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The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: How to Keep Your Mind Sharp

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It's been well over a century since the first Sherlock Holmes adventure was published, and yet the master detective remains as popular as ever; witness the upcoming release of Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr., the Holmes-inspired television phenomenon that is House, M.D., and countless adaptations over the years. But what is it about this 19th century detective that we still find so compelling today? Why do modern-day detectives still study his methods and techniques? What can we still learn from Sherlock Holmes? I set out to answer those questions, and the result is my new book, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: the Methods and Mysteries of the World's Greatest Detective. All week I'll be posting excerpts from it, which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Quirk Books did a great job designing it -- a cute little hardback that would look right at home on your grandfather's shelf o' classics -- and Eugene Smith's illustrations are top-notch. Hope you enjoy this little preview!

How to Keep Your Mind Sharp
A long series of sterile weeks lay behind us, and here at last there was a fitting object for those remarkable powers which, like all special gifts, become irksome to their owner when they are not in use. That razor brain blunted and rusted with inaction. —The Valley of Fear

holmes - violin"I am a brain, Watson," Holmes famously quipped in "The Mazarin Stone." "The rest of me is mere appendix." It may sound like an exaggeration, but in one sense it was not. However much Holmes may have benefited from his expertise in self-defense or similar applications of the physical self, the primary instrument of his trade was his mind. For it was only by his powers of logical analysis and deduction that he could succeed where detectives before him had failed. Thus, in times of inaction or crisis it was crucial he find ways to keep his instrument sharp. Before undertaking Holmes's techniques for yourself, be aware that many of them have no positive effect on the body—some even render a deleterious effect—but such was not his priority.

"¢ Starve yourself. Though Watson often nagged him to eat, Holmes rarely took food while working on a problem, and during especially taxing cases he sometimes went for days without a meal. "The faculties become refined when you starve them," he once explained to Watson. "As a doctor . . . you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain."

"¢ Smoke copiously. Just because you refuse food while deep in thought doesn't mean you must live like an ascetic. Tobacco was the first thing Holmes reached for when puzzling over a problem:"Holmes had pushed away his untasted breakfast and lit the unsavoury pipe which was the companion of his deepest meditations," Watson writes in The Valley of Fear. While working on the "Mazarin Stone" case, Holmes humbly begs Watson not "to despise my pipe and my lamentable tobacco" because "it has to take the place of food these days." We learn still more of his habits while Holmes is contemplating the outlandish "Red-Headed League" mystery, so difficult he deems it "a three-pipe problem."

"¢ Ignore that which is unimportant. Just because there are an endless number of things to be learned about the universe, Holmes proposes in A Study in Scarlet, doesn't mean one should try to learn them all—quite the opposite, in fact. When Watson is dumbstruck that his brilliant friend doesn't know the composition of Earth's solar system, Holmes lays out the following theory: "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to his gets crowded out . . . it is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"¢ Always keep your mind occupied. "To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine," Holmes says in "The Devil's Foot." "It racks itself to pieces." When there is no case at hand—and sometimes even when there is—Holmes turns his attention to chemistry experiments, to his violin (the introspective work of German composers is best for the mind, he claimed), or, in extreme cases, to cocaine. Watson defends his friend's taste for the latter thusly: "He only turned to the drug as a protest against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting." Holmes himself provides a somewhat less apologetic explanation: "I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment."

Other excerpts from The Sherlock Holmes Handbook:

How to Disguise Yourself
Opium Dens and Narcotics in the Victorian Era
How to Fake Your Own Death

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
6 Radiant Facts About Irène Joliot-Curie
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though her accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of her parents, the elder daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was a brilliant researcher in her own right.


A black and white photo of Irene and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925.
Irène and Marie in the laboratory, 1925.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Irène’s birth in Paris in 1897 launched what would become a world-changing scientific dynasty. A restless Marie rejoined her loving husband in the laboratory shortly after the baby’s arrival. Over the next 10 years, the Curies discovered radium and polonium, founded the science of radioactivity, welcomed a second daughter, Eve, and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The Curies expected their daughters to excel in their education and their work. And excel they did; by 1925, Irène had a doctorate in chemistry and was working in her mother’s laboratory.


Like her mother, Irène fell in love in the lab—both with her work and with another scientist. Frédéric Joliot joined the Curie team as an assistant. He and Irène quickly bonded over shared interests in sports, the arts, and human rights. The two began collaborating on research and soon married, equitably combining their names and signing their work Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.


Black and white photo of Irène and Fréderic Joliot-Curie working side by side in their laboratory.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their passion for exploration drove them ever onward into exciting new territory. A decade of experimentation yielded advances in several disciplines. They learned how the thyroid gland absorbs radioiodine and how the body metabolizes radioactive phosphates. They found ways to coax radioactive isotopes from ordinarily non-radioactive materials—a discovery that would eventually enable both nuclear power and atomic weaponry, and one that earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.


The humanist principles that initially drew Irène and Frédéric together only deepened as they grew older. Both were proud members of the Socialist Party and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals). They took great pains to keep atomic research out of Nazi hands, sealing and hiding their research as Germany occupied their country, Irène also served as undersecretary of state for scientific research of the Popular Front government.


Irène eventually scaled back her time in the lab to raise her children Hélène and Pierre. But she never slowed down, nor did she stop fighting for equality and freedom for all. Especially active in women’s rights groups, she became a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council.


Irène’s extraordinary life was a mirror of her mother’s. Tragically, her death was, too. Years of watching radiation poisoning and cancer taking their toll on Marie never dissuaded Irène from her work. In 1956, dying of leukemia, she entered the Curie Hospital, where she followed her mother’s luminous footsteps into the great beyond.

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Live Smarter
You Can Now Order Food Through Facebook
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After a bit of controversy over its way of aggregating news feeds and some questionable content censoring policies, it’s nice to have Facebook roll out a feature everyone can agree on: allowing you to order food without leaving the social media site.

According to a press release, Facebook says that the company decided to begin offering food delivery options after realizing that many of its users come to the social media hub to rate and discuss local eateries. Rather than hop from Facebook to the restaurant or a delivery service, you’ll be able to stay within the app and select from a menu of food choices. Just click “Order Food” from the Explore menu on a desktop interface or under the “More” option on Android or iOS devices. There, you’ll be presented with options that will accept takeout or delivery orders, as well as businesses participating with services like or EatStreet.

If you need to sign up and create an account with or Jimmy John’s, for example, you can do that without leaving Facebook. The feature is expected to be available nationally, effective immediately.

[h/t Forbes]


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