Elementary

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Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man, Scottish surgeon Joseph Bell, whom Arthur Conan Doyle had served as a clerk in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Bell was famous for making deductions about his patients. He greeted one by saying, “Ah, I perceive that you are a soldier, a noncommissioned officer, and that you have served in Bermuda.”

When the man acknowledged this, Bell addressed his students. “How did I know that, gentlemen? The matter is simplicity itself. He came into the room without taking his hat off, as he would go into an orderly’s room. He was a soldier. A slight authoritative air, combined with his age, shows that he was a noncommissioned officer. A slight rash on the forehead tells me that he was in Bermuda, and subject to a certain rash known only there.”

On another occasion Bell challenged his students to identify a bitter drug by taste alone. They watched him dip a finger into the tumbler and taste it, and reluctantly followed suit. “Gentlemen,” he said with a laugh, “I am deeply grieved to find that not one of you has developed this power of perception which I so often speak about; for if you had watched me closely, you would have found that while I placed my forefinger in the medicine, it was the middle finger which found its way into my mouth.”

Working Afield

sigurya barbulata

Dutch author Leo Lionni devoted most of his career to children’s books, but in 1977 he undertook a weird experiment. Parallel Botany is a catalog of made-up plants, whose made-up features are described by made-up botanists and illustrated by Lionni’s pencil drawings. Sigurya barbulata, at left, is distinguished by its crowning “cephalocarpus”; a specimen discovered in a Mexican pyramid was found to have been metallized into an organic mace, but how this had come about is the subject of “furious debates.”

“The difficulties of applying traditional methods of research to the study of parallel botany stem chiefly from the matterlessness of the plants,” Lionni wrote. “Deprived as they are of any real organs or tissues, their character would be completely indefinable if it were not for the fact that parallel botany is nonetheless botany, and as such it reflects, even if somewhat distantly, many of the most evident features of normal plants.”

Why do all this? Lionni closes with a quote by the made-up Swedish philosopher Erud Kronengaard: “There are two kinds of men, those who are capable of wonder and those who are not. I hope to God that it is the first who will forge our destiny.”

In a Word

sottisier
n. a list of written stupidities

Unfortunate lines in poetry, collected in D.B. Wyndham Lewis’ The Stuffed Owl, 1930:

  • He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease. (Tennyson, “Sea-Dreams”)
  • Her smile was silent as the smile on corpses three hours old. (Earl of Lytton, “Love and Sleep”)
  • Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast? (Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”)
  • Then I fling the fisherman’s flaccid corpse / At the feet of the fisherman’s wife. (Alfred Austin, “The Wind Speaks”)
  • With a goad he punched each furious dame. (Chapman, translation of the Iliad)
  • Forgive my transports on a theme like this, / I cannot bear a French metropolis. (Johnson, “London”)
  • So ’tis with Christians, Nature being weak, / While in this world, are liable to leak. (William Balmford, The Seaman’s Spiritual Companion)
  • Now Vengeance has a brood of eggs, / But Patience must be hen. (George Meredith, “Archduchess Anne”)
  • O Sire of Song! Sonata-King! Sublime and loving Master, / The sweetest soul that ever struck an octave in disaster! (Eric Mackay, “Beethoven at the Piano”)
  • The vales were saddened by a common gloom, / When good Jemima perished in her bloom. (Wordsworth, “Epitaph on Mrs. Quillinan”)
  • Such was the sob and the mutual throb / Of the knight embracing Jane. (Thomas Campbell, “The Ritter Bann”)
  • Poor South! Her books get fewer and fewer, / She was never much given to literature. (J. Gordon Coogler)
  • Reach me a Handcerchiff, Another yet, / And yet another, for the last is wett. (Anonymous, A Funeral Elegie Upon the Death of George Sonds, Esq., 1658)
  • Tell me what viands, land or streams produce, / The large, black, female, moulting crab excel? (Grainger, The Sugar-Cane)

In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell says, “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.” Isabel asks, “What do you mean exactly?” He says, “Just that.”

Grave Matters

In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?

Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”

But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”

The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”

The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:

First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

Second Clown: But is this law?

First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.

Penny Wisdom

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More proverbs from Poor Richard’s Almanack:

  • Those who have nothing to trouble them, will be troubled at nothing.
  • Great modesty often hides great merit.
  • The Muses love the Morning.
  • Do me the favour to deny me at once.
  • There’s none deceived but he that trusts.
  • If evils come not, then our fears are vain; and if they do, fear but augments the pain.
  • Full of courtesie, full of craft.
  • The tongue is ever turning the aching tooth.
  • Nothing dries sooner than a Tear.
  • In the Affairs of this World Men are saved, not by Faith, but by the Want of it.
  • An old young man will be a young old man.
  • The prodigal generally does more injustice than the covetous.
  • Singularity in the right, hath ruined many: happy those who are convinced of the general Opinion.
  • Why does the blind man’s wife paint herself?

“The wit of conversation consists more in finding it in others, than shewing a great deal yourself. He who goes out of your company pleased with his own facetiousness and ingenuity, will the sooner come into it again. Most men had rather please than admire you and seek less to be instructed and diverted, than approved and applauded; and it is certainly the most delicate sort of pleasure, to please another. But that sort of wit, which employs itself insolently in criticizing and censuring the words and sentiments of others in conversation, is absolute folly; for it answers none of the needs of conversation. He who uses it neither improves others, is improved himself, or pleases any one.”

Science, Fiction

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, marine engineer Simon Lake devoted himself to making a working practical submarine. In 1898, when his company built the first sub to operate successfully in the open sea, Verne sent a congratulatory telegram:

WHILE MY BOOK ‘TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA’ IS ENTIRELY A WORK OF IMAGINATION, MY CONVICTION IS THAT ALL I SAID IN IT WILL COME TO PASS. A THOUSAND MILE VOYAGE IN THE BALTIMORE SUBMARINE BOAT IS EVIDENCE OF THIS. THIS CONSPICUOUS SUCCESS OF SUBMARINE NAVIGATION IN THE UNITED STATES WILL PUSH ON UNDER-WATER NAVIGATION ALL OVER THE WORLD. IF SUCH A SUCCESSFUL TEST HAD COME A FEW MONTHS EARLIER IT MIGHT HAVE PLAYED A GREAT PART IN THE WAR JUST CLOSED. THE NEXT GREAT WAR MAY BE LARGELY A CONTEST BETWEEN SUBMARINE BOATS.

Bonus fact: The “20,000 leagues” in Verne’s title refers to the distance of the Nautilus’ voyage, not its depth. The sea is only about 2 miles deep; 20,000 leagues is nearly 70,000 miles.

Cameo

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The last canto of Dante’s Purgatorio contains this perplexing sentence:

And if perchance
My saying, dark as Themis or as Sphinx,
Fail to persuade thee, (since like them it foils
The intellect with blindness) yet ere long
Events shall be the Naiads, that will solve
This knotty riddle, and no damage light
On flock or field.

When did water nymphs solve the riddle of the Sphinx? It turns out that Dante was relying on a flawed medieval edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that rendered Laïades (meaning Oedipus, the son of Laius) as Naïades, or naiads. He believed that water nymphs had ridden their sea monsters across the desert to solve the Sphinx’s riddle.

The version of the story that we know, in which Oedipus solves the riddle, comes from Sophocles’ Oedipus, which, being written in Greek, was unavailable to Dante. And he cast his own version in such exquisite language that it’s now immortal — one classic work misquoting another.

(Thanks, Jim.)

In a Word

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bibliotaph
n. a hoarder of books

In the rare book collection of the archives at Caltech is a copy of Adrien-Marie Legendre’s 1808 text on number theory. It comes from the collection of Eric Temple Bell, who taught mathematics at Caltech from 1926 to 1953. Inside the book is an inscription in Bell’s handwriting:

This book survived the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 18 April, 1906. It was buried with about 600 others, in a vacant lot, before the fire reached the spot. The house next door to the lot fell upon the cache; the tar from the roof baked the 4 feet of dirt, covering the books, to brick, and incinerated all but 4 books, of which this is one. Signed: E. T. Bell. Book buried just below Grace Church, at California and Stockton Streets. House number 729 California Street.

During the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys came upon Sir William Batten burying his wine in a pit in his garden. Pepys “took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of” and later buried “my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.” I don’t know whether he ever recovered them.

Special Delivery

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Mark Twain’s 3-year-old daughter Susie found this letter waiting for her on Christmas morning 1875:

Palace of St. Nicholas,
In the Moon,
Christmas Morning.

My Dear Susie Clemens:

I have received & read all the letters which you & your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother & your nurses; & I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown people’s alphabets, you used the character which all children, in all lands on earth & in the twinkling stars use; & as all my subjects in the moon are children & use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your & your baby sister’s jagged & fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother & the nurses, for I am a foreigner & cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you & the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight & when you were asleep, & delivered them all, myself — & kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice-mannered, & about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letters which you dictated, there were some words which I could not make out, for certain, & one or two small orders which I couldn’t fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls had just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star, away up in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star, & you will say, ‘Little Snow Flake (for that is the child’s name,) I’m glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I.’ That is, you must write that, with your own hand, & Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it, she wouldn’t hear you. Make your letter light & thin, for the distance is great & the postage very heavy.

There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be ‘trunk full of doll’s clothes?’ Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody, & I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen door-bell rings, George must be blindfolded & sent to open the door, & then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet & take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tip-toe and not speak — otherwise he will die some day. Then you must go up to the nursery & stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed, & put your ear to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen, & when I whistle through it, you must speak in the tube & say, ‘Welcome, Santa Claus!’ Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not? If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color, & then you must tell me every single thing, in detail, which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say ‘Good bye & a Merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens!’ You must say, ‘Good bye, good old Santa Claus, & thank you very much — & please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star to-night & she must look down here — I will be right in the west bay-window; & every fine night I will look at her star & say, I know somebody up there, & like her, too.’ Then you must go down in the library, & make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, & everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon & get those things, & in a few minutes I will come down the chimney which belongs to the fire-place that is in the hall — if it is a trunk you want, because I couldn’t get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery-chimney, you know.

People may talk, if they want to, till they hear my footsteps in the hall — then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my foot steps at all — so you may go now & then & peep through the dining room doors, & by & by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room — for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven’t time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag — else he will die some day. You must watch George, & not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holy-stone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; & whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty, & somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus’s boot made on the marble, what will you say, little Sweetheart?

Good-bye, for a few minutes, till I come down to the world & ring the kitchen door-bell.

Your loving

Santa Claus,

Whom people sometimes call ‘The Man in the Moon.’

Consequences

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In May 1875, Frederick Law Olmsted received a letter from his 4-year-old son Henry, asking him to send the family dog to Massachusetts, where he and his mother were visiting family friends. Olmsted replied:

Dear Henry:

The cats keep coming into the yard, six of them every day, and Quiz drives them out. If I should send Quiz to you to drive the cows away from your rhubarb he would not be here to drive the cats out of the yard. If six cats should keeping coming into the yard every day and not go out, in a week there would be 42 of them and in a month 180 and before you came back next November 1260. Then if there should be 1260 cats in the yard before next November half of them at least would have kittens and if half of them should have 6 kittens apiece, there would be more than 5000 cats and kittens in the yard. There would not be any place for Rosanna to spread the clothes unless she drove them all off the grass plot, and if she did they would have to crowd at the end of the yard nearest the house, and if they did that they would make a great pile as high as the top of my windows. A pile of 5000 cats and kittens, some of them black ones, in front of my window would make my office so dark I should not be able to write in it. Besides that those underneath, particularly the kittens, would be hurt by those standing on top of them and I expect they would make such a great squalling all the time that I should not be able to sleep, and if I was not able to sleep, I should not be able to work, and if I did not work I should not have any money, and if I had not any money, I could not send any to Plymouth to pay your fare back on the Fall River boat, and I could not pay my fare to go to Plymouth and so you and I would not ever see each other any more. No, Sir. I can’t spare Quiz and you will have to watch for the cows and drive them off yourself or you will raise no rhubarb.

Your affectionate father.