Congratulations to those of you who attempted to solve the quiz about the tortoise and the hare. For those who didn't, here's the answer: If the two of them started 55 miles apart, traveling toward each other, and the hare went 9 mph and the tortoise 2 mph, they would meet five hours later, when the hare had gone 45 miles and the tortoise had gone 10 miles. (Or, 9x + 2x = 55, so x = 5)
But wait. How would you know that the speedier one was a hare and not a rabbit? And that the slower one was a tortoise and not a turtle?
We try to grasp the world by breaking it into pieces and putting those pieces in categories: canines, igneous rocks, desserts, leftists, mosses, mollusks, Catholics, blonds, icky little things, snack food, and so on. Scientific categories are more precise than political ones, and less brutal than those used by teenagers to label unpopular classmates. Unscientific categories, however, can be more fun. The writer Jorge Luis Borges, in "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," mentions a fictional Chinese encyclopedia called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge in which all animals are divided into 14 taxonomic classes:
(a) belonging to the Emperor
(d) suckling pigs
(g) stray dogs
(h) included in the present classification
(k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush
(l) et cetera
(m) having just broken the water pitcher
(n) that from a long way off look like flies
I very much like that list. I will award a free dark chocolate Chimp Mint to anyone who can come up with a similarly whimsical list to classify anything. Or everything.
We simplify our world by lumping hares and rabbits together. The rabbits have all the luck (of course) and receive all the attention. Who ever even mentions a hare? But there are differences. Hares are bigger and faster, with larger hind legs, longer ears, whomper-sized feet, at least some black coloring and the ability to bear offspring that have fur and can see. Besides being smaller, whiter and generally less likely to win an Olympic medal in any running or jumping event, rabbits live in underground burrows (as opposed to above ground) and give birth to young that are, well, naked and blind. Actually, because they're easier to catch and less gamey tasting than hares, rabbits are extremely unlucky; the hunter holding the rabbit's foot reaps all the good fortune.
Turtles claim the marquee among the three types of reptiles known as chelonians: turtles, tortoises and terrapins. The scientific distinctions aren't so strict among these (technically tortoises are a sub-category of turtle), but by and large you call it a turtle if it lives near or in water and a tortoise if it stays on land. Terrapins fall in between those two, tending to hang out in swampy places.
If you want to remember the differences between a rabbit and a hare, remind yourself that the faster one (the hare) raced the tortoise and delivers babies that have h-a-i-r. The tortoise raced on land, where it (unlike most other turtles) lives its whole life.
Many of you are musical. So tell me: Using only the notes of the musical scale—A, B, C, D, E, F and G—what is the longest word you can spell? You can use each letter as many times as you'd like. (Hint: Seven-letter words are possible)
Given the emotional button I hit by mentioning the NFL playoffs in my last post—fans of the Packers and Bears both weighed in to declare that their team would win the NFC Championship Game—it seems appropriate to honor a British woman named Beatrice (Don't Call Me Beatrix) Potter Webb, who would have turned 153 today. She was not a naturalist, but she wrote about the working conditions of the poor and coined the term collective bargaining. As soon as the Super Bowl is over, all attention in the pro football world will turn to the looming labor dispute between players and team owners, which could wipe out the 2011 NFL season.
From Potter to Popper: Since I can't end on that down note, let me add that Jim Carrey is now making a movie called Mr. Popper's Penguins, based on the 1938 children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater. It's the story of a poor house painter and his family who end up with 12 Adelie penguins to care for. The film is due out in August, or the dead of winter in Antarctica, where Adelie penguins normally live. In the 1922 book The Worst Journey In the World, a survivor of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed South Pole voyage wonderfully described those penguins as "extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or like old men, full of their own importance."