QI: Quite Incorrect?

Warning: The following article contains examples of eye-wateringly extreme nit-pickiness and a hint of scientific snobbery. You may proceed at your own peril…

Let me begin by acknowledging that QI is probably one of the best things on television. Week after week, Stephen Fry and his team of ‘elves’ manage to deliver a viewing experience that both entertains and educates. I can only begin to fathom the herculean amount of research it takes to produce an episode on such a regular basis. Hence, mistakes are bound to happen and yet it would be very un-scientific of me to leave these slipups uncorrected. Think of all the poor blokes who rely on QI for all their chat-up lines and the embarrassment they’d experience when trying to woo girl-who-is-also-a-professor-in-marine-biology with an incorrect jellyfish fact. And so, in the spirit of über-pedantry, I proceed…

The triple point of water is 0.

In Series C, Dara O’Briain drew the wrath of ultra-fastidious viewers when he smugly, but incorrectly, claimed that the triple point of water is 0 degrees Celsius. Said viewers instantly took to their keyboards to alert the elves that the triple point of water is actually 0.01. For us scientists, who work with numbers so tiny that they could fill up a room with zeroes, this was a BIG DEAL. For Dara, and the rest of mankind, probably not so much. Justice was served rather belatedly in the next series, when Dara got his two points for that false statement deducted.

The Earth has more than one moon.

In Series A, Alan Davies got the buzzer for answering the question “How many moons does the earth have?” with “One”. I was instantly unconvinced that we had a second moon which scientists had known about since as early as 1994, but for some curious reason, were keeping secret from the rest of the public. As it turns out, Cruithne is not our second moon, because it doesn’t orbit the earth. It orbits the sun. It also wasn’t discovered in 1994, but 1986. Shame on you, elves.

Marsupials aren’t mammals.

I spent the first year of my degree reciting vertebrate taxonomies like a madman, so this one was slightly upsetting. Yet, the transcript of the actual episode (Series C) suggests that it might simply have been a slip of the tongue by Stephen.

Jimmy: I’ll tell you what, though. All the indigenous mammals in Australasia are marsupials.
Stephen: Er… are therefore not mammals.
Jimmy: [stares at Stephen in disbelief]

Minds are still thoroughly boggled as to how his tongue could have slipped this badly.

CC (the cloned cat) stands for Copy Cat.

Ah, the joys of the aptonym. Wouldn’t it have made perfect sense for scientists to name the world’s first cloned pet ‘Copy Cat’ (CC, for short)? Well, so everyone from The Guardian to the studious little elves at QI thought, but this commonly known fact might actually be a myth. The name of the cat does not appear in the original scientific paper, but there is a citation on the Texas A&M university’s website (where the experiment was conducted) that states that “Carbon Copy” is the cat’s full name. This one’s an oversight not even the savviest of elves could have avoided.

Raindrops are completely spherical.

After this statement was made in Series D, one viewer wrote in to point out that according to a BBC Four documentary, raindrops are oval-shaped and have a flat base. Here, the devil lies in the detail. The elves’ research suggests that raindrops are spherical when they begin to fall and raindrops smaller than 2mm retain this shape. Larger raindrops develop a more oval shape and a flat base due to aerodynamic drag. Sadly, only the first part of this fact came up during the show; again, perhaps another one of Stephen’s gaffes.

The above list is far from exhaustive of course, but there is only so much nit-picking I can do before someone tries to get me sectioned. And while we’re at it, anyone know how to become a professional QI elf?

Eric John

2 Comments on this post.
  • C. Spelling
    13 February 2012 at 15:26
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    I hate to be pedantic but Dara’s surnme is spelt O’Briain, not O’Brien. But hey, everyone makes mistakes for other pedants to pick up on, right? ;o)

  • L Ryan
    27 September 2014 at 04:25
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    I understood the great Brian Cox to state on QI that nitrogen gas was heavier than air. If so, untrue. Air is 21% oxygen gas (Formula Mass 32) compared with 78% nitrogen gas (Formula Mass 28), and therefore heavier than pure nitrogen gas.

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