The people who host NPR programs are often credited with — or accused of — being knowledgeable.
But really, the most important bit of knowledge they have is just four numbers — extension 2350 — that connect to Kee Malesky in the NPR Reference Library. If you want the names and contact numbers for every left-handed plumber in Kuala Lumpur, she’ll fix you up. She’s the longest-serving member of a stellar company of reference librarians who check, double-check and mine miles of information, urban legend and spin for cold, hard, glittering facts.
Malesky is also the author of the new book Learn Something New Every Day: 365 Facts to Fulfill Your Life. Today’s fact: The Woolworth building in New York City and the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., share the same architect: Cass Gilbert. “I call this fact ‘Wandering SCOTUS,’ because they didn’t have a home until on this date in 1932, when the cornerstone was laid for the building we know as the Supreme Court,” Malesky tells NPR’s Scott Simon.
“When the government was in New York, they met in a commercial office building,” Malesky continues. “In 1800, when the government first came to Washington, D.C., they had some rooms in the Capitol. Then, of course, the Capitol was burned by the British in the War of 1812. They actually met in a private home in Pennsylvania Avenue for a while, and then went back into the Capitol building after it was rebuilt.”
It wasn’t until former President William Howard Taft became chief justice in 1921 that he persuaded the government to give the court its own building.
Moving on: March 2, 1959, was the day Miles Davis called a group of musicians into a New York studio to record “Kind of Blue.” “The idea was to try something completely different,” says Malesky. “He didn’t give them charts, he just gave them outlines, ideas of what the tunes would be. They did only one take for each of the songs.”
Ten years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon. And while most everyone knows his famous words in that moment, Malesky has a few less well-known facts. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left several things behind on the surface, like a gold olive branch to signify peace. “A patch from the Apollo 1 flight, to honor the three astronauts who had died in the fire on the launchpad in 1967; and two medals from the Soviet Union, commemorating Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Vladimir Komarov, who had died in re-entry of his Soyuz 1 capsule.”
And one more fact, for Sept. 20: Scientists in 2011 estimated that approximately 8.7 million species live on planet Earth, not counting bacteria and viruses. “Most of those are not yet described and analyzed,” says Malesky, “and they did it by a mathematical formula … not by going out and counting … But they feel that’s a pretty good estimate.”
No word, however, on how many of those millions of species cast votes on Dancing With the Stars.