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Fall 1998
The Man Who Knows Too Much
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"Bad enough that the lady proved to be fat and with her husband. What humiliated my self-image as intrepid explorer was the University of Wisconsin sweatshirt she wore."

Yet New Guinea, in Diamond's view, is "as good a model as we have left today of what much of the rest of the human world was once like." A thousand different languages survive on the island, many as different from one another as English is from Japanese. Some have no apparent relationship to any other language on earth. Even the dauntless Diamond, who nearly chucked his scientific career to become a linguist when he was in graduate school, began to see his limits here. "I realized that, yes, it was great fun learning Foré," he recalls, "but [I thought], 'Jared, you can't learn a new language every month - you've got to learn the lingua franca'" — Pidgin English for the eastern half of New Guinea and Indonesian for the western half. Diamond estimates he speaks about 12 languages, but only English and German with any fluency. He is probably being modest.

Serious and rather reserved, Diamond is not one of those people who constantly snap open their superior intellect like an umbrella. He is straightforward and seems to have a pretty casual attitude toward his own brain. His close friend Alan Grinnell, chairman of the Department of Physiological Science in the College of Letters and Science, recalls that when they were both undergraduates at Harvard, Diamond would carelessly leave his biochemistry exams lying around on hall tables — perfect 100 percent scores plus bonus points.

As a sophomore Diamond discovered that Harvard had an annual Latin prize for the student who best translated a Latin poem by Horace into English. Diamond, who had prepped at the Roxbury Latin School outside Boston (after a birdwatching third-grade teacher had inspired him to become a fanatical birder by age 7) won the Harvard Latin Prize that year, then again the next year, and then again the next. "He'd probably have won it four years in a row if he'd known about it as a freshman," Grinnell says. "You can imagine how the classics majors felt."

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