The Book of Seconds

The Incredible Stories of the Ones that Didn’t (Quite) Win

The people you've never heard of because someone else got there first

The Book of Seconds

The Incredible Stories of the Ones that Didn’t (Quite) Win

Buy The Book of Seconds at Amazon

Who was the second US President to be assassinated? The second man to run a four-minute mile? The second team to land on the Moon? You probably don't know, because all the attention has been grabbed by (respectively) Abraham Lincoln, Roger Bannister and Apollo 11.

So you won't know that James Garfield was attended by Alexander Graham Bell, who invented a metal detector specifically to locate a bullet trapped in the President's body. Or that John Landy stopped during a race to check on another runner who'd fallen over - then still caught up with the leaders and won the gold medal. Or that on their way to the Moon Pete Conrad and Alan Bean danced in zero gravity to the pop song ‘Sugar Sugar'.

It isn't just people. The book includes K2, the world's second-tallest mountain, and acknowledged by mountaineers to be far more of a challenge than Everest (only about 300 have managed it, compared to about 3000 on the more famous peak). And Liverpool's Royal Liver Building, whose clock faces are the second-biggest in Britain - they're known as the George clocks because they were started at the precise moment in 1911 that George V was crowned. Then there's the second-wettest place on Earth, Cherrapunji in India. Or, as it was known during the days of the Raj, ‘the Scotland of the East'.

So come on, seconds - your time in the spotlight has arrived ... 

 

‘Excellent' Daily Mail

‘Winning ways and hard times of runners-up' Daily Express

‘Done with such verve and humour, and telling so many good stories, that you succumb to its manifest charms with a simple sigh of pleasure' Spectator

 

 

 

 


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Content

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.