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Commentary -- 1995

The Skull and the Volcano
Introduction to Just Curious (Houghton Mifflin, 1995)

by Cullen Murphy

Not long ago an Italian friend who is a doctor gave me a tour of the anatomical museum at the Ospedale Santo Spirito, in Rome, where he works. The museum is a very old one--Leonardo da Vinci is known to have made drawings there--and the glass-fronted cabinets of polished wood hold specimens wondrous, tragic, and bizarre. As I wandered among the roomfuls of ancient exhibits--skeletons of all sizes and shapes, medical instruments at once terrifying and baroque--I noticed a small display case in an unlit corner. Inside, on red cloth, rested a human skull, and next to the skull lay a small card written in Italian in an elegant antique hand. I called to my friend, who came over and translated. He looked down at the card, and then at the skull, and then at me, and said, "It's Pliny the Elder."

How fitting, I thought. The museum of which Pliny's skull is now a part is just the sort of place that the Roman encyclopedist and author of Historia naturalis would have found congenial. Pliny was a soldier, biographer, historian, collector, and student of the natural world in all its aspects--stars and planets, plants and animals, land and sea. His nephew Pliny the Younger recalled that he rarely slept and employed almost every waking moment in writing or study. The quest for enlightenment eventually killed him. Pliny was on a ship off the coast of Naples when Vesuvius erupted, in A.D. 79, and he ordered the ship to shore so that he could see the volcano up close. He did see it up close, and was overcome by fumes.

Looking at the skull, I was struck by an odd thought. It was that the proportion of extant human knowledge ever mastered by one individual may well have reached its apogee inside this very head. Pliny, after all, knew a lot of things at a time when not very much about the world was really known. In contrast, the modern world's stock of things that one might know--data, scholarship, literature, news--is simply too vast to be encompassed, as would be even the trillionth part of it. And that stock of knowledge continues, of course, to expand.

What is one to make of this? An understandable response would be despondency: we are all doomed to inhabit a tiny wormhole of familiar space amid an unimaginably vast and growing unknown. At the same time, the situation offers opportunities: one's chances of bumping into interesting and unfamiliar things by accident have never been better. In recent days, for example, I have learned through utter happenstance that the number of birds killed by domestic cats in the United States in a typical year exceeds the population of China; that modern cooking practices are reducing human tooth size at an estimated rate of one percent every thousand years; that Richard Nixon left instructions for "California, Here I Come" to be the last piece of music played at his funeral ("softly and slowly") were he to die in office; that the earliest document in Latin in a woman's handwriting (it is from the first century A.D.) is an invitation to a birthday party; and that the way to calculate the size of a person's body surface area in square meters is to multiply the person's height (in centimeters) by the person's weight (in kilograms) and then divide by 3,600.

The essays in this book are by and large the result of bumping into unfamiliar things by accident--a piece of news, a random remark, a stray fact, a source of information, a field of expertise--and then pausing long enough to pursue the matter a little further, to see where investigation, or contemplation, may lead. The results are not always serious and not always important, but small subjects can sometimes offer a window onto something bigger. One just hopes it isn't Vesuvius.

Copyright © 1995-6 by Cullen Murphy. All rights reserved.
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