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"You defined my limits in a very precise fashion" [FIVE]

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Knowledge of literature — nil. Knowledge of astronomy — nil. Admirers of Sherlock Holmes all know that Watson erred badly in his assessment of his roommate, rendered as "Sherlock Holmes — his limits" in A Study in Scarlet. We are talking, remember, about the same Sherlock Holmes who quoted Goethe, Hafiz and Flaubert, and who chatted over dinner about the causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic.

But performance appraisals are never easy, and anybody who has been a parent knows about reading a school report card, basking in every positive comment, and tensing up over any hint that the great hope of the next generation needs to work harder on spelling. 

Mastery of one class is noted with an A as "profound", of another as "feeble" with an F; and what can a parent make of a notation that the student's work in a third field of study is "accurate, but unsystematic"? What was the teacher thinking?

In this case, what was Watson thinking? 

Was he really qualified to judge Holmes's violin playing, or his proficiency with the singlestick? A physician himself, he might reasonably pass judgement on Holmes's knowledge of anatomy and even chemistry, but did he have the qualifications in philosophy to conclude that Holmes's expertise there too was "nil"?

Such objections have been raised many times. But perhaps the most damning criticism of Watson's report card on Holmes is the number of subjects that it entirely omits. 

Mathematics, for example: had Watson not yet noticed the mathematical finesse that allowed Holmes to work out the calculations of the Musgrave oak and elm, or to boast when determining a train's speed that "the calculation is a simple one"?

The railway calculation may be simple in theory, by the way, but it's awkward in practice. Several Sherlockians have tied themselves in knots over a formula for working out the speed in one's head, including Julian Wolff in The Baker Street Journal in 1963 (The Editor's Gas-Lamp: "The Dynamics of the Binomial Theorem," BSJ, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1963. pp. 199-200).

He advised that to come up with his conclusion of 53.5 miles per hour, Holmes merely had to "divide 1227.27 by the number of seconds required to travel 1800 feet". And he appended this elegant graph. 

Dr. Wolff's chart, BSJ, Vol. 13, No. 4

Long-time Sherlockian and math professor Tom Drucker has kindly reminded me that if d = rt (distance equals rate times time) then r = d/t (rate is equal to distance over time). "Since the distance is being kept fixed," he writes, "that just gives an inverse relationship between rate and time, as illustrated in Wolff's graph. The curve itself is a hyperbola."

But Watson's report card for Holmes has no line for mathematics! Nor is there one for foreign languages, though it appears that Holmes had some acquaintance at least with French, German, Italian, Persian, Arabic and Tibetan.

What about zoology: was it as "variable" as Holmes's botany? Maybe it was, at that, considering his willingness to believe that snakes drink milk, and his insistence that a worm found in an ordinary match-box was "unknown to science". It is notable that his response to the charlatanism of "The Creeping Man" is cast as philosophy (nil) rather than physiology (feeble).

There is an interesting lacuna somewhere between Holmes's alleged knowledge of botany (variable… knows nothing of practical gardening) and his expertise in the varied soils of London, which Watson places under Geology. It is interesting to imagine that Holmes, who grew up as the heir to a line of "country squires", got his knowledge of dirt from listening to conversations between his father and a steward or foreman on the family land, but did not stick around long enough for the repetitive labor of planting. And yet he knew, in the case of "Wisteria Lodge", what one is supposed to do with a spud, a tin box, and an elementary book on botany — it's never too late to learn.

Don't Know Much About History?  

And as I recently prepared an essay on canonical references to English kings, queens, battles, and constitutions, now in print as A Sherlockian History of England, I found myself wondering why Watson does not even attempt to rate his new acquaintance's "Knowledge of History" along with Literature and Astronomy. 

That knowledge cannot have been quite "nil", since an English schoolboy can hardly escape without learning a little about William of Orange and the Battle of Waterloo. In fact, as I point out in my essay, Holmes studies early English charters (land deeds), investigates an ancient British barrow (burial site), examines Saxon and Norman graves with professional care at Shoscombe Old Place, recognizes allusions to Charles I and Charles II in the Musgrave ritual, buys a 1642 book and chats with Watson about its origins, knows one Napoleonic battle from another, has an opinion about the causes of the American Revolution, ostentatiously identifies the date of a century-old house — in short, shows every evidence of being familiar with British history, especially (but not only) its relevance to his own work.

Knowledge of History, then: profound, although one might admit to its being "unsystematic" in view of the theory he apparently espouses connecting the Cornish language to ancient Chaldean, brought to Cornwall by Phoenician tin traders from Lebanon. The mildest thing one might say about this suggestion is that modern archaeologists do not agree with it, but Holmes the historian gets points for being aware that tin mining has been the backbone of Cornish civilization for many centuries.

It would appear that he knew something of American history too, incidentally, at least enough to be aware of the Ku Klux Klan (in "The Five Orange Pips") and to make sense of Effie Munro's story in "The Yellow Face". What his marks might be in genetics, in view of how he accepted that narrative, is a question for another day.

History, mathematics, biology, even geography (though Holmes apparently knew where Egria was): Watson's sketch of Holmes's limits leaves out too many basic subjects. 

But of course he was still getting to know his roommate in those days, and one wonders how he had had the opportunity to test that "good practical knowledge of British law" and the expertise in poisons. 

Would you hire a young professional based on so partial a resumé? 

Depends on the importance you attach to his knowledge of sensational literature, I suppose.