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Trivia Master Makes People Think About Unusual

September 24, 1987|GORDON SMITH

DEL MAR — It doesn't make sense to say this, but I'm interested in interesting things. -- Scot Morris

Expelled air from a sneeze travels at about 100 miles an hour. -- "The Book of Strange Facts

and Useless Information,"

by Scot Morris

Scot Morris is (a) an accomplished magazine writer with a doctorate in clinical psychology; (b) an eccentric bachelor who juggles while he jogs; (c) probably the only person in Del Mar who knows why there's more ice at the South Pole than at the North Pole.

The correct answer is: all of the above. But these things only begin to describe the unusual career of the 45-year-old writer and Del Mar resident.

If you read Omni or Penthouse magazines, you've probably seen Morris' monthly Games columns, which include everything from trivia quizzes and brain-teasing problems to profiles of inventors and their inventions.

Or you may have seen Morris during one of his six appearances on "The Tonight Show." You may even have read one of Morris' books--perhaps "The Book of Strange Facts and Useless Information," which documents, among other things, that Henry David Thoreau is credited with inventing raisin bread.

Investigating weird phenomena and obscure facts is more or less a way of life for Morris, but he happens to get paid for it, too.

"It's a one-of-a-kind job," he observed recently while sitting on a couch in his spacious living room. In a corner behind him, a chrome bird was suspended by wires from the ceiling. Driven by an electric motor, it flapped its wings slowly and silently as he talked.

"I have always been interested in unusual things," said Morris, who obtained a doctorate in clinical psychology from Southern Illinois University in 1970. After looking around for a teaching job, he got a tryout as an assistant editor with the magazine Psychology Today, which then was published in Del Mar.

Morris made good on the opportunity and was soon "taking stuffy, jargon-laden articles" written by psychologists and rewriting them for the pages of Psychology Today, "as if I was trying to explain them to my mother," he said.

Over the next few years, Morris also wrote several free-lance articles for Playboy. And he became a collector of obscure information, tidbits that he eventually published en masse in "The Book of Strange Facts and Useless Information" in 1979.

Nutritious Grasshoppers

In one chapter of the book, Morris pointed out that "pound for pound, grasshoppers are about three times as nutritious as steak." In another chapter he observed, "If they are swirled in a pail or kept on board a rolling ship, fish can get seasick."

The book is filled with such trivia, "things I thought were interesting and not well-known," Morris said. "They're the kinds of things that make you say, 'I'll be darned. Where did he find that?' "

Many of them are also rooted in problems of physics, psychology and other sciences. In "Strange Facts," Morris notes that the "crack" of a bullwhip is actually a small sonic boom. He also documents attempts by spiritualists to contact Harry Houdini after he died.

"I consider myself a science journalist with a specialty in science-oriented diversions," he said. In particular, "my interest in psychology (has been) paralleled by my interest in perception, illusions . . anything that tells you about how the mind works." That includes magic tricks.

When Omni magazine was founded in October, 1978, Morris landed a job as a senior editor and moved to New York City to work at the magazine's offices. The managing editor suggested that, among other duties, Morris should write a column "on some of those weird things you investigate," and the Games column began.

One hundred and eight columns later, Morris is still at it (he left Omni and returned to Del Mar a year ago and is now writing the column on contract). Not bad for a guy who says bluntly: "I'm not that interested in games. I'm not extremely competitive. I was never into team sports, and I don't like to play chess or bridge."

But that's OK, because the Games column is really only about games a couple of months each year. The rest of the time it's about odd natural phenomena, inventors and offbeat scientific experiments--the same types of things that fill many of the pages in "Strange Facts."

Morris conceded that his column is so eclectic it could almost be characterized as "whatever Scot happens to be interested in this month."

"But I'm interested in interesting things."

It's hard to argue with that. One of Morris' recent columns discussed experiments performed with toys on the space shuttle. The experiments were designed partly to provide topics for schoolteachers and their students to discuss in class.

"I created a quiz around (the experiments) for my column, asking questions like, 'Can you make a yo-yo "sleep" in space?' " Morris said. "The answer is no. You can't get a yo-yo to sleep because there's no (gravitational) force to keep it out at the end of the string. It comes back to your hand."

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