The famous mathematician Stanislaw Ulam thought of the following paradox, which is now known as the Ulam Paradox: When President Richard Nixon was appointed to office, on the first day he met his cabinet he said to them: ‘None of you are yes-men, are you?’ And they all said, ‘NO!’
New York’s Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan.
We’ll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
Union general Joseph Hooker had an eventful day at the Battle of Chancellorsville:
I was standing on this step of the portico on the Sunday morning of the 3d of May, and was giving direction to the battle, which was now raging with great fury, the cannon-balls reaching me from both the east and the west, when a solid shot struck the pillar near me, splitting it in two, and throwing one-half longitudinally against me, striking my whole right side, which soon turned livid. For a few moments I was senseless, and the report spread that I had been killed. But I soon revived, and to correct the misapprehension, I insisted on being lifted upon my horse, and rode back towards the white house, which subsequently became the center of my new position. Just before reaching it, the pain from my hurt became so intense, that I was likely to fall, when I was assisted to dismount, and was laid upon a blanket spread out upon the ground, and was given some brandy. This revived me, and I was assisted to remount. Scarcely was I off the blanket, when a solid shot, fired by the enemy at Hazel Grove, struck in the very center of that blanket, where I had a moment before been lying, and tore up the earth in a savage way.
In Strange Tales of the Civil War, Michael Sanders writes, “In this way, Joseph Hooker avoided being instantly killed by two cannon balls within minutes of each other.”
The framers of medieval charters needed to make them visually striking and memorable — relatively few people would be able to understand the Latin legalities, but many would see the documents, and in order to carry authority they had to look different from ordinary texts, remarkable and unique.
One way to do this was with “an altogether peculiar sort of writing, of which the first characteristic is elongation,” writes Nicolete Gray in Lettering as Drawing. In this charter given by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to the bishopric of Bamberg in 1057, the text is written in long, attenuated letters:
“The strange letter forms impress themselves, due to their difference from the norm, on the peoples’ consciousness and they thus endow the charter with a kind of aura that sets it apart,” writes Laurence de Looze in The Letter & the Cosmos. The signatures were often elaborate for the same reason: “A trace of worldly power is carried over into the writing, the letter forms performing this transfer of the power from the people who created the charter into the document itself.”
In 1914, Canadian Army veterinarian Harry Colebourn was traveling to the Western Front when he met an orphaned bear cub in an Ontario railway station. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the adventures of Winnie the bear, including her fateful meeting with A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin.
We’ll also marvel at some impressive finger counting and puzzle over an impassable bridge.
In 1835, a Native American woman was somehow left behind when her dwindling island tribe was transferred to the California mainland. She would spend the next 18 years living alone in a world of 22 square miles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the poignant story of the lone woman of San Nicolas Island.
We’ll also learn about an inebriated elephant and puzzle over an unattainable test score.
In 1940, Germany was sending vital telegrams through neutral Sweden using a sophisticated cipher, and it fell to mathematician Arne Beurling to make sense of the secret messages. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the outcome, which has been called “one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cryptography.”
We’ll also learn about mudlarking and puzzle over a chicken-killing Dane.
Benjamin Franklin and Sir Francis Dashwood once set out to shorten the Book of Common Prayer. Noel Perrin writes in Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy:
Franklin and Dashwood had made contact while each was a postmaster general, and found themselves agreeing that the great trouble with church services is that they are too long. They then put out their anonymous Abridgement of the Book of Common Prayer (1773), in which the communion service takes about ten minutes, and a funeral six. (‘The Order for the Burial of the Dead is very solemn and moving; nevertheless, to preserve the health and lives of the living, it appeared to us that this service ought particularly to be shortened,’ Franklin wrote jauntily in the preface.) The book could be called expurgated only in the sense that Franklin and Dashwood both disapproved of Old Testament ideas of vengeance, and therefore omitted the service of Commination and all psalms which contain maledictions.
In 1785 Franklin wrote to Granville Sharp, “The Liturgy you mention was an abridgment of that made by a noble Lord of my acquaintance, who requested me to assist him by taking the rest of the book; viz., the Catechism and the reading and singing Psalms. These I abridged by retaining of the Catechism only the two questions, What is your duty to God? What is your duty to your neighbour? with answers. The Psalms were much contracted by leaving out the repetitions (of which I found more than I could have imagined) and the imprecations, which appeared not to suit well with the Christian doctrine of forgiveness of injuries and doing good to enemies. The book was printed for Wilkie, in St. Paul’s Churchyard, but never much noticed. Some were given away, very few sold, and I suppose the bulk became waste-paper. In the prayers so much was retrenched that approbation could hardly be expected; but I think with you, a moderate abridgment might not only be useful, but generally acceptable.”
(Richard Meade Bache, “The So-Called ‘Franklin Prayer-Book,'” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 21:2 , 224-234.)
In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called “the worst journey in the world.”
We’ll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways.