Encyclopedia Dad

Although Encyclopedia Brown is famous for what he did know, Encyclopedia Dad is famous for what he does not know. Knowing so little, how did I earn that nickname? You may have guessed it: by my pernicious habit of stopping whatever I am doing, leaping out of the chair, and bounding over to the bookshelf to grab a volume of the encyclopedia. Most commonly, this occurs at dinnertime—so much so, in fact, that I have threatened to replace the dinner dishes in the buffet hutch with the 2002 World Book Encyclopedia set.

“Platypuses can’t be mammals if they lay eggs!” My children issue the challenge. I leap. I search in Volume “P.” I find proof! Platypuses are indeed rare mammals that do indeed lay eggs! For some strange reason, this type of exchange just makes my day.

My fascination with encyclopedias began at a young age—when I got my own set, for my own room, at ten years old. Quickly, “A” became my favorite volume because of all the uniforms, weapons, and insignia of the Army. “M” was second best because of Money. (Did you know they used to print $10,000 bills and that Salmon B. Chase’s picture was on them?) Other volumes popular with me were “S” and “N-O.” While other kids were hiding under their covers with a flashlight and a Hardy Boys mystery, I was secretly perusing navy ships and plastic overlays of human anatomy.

Sadly, all that encyclopedia browsing did not seem to give me a lifelong encyclopedic knowledge of everything. In fact, the older I get, the more I know that I do not know much at all. Fortunately, I have also realized that I will not ever know everything anyway, so I am okay with it. However, I do want my children to see me wanting to know things. Enthusiasm for learning can be contagious. Therefore I retain my habit of browsing.

Really, it is like taking a quick tour of the universe, moving at light speed. Just think: where else can you go from reading about the Gutenberg Bible (and seeing a page of it!) to the history of Bigamy, then quickly on to Bigfoot and ending with the Battle of Bighorn all in the span of three minutes? Who needs race cars or rockets when you can zoom through space and time like that?

It is not an uncommon occurrence for me—in the middle of a sentence—to stop talking and walk straight to the World Book Encyclopedia to find a fact to support my statement. For example, not long ago we were in a debate about whether there is a googol (that is a 10 with 99 zeroes after it) of molecules in the whole earth, including everything on it, plus the atmosphere. I said no, there are not that many molecules in the whole earth, but at least one of my children refused to believe me. I attacked the problem with a calculator and a pile of encyclopedias.

To find out the number of molecules in the whole earth, first I had to find out how many molecules there are in one cubic centimeter of earth. So I needed “M” for Mole and/or Molecule. Then, needing to know how many atoms there are in a molecule of carbon (the most common element), I grabbed “C” (and also “E,” for Element, just in case). Then I had to know the mass of the earth, so having “E” handy was a good idea. To calculate cubic kilometers of a sphere with a 25,000-mile circumference required some now-dusty geometric formulae, so “G” was the fourth volume added to the pile. The volume of the atmosphere was tough, but it does not add up to that much, really.

Now, as it turns out, the earth does not even have close to a googol of molecules of matter, so the question became, “How about the entire solar system?”

I got “S.” It was a fortunate thing I started with Sun rather than Pluto, as I quickly learned that the sun has ninety-five percent of the matter in the whole solar system, which made everything simpler from then on. So, how big is the sun? Well, it could hold about 1.3 million earths, so that made things really easy. Thank heaven (and whoever developed the idea of not having to write out all those zeroes) for exponentiation! According to my calculations, the entire solar system would not have a googol of atoms in it! (I believe it is somewhere around 071, give or take a dozen zeroes. If someone tries this calculation and proves me wrong, please let me know!)

Of course, by the time I had discovered this awesome fact, I was not only alone at the table but was the only one in the house! I wanted my revelation to be dramatic, so I taped a few pieces of paper together and actually wrote out the 10100, 1071, and 109 to show how big the number really is. When I finally found the kids all playing in the sunshine and presented my findings, they were notably unimpressed. One of my children was angered at the very idea of a googol, grumbling, “What’s the use of a number if there’s no way to use it?” I went back to get “G” to find out what kind of crazy guy would name a useless number. (It was the crazy mathematician’s son who dubbed it “googol.”) All in all, it was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon—for me.

Now, some may claim that I could have done the whole thing faster (and probably more accurately) with the Internet. They may be right. However, there is a richness in the experience of searching through six volumes of an encyclopedia to answer such a question. It is an experience that just cannot be replaced by typing a few words into the other Google. My kids may tease me about my encyclopedia-grabbing habits, but I know they will grow up with a sense of the value—and fun—of browsing, using, and keeping handy a traditional set of actual, heavy, paper, honest-to-goodness encyclopedias.