There are three types of knowledge: facts (general knowledge, or trivia, like knowing how many #1 hits the Beatles had), practical information (like how to design, plan and build a database, or how to change a tyre) and wisdom. We should aspire to wisdom. This section is about Trivia, about Facts, and how I have acquired them. (The Beatles had 17 UK #1 singles.)

Have you ever been asked the question “How do you KNOW that?”? I have, and it got me thinking. How do I know some of the things that I know? How do any of us know the things that we know? And, for anyone over the age of 18, what counts as “universal knowledge”?

Sometimes I just set out to learn things, like knowing all 50 US States and the State Capitals. We are unlikely to acquire this kind of information otherwise. For most of us, by the time we get to a certain age (around 30 in my view) we will probably have heard of all 50 States but unless we’ve gone through a list there will be many State Capitals we haven’t heard of. And for the ones we have heard of we might be able to trace where that knowledge comes from. I first heard of Boise, Idaho in the Harry Chapin song “WOLD”. That’s what comes from trying to listen to the lyrics in every song I hear. (Yes, Boise is the State Capital of Idaho.)

[The line is “Now I’ve worked my way down home again / here to Boise, Idaho”, at 1:52 in this clip:

But for large parts of my life the Facts are being thrown at me most days, in TV programmes or radio shows. For the last 20 years or more I have watched most episodes of “University Challenge” and “Mastermind” (the general knowledge rounds at least) and in more recent years I have been a keen watcher of “Pointless”, “Who Dares Wins” and “Only Connect”. There are many things I know, or can now remember more clearly, from specific episodes of these shows. I also try to catch Radio 2’s”Pop Master”, on the iPlayer if I can’t hear it live, so that tests my knowledge of pop music. (Incidentally, this is the most listened to slot in UK Radio, outside of breakfast shows: 7.5 million listeners daily. When I hear it live I feel connected to millions of other listeners, all of us able to repeat the phrase “Oh, it’s one year out” just as Ken Bruce does.)

I have been an occasional and reluctant Pub Quizzer. I am unbeaten in public quizzes since 1999. (It’s a team game, and I’ve been on good teams.) At my children’s school I have competed twice in quiz teams, and we won both times. Unfortunately one of the “rewards” for winning is to organize the next year’s quiz and in each case I received a disproportionate amount of the blame for our success. I might know some stuff that seems obscure to others (like “How did Desdemona die in “Othello”?) but I don’t know the ingredients for a Cosmopolitan cocktail, and probably never will. And I don’t even look at the picture questions or table rounds.

So, in no particular order, here are some of my favourite Trivia Questions and where I heard them. Answers at the end of the page.

  1. How many prime numbers are there under 25? (Clue: it’s a multiple of 5). [From University Challenge, not sure of the date]
  2. What are the 9 Chemical Elements whose Chemical Symbols do not share any of the letters from the Element’s name (in English)? (Examples: K for Potassium or Fe for Iron, so that only leaves you another 7 to find.) [From “Pointless”, around May 2012]
  3. Which 2 stations on the London Underground map contain all 5 vowels in their name? (Clue: it’s not Heathrow Terminal 4 because it has a number instead of the word “Four”.) [My father-in-law asked me this one, but only knew of one station; I noticed the other one on a train journey myself.]
  4. There are many #1 songs which do not contain the title of the song anywhere in the lyrics (e.g. “Unchained Melody” or “Space Oddity”). I was once asked, in a pub having a few drinks, to think of 5 of them. But which is the only one that contains the title of the song that succeeded it at the top of the charts? [I was asked the original question in a pub in 1998. The updated question was something my wife heard on the Chris Evans Radio Show in October or November 2015.]
  5. Who is the only Actress to win an Oscar playing the part of an Actress who herself was an Oscar winner? [This fact has been mentioned on “Pointless” more than once]
  6. If you write out every number as a word, which is the first (and only) one to have all of its letters in alphabetical order? [This was on  a panel show, “Have I got news for you?” I think, and Victoria Coren Mitchell worked it out while the others were discussing it. I have since come across it in other quizzes.]
  7. A perennial quiz favourite is “How many keys does a standard piano keyboard have?” The answer is 88. (This knowledge contributed to a winning team performance at a quiz at the Crown & Anchor in Chiswick in July 2014.) But how many of the keys are black and how many are white? [I have known the number of piano keys since 1990, when Capital Gold, the radio station I listened to all the time back then, had a regular phone-in quiz with where you had to work out a phrase like 52 W in a Y for 52 Weeks in a Year, or 88 PK for 88 Piano Keys. I made up this question myself.]



  1. 25. Within a  month of this question I heard another that followed directly on from this: What is the 26th prime number, and also the first palindromic 3-digit prime? Answer: 101, and because the answer to the original question was so fresh in my mind I was able to get this before the second part of the clue.
  2. Elements: 11 Sodium (Na), 19 Potassium (K), 26 Iron (Fe), 47 Silver (Ag), 51 Antimony (Sb), 74 Tungsten (W), 79 Gold (Au), 80 Mercury (Hg), 82 Lead (Pb)
  3. South Ealing, Mansion House
  4. “Bohemian Rhapsody” contains the words “Mamma Mia”. “Mamma Mia” by Abba succeeded it at #1 in the UK in January 1976. Other #1 titles that do not appear anywhere in the songs include: “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (Beatles), “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” (Georgie Fame), “Maggie May”, “Do ya think I’m sexy?” (both Rod Stewart) and even, if you listen carefully “Everything I Own” (Ken Boothe). He sings “Anything I own” throughout the song.
  5. Cate Blanchett, playing the part of Katherine Hepburn in “The Aviator” (2004)
  6. Forty
  7. 36 Black Keys, 52 White Keys. The lowest note is an A, the highest note is a C. There are 7 full octaves, each containing 7 white keys (49 in total) and 5 black keys (35 in total), plus the lowest A and B, the highest C (that’s 3 extra white keys) and the lowest Bb (1 extra black key).