• If you stand at the bottom of Big Ben with a portable radio you hear the chimes on Radio 4 before you hear them ‘for real’

    Big Ben

  • The Eiffel Tower grows by 7 inches in summer

    Eiffel Tower

  • A greyhound can accelerate from 0 to 45 mph in 1 second

    Greyhound

  • A Rubik’s cube has more combinations than light travels inches in a century

    Rubik's Cube

  • A London double decker bus can lean further from the vertical without falling over than a human can

    London Bus

The Importance of Being Trivial

The name of this site (taken from the title of one of my books) sums up the idea that ‘trivia’ – so-called ‘useless information’ – isn’t useless at all. The very best trivia teaches us about the most profound things in life.

Indeed it’s the best way of learning about those things. ‘Trivia’ is just another word for ‘facts so interesting you never forget them’. And why should we be ashamed of things being interesting? This is the philosophy behind everything I do – my books, my walks, my quizzes. A great example is the ‘hearing Big Ben on the radio’ fact ...

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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.