black, orange, and tortoiseshell. Anyway, the fact that the two cats had similar coats meant that researchers could identify the type of cell from which it was derived, and so they knew to test these cells in order to prove that CC was a true clone. It's all fairly complicated stuff and probably not worth going into in a lowly quibble blog, but certainly not to be taken lightly.
What is more to the quibble blog's level, perhaps, is CC's real name. Is Mrs Compton-Williams correct that the cat is called “Carbon Copy” and not “Copycat”? Well we have a lot on our side: MSN, The Guardian, the BBC and *ahem* wikipedia, all call the cat Copycat, but it seems like we may all be wrong. The paper submitted to Nature has no reference to the cat's name, but the experiment was done at Texas A&M University and a search of their website gives a clue. There is no reference to CopyCat on the site, but there is a single citation that gives “Carbon Copy” as the cat's full name.
An understandable mistake, given all the citations in the press, but a mistake nonetheless. Seems like the elves are going to have to take half of the responsibility for this quibble back from our picture elves.
Series G, Episode 8
Katrin L writes:
In the Germany episode, Stephen Fry mentioned 'Dinner for One' as being a traditional comedy sketch shown every new year about an old lady being served a Christmas dinner. While Dinner for one is in fact a German New Year tradition, it's not a Christmas dinner but her birthday dinner, her 90th to be exact, the alternative German title in fact being 'The 90th Birthday'.
An elf replies...
Blast! Katrin, you're right. We really should've picked that one up on the day. Luckily not many UK inhabitants will have picked up on the error, seeing as it has never been shown on British television, but we might have known that one or two of our eagle-eyed viewers would put us right.
Actually, maybe the error could be thought of as something of a homage to the tradition; German narrator Heinz Piper originally made a grammatical mistake in his introduction to the 18 minute version: He misquoted Warden’s line “Same procedure as every year” as “Same procedure than every year”. While the mistake appears to have gone unnoticed initially, it later prompted annual protest letters to NDR (North German Broadcasting), most notably from German teachers of English. NDR eventually responded by editing the recording slightly: substituting a small bit of its audio track with audio recorded during one of the rehearsals. Thus, in 1988, the error had been edited out and Piper could be heard to correctly say “Same procedure as every year”. This in turn annoyed some purists who would rather respect the original.
One thing that we didn't mention in the show is the final punch-line of the sketch. After the butler gets more and more drunk, imbibing the drinks of the old lady's imaginary guests, Miss Sophie indicates to a very drunk James that she wishes to retire to bed, to which James responds:
James: By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
Miss Sophie, delightedly: The same procedure as every year, James!
James: Well, I'll do my very best!
Series G, Episode 9
Stephen: The Queen is the only person in Britain who legally has no need for a driving licence.
Phill Jupitus: So what does she show them at Blockbusters to prove her address, then?
Stephen: Good point. A twenty-pound note?
Chris Burns writes:
On season 7, episode 9, Mr Fry says that the Queen does not hold a driving licence. As far as I am aware this is not true:
Although The Queen does not require a driving licence by law, she learned to drive in 1945, while still Princess Elizabeth, as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She would have required a licence at this time, since she was not the Sovereign and would therefore have been required to hold a driving licence under the existing acts of that time..
An elf replies...
Driving tests were suspended from 1939 to 1946 so The Queen didn't need to take a test at that time, but even if she had received a licence then it would've expired in 1996 on her 70th birthday. At this age everyone needs to apply to renew their licence - except reigning monarchs, that is!
As a couple of bonus factoids: the Queen does have to fill in a form every three years declaring any medical conditions in order to keep her non-licence, and there is no registration number on the Queen's car. She doesn't own a passport either and Her Majesty's cars are the only ones in Britain that do not require registration plates.
Series G, Episode 10
In series G of QI we used our highest-profile klaxon of all-time when we forfeited President Obama's inaugural speech in which he claimed that "44 Americans have held this office." Our point is that while he is considered the 44th president, this is only because Grover Cleveland held the position twice with a break making him the twenty-second (1885-1889) AND twenty-fourth (1893-1897) President of the United States.
As Frances Cleveland left the White House (at the end of the first term), she told a staff member, "Now, Jerry, I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again." When asked when she would return, she responded, "We are coming back four years from today."
However. Notwithstanding the fact that according to a previous question we have shown that George Washington wasn't necessarily #1 – there were “Presidents of the Continental Congress” that existed before 1789 when the title of “President of the United States” came into being – maybe we have overlooked one thing...
Technically, according to a correspondent whose name I have lost – if you're reading this then please write in and I'll give you your deserved recognition - the United States actually HAS had 44 presidents. During the time of the Civil War, the US had two presidents, both from Kentucky as it happens: Abraham Lincoln (of course), and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.
So it seems that there are 44 presidents after all and perhaps we should give President Obama his points back, I'm sure he loses sleep about that klaxon every night.
Series G, Episode 10
Not every QI question has to have a definitive answer – in fact it is a fundamental QI tenet that we know so little about *everything* that it is almost impossible to say *anything* with any certainty. Should a subject come to light without an accepted viewpoint then we won't shy away from it – rather we'll attempt to start a discussion.
We recently looked at the rather sticky situation of the most common ancestor all humans – seeing as you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents etc... it stands to reason that you'll soon get to a mathematical imbalance whereby you have more relatives then there are people who have ever lived on earth – this is because we all share many many relatives.
We received a couple of angry e-mails claiming that the model that we used in the show – in which we said that everyone in the West was related to Charlemagne - was over-simplistic and based too much on mathematics rather than reality. While we accept that it was a mathematical question rather than a historical one, we were really attempting to get people thinking about the idea, rather than giving an authoritative answer.
The work that we cited belonged to Mark Humphrys, an academic at Dublin City University, so we could happily send links to his work to anyone who complained, but that technique was somewhat scuppered when Mr Humphrys himself wrote to us to say that we'd gotten his work slightly wrong:
I was chuffed to be featured on QI "Greats" on Friday.
Just one small quibble: The Royal descent of Daniel Boone has been disproved.
I suspect you got that from an old article about me, rather than the current version of my work.
There are several hundred other famous people with Royal descents (ultimately from Charlemagne) who you could have picked instead, including Boswell, de Sade, Goethe, Darwin, Francis Bacon, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Bill Gates, Marie Antoinette, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Anthony Eden, Lewis Carroll, Hugh Grant, Guy Ritchie, Brad Pitt, Rupert Everett, Ralph Fiennes, Johnny Dumfries, Barack Obama, Bush senior and junior, David Cameron, and hundreds more. See the page above for their descents.
Whoops. Sorry Mark, as you say, our information came from an article rather from your own website, and for that (but not for instigating a debate on a quite interesting subject) we apologise.
Series G, Episode 10
In a memorable exchange of the G series of QI Stephen made the revelation that Admiral Nelson was only 5ft 4in tall, to which Alan replied: “No wonder they put him on such a big column” - but was he really so short?
Members of the Nelson Society have pointed us to research that was done a few years ago where the 1st Viscount Nelson's britches, stockings and coat were measured and the great man was between 5ft 6in and 5ft 7in. So have we taken a few inches from the victor at Trafalgar?
Well it's hard to say. Nelson was a little self-conscious; for instance he owned a mirror that deliberately exaggerated his height but was actually described during his life as being ‘of middle height, or rather above’. One reason that he might have looked small is that he was often pictured alongside Captain Hardy who was a monstrous 6 ft 4 in and heavily built.
Our figure of 5ft4in is certainly still the most commonly accepted given height, but even if that were the case, it was not exceptionally small for the day, on average a soldier at the Battle of Trafalgar could expect to be only 5ft 5in.
Just as a final aside, maybe the column is not as tall as Alan thought. In 2006, the statue was measured, and turned out to be 16ft shorter than was previously thought. For years, lazy journalists have been using “times taller than Nelson's Column” as a measuring device, but it turns out they've been wrong all along.
Series G, Episode 11
Last week in the quibble blog we apologised to Andy Hamilton for the gentle joshing that was given out when he (quite rightly) pointed out that the Statue of Liberty was once a lighthouse, but it is not always a one-way street as far as the panellists and elves are concerned.
We occasionally get e-mails complaining about an untrue fact that was actually nothing to do with us – as was the case when Clive Anderson mentioned that humans were the only animals that laugh. It was pointed out more than once that actually recent research has shown that rats giggle when tickled.
We should perhaps give Clive a little bit of slack: he has no idea what subjects will come up before the show, and I'm sure we'd all be made to look a bit silly if someone was poring over all of our conversations for factual accuracy, but it has been shown that monkeys and dogs – as well as the rats (check out the youtube link below for a great video of chuckling rats) - love a good laugh.
We suspect that enjoying QI is a uniquely human trait though – especially if we continue to besmirch the good names of our fellow species.
Series G, Episode 12
Rarely has a QI episode garnered such an immediate response as the G for Gravity episode of series seven. Many of the questions were so counter-intuitive that many viewers were left incredulous: for instance, would a bullet fired from a gun and one dropped at the same time really land at exactly the same time??
Certainly under theoretically perfect conditions they would, but what about the real world? As with most things, the real world tends to throw the odd spanner in the works.
In the case of falling objects, the spanner in question is air resistance. For these bullets, the air resistance will be different because the shot bullet is travelling through the air much faster than the dropped bullet. That's not the end of the story, though, since the shot bullet will be rifled (spinning) and travelling through the air in the most aerodynamically efficient manner possible, whilst the dropped bullet may well tumble, changing the effect of air resistance on it.
However, calculations on the effect of air resistance show that it will only effect the time taken for the bullets to drop by a very small percentage. For this reason, any difference in the time taken for the bullets to hit the ground would most likely be less than the experimental error in measuring the times involved, and so would be very hard to see.
In conclusion, bullets that are fired/dropped in an idealised situation will hit the ground at the same time. In the real world, there may well be a very slight difference in the time taken to fall, but this will be so small as to be almost impossible to observe.
Series G, Episode 12
Last week we looked at the question of dropping a bullet and firing one horizontally from the same height, and while we conceded that there would be a slight difference in the time they come to earth, we believe that the difference would be undetectable. A second quibble on the subject of shooting bullets came from the same episode, and is also related to guns...
The number of quibbles that the elves receive increases greatly when we contradict a popular source of information. It goes without saying that wikipedia is one, but another is the excellent popular-science program “Mythbusters.” Mythbusters has shown in one of its episodes that bullets shot into the air would not endanger those who fired them, but we think otherwise: while Mythbusters is a great show for getting people interested in science; its experiments are not scientifically rigorous.
The elves' figures come from the work of Julian Hatcher, noted firearms expert and pioneer in the forensic identification of firearms and their ammunition. Not being able to easily do practical experiments with real firearms, it's easier to refer to the work of someone who has and who knows his subject well.
Having read the MythBusters transcript we can see a pretty major flaw in their experiment. Their two main experiments don't actually involve firing bullets into the air at all. Rather the bullets are dropped (either into a wind tunnel or from a platform).
Bullets fired from a gun will be rifled which causes them to spin about their long axis in order to give them stability. A bullet which reaches the top of its trajectory still spinning will remain in the upright position due to angular momentum and, therefore, start to fall back down bottom first (as mentioned in the work carried out by Major Hatcher). A bullet which is simply dropped will not have this kind of stability and so will be much more likely to tumble, thereby reducing its terminal velocity and making it less deadly.
It's also interesting to note that of the two firearms experts giving an opinion in this debate (the aforementioned Julian Hatcher and Dr. David G Mohler who was consulted in the Mythbusters show), both were of the opinion that falling bullets are deadly.
Currently the only people who are saying falling bullets aren't deadly are the Mythbusters presenters and those who have watched the show.
Series G, Episode 12
Harry Griffith writes:
The question I refer to is "How many shots in a six-gun?"
Regardless of what Wyatt Earp may have stated, a myth still repeated today by the ignorant, there is no safety factor in having an empty chamber under the hammer. I own several revolvers, including a modern replica of the one Earp is reputed to use, and they all have a 'quarter-cock' position that holds the hammer completely clear of the cartridge.
An elf replies...
Thanks for that Harry. I am certainly not an expert on firearms I'm afraid, but what you say certainly sounds authoritative. Basically what we have here is a shoot-out between yourself and Wyatt. Our source for this fact was the great man himself, he said:
“I have often been asked why five shots without reloading were all a top-notch gunfighter fired, when his guns were chambered for six cartridges. The answer is, merely, safety… the hammer rested upon an empty chamber… Practiced gun-wielders had too much respect for their weapons to take unnecessary chances with them; it was only with tyros and would-bes that you heard of accidental discharges or didn't-know-it-was-loaded injuries in the country where carrying a Colt's was a man's prerogative.”
It is a common problem when researching QI questions that you get two seemingly safe sources that totally contradict each other. When faced with such a quandary, we need to either use our judgement or search for another citation, but as we go to press I'm at a loss for a definitive answer. Maybe someone reading this will be able to come up with a watertight source, but in the meantime I think we'll take Mr Griffith's word for it – don't really want to upset someone who “owns several revolvers!” Especially not one that's still alive...
Series G, Episode 13
Tim Beaton writes:
The seemerot website is a hoax, and probably not "what it says on the tin" - Apparently no-one did a cursory google search on this one...
An elf replies...
This is one of the most embarrassing mistakes that the elves have made in the eight years that QI has been running: we mentioned a website called seemerot.com who, for a small fee, would set up a webcam in your coffin so that your relatives could see you decompose. The problem is not just one of taste: it's one of fact. The website is a hoax.
When we first mentioned the site, we visited it very briefly and saw that "there has been a legal problem and there are no live coffin cams at present. But there is a promise of a new live feed soon from a coffin in the Philippines." - frankly we didn't particularly want to spend too long on the site and so didn't give it a full once-over. In actual fact, the site is nothing but a way of directing internet users to porn sites; hopefully we haven't added too much to the traffic for the dubious site.
The moral of this story, I think, is that not only can things be too good to be true, they can also be too bad to be true.
Series G, Episode 13
Mark Ewing writes:
I love QI and have learned so much from the program. I was wondering though, if a question on last week's show had the correct answer. Stephen Fry said that the most requested music at funerals/cremations was the well known 'Countdown' theme. Or did I hear it incorrectly?
Is it possible that what was meant was in fact the band Europe's 1986 hit, The Final Countdown?
An elf replies...
This anecdote is one of Stephen's – without wanting to sound like we're passing the buck, the elves cannot take any responsibility for this fact; though it isn't the most far-fetched one we've ever come across.
A 2005 survey actually did take place, and was reported widely, as to the most popular funeral songs. The most common turned out to be Frank Sinatra’s My Way followed by Wind Beneath My Wings by Bette Middler, Angels by Robbie Williams and My Heart Will Go On Celine Dion. As if funerals weren't upsetting enough, a survey the following year put Goodbye My Lover by James Blunt at the top of the funereal charts.
It turns out that using television theme tunes in funerals is not totally unknown, the biggest chain of undertakers, Co-operative Funeralcare, say that they commonly use theme tunes from Coronation Street and EastEnders as well as the slightly macabre choice for cremations: Buster Poindexter’s Feeling Hot Hot Hot.
We can't find any evidence for the theme of Countdown being used much, but Mr Fry must've gotten the fact from somewhere. If anyone has any further information then we'd love to hear from you.
If our own mistakes aren't bad enough, Stephen's self-sourced facts and anecdotes will be the death of us.
Series G, Episode 14
Sam Sartoris writes:
It appears you may have been had with regard to the event of Poodle Clipping as an event in the 1900 Olympics. The Telegraph decided to pull some legs on April's Fools Day and in usual internet fashion an idea has permanently rooted itself.
An elf replies...
Yes, we were totally taken in by this one. Though, to be fair, with some of the more obscure events that actually *did* take place, Town Planning, Rope Climbing, Live Pigeon Shooting... it's not the most far-fetched story of all time. The story was featured on the BBC website as well as in the guardian, so we weren't the first to be taken in.
Poodle clipping was originally invented to make the dogs more efficient when swimming; it also stopped them from snagging on undergrowth yet kept their joints warm. It is taken very seriously by breeders, but is yet, to our knowledge, to become a competitive sport!
April fools' jokes in newspapers are all very good, and we like to have a good chuckle, but in the digital world, we wonder if they have had their day. Articles are now available for years after they are first published and so people can continue to read them well after April 1st has finished. This may sound like sour grapes for ones who have fallen for a trick, but the rules that I was taught about April Fools was that if the trick was done after midday on the day in question, then the joke was on the tricker. Maybe that means that the joke is on the Daily Telegraph??
Series G, Episode 14
QI elves are generally all-rounders, but that's not to say that some of us don't have specialist subjects. One of the elves is a doctor of mathematics from Oxford University for instance, while another is a historian of note who gives historical advice to Hollywood moviemakers, a third will be useful should QI ever ask a question about Coronation Street. (Ahem). In actual fact, during research, sometimes it's better for a non-expert to tackle a subject as they can begin with a clean slate. It can be much easier when one has no preconceptions, but either way, you can be sure that there will always be at least one person out there who is better placed. Often they will get in touch...
One example of someone well positioned to point out a mistake came in our question about 1 + 1 equalling 2...
In the Children-In-Need special there was an item concerning the definition of 1+1 = 2. During this item Mr Fry stated that this definition came from Principia Mathematica written by Bertrand Russell. In fact the work, consisting of three volumes, and was written by A.N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell - in that order!
In scientific circles it was, and still is, normal for the 'lead' scholar to be identified first and the other names to follow. Thus, if names were to be left out in the interests of brevity, it would have been more correct to say the work was by Whitehead.
During the writing of the work tasks were allotted, shared and exchanged in a reasonably even way so it is not possible to say who had the greater input to that part. Whitehead was, in fact, Russell's mentor at Cambridge at the time and it is certainly true that the work needed both party's input to enable it to exist at all. It is, therefore, irritating to have heard absolutely no mention of A.N. Whitehead during that programme.
You will possibly realise that I am an interested party.
Thanks Simon, and we're really sorry for the mistake.
Series G, Episode 15
A QI elf has to be something of an all-rounder, but we also have to know our limitations, and we have nothing but respect for experts. We count ourselves extremely lucky when such an expert takes time to put us right in points of fact.
One such specialist wrote to us after we discussed the history of marriage, and if you'll indulge us, we'll let Professor Rebecca Probert explain:
A day or two ago I watched a re-run of episode 15 in series 7 of QI which had a question about Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 and its effect on Scottish tourism. While it’s fair to say that Gretna Green wouldn’t have become a focus for romantic elopements had it not been for Lord Hardwicke, your answer did repeat some of the commonly-held misunderstandings about marriage in the eighteenth century and the effect of the Act. The truth, as always, is more complex and interesting than the myth.
Before the Act came into force in 1754 (not 1753, by the way), marriage in England and Wales was governed by the canon law of the Church of England. The canon law laid down detailed requirements including the calling of banns or obtaining of a licence, parental consent for minors, the need for at least two witnesses, and specified times of day within which marriages had to take place. It wasn’t just brothers and sisters who couldn’t marry, but anybody related within the prohibited degrees (including those related by marriage). While all these things were essential in the eyes of the Church for a “regular” marriage, their absence didn’t inevitably invalidate a marriage in the eyes of the Church and the law. One thing, though, was indispensable: the ceremony had to be conducted by an Anglican priest. Having a priest wasn’t, as Stephen implied, optional, as seems to have been the case in Scotland.
The Act wasn’t so much brought in to help give clarity in legal disputes over marriage, but instead (as its full title of “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriages” indicated) was squarely aimed at ending the large number of valid but irregular marriages carried out by unscrupulous parsons in London’s notorious Fleet Prison: the possibility of their offspring marrying unsuitable spouses in irreversible but valid ceremonies while in a haze of gin and/or puppy love was a considerable worry for the upper classes!
As to Gretna Green, true, it was the first settlement over the border - depending on one's starting point - but it wasn’t until some decades later that the road north was improved to the extent where eloping couples could reach the village easily. Before this, lovers tried to evade the Act by heading to Coldstream or even Edinburgh, or even overseas. It’d be fair to say that Gretna owes its fame as much to tollpikes and to the technology of metalled roads as to the Marriage Act of 1753.
“The truth, as always, is more complex and interesting than the myth.
We couldn't agree more Dr Probert, and thanks so much for all the extra information.
Series H, Episode 7
Colin Read writes:
Just been watching the "hotch-potch" of G series episode, and heard the comment that asaparagus does not affect the smell of everyone's urine. I was sure that this was wrong, and checked in Harold McGee "On Food and Cooking" - generally thought to be one of the most comprehensive tomes on the science of food and cooking. Quoting from page 194 "From 1956 until 1980, it was thought that the excretion of odorous methyl mercaptan after eating asparagus was a dominant genetic trait; if you had the particular gene, you were a 'stinker.' But a recent study found that all asparagus eaters excrete methyl mercaptan; it is the ability to detect its odor that varies from person to person."
An elf replies...
Yes, we were aware of this theory, and of a number of studies that claim to show that it is the ability to *smell* urine that varied in people, and that everyone's pee stinks after eating the aphrodisiac; however there are other studies that compliment our position, and overall the urine matter is very murky indeed. n.b. If your urine is “very murky indeed” then perhaps it's best to get that checked out.
Interestingly, although humans have been eating asparagus for over 2000 years, there is no mention of the smell in any literature until the 18th century. John Arbuthnot (1667– 1735) was a Scottish mathematician and physician to Queen Anne and it would be nice to think that it was in Her Madge's pee that he noticed in his publication of 1731 that “asparagus… affects the urine with a foetid smell.” It was around this time that sulphur-containing fertilizers became widespread, so it seems that this is where the smell comes from.
There are certainly some people who can distinguish between those with asparagus pee and those without – studies have generally used a panel of judges to check the urine smell – a rather unsavoury version of the X-factor, perhaps. And the general consensus seems to be that some people have the smell, some people don't, some people can smell it, and some people can't. If you're a smeller AND and excreter, then, well, bad luck, but you have something in common with around half the population. Interestingly, a non-excretor may become an excretor during pregnancy, the unborn child is presumed to be the one giving off the smelly pee.
All very interesting. Or “quite” interesting anyway. And to think the debate may have all originated from an 18th century royal wee.