|Chris Berg of Berkeley loves trivia and puzzles and is the one to have in your corner if you are on a popular TV game show. photo by John O'Hara, The Chronicle|
What's the origin of the name China? Why did the Mayan people base their math system on the number 20 and not 10? And who first calculated the Earth's circumference? How did he do it?
Maybe you can't answer these ques-tions, but 35-year-old trivia master Chris Berg can. In fact, he recently published a book that captures his love of arcane facts.
A Berkeley resident since 1999, Berg hails from Boston, much like another trivia buff, the TV character Cliff Claven of "Cheers." But unlike Claven, Berg knows whereof he speaks.
An insatiable reader who took the time to peruse all 15 volumes of "The History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II," Berg, who is self-employed, can discourse on topics ranging from U.S. shady dealings in developing countries and the corporate influence on our political system to alternative healing methods and nutrition. One would be wise to snag him as a lifeline on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
For much of 2000, Berg built on his already substantial body of information by forcing himself through marathon research sessions in the bowels of UC Berkeley's library. The lack of sunlight left him so pale that his girlfriend nicknamed him "mushroom boy," but the hard work paid off. In 2001, HarperCollins published Berg's AMAZEing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World.
There was no typo in that title; Berg has created maze art with impressionistic line drawings of famous old architectural structures, including the Parthenon, the Colosseum, Roman aqueducts and Egyptian and Mayan pyramids. Inside those sketches lie mazes with enough loops and tangles to stump even the savviest maze enthusiast.
Ukiah resident Alex Champion, who designs and constructs labyrinths in gardens, said, "I just think his work is beautiful. For puzzles, these are actually works of art." Champion praises the wealth of concentric lines in each maze, noting that they add both confusion and beauty.
Labyrinth Society President Helen Post Curry of New Canaan, Conn., calls Berg's mazes absolutely brilliant. "I have enormous respect for Chris and what he has done," she said, although she acknowledges that mazes fall outside her area of expertise (mazes are complicated puzzles, whereas labyrinths are single-path constructions used for meditation).
In his book, Berg has paired each maze with an essay explaining the history of the architectural attraction, the ways it still befuddles archaeologists and, true to his passions, little-known facts about the monument or the society that used it.
Impressively, Berg bridged multiple disciplines in this effort, challenging himself to draw large structures skillfully (paying attention to perspective and proportion), construct perplexing yet elegant mazes and write punchy essays.
Moreover, he tackled questions that have stymied thinkers for millennia. For instance, who built Stonehenge and how and why did they do so? Already knowledgeable about the ancient world, Berg sought Ph.D.-level expertise about dozens of contentious topics and had to acquire it fast if he ever hoped to finish the book.
He felt intimidated during this quickie immersion into matters of scholarly debate. As Berg explains, "A lot of really smart people spend their entire lives studying" such issues, whereas he seemed to be "blowing into town for a week."
But he pulled it off, satisfying not only HarperCollins but also the Archaeological Institute of America, which has recommended his book.
This success comes as no surprise to Chris Doyle of Massachusetts, Berg's longtime friend and former roommate who calls Berg extremely intellectual, very analytical and well-rounded with his interests spanning the gap between history and science. Indeed, although Berg focused on physics as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, taking several graduate-level physics classes in his quest to be an astronomer, he also studied archaeology and history in depth.
"He's got an awful lot of knowledge about an awful lot of things," says Doyle, who admires Berg's ability to synthesize information. Years ago, they spent a summer debating the merits of Eastern versus Western medicine for treating chronic ailments. Berg would devour books and then argue with Doyle into the wee hours of the morning, ultimately changing Doyle's mind.
"The amount of information he absorbed over that period was absolutely incredible," says Doyle. "I don't know how many books he read. He just has an amazing ability to absorb information and then form a conceptual view based on what he's taken in."
Although Berg throws himself into projects, discipline doesn't come naturally to him. A former high school track star, he is by no means lazy. But with hair that occasionally pokes up Dennis-the-Menace style, a tendency to forget what he has said in earlier conversations and a habit of losing his car keys, Berg resembles an absent-minded professor.
His wide-ranging curiosity frequently leads him off track, his passions for various pursuits guaranteeing that he'll dally a while at unplanned but suddenly fascinating destinations.
For example, in college he became obsessed with logic and math puzzles, especially number-theory problems. Chuckling, he says he was "totally unqualified" to solve conundrums that had stumped all the experts in the field.
Determined to find answers nevertheless, he spent "far too much time thinking about those kind of things," never getting anywhere.
More recently, Berg became fervently involved in the KPFA protests, devoting months to that effort instead of working on his book. When he did return to his research, he became so engrossed that he "didn't really think about anything else" for nine months, including "my girlfriend and various things that I care very, very deeply about."
"I tend to get fixated on things," he said. "I can really only work on one thing at a time, so everything else in my life falls apart."
Even though his monomania can wreak havoc, Berg laughs that that's simply how he works. "If everything's clean and orderly and my office is in nice shape, that means I'm lacking direction in a project. But if it's a total disaster, that means something's actually getting accomplished."
Disorder truly doesn't bother Berg. He much prefers it to the uniformity and "monotony of everyday existence in the United States," where "everything's all laid out and there's nothing mysterious and exciting."
By contrast, the distant past beckons, tantalizing him with its secrets. He says, "The ancient world is behind a barrier that no one can ever cross. All you can do is piece together clues and a few crumbling stones and try to understand what was actually happening."
One feels similarly powerless when bumbling through a maze. Someone lost in a maze experiences "an amazing amount of disorder and confusion," says Berg.
Given this parallel, he believes it makes perfect sense to combine mazes and ruins, although he didn't think to do so until he stood on the Acropolis when he was 21. Most artists might have felt inspired by the elegance of the Parthenon's columns, but he liked the rubble strewn across the area, remnants of a 1687 battle between the Venetians and Turks. Having created mazes since fifth grade, Berg thought the disorderly scene would make a terrific piece of maze art.
Despite this love of chaos, Berg has written a book that tries to put things in order. As he presents age-old questions and mysteries, off-base theories and probable answers, he serves as an amiable guide through ancient history, sharing the aspects that have intrigued him and others for years.
For instance, he muses about how ancient civilizations could have built massive monuments like Stonehenge and the Easter Island statues. In the same vein, he writes that the Maya constructed pyramids without metal tools, draft animals or wheeled vehicles and mentions that the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus contained a "stone lintel ...so huge that one of the architects reputedly considered suicide when contemplating the task of setting it in place."
Berg delights in examining the behaviors and beliefs of ancient cultures. For example, he tells us that in their quest for exotic animals to fight gladiators, Romans drove some species to extinction. In one four-month period, 9,000 gladiators and 11,000 animals died in combat in the Colosseum.
The chapter on the Tower of Babel contains this nugget: "When a Babylonian became ill, he was laid out in the public square, and passers-by were required to come up and ask him about his illness. Everyone who had ever had this disease then gave the sick person advice, recommending whatever had worked in their cases."
The Babylonians also had capable doctors, which may have been because of the punishments for medical malpractice; these included removing the eye of one doctor who had, through negligence, blinded a patient.
Severe punishments also fell to any married woman who dared to watch Olympic athletes, who competed in the nude. If she peeked anyway, she risked "being hurled from the heights of the nearby Typaeon rock."
According to the book, Xerxes' army was so large that it literally drank small rivers dry. Berg also writes that priests at a temple on the Nile kept tame crocodiles and decorated them with gold jewelry.
Oh, and in case you were wondering about the questions posed at the beginning, King Ch'in Shih-huang conquered neighboring kingdoms in the third century BC, naming his vast territory China. The Maya based their math system on the number 20 because they counted on fingers and toes. (They also thought it fashionable to be cross-eyed, have triangular or notched teeth and flat foreheads, so they deformed their kids to this effect.) And Erastothenes accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth by comparing the length of shadows in different cities on the same day.
With these bits of trivia in hand, you may be ready for a profitable face-off with Regis Philbin. But in case you falter, you'll want to have Berg waiting in the wings.
This article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 19, 2002. Visit the San Francisco Chronicle website!
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