Podcast Episode 136: The Boston Molasses Disaster

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BostonMolassesDisaster.jpg

In 1919 a bizarre catastrophe struck Boston’s North End: A giant storage tank failed, releasing 2 million gallons of molasses into a crowded business district at the height of a January workday. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster, which claimed 21 lives and inscribed a sticky page into the city’s history books.

We’ll also admire some Scandinavian statistics and puzzle over a provocative Facebook photo.

Intro:

In 1888 three women reported encountering a 15-foot flying serpent in the woods near Columbia, S.C.

In 1834 the American Journal of Science and Arts reported the capture of a pair of conjoined catfish near Fort Johnston, N.C.

Sources for our feature on the Boston Molasses Disaster:

Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, 2003.

Fred Durso Jr., “The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919,” NFPA Journal 105:3 (May/June 2011), 90-93.

Sean Potter, “Retrospect: January 15, 1919: Boston Molasses Flood,” Weatherwise 64:1 (January/February 2011), 10-11.

Kaylie Duffy, “Today in Engineering History: Molasses Tanker Explodes, Kills 21,” Product Design & Development, Jan. 15, 2015.

Steve Puleo, “Death by Molasses,” American History 35:6 (February 2001), 60-66.

Chuck Lyons, “A Sticky Tragedy,” History Today 59.1 (January 2009), 40-42.

Dick Sinnott, “21 Persons Drowned in Molasses Flood,” Reading [Pa.] Eagle, Jan. 15, 1959.

Edwards Park, “Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston,” Smithsonian 14:8 (November 1983), 213-230.

“12 Killed When Tank of Molasses Explodes,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 1919.

Ferris Jabr, “The Science of the Great Molasses Flood,” Scientific American, Aug. 1, 2013.

United Press International, “The Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919,” Jan. 17, 1979.

Peter Schworm, “Nearly a Century Later, Structural Flaw in Molasses Tank Revealed,” Boston Globe, Jan. 14, 2015.

William J. Kole, “Slow as Molasses? Sweet but Deadly 1919 Disaster Explained,” Associated Press, Nov. 24, 2016.

Erin McCann, “Solving a Mystery Behind the Deadly ‘Tsunami of Molasses’ of 1919,” New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016. (The corn syrup video is midway down the page.)

Jason Daley, “The Sticky Science Behind the Deadly Boston Molasses Disaster,” Smithsonian, Nov. 28, 2016.

Jennifer Ouellette, “Incredible Physics Behind the Deadly 1919 Boston Molasses Flood,” New Scientist, Nov. 24, 2016.

The Boston Public Library has photos and newspaper headlines.

Listener mail:

Erik Bye’s song on the 15th Wisconsin Regiment:

Statistics Norway’s names database.

Wikipedia, “Old Norse” (accessed Jan. 5, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Rough

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blank_map_of_Canada.svg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

SIR, — While surveying in northern Labrador I had occasion to visit the island of Nukusustok, a few miles to seaward of the village of Nain. On the slope of a hill, and about 300ft. inland, I found a golf ball in good condition. How did the ball come to be there, and so far inland? It is possible that the ball was driven by a golfer from an Atlantic liner during practice, drifted northward past Greenland, and was finally carried ashore by the Labrador current which runs from north to south along the Labrador coast.

I have sent the ball to Dunlops, the makers, who suggest that it was probably carried so far inland by a sea bird. Perhaps some of your readers could help in explaining the mystery.

Yours faithfully,

Thos. O. Hampson

The Field, June 29, 1935

Things and Stuff

Anchormen, chairs, dogs, flowers, and comets are things: If I have one anchorman and add another, I have two anchormen. My chair did not exist until it was assembled into that form. And if a comet hits Paraguay, it is no longer a comet.

Helium, gravy, wood, music, and joy are stuff: If some helium escapes my balloon, it seems wrong to say that I’ve lost a thing. If I divide my gravy into two portions, it’s still gravy. And if I chop my cabin into firewood, the amount of wood in the world does not seem to have changed.

We seem to distinguish between these two classes of existence. We can count things, but stuff forms a sort of cumulative mass. Things are made of stuff (crowns are made of gold), but stuff is made of things (gold is made of molecules). What’s at the bottom? And what leads us to make these distinctions?

(Kristie Miller, “Stuff,” American Philosophical Quarterly 46:1 [January 2009], 1-18.)

Keyboard Variations

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Inspired by Isaac Newton’s theory that the seven notes of the diatonic scale were related to the colors of the spectrum, French mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel in 1725 invented an “ocular harpsichord” outfitted with lanterns so that “the pressing of the keys would bring out the colours with their combinations and their chords; in one word, with all their harmony, which would correspond exactly to that of any kind of music.” Voltaire devoted Chapter 14 of his Eléments de la philosophie de Newton to the the theory and to Castel’s instrument, and Telemann composed several pieces for it.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia, produces its tones by striking stalactites with rubber mallets. Leland W. Sprinkle spent three years in the 1950s identifying promising stalactites, shaving them to pitch, and wiring solenoids to trigger the mallets. The tones can be heard throughout the cavern even without amplification, but a loudspeaker system is normallly used.

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I think I’ve written elsewhere about the Katzenklavier, a thankfully imaginary instrument first described by Athanasius Kircher in 1650. In the words of one writer, “if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow.”

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Allegedly Louis XI of France challenged Abbé de Baigne to do the same thing with pigs to produce a “piganino”:

That brutal monarch, Louis XI of France, is said to have constructed, with the assistance of the Abbé de Baigne, an instrument designated a ‘pig organ,’ for the production of natural sounds. The master of the royal music, having made a very large and varied assortment of swine, embracing specimens of all breeds and ages, these were carefully voiced, and placed in order, according to their several tones and semitones, and so arranged that a key-board communicated with them, severally and individually, by means of rods ending in sharp spikes. In this way a player, by touching any note, could instantly sound a corresponding note in nature, and was enabled to produce at will either natural melody or harmony!

“The result is said to have been striking, but not very grateful to human ears.”

After our civilization has destroyed itself, the Adriatic will still be playing harmonies on the “sea organ” in Zadar, Croatia. Wind and waves interact with a system of polyethylene tubes to produce sound in a resonating cavity. In 2006 architect Nikola Bašic received the European Prize for Urban Public Space for the project, voted the best among 207 candidate projects from across Europe.

12/17/2016 UPDATE: I completely forgot the mouse organ! (Thanks, Gavin.)

Last Business

http://news.usask.ca/archived_ocn/09-jan-23/see_what_we_found.php

Working alone in his fields on June 8, 1948, Saskatchewan farmer Cecil George Harris accidentally put his tractor into reverse. It rolled backward, pinning his left leg under the rear wheel. His wife didn’t find him until 10:30 that night, and he died at the hospital.

Days later, surveying the scene of the accident, neighbors noticed that Harris had scratched an inscription into the tractor’s fender using his pocketknife:

In case I die in this mess, I leave all to the wife. Cecil Geo Harris.

The courts determined this to be a valid will. The fender was kept at the Kerrobert Courthouse until 1996; today it and the knife are displayed at the University of Saskatchewan law library.

Media Relations

https://books.google.com/books?id=9lQEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA95

One of the most famous cat-and-bird friendships on record was that between Caruso, a canary which belonged to President Coolidge, and Timmie, a black-and-white cat owned by Bascom Timmons, a Washington newspaperman. They became acquainted when Timmons took his cat to the White House, and Coolidge eventually sent the canary to Timmons’ home to live with the cat. After that they spent an hour or two every day together, the canary walking up and down the cat’s back or resting between his paws. According to Timmons, the canary fell over dead while singing to the cat.

— Roger Butterfield, “Cats,” LIFE, April 22, 1946

A Weighty Burden

https://pixabay.com/en/landscape-scenic-petrified-forest-1591043/

Visitors to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park sometimes can’t resist making off with a souvenir or two. Those who do sometimes return the stolen pieces with a “conscience letter” describing the misfortunes that have befallen them. Trinity Christian College art professor Ryan Thompson went through the 1200 pages in the park’s archives and collected the best of them for a 2014 book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks. Some examples:

“Here are your rocks. Nothing but bad trouble.”

“Please put this back so my husband can get well. I tried to keep him from taking it.”

“Found this in my room. You can have it back. It’s bad luck. I got busted the other night.”

“I am sorry I took this. I am only 5 years old and made a bad mistake.”

And simply “You were right!”

There’s more at the website. Strangely, the same thing happens at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where an actual fire goddess will punish you for stealing lava rocks. And see The Conscience Fund.

Podcast Episode 132: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peeping_Tom_.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1944, a bizarre criminal assaulted the small town of Mattoon, Illinois. Victims reported smelling a sickly sweet odor in their bedrooms before being overcome with nausea and a feeling of paralysis. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll pursue the mad gasser of Mattoon, who vanished as quickly as he had struck, leaving residents to wonder whether he had ever existed at all.

We’ll also ponder the concept of identical cousins and puzzle over a midnight stabbing.

Intro:

Enterprise, Ala., erected an $1,800 monument to the boll weevil.

In the late 1930s, a plaster mannequin named Cynthia archly toured the New York social scene.

Sources for our feature on the mad gasser of Mattoon:

Bob Ladendorf and Robert E. Bartholomew, “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: How the Press Created an Imaginary Chemical Weapons Attack,” Skeptical Inquirer 26:4 (July/August 2002), 50-54.

Robert E. Bartholomew and Jeffrey S. Victor, “A Social-Psychological Theory of Collective Anxiety Attacks: The ‘Mad Gasser’ Reexamined,” Sociological Quarterly 45:2 (March 2004), 229–248.

Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Goode, “Phantom Assailants & the Madness of Crowds: The Mad Gasser of Botetourt County,” Skeptic 7:4 (1999), 50.

D.M. Johnson, “The ‘Phantom Anesthetist’ of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 40:2 (April 1945), 175-186.

Debbie Carlson, “The Mattoon Mad Gasser — Looking Back at a Textbook Case of Mass Hysteria,” Belt Magazine, June 4, 2015.

Romeo Vitelli, “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon,” James Randi Educational Foundation Swift Blog, April 23, 2011.

Robert E. Bartholomew, Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics, 2001.

Mike Dash, Borderlands, 2000.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Battle of Blair Mountain” (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, “Shelton Brothers Gang” (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, “Tulsa race riot” (accessed December 2, 2016).

Wikipedia, “The Patty Duke Show” (accessed December 2, 2016).

The Dubliners — The Sick Note:

The Corries — The Bricklayer’s Song:

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Greg, who gathered these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Togetherness

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Whittier,_Alaska.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nearly everyone in Whittier, Alaska, lives under the same roof. The 14-story Begich Towers was built after World War II, and the building was converted to a condominium when the military withdrew. About 200 people live in 150 two- and three-bedroom apartments, and they can go weeks without leaving the building, which contains a post office, a grocery, a medical clinic, the mayor’s office, a general store, the police department, a Methodist church, a laundry, a small hotel, a conference room, and a play area with an indoor pool. A tunnel system leads to the community school and a general store.

By most accounts, life in the tower is pretty agreeable. But “because we have four elevators, sometimes people pull pranks on you and hit every button,” resident June Miller told CBC News. “And it’s like, ‘Really? This again?'”

(Thanks, Ginny.)

Shifting Areas

shifting areas - 1

This square of 8 × 8 = 64 square units can apparently be reassembled into a rectangle of 5 × 13 = 65 square units:

shifting areas - 2

This paradox is described in W.W. Rouse Ball’s 1892 Mathematical Recreations and Essays; it seems to have been published first in 1868 in Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik.

In 1938 the Rockefeller Foundation’s Warren Weaver discovered an old trove of papers from the 1890s in which Lewis Carroll puzzled out the dimensions of all possible squares in which this illusion is possible (the other sizes include squares of 21 and 55 units on a side).

Regardless of publication, it’s not clear who first came up with the idea. Sam Loyd claimed to have presented it to the American Chess Congress in 1858. That would be interesting, as it was his son who later discovered that the four pieces can be assembled into a figure of 63 squares:

shifting areas - 3

(Warren Weaver, “Lewis Carroll and a Geometrical Paradox,” American Mathematical Monthly 45:4 [April 1938], 234-236.)