Beware of useless information

Posted: Sunday, February 14, 2010

Do you know what the tallest mountain in the world is? Of course you do - you learned that in fourth grade. Everyone knows it's Mount Everest. Or is it?

Did you know that, due to precipitation, for a few weeks each year, Mount K2 - located in South Asia on the border of Xinjiang, China, and Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan - is taller than Mount Everest?

Let me say that again. For a few weeks of the year, Mount K2 has so much snow on it that it actually grows taller than Mount Everest.

I read this in "The Book of Useless Information," by Noel Botham and the Useless Information Society.

Now Noel and his buddies may think this is all a big joke, but I'm still reeling from the shock. I can feel the synapses shorting out in my brain as I struggle to hold onto the truth in a world that's suddenly filled with ambiguity.

Everyone knows that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain on the planet. Even kids who grew up at sea level in Florida learn that Mount McKinley is the tallest mountain in the United States and Mount Everest the tallest in the world.

We got A's on our geography tests with this solid, incontrovertible information. But now, the truth is out. The snow piles up, and K2 beats out Everest for a few weeks each year.

We need an asterisk in the geography books, folks. Our proud As on those geography tests are meaningless now, just hollow lies. Now when faced with the question, "What's the tallest mountain in the world?" you have to say, "I need to know what day it is, first." How do we know what is true?

I felt the same way when Pluto was booted out of the heavens by a bunch of legalistic scientists. When I was a kid, nine planets circled the sun, with Pluto bringing up the rear far out on the edges of the solar system. My kids' solar system has only eight planets, now that Pluto has been downgraded to a "dwarf planet." What does that mean, exactly? Pluto just didn't have what it takes to achieve full planethood? And another solid fact from my childhood slips into oblivion. The solar system itself has shrunk.

I take this one personally, since my junior high science teacher, Ms. Tombaugh, was the niece of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. Using the theory of six degrees of separation, I'm only three degrees away from Pluto. We're practically acquaintances. I hate to see my friends treated with disrespect like that.

You know this theory, that each person on the globe is separated from each other person by no more than six steps? For example, I know my dad. My dad grew up with Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. (My dad always called him Freddy Rogers.) Mr. Rogers had Yo Yo Ma on his show. So I am three degrees separated from Yo Yo Ma. And if you know me, you're four degrees from Yo Yo Ma. Feel free to invite him over for dinner.

It's an entertaining parlor game, to try to link yourself to any given person in the world. It's surprisingly easier than you think, even if you're trying to get overseas.

My sister went to college with the son of the Shah of Iran in 1979, just before the Islamic revolution. That puts me three degrees away from the last Shah of Iran, with three degrees left to link me to all the people that he knew, and the people that they knew. And through the Shah I'm only four degrees away from former president Jimmy Carter. Maybe that's why he sends me a Christmas card every year.

The thought that any one person is linked to every other person on the planet makes the world seem a smaller, cozier place. We're all really friends and neighbors after all. What a great feeling, to have 6.8 billion friends.

And I'll need all my friends to help me cope with the shrinking solar system and the rivalry between the two tallest mountains in the world. If I can't count on nature, maybe the web of humanity can sustain me. Or maybe I shouldn't get so worked up over useless information.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring children's author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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