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Double Jeopardy! with Ken Jennings and Bob Harris

Who are Bob Harris and Ken Jennings? If you get that corny little joke, you already know -- they're both super-smart and slightly obsessive Jeopardy! stars, they both just wrote books about the experience, and they both like mental_floss (maybe you've seen Ken's column in our magazine). Today we're running interviews with both of them. First, let's hear from Bob, whose hugely funny new book is called Prisoner of Trebekistan:

While practicing for stints on the show, Bob Harris often referred to this as the "Jeopardy Weapon."
What is "the buzzer?" It's officially called a "Signaling Device," but that's not a name, really, just a placeholder for where one should go. So I tried to find something better: Clue Zapper, Palm Hoopty, Mr. Smartyhands, the Mervulator. I settled on the Jeopardy Weapon because when you've got the rhythm of the game, it's like you're holding the Hammer of Thor. You're crushing your opponents with your thumb.

Tell us about your training regimen "“ I hear you only ate the food you could get in the studio cafeteria.
It was the same reason why there's a home field advantage in sports. Basically, when your environment for recall is congruent with your environment for encoding, it's easier to recall your memories. Taken to the extreme, in my case, I wound up essentially turning my apartment into the Jeopardy! studio. I put bright halogen lights overhead and placed the TV as far away as it would go. I would study standing up. My girlfriend at the time thought I was out of my mind.

But she put up with it?
Define "putting up." She's a teacher and her experience was with conventional rote learning techniques, which for me amount to placing the book against your head and beating yourself unconscious. I think it was an insult to the way she makes her living. When I then came home after winning five straight games, that was even more of an affront.

What did you think of the brouhaha over Ken Jennings' recent comments about the show?
Ken got a bad rap. He was clearly kidding around. A lazy reporter took a playful, friendly tease and blew it up and the next thing you know it was in the North Korea Times. "¦ It was virtually the same grim joy that [the media] brought to the Mel Gibson story. We often as a society seize on fallen stars, Icarus stories. And the persistent message sent by these stories is that no matter hot or rich or successful the subjects are, they're not better than you.

In your book, you lay out a strategy for winning that starts with "obvious things may be worth noticing." Can you take us through it?
Seeing the obvious requires you to actually be present in the moment, to not be busy in your head. It sounds like the most elementary thing in the world but I think it's the most difficult, particularly for intelligent people who are always thinking. Sometimes there are problems that need to be solved not with faster or harder thought but with calming down. In Jeopardy! there's a hint in every clue, and sometimes it helps to you slow down and look for the hint. My Eightfold Path of Enlightened Jeopardy actually began as an unserious reference to Buddhism, and then what I ended up writing really was a lot like the actual Eightfold Path. Cool, huh?

So how did "seeing the obvious" work for you on the show?
Once in a big tournament there was a Final Jeopardy clue in British literature. I didn't know anything about British literature -- and the lady in second place was a librarian. So the clue comes up -- p-TING! -- "The 5th edition of this work, published in 1676, included an addendum on fly fishing by Charles Cotton." I panic immediately. My Jeopardy! career's about to end in 30 seconds. But then I take a breath and look for the hint. "1676?" I free-associate and come up with nothing but the movie "1776," involving a bunch of dancing middle-aged men in revolutionary garb. Nope. "Edition?" All I could come up with was New Edition "“ singing kids in music videos. Okay, I've got way too many people dancing in my skull. "Fly fishing?" OK, old book, big fish... Moby Dick! Then it dawns on me that you really can't fly fish a whale. Running out of time: Fishing, rods, reels, casting, ice fishing, angling "“ hey, there was a Beatles documentary once called "The Compleat Beatles" and that was a reference to "The Compleat Angler," which might be an old book about fish. Ta-da! At home it must have looked like I was a guy pondering his deep knowledge of literature. The truth is I found the obvious, then caromed off the walls until I found the answer via R&B and bad musicals.

That's one of the funniest arguments I've ever heard for interdisciplinary education.
Thanks! But we're taught to think that science and history and so on are unrelated. Hardly. In some ways my book is almost a 104,000-word act of prayer, hoping that people will see that everything really is connected. If we can't see how a piece of information is useful, that doesn't mean it's useless. A glass of water would be completely useless in a waterfall, but it could save your life in the ocean. All information has to be seen in its context. And you can't understand that without a broad general approach to stuff.

How did you get hooked on Jeopardy! to begin with?
My mom and dad had it on from the time it premiered in 1984. It premiered when I had just left college with an engineering degree that I quickly realized I never wanted to use. I went directly into a Dilbert job and then a depression. The show was a way my folks could make me feel like even enough I had no idea what I do would do next, I was still a modestly intelligent person. Of course, I then failed [the qualifying test] between four and six times. I actually lost count. Most people would have given up after the first, second, third time. I bet some stalkers probably give up more easily.

Why didn't you quit?
What kept me going was mainly an unconscious desire to please my mom and dad. Also, I was pretty broke.

Would you want to go back now?
Once you've been on the show and had your run, you're not going to come back unless they have some special invitational tournament. Which I've been lucky to be asked to a few times, but I'm probably never picking up a buzzer again. I'm retired, I'm out to stud. But if they did call"¦ It's like "The Godfather III" "“ you try to get out, but they keep dragging you back in.

Do you watch the show now?
Sometimes, sure. If it's on at a friend's house, I can get talked into playing so they can, I dunno, test themselves against me. As if that's a measure of anything.

What about the friends you've made as a contestant "“ what ties them together? Who tends to go on this show?
A certain level of intellect and education is useful, of course, but I think modesty is a wildly underappreciated Jeopardy! asset. The game dramatically rewards the ability not to guess. If you're not 90 percent sure of a response, the best thing you can do is put the buzzer down and wait for the next clue. And that is a rare skill. Jeopardy! is often less a test of knowledge than it is of self-knowledge. Also, good players tend to have really great listening skills, just to be able to play the game well. So basically, the same skills that work in Jeopardy! can also serve you well in life. Now, keep in mind that I've never won a tournament. So I may not be someone to listen to. But then again, of course I'd say that.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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