Leaps and Bounds

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English cricketer C.B. Fry had a curious party trick: He would stand on the floor facing a mantelpiece, crouch, and leap upward, turning in midair and landing with his feet planted on the shelf, from which he would bow to onlookers. He claimed to be able to do this into his 70s.

On July 17, 1933, John Dillinger walked into the Daleville Commercial Bank in Indiana and told the teller, “Well, honey, this is a holdup. Get me the money.” Told there was no key to the teller’s cage, Dillinger vaulted over the counter himself to investigate. “This would become another of his well-known trademarks,” writes John Beineke in Hoosier Public Enemy, “the quick and graceful vaults over counters that were often several feet high. The feat earned him the nickname ‘Jackrabbit’ in some newspapers.”

In a letter to the Times on March 16, 1944, G.M. Trevelyan, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, remarks on the tradition of trying to leap up the eight semicircular steps of the college hall at one bound. “The only person to succeed of whom I know was the gigantic [William] Whewell, when he was Master of the college; he clapped his mortar-board firmly on his head, picked up his gown with one hand, and leapt.”

Trevelyan had recently learned that Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, later a bishop, had made the jump during his undergraduate career at Trinity, between 1866 and 1870, and “I have heard that the feat was accomplished once or twice in this century; once, I was told, an American succeeded, but I have not the facts or names. It has certainly been done very seldom.”

(Thanks, Chris.)

Progress

Georgia’s Savannah airport hit a delicate snag in the 1980s — a planned extension to Runway 10 was delayed because a local family refused to move the graves of Richard and Catherine Dotson, a farming couple who had been laid to rest in the land they’d cultivated for decades.

The solution was to pave over the graves but lay the two headstones in its surface. They read “At rest” and “Gone home to rest” — but there’s a legend among pilots that if you land just after sundown you’ll see two uneasy figures on the runway’s north side.

South Carolina’s newspaper The State notes, “Family members are still escorted to visit them safely, though they cannot leave flowers.”

The Empty Set

Mathematician John Rainwater has published 10 research papers in functional analysis, notably in the geometric theory of Banach spaces and in convex functions. The University of Washington has named a regular seminar after him, and Rainwater’s Theorem is an important result in summability theory.

This is most impressive because he doesn’t exist. In 1952 UW grad student Nick Massey received a blank registration card by mistake, and he invented a fictional student, naming him John Rainwater because it was raining at the time. “Rainwater” was adopted by the other students and began to submit solutions to problems posed in the American Mathematical Monthly, and he’s gone on to a 60-year (so far) career of considerable distinction — his top paper has 19 citations.

Asked why he’d published that paper under Rainwater’s name, John Isbell quoted Friedrich Schiller: “Man is only fully human when he plays.”

Ghost Failure

In 2004, using the memorable experiment above, psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris showed that when viewers are concentrating on a task they can become functionally blind to unexpected objects and events.

Remarkably, Cambridge-based parapsychologist A.D. Cornell had earlier demonstrated a similar effect in an even stranger experiment. In 1959 he dressed up in a white sheet and “haunted” a cow pasture near King’s College; none of approximately 80 passers-by seemed to notice anything at all. When he moved the “ghost walk” to the graveyard of St Peter’s Church, 4 of 142 people gave any clear indication of having seen the “experimental apparition,” and none of them thought they’d seen anything paranormal. (One saw “a man dressed as a woman, who surely must be mad,” one saw “an art student walking about in a blanket,” and two said “we could see his legs and feet and knew it was a man dressed in some white garment.”)

The following year Cornell again dressed as a ghost and passed twice across the screen in an X-rated cinema. 46% of the respondents failed to notice his first passage, and 32% remained completely unaware of him. One person thought she’d seen a polar bear, and another reported a fault in the projector. Only one correctly described a man dressed in a sheet pretending to be a ghost. Cornell concluded that the number of “true” hauntings may be grossly under-reported.

(A.D. Cornell, “An Experiment in Apparitional Observation and Findings,” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 40:701, 120-124; A.D. Cornell, “Further Experiments in Apparitional Observation,” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 40:706, 409-418.) (Thanks, Elizabeth.)

Circles

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Is the old maxim true about there being an exception to every rule? Well, no doubt we can all think of rules that appear to have no exceptions, but since appearances can be deceiving, maybe the old maxim is true. On the other hand, the maxim is itself a rule, so if we assume that it’s true, it has an exception, which would be tantamount to saying that there is some rule that has no exception. So if the maxim is true, it’s false. That makes it false. Thus we know at least one rule that definitely has an exception, viz., ‘There’s an exception to every rule,’ and, although we haven’t identified it, we know that there is at least one rule that has no exceptions.”

— David L. Silverman, Word Ways, February 1972

Raymond Smullyan used to send emails to friends that read, “Please ignore this message.”

“I don’t like writers who are making sweeping statements all the time. Of course, you might argue that what I’m saying is a sweeping statement, no?” — Jorge Luis Borges, quoted in Floyd Merrell, Unthinking Thinking, 1991

Troxler’s Fading

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Stare at the cross from a short distance away without moving your eyes. After a few seconds, the colors will fade away.

The effect was discovered by Swiss physician Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler in 1804. The reasons for it aren’t clear — possibly neurons in the visual system adapt to unchanging stimuli and they drop out of our awareness.

Crisis Averted

Mistaken reports received by the SPCA on the British island of Guernsey:

  • A call to a sick seal on a beach was in fact a duvet
  • Also a possible dead dog on a beach was another duvet
  • An injured crow was a black bag
  • A stray pug was called in and was in fact a frog
  • A dead gull hanging from a fence was a carrier bag
  • An injured bird was a blonde wig
  • Birds of prey often turn out to be pigeons
  • A hedgehog rescue once turned out to be a pine cone
  • A pregnant cat turned out to be a neutered male
  • A call for a shark in trouble was a fish

In June 2016 a member of the public brought in a “dead cat” that turned out to be a dog puppet (“a very muddy, wet, insect covered, cold, collapsed small dog with an injured nose”).

“Both the finder and I were extremely relieved and where an air of sadness had been at the GSPCA it soon turned to laughter,” said SPCA manager Steve Byrne.

They advertised for the owner on Facebook, but I don’t know that anyone ever responded.

The Better Man

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Catcher Harry Chiti pulled a sort of ontological sleight in 1962.

On April 25, while playing for the Cleveland Indians, he was acquired by the expansion New York Mets for a player to be named later.

Seven weeks later, on June 15, he was sent back to the Indians as the “player to be named later” — he’d been traded for himself.

Three other players have since achieved the same feat: Dickie Noles, Brad Gulden, and John McDonald.

(Thanks, Tom.)

Podcast Episode 199: The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering

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In 1921 a schooner ran aground on the treacherous shoals off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. When rescuers climbed aboard, they found signs of a strange drama in the ship’s last moments — and no trace of the 11-man crew. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the curious case of the Carroll A. Deering, which has been called “one of the enduring mysteries of maritime history.”

We’ll also experiment with yellow fever and puzzle over a disputed time of death.

See full show notes …

Fair’s Fair

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Pavia once had an upside-down tower, the “Torre del Pizzo in giù.” According to legend, Andreotto del Maino, head of the del Maino family in the 15th century, was so fed up with his son Giasone’s unpromising academic career that he vowed to build an inverted tower if only he graduated. Giasone not only took his degree but became one of the most esteemed jurists of his age, so Andreotto fulfilled his promise.

The tower was demolished in the 18th century, “destroyed through stupid timidity,” writes the Irish historian Kenelm Henry Digby, “when it was too late discovered that it had been built with such skill that it might have stood for many ages.”

More images here.

(Thanks, Daniele.)