This is probably the most trivial thought one could have about the recent death of Sir Edmund Hillary: all of the obituaries mentioned that he was the first man known to have climbed to the peak of Mount Everest (and to have survived the trip). I was feeling a touch annoyed by that because one of the little things which had stuck in my memory was that no one actually knew whether it was Hillary or Tenzing Norgay who set foot on the peak first: they climbed as a team and had gone without saying just who was there. I was getting ready to ask about his assertion that we actually knew who was first when I actually looked it and discovered that Tenzing had told the world who was first. He had the extremely good line, ``If it is a shame to be the second man on Mount Everest, then I will have to live with this shame.''
This revelation really had me shocked, because for decades now I've cherished that curious bit of ambiguity -- that we could have an event in the living memory of much of the world that's very well-documented and still have some interesting piece of trivia that the world will never know. It would be as if on setting foot on the moon's surface, Neil Armstrong had turned his radio off a moment for his first sentence. Somehow the romance of that mystery had captivated me and I've been mildly annoyed to learn the mystery existed only in my head.
More embarrassingly, it's a mystery that by rights should never have occupied my mind: if Wikipedia is to be believed, Tenzing's quote comes from his and James Ramsey Ullman's Man of Everest, published in 1955 or that is not just before I was born but over a decade before my parents first met. It was a mystery that had clung to my mind because, apparently, I misunderstood some points about the first team to successfully climb Everest my entire life.
Well, I still liked having my mystery. And if there is a German team who believes they've determined the historical identity of the woman who posed for Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, well, I don't want to hear it.
Trivia: The last voice heard in radio transmission from Challenger on its last flight was that of Richard Scobee. Source: Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System: The First 100 Flights, Dennis R Jenkins.
Currently Reading: A Mathematician Plays The Stock Market, John Allan Paulos.