Authors: John Farndon
DO YOU THINK YOU’RE CLEVER?
, a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge, is the author of many books on contemporary issues, including
in the ‘Everything You Need to Know’ series (Icon). He also writes widely for children, including the bestselling
Do Not Open
(Dorling Kindersley), and has been shortlisted four times for the Junior Science Book Prize.
OBE is a radio presenter, journalist and author. Best known for presenting BBC Radio Four’s
, she also writes regularly for
and has published twelve novels. She is a graduate of St Anne’s College, Oxford, with a First in English Language and Literature.
– THE OXBRIDGE QUESTIONS –
DO YOU THINK YOU’RE CLEVER?
INTRODUCTION BY LIBBY PURVES
This electronic edition published in 2009 by Icon Books
ISBN: 978-1-84831-156-5 (ePub format)
ISBN: 978-1-84831-157-2 (Adobe ebook format)
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Text copyright © 2009 John Farndon
The author has asserted his moral rights.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, or by any
means, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
Typeset by Marie Doherty
by Libby Purves
When you ask someone questions, especially in an interview whose outcome matters, you are checking up on two things. One is the person’s knowledge – simple enough to gauge – but the other is more nebulous. You want to know
they think: what sort of engine their mind is, whether it runs neatly on logical rails, or soars high above every topic with the eyes of an eagle. Or perhaps, whether it just hops about like a drunken bunny-rabbit (my own
, all too often). Whether you’re going to teach that candidate at a university or offer them a job, you need to know this. You need to get a sense of how they approach the unexpected.
So that’s the questioner’s perspective; and the questioner of course has the advantage of surprise and authority. The interviewee, on the other hand, may simply stare and sweat, temporarily deprived of the power of speech by sheer amazement. Some have displayed a legendary cool: confronted with the philosopher’s favourite opening ‘Is this a question?’ one lad supposedly replied with a languid yawn, ‘Well, if this is an answer, I suppose it must have been, mustn’t it?’ Most of us wouldn’t be up to that. Or not that quickly. Indeed technical knowledge, acquired by rote through years of plodding school exams can even prove a bit of an impediment. You can be a competent electrical engineering student and still be floored by someone asking
‘Can a thermostat think?’ Yet your answer, if you stay calm and thoughtful, might well betray a deeper and more useful understanding of thermostats to run alongside your technical expertise.
Similarly, you may stutter helplessly when asked ‘Are you a novel or a poem?’; but if you can get your mind into a flexible, relaxed state your answer will show it. Even if you just say ‘Frankly, I think I’m halfway between a rap lyric and a technical manual’ they’ll know that you have a degree of self-knowledge. And if asked to ‘describe a spoon to a Martian’, a relaxed mind will tell you (as it tells the author of this book) that before you answer you will have to decide on the physique of your Martian, and whether he can see or hear or understand the concept of grasping a tool. If the Martian is a mere brain encased in rock, there will be a bit more work to do: you’ll have to explain fingers before you come on to the spoon …
Actually, questions about explaining things to Martians are always my favourites, because they remind us that there is no use at all being eloquent and stylish and clever and knowledgeable if you are at the same time crashingly insensitive to your audience and what they will relate to. All novelists, broadcasters and teachers need to have that lesson stamped in their DNA.
And yet there is value in such questions, and in all the unsettling ones John offers in this book. No single discipline, after all, is ever enough to make a rounded, curious, exploring human being. Physicists need to think
philosophically, philosophers to acknowledge solid realities; historians, medics and mathematicians all have to work in guesstimates from time to time, if only to run a mental double-check on their empirical findings.
Daily common sense is a useful thing, but can also be limiting: if somebody asks you how to weigh your own head, or whether you can light a candelabra in a space shuttle, it’s fruitless to snap back, ‘Why on earth would I want to?’ Though that might, I suppose, ramp you up a notch or two in a more sternly pragmatic contest like
Interviewers – especially in the ancient universities – get a lot of stick for asking apparently crazy questions. I think we should cut them some slack. There is no evidence that those who deal best with weird questions always get in, and certainly this book is not offered as a magical short-cut to winning prestigious places or indeed jobs. But it pays tribute to that style of thinking, and illustrates some ways of answering particular questions. The answers are not ‘models’ or cribs; merely examples of how this author would approach them. Personally, I am happy to say that I disagree with one or two of his conclusions; but the very process of disagreeing has been entertaining and stimulating.
For by and large, it’s not only useful trying to answer these deceptively potty questions, but fun. Just as it’s fun (on a good day) to attempt to answer small children’s piercing enquiries about why our noses aren’t the other way up, or what a cow is thinking. If we can overcome
the terror of the unexpected, such questions give us space to play: to bat around aspects of logic and meaning, and snatch little bits of knowledge from the far corners of our minds and knit them together in a new pattern. It’s good to know how to pause without panic, and think without confusion. Think of them as five-finger exercises on the piano of your brain – and disagree as much as you like.
I’m starting to think …
This book is a collection of questions and answers. The questions, of course, are a selection of some of the infamously bizarre and challenging questions put by Oxbridge admissions tutors to potential candidates. The idea is to help them spot the really smart students, the ones who can think on their feet. What’s extraordinary about these questions is just how brilliantly thought-provoking they are. You don’t have to be an Oxbridge candidate at all to have your mind instantly set whirring by a question such as ‘What books are bad for you?’, ‘Does a Girl Scout have a political agenda?’ and ‘What happens when you drop an ant?’
Most of the time we saunter through life without thinking much at all. There’s no need to, really. Each of us has a store of knowledge and experience that delivers a response automatically with the minimum of effort, and most of the time that automatic response is fine. But the questions in this book won’t allow that. They are surprising, intriguing, strange, silly and even downright irritating at times, but what they all have in common is that they invite you to think. And that’s so rare that it provokes instant delight. When I’ve tried some of these questions with my friends, they first burst out laughing, then can’t stop coming up with ideas.
I think we humans actually love thinking. It’s exciting. It makes us feel alive. Look at all the people busily doing Su Doku and crosswords and quizzes, yet even those are routine. The wonderful thing about these questions is just how many different ways of thinking they open up. Indeed, there is no ‘right’ answer to any of them. Some of them seem impossible to answer at first, but it’s amazing how by pulling in a little scrap of knowledge here, a little bit of logic there and a large dollop of playfulness you can actually come up with a decent answer – or come up with a really intriguing reason why not!
The answers here, of course, are mine. They are not meant to be answers a student could give. They are not even the answers I would necessarily give if put in an interview situation. There seemed no point in trying to recapture the mind frozen with fear under pressure! They are certainly not intended to be ‘right’ answers. Indeed, I’m sure some Oxbridge tutors will throw up their hands in despair at some of my ideas. The answers here are merely meant to be food for thought – suggestions of ways in which the questions could be answered, and just what they mean.
Each question is different, and each provokes a different kind of answer. On the whole, I have tried to keep my answers here as neutral as possible, to leave you, the reader, more room for thought. There are a few questions for which a personalised answer was unavoidable, though. On the whole, too, I’ve tried to answer the questions directly
rather than being cleverly evasive, even though that can be wonderfully entertaining and inventive. When asked ‘How would you use a barometer to measure the height of a tower block?’ the late, great Clement Freud, knowing the answer that was expected all along, apparently came up with a brilliantly silly array of alternatives, such as dropping the barometer from the top and timing its fall, offering it as a bribe to the hall porter to get him to tell you the height, and so on. The correct, and ultimately more interesting answer is, of course, that you measure the air pressure at the top and bottom of the building and find the height from the pressure difference. On the whole, I’ve given that kind of answer, so that you are free to be as outrageously inventive as you wish.
There’s certainly no recipe for answering these questions. Journalists who’ve focused on these questions say they’re about ‘lateral thinking’, after Edward de Bono’s famous 1967 book,
The Use of Lateral Thinking
. Unlike standard ‘critical thinking’ which merely seeks to evaluate the truth of a statement, ‘lateral thinking’ is about using statements as spurs to help create entirely new, perhaps unrelated ideas. Because our thinking tends to run along tramlines, de Bono argued, we need tools to provoke us to think in entirely different directions. One example of how this works would be to generate new ideas for say, an ad campaign, by finding a word at random in the dictionary and seeing what new thoughts that provoked about the ad. Such techniques can be effective.
But these questions aren’t just about lateral thinking. Some indeed are. You have to think laterally, for instance, to work out how to weigh your head. But many others are simply about thinking for yourself. Some challenge your preconceptions. Some ask you to think about issues that face the world. Some ask you about why things are as they are in our society. Some even ask you fundamental questions about the nature of reality and existence. Some just want your opinion.
I would say the key thing in answering these questions is to stop for a moment and think what the question means, or better still, what
the question means. The least interesting, least clever response is the one that comes automatically. The chances are, too, that this is going to subtly miss the point of the question. When asked ‘What books are bad for you?’ for example, it would be so easy to slip into a clichéd list of morally dubious books – and you could possibly make that interesting by the way you justify your choice. But isn’t it worth exploring the question a little further – like for instance, what’s meant by ‘bad’?
There are some questions such as ‘What percentage of the world’s water is there in a cow?’ and ‘What is the population of Croydon?’ that seem to require specialist knowledge. If you know the answer, that’s great, but what’s really intriguing, and really ‘clever’, is arriving at an answer without any specific knowledge whatsoever. The amazing thing is that this isn’t quite so hard to do as you might
think. You just need to keep a clear head and marshal the few small things that you do know in the right way.
We got the title of this book,
Do You Think You’re Clever?
, from one of the Oxbridge questions and it seemed apt. Answering these questions is about being clever – astonishingly, amusingly, stimulatingly, irritatingly, deviously, mischievously, profoundly, brilliantly clever. But that’s something that everyone can be. It’s not about knowledge. It’s not even about education. It’s about bending and twisting your thoughts in all kinds of intriguing ways. And that’s something everyone can do. It’s not the exclusive territory of those lucky enough to gain their place at Oxbridge, either. There’s no bigger obstacle to genuine cleverness than smugness.