And so it was that I stumbled across Maps, Tracks and the Bridges of Königsberg: A Book About Networks by Michael Holt, a 1975 picture book that was one of many in the now sadly defunct “Young Math” series from the now sadly defunct publishing company, Thomas Y. Crowell. What fun! A great “K” word — Königsberg. I had heard about the dilemma that the residents of Königsberg, Germany, had tried to solve — to see if they could walk across each of their city’s seven bridges exactly once (all had to be crossed once and none could be re-crossed). No one could figure out a way to do it, but for centuries they were taunted by the prospect that a hidden solution eluded them. Finally the mathematician Leonhard Euler developed the postulates and theorems of a new branch of mathematics now known as graph theory or network theory in order to solve the Königsberg bridge problem. His goal was to figure out how to walk the bridges, or to prove it impossible. He succeeded not only in why the seven Königsberg bridges could not be walked once time each, but under what circumstances it could or could not be done for any network of bridges. Network theory not only proved to have many applications (useful, for example, in designing networks of cables) but it also laid the foundation for another branch of mathematics, topology. For me, as a researcher and writer, the cool thing is that I wouldn’t have thought of including the bridges of Königsberg in G is for Googol if I hadn’t bumped into them in Holt’s book on the shelves of a school library during a break between two assembly programs.
So that was an example of browsing, more-or-less aimlessly, to see what I could find and how I could tie it in. But there is another, more directed, way that browsing the shelves has proved fruitful in my research. It’s when I know what I’m looking for but neither google, for all its power, nor the library catalog nor anyone or anything else can tell me where to find it. For example. . .
Recently I have been doing research for an upcoming book called Where in the Wild? Mysteries in Nature Concealed. . . and Revealed, the next book in the series that began with Where in the Wlld? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed… and Revealed. One of the entries in What in the Wild? will be about the diggings of a star-nosed mole, a small mammal whose activities leave unwelcome mounds of soil on lawns and pastures. Moles, whether star-nosed or not, are usually not loved by landowners whose property they think of as their own.
Books and websites about moles turned out to be informative but a bit dull, focused on the minutia of their biology or harsh methods of putting an end to them and their excavations. So I wondered if I could find an interesting book with a section about moles. My initial searches in google and the public library catalog turned up no such book, probably because any that existed did not have the word “mole” in the title or subtitle or as one of the subject terms entered into the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data. Still, I figured that at least one such book must exist. I would employ a more venerable method of research.
And so it was that I found myself on hands and knees in the Rockridge branch of the Oakland Public Library, exploring the bottom shelf of the 596s just to see what I could find.
Within a few minutes, I had walked my fingers to Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife by Richard Conniff. The title seemed promising, and sure enough the table of contents led me to a chapter called “Notes from the Underground” — about moles. And guess what: star-nosed moles have a starring role! Conniff describes this creature in a most quotable way as a mole that “looks as if it’s got a sea anemone stuck on its snout.” And from there followed all kinds of fascinating information about the critters themselves and a colorful curmudgeon (of the human variety) who pursues them at the behest of disgruntled landowners in England. Once again, browsing trumped google!
The other day, a student at Landstuhl Elementary/Middle School on the U.S. Army base in Landstuhl, Germany, asked me the secret of success in researching books, and I told him a few things I thought of on the spot, but it didn't occur to me at the time to tell him what I am saying here. To rewrite Kenneth Grahame’s delightful line (which, as it happens, was spoken by the character Mole in Wind in the Willows), “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.” In this case, Grahame’s ode to blissful aimlessness might be rewritten for researchers as “There is nothing so delightful — or fruitful — as messing about in libraries.”