In the May/June issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Cathy Nan Quinlan makes a glorious attempt to connect two painters, Vermeer and Clyfford Still, and a baked organic chicken. It is a stunning article for the simple reason that connections, even those involving chickens, matter. So, taking my lead from Miss Quinlan, and borrowing and then twisting a page from Harper’s “Index,” I set out to draw connections among simple data. I looked for links in the cosmos to what the Web told me I “must know,” and from there I relied on quirky publications that I’d been unable to discard, and finally I drew on more typically personal and private facts.
Or, rather, the personal and private is where I began.
In recent weeks, there has been much ado among astrophysicists and in the news media about possible changes in the basic assumptions concerning relativity and the formula scientists have used to define the universe. The world, it seems, is on shaky ground. Mine, too.
While cosmologists have grappled with the inconstancy of their once-constant and beloved primary number, alpha, I have been given much thought to the death of a friend of mine’s boyfriend, Khaliq. An avid cyclist, Khaliq accepted the whimsical invitation of another friend and traveled to watch this year’s mother of all bicycling races: the Tour de France. A spectator at the time, something he rarely allowed himself to be, he died after being struck by a car while trying to reach a better spot to watch the competitions as they passed.
The next few inches of print I offer up as a curiously spun tribute to Khaliq. It’s not my definitive list of what I think you should know or even what I’d like you to know. Nor is it a list of what he’d like you to know. It’s more supple than that. In this fact-immersed, data-driven, information-saturated, insider’s buzz, must-see-TV, must-feel-every-one’s-pain, gotta-go, gotta-know world, it’s a small offering of some of what I found to be worth sharing. In an admittedly cursory fashion, this list careens from the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the consequential as I try to squeeze myself into the knowing that is hunkered between living and dying. And, at the very least, this list is a chance to imprint Khaliq’s name onto a paper that may end up being one of those quirky publications you are unable to discard.
Number of Web sites the search engine Google generates with the keywords “must know””4,740,000; and “need to know”: 5,320,000.
Total world population as of August 12, 2001, that may turn to or away from what’s contained on these sites: 6,166,452,064.
Number of the world’s languages considered “safe” from extinction because they are still being learned by children: 600.
Number of languages the authors of The Scientist in the Crib believes babies have the capacity to learn at birth: all of them.
Number of people five years and older who indicated in the US Census 2000 “English Only” as the language spoken at home: 209,817,282.
According to one of the world’s leading geneticists, Bryan Sykes, the number of ancestral clan mothers from whom we all descended: 33.
What it will cost to receive a swabbing kit from oxfordancestors.com that allows you to take a sample from your cheek and determine who your ancestral mother is: 150 pounds.
According to Orin Hatch’s resolution designating October “Family History Month,” the number of people who use the Web and email to locate or hunt for family or friends with whom they have lost touch: 24 million.
Typical cost of a t-shirt or tote bag with “Your Family’s Name Here” produced by Indian Lake Screen Printing, one of five sponsored links from the Orin Hatch History Month Web sites: $5.50.
Number of credit cards accepted by Indian Lake Screen Printing: 3.
Cost of Mastercard’s “Priceless” advertising campaign that encourages people to rely on the credit card company’s streamlined services in order to enjoy life’s fleeting moments, like family reunions where cheek swabbing may run amok: undisclosed.
Number of names contained in The Baby Name Survey Book: What People Think of Your Baby’s Name: 37,500 from 250 countries in 160 different languages, including “names from every corner of the glove, popular African-American names, unique names whose origins are distinctly American, popular and unique alternate spellings, traditional surnames used as first names, exotic names that convey romance, adventure, and sophistication and names popularized by movies and television.”
Names among those Professor Sykes gave to the “33 daughters of Mitochondrial Eve”: Ursula, Jasmine and Syria.
My brother’s first name had my mom had her way: Monty.
The day my brother, né Kevin, came into the world: June 14, 1967.
The moment when life for Khaliq, who had a smile that sparkled, strength befitting a master craftsman and an immense capacity to wring joy from each day, ended: 5:30 p.m., July 18, 2001.
Stem cell research or no stem cell research, the exact moment life begins: gloriously, perhaps even a little coquettishly, undetermined.
Shelley Pasnik is a senior researcher at the Center for Children and Technology and the independent producer of The PBS Parents Guide to Children and Media.