Sure, anybody with a periodic table knows that the atomic weight of the element lanthanum is 138.9055. But what on earth is the stuff used for?
Who cares? Believe it or not, someone does. There comes a time in every student's career when he desperately needs a terribly obscure fact in an awful hurry. Unfortunately, that time tends to fall between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., when a helpful reference librarian can be tough to find.
That's when savvy students offer thanks for the Internet, the ultimate all-night reference desk. Not the best organized, mind you, but the biggest. The World Wide Web, as one wag put it, is the "most vast library on the planet. Too bad all of the books are on the floor."
So far, the best card catalog to reference material might be refdesk.com, an uber-index that's unusually simple to navigate and understand. The site doesn't have its own content, really, just a searchable system of indexes. In that sense it's not much different from Yahoo! What it adds are a variety of introductory pages as jumping-off points, often trimming down the number of clicks between the fact-hunter and the hunted.
Say you start from the "My Facts" page (www.refdesk.com/facts.html) and you're looking for the area of Uganda. Click on Atlas & Maps, pick the CIA Factbook, and the country's area (236,040 square kilometers) is at your fingertips, with a wealth of other useful factoids. ("Slightly smaller than Oregon.")
Need the state bird of New Jersey? (That would be the Eastern goldfinch, 50states.com says.) How about Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, translated into Arabic? (Never mind.)
There are parts of the site that could work better, including its search engine, which often returns too many marginally relevant page hits to save searchers time.
But once users are familiar with the site, most will bookmark it and return often. Or at least as often as they need the straight dope on Lanthanum. Which, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology site, is handy for making lighter flints and cathode ray tubes.