A Late Contribution

A ghost co-authored a mathematics paper in 1990. When Pierre Cartier edited a Festschrift in honor of Alexander Grothendieck’s 60th birthday, Robert Thomas contributed an article that was co-signed by his recently deceased friend Thomas Trobaugh. He explained:

The first author must state that his coauthor and close friend, Tom Trobaugh, quite intelligent, singularly original, and inordinately generous, killed himself consequent to endogenous depression. Ninety-four days later, in my dream, Tom’s simulacrum remarked, ‘The direct limit characterization of perfect complexes shows that they extend, just as one extends a coherent sheaf.’ Awaking with a start, I knew this idea had to be wrong, since some perfect complexes have a non-vanishing K0 obstruction to extension. I had worked on this problem for 3 years, and saw this approach to be hopeless. But Tom’s simulacrum had been so insistent, I knew he wouldn’t let me sleep undisturbed until I had worked out the argument and could point to the gap. This work quickly led to the key results of this paper. To Tom, I could have explained why he must be listed as a coauthor.

Thomason himself died suddenly five years later of diabetic shock, at age 43. Perhaps the two are working again together somewhere.

(Robert Thomason and Thomas Trobaugh, “Higher Algebraic K-Theory of Schemes and of Derived Categories,” in P. Cartier et al., eds., The Grothendieck Festschrift Volume III, 1990.)

Round and Round

Army ants are blind; they follow the pheromone tracks left by other ants. This leaves them vulnerable to forming an “ant mill,” in which a group of ants inadvertently form a continuously rotating circle, each ant following the ones ahead and leading the ones behind. Once this happens there’s no way to break the cycle; the ants will march until they die of exhaustion.

American naturalist William Beebe once came upon a mill 365 meters in circumference, a narrow lane looping senselessly through the jungle of British Guiana. “It was a strong column, six lines wide in many places, and the ants fully believed that they were on their way to a new home, for most were carrying eggs or larvae, although many had food, including the larvae of the Painted Nest Wasplets,” he wrote in his 1921 book Edge of the Jungle. “For an hour at noon during heavy rain, the column weakened and almost disappeared, but when the sun returned, the lines rejoined, and the revolution of the vicious circle continued.”

He calculated that each ant would require 2.5 hours to make one circuit. “All the afternoon the insane circle revolved; at midnight the hosts were still moving, the second morning many had weakened and dropped their burdens, and the general pace had very appreciably slackened. But still the blind grip of instinct held them. On, on, on they must go! Always before in their nomadic life there had been a goal — a sanctuary of hollow tree, snug heart of bamboos — surely this terrible grind must end somehow. In this crisis, even the Spirit of the Army was helpless. Along the normal paths of Eciton life he could inspire endless enthusiasm, illimitable energy, but here his material units were bound upon the wheel of their perfection of instinct. Through sun and cloud, day and night, hour after hour there was found no Eciton with individual initiative enough to turn aside an ant’s breadth from the circle which he had traversed perhaps fifteen times: the masters of the jungle had become their own mental prey.”

The Paradox of the Muddy Children

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Three children return home after playing outside, and their father tells them that at least one of them has a muddy face. He repeats the phrase “Step forward if you have a muddy face” until all and only the children with muddy faces have stepped forward.

If there’s only one child with a muddy face, then she’ll step forward immediately — she can see that no other children have muddy faces, so her father must be talking about her. Each of the other children will see her muddy face and stand fast, since they have no way of knowing whether their own faces are muddy.

If there are two children with muddy faces, then no one will step forward after the first request, since each might think the father is addressing the other one. But when no one steps forward after the first request, each will realize that there must be two children with muddy faces, and that she herself must be one of them. So both will step forward after the second request, and the rest will stand fast.

A pattern emerges: If there are n children with muddy faces, then n will step forward after the nth request.

But now imagine a scenario in which more than one of the children has a muddy face, but the father does not tell them that at least one of them has a muddy face. Now no one steps forward after the first request, for the same reason as before. But no one steps forward at the second request either, because the fact that no one stepped forward after the first request no longer means that there is more than one child with a muddy face.

This is perplexing. In the second scenario all the children can see that at least one of them has a muddy face, so it seems needless for the father to tell them so. But without his statement the argument never gets going; despite his repeated requests, no child will ever step forward. What’s missing?

(From Michael Clark, Paradoxes From A to Z, 2007.)

The Edinburgh Fairy Coffins

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In early July 1836, three boys searching for rabbits’ burrows near Edinburgh came upon some thin sheets of slate set into the side of a cliff. On removing them, they discovered the entrance to a little cave, where they found 17 tiny coffins containing miniature wooden figures.

According to the Scotsman‘s account later that month, each of the coffins “contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.”

Some accounts say that the coffins had been laid in tiers, the lower appearing decayed and the topmost quite recent, but Edinburgh University historian Allen Simpson believes that all were placed in the niche after 1830, about five years before the boys discovered them.

Who placed them there, and why, remain mysterious. Simpson suggests that they may be an attempt to provide a decent symbolic burial for the victims of murderers William Burke and William Hare, who had sold 17 corpses to local doctor Robert Knox in 1828 for use in anatomy lessons. But 12 of Burke and Hare’s victims were women, and the occupants of the fairy coffins are all dressed as men.

So investigations continue. The eight surviving coffins and their tiny occupants are on display today at the National Museum of Scotland.

Podcast Episode 40: The Mary Celeste: A Great Sea Mystery


In 1872 the British merchant ship Mary Celeste was discovered drifting and apparently abandoned 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review this classic mystery of the sea: Why would 10 people flee a well-provisioned, seaworthy ship in fine weather?

We’ll also get an update on the legal rights of apes and puzzle over why a woman would not intervene when her sister is drugged.

Sources for our segment on the Mary Celeste:

Paul Begg, Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea, 2005.

Charles Edey Fay, Mary Celeste: The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship, 1942.

J.L. Hornibrook, “The Case of the ‘Mary Celeste’: An Ocean Mystery,” Chambers Journal, Sept. 17, 1904.

Listener mail:

George M. Walsh, “Chimpanzees Don’t Have The Same Rights As Humans, New York Court Rules,” Associated Press, Dec. 5, 2014.

The opinion from the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division:

The People of the State of New York ex rel. The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on Behalf of Tommy, Appellant, v. Patrick C. Lavery, Individually and as an Officer of Circle L Trailer Sales, Inc., et al.

“Orangutan in Argentina Zoo Recognised by Court as ‘Non-Human Person’,” Guardian, Dec. 21, 2014.

Coffitivity “recreates the ambient sounds of a cafe to boost your creativity and help you work better.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Nick Madrid.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

Chebyshev’s Paradoxical Mechanism

Russian mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev devised this puzzling mechanisms in 1888. Turning the crank handle once will send the flywheel through two revolutions in the same direction, or four revolutions in the opposite direction. (A better video is here.)

“What is so unusual in this mechanism is the ability of the linkages to flip from one configuration to the other,” write John Bryant and Chris Sangwin in How Round Is Your Circle? (2011). “In most linkage mechanisms such ambiguity is implicitly, or explicitly, designed out so that only one choice for the mathematical solution can give a physical configuration. … This mechanism is really worth constructing, if only to confound your friends and colleagues.”

(Thanks, Dre.)

Nobody Home


For more than 500 million years something has been making hexagonal burrows on the floor of the deep sea. Each network of tiny holes leads to a system of tunnels under the surface. The creature that makes them, known as Paleodictyon nodosum, has never been discovered. It might be a worm or perhaps a protist; the structure might be its means of farming its own food or the remains of a nest for protecting eggs. Fossils have been found in the limestone of Nevada and Mexico, and the burrows even turn up in the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. But what makes them, and how, remain a mystery.

Somewhat related: When puzzling screw-shaped structures (below) were unearthed in Nebraska in the 1890s they were known as “devil’s corkscrews” and attributed to freshwater sponges or some sort of coiling plant. They were finally recognized as the burrows of prehistoric beavers only when a fossilized specimen, Palaeocastor, was found inside one.


(Thanks, Paul.)