The Silent Contest: The Solar System and The Brain Attic (Part 2)
Let’s begin this time with perhaps the first and funniest lie in all of Sherlock Holmes.
You know that Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the greatest detective of all time. And you probably know that, despite all his brilliance, he does not know that the earth revolves around the sun.
This blank spot in Holmes’ knowledge is revealed in the first published Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in which Watson describes how he came to meet Holmes and become boarders together at 221B Baker Street in London. They moved in at the same time, set up the apartment, and then went their separate ways. Watson did not ask Holmes about his profession, even when people started coming to meet with Holmes. Weeks went by, and, according to Watson’s own account, Watson still did not determine what Holmes is doing.
Watson did realize that Holmes had a “remarkable” “zeal for certain studies,” and “within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me.”
At the same time, Watson commented that Holmes’ “ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.” According to Watson, Holmes knew “next to nothing” of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics. And, according to Watson, Watson was most surprised upon finding out that Holmes was “ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.”
“You appear to be astonished,” Holmes said with a smile, according to Watson. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.” He went on to explain that the nature of the solar system makes no difference to him. “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
According to Watson, Holmes then provided an explanation for why he did not know about the Copernican Theory and why he would try to forget it even after being told. According to Watson, Holmes explains that his brain works like an “attic” that he has organized just as a “skilled workman” would organize his toolbox:
“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
Funny lies, so funny that they inspired a hilarious scene in BBC Sherlock’s The Great Game. But lies even so.
We know that Watson lied about Holmes’ knowledge of astronomy mostly because several other stories refer to Holmes’ knowledge of astronomy. In the Musgrave Ritual, Holmes referred to “the personal equation, as the astronomers have dubbed it,” the idea that individual astronomers had their own inherent biases in measuring and observing the same phenomena. In the Greek Interpreter, Holmes conversed over multiple subjects, including the “causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic,” referring to the tilt of the Earth’s equator compared to the plane that the Sun follows over the course of a year. In the Bruce-Partington Plans, Holmes discussed the unlikelihood of a planet leaving its orbit, clearly demonstrating some knowledge of the solar system.
And even if we did not have these stories, we should still question Holmes’ lack of knowledge of astronomy. The brilliant detective not knowing something that most children know sounds too good to be true. Things that sound too good to be true often sound that way for a reason — they simply are not true.
We also know that the “brain attic” idea (what the BBC Sherlock updated to Holmes’ “hard drive”) is a lie from Holmes himself.
While most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are written from the perspective of Watson, two stories are allegedly written by Holmes himself. Holmes supposedly wrote the Blanched Soldier late in his career, long after most of the stories by Watson. And Holmes supposedly wrote the Lion’s Mane even later, describing an adventure that occurred after he had retired from his work as a detective and from London. The Lion’s Mane in particular stands in strong contrast to what Holmes supposedly said in A Study in Scarlet.
In the Lion’s Mane, Holmes recounted how he came upon the death of a schoolteacher on the beach in the summer of 1907. The teacher’s back was covered with red lines as though he had been flogged, and his dying words were slurred and indistinct but for the final phrase, “the Lion’s Mane.” Holmes tried to solve the mystery but makes little progress. The case brought him “so completely to the limit of my powers,” and “even my imagination could conceive no solution to the mystery.”
“And then,” Holmes wrote, “there came the incident of the dog.”
Holmes heard about the teacher’s dog, which was found dead in the very same place where his master died. Holmes was surprised upon hearing the news, and “some dim perception” that the location “was vital rose in my mind.” He saw the dog for himself and then went to the beach himself, standing “in deep meditation” with his thoughts “racing” around him, knowing that something important is just out of reach. He eventually gave up and began walking away. Then, Holmes wrote, “like a flash, I remembered the thing for which I had so eagerly and vainly grasped.”
In that moment, Holmes connected the facts before him with the vague memory of something that he had read long ago and probably never expected to ever use. He hurried back to his home and rummaged his library for an hour, finally finding the book which he had but a “dim remembrance of.”
There is a killer, Holmes concluded, but there is no murderer.
The teacher and his dog were killed by a large jellyfish, specifically the lion’s mane jellyfish, so named after its appearance. Holmes discovered this because “I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles.” He had read a book by real-life nature writer J.G. Wood, had noticed the use of the phrase “lion’s mane” in what had seemed an “unexpected context,” and connected that book to his investigation by letting his mind wander.
According to Holmes himself in the Lion’s Mane, Holmes’ mind was indeed “a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge without scientific system, but very available for the needs of my work,” as he wrote. But his mind was not a well-organized room with significant facts perfectly in place, but “like a crowded box-room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein — so many that I may well have but a vague perception of what was there.”
The Lion’s Mane is not an isolated example. Other stories refer to the massive amounts of information that Holmes consumed, organized, and drew upon in investigating his cases. He was not simply keeping the information that he believed would be useful in his cases, because he did not and could not know what his cases would require. He needed to consume “trifles” because he was trying to understand and solve mysteries that emerge in the course of life and because he would undercut himself if he limited himself to a narrow view of that life.
And so we learn in A Scandal in Bohemia about the index that Holmes had been creating, organizing and using for years. Holmes did not simply keep the facts that he believed were necessary for his work. Instead, he did not simply read London’s newspapers, but cataloged and re-organized them into a series of books that he regularly consulted, “a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information (emphasis added).” Holmes had no idea that he might ever be investigating Irene Adler, but he had already cataloged information about her from the newspapers, “sandwiched in between that of a Hebrew rabbi and that of a staff-commander who had written a monograph upon the deep-sea fishes.”
We see Holmes reference this index time and again: A Case of Identity, the Five Orange Pips, the Musgrave Ritual, the Red Circle, the Bruce-Partington Plans, and the Hound of Baskervilles.
The famous “brain-attic” passage is a lie. Whether Holmes said the words to Watson, or whether Watson made up the passage entirely, is unclear and perhaps irrelevant, as Watson included the words in describing Holmes for his audience.
We also know that these passages are lies because there is a reason why Watson would have lied. Think about this — you laugh upon hearing that Sherlock Holmes does not know that how the solar system works. Everyone laughs. Why would Watson want everyone to laugh at his friend? And was it you he wanted to laugh?
Significantly, of all the things that Watson potentially could have cited as an example of Holmes’ gaps in knowledge, Watson highlighted Holmes’ lack of understanding of the workings of the solar system. We all laugh, but no one would have laughed more than Professor Moriarty, who had studied not just mathematics, but the mathematics associated with the movement of heavenly bodies. As Holmes recounts in the Valley of Fear, Professor Moriarty was the “celebrated author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid, a book which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said that there was no man in the scientific press capable of criticizing it.”
And while most people are impressed with Holmes’ discussion of his “brain-attic” and the way he organizes it with precisely the information he believes he needs, Professor Moriarty would have dismissed Holmes as a novice out of his league. Moriarty would have read that Holmes had huge gaps in his knowledge (“nil” knowledge of astronomy and “feeble” knowledge of politics) and was overconfident about the extent of and limits of his knowledge. Moriarty, who controlled and led a network of criminals, who hid his wealth in a similarly convoluted network of bank accounts, and who still maintained a covert identity, would not have taken Holmes seriously.
These little, funny, perhaps clever lies would have lulled Moriarty into thinking that this consulting detective was no threat to him. And they would have given Holmes the time that he needed to continue his investigations without notice and to eventually bring Moriarty down.
At least, that is what Holmes and Watson probably presumed when Watson wrote A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes story to be written by Watson and published in his world and in ours. But then events happened that required Watson to make up another lie about Holmes, the lie about his cocaine use, which we will return to in a later article.
Next time, we will look at one oddly loose end in A Study in Scarlet, one that may explain an unanswered question — just how Holmes became aware of Moriarty in the first place.
Part 3: The Man or Woman Who Got Away