The human mind searches for context.
Our two sons, ages 15 and 10, are constantly asking me about facts and figures. Over the years, their most common question, by far, has been: "Daddy, how big is Chattanooga?" Followed closely by: "Is Chattanooga growing?"
That they constantly want to be told the population of their hometown, and its potential for getting bigger, says a lot about the brain. To know your place in the world, you've got to start somewhere, and your hometown is like the "Go" square on a Monopoly board.
If you've ever wondered why the most dogeared books in an elementary school library are copies of the Guinness Book of World Records, I think it's because a child's brain is constantly surveying for context. Knowing, for example, that Bill Gates is the world's richest man with $76 billion saves you from ever trying to make a list of the world's trillionaires.
I tell our boys that the population of metropolitan Chattanooga, which includes a slice of North Georgia, is about a half million (551,000 to be precise), and that the city is growing a few percentage points a year. Nothing spectacular.
If you're interested, in the last census report, Chattanooga was at the center of the 100th most populous Metropolitan Statistical Areas in America. Interestingly, we were bracketed by Scranton, Pa., at No. 99 and Youngstown, Ohio, at No. 101. Both of those cities have lost population recently, which means we are probably safely in the Top 100 for the moment.
I'm often surprised how many smart people ignore basic population facts and figures. Maybe we should blame Google. Facts are so easy to find on our smartphones that it seems like a waste of time and brain cells to memorize much.
Still, I've found that memorizing a few population figures, historic dates and some basic geography facts makes the world a lot easier to grasp. Having no fact-based coordinates in your head is a bit like trying to build a house without a tape measure — you're asking to be in a constant state of bewilderment.
Here's an example: The population of Tennessee is over 6.5 million people. The number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was about 6 million. Even though this may seem like a random correlation, knowing each of those facts makes makes the other statistic seem more meaningful.
I'd also suggest that we all commit to memory that the population of the United States is more than 300 million (323 million, actually). Knowing that both China and India are four times more populous than the U.S. (about 1.3 billion each) seems important to know. Also, knowing that Russia (144 million) is less than half the population of the United States is instructive. Let your mind absorb these numbers, and I promise you will go to bed tonight feeling smarter.
Knowing a few landmark dates also helps the world make sense. You don't have to be a history buff to construct a simple mental timeline. Just knowing these seven dates will give you a better feel for American history: 1492 (Columbus sails the ocean blue), 1776 (Declaration of Independence is signed), 1865 (Civil War ends), 1929 (stock-market crash triggers Great Depression), 1945 (World War II ends), 1969 (man walks on the moon), 2001 (terrorists attack America).
From history, I'd move to geography. I'm convinced that if every human being — including yours truly — would spend a few minutes a week studying a globe, it would make it a better world.
Raise your hand if you think Cuba is a small island off the tip of Florida? Would it surprise you to know that Cuba and the state of Tennessee are almost exactly the same size in land mass, about 42,000 square miles?
Now, the next time you hear about Cuba in the news, I promise this Tennessee comparison will come to mind and, if I don't miss my guess, it will somehow seem worth knowing.
Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6645.