A Plea in Disguise

In March 1928, the British steamer City of Eastbourne picked up an SOS from the tanker British Hussar in the Pacific but could not locate her position. Japanese authorities reported that several of their own ships and stations had picked up the SOS but could not understand the geographical information given. In comparing the reports, they estimated that the British Hussar was about 400 miles southwest of Hawaii when she ran into trouble. Two Navy destroyers searched the area for five days but found no trace of her.

When they cabled the bad news to the tanker’s owners, they received a puzzling reply. The British Hussar was safely moored off a landing stage at Adaban in the Persian Gulf. She had been nowhere near the Pacific when the messages were sent. But the SOS signals were undeniable.

The British consul at Yokohama found that four ships had been near Hawaii when the signal was received: the City of Eastbourne, the Niagara, the Ventura, and the Asiatic Prince — and, strangely, the Asiatic Prince was also missing.

Now there were two mysteries: An SOS had been received in the Pacific, seemingly sent from a perfectly sound ship 6,000 miles away; and a second ship, equipped with the latest wireless equipment and lifeboats, had vanished in the same region — which had reportedly been lashed by hurricane-force winds at the time.

The explanation that emerged is that the British Hussar‘s SOS must have been sent by the Asiatic Prince as it foundered in the storm. The SOS had contained the call sign of the British Hussar, GJVR. The call sign of the Asiatic Prince was GJVP. In Morse code, P is ·- -· and R is ·-· Apparently the central dash had been sent twice.

If this is so, the Asiatic Prince must have gone down with astonishing swiftness — the 10,000-ton steamer had a new hull, new engines, and new equipment, yet sank so quickly that she could manage only one brief message.

Two Lucky Escapes


In 1848, railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage was blasting rock near Cavendish, Vt., when an explosion sent a 13-pound tamping iron through his cheek and out the top of his head. Remarkably, he survived: Doctor Edward H. Williams found him sitting in a chair outside his lodgings 30 minutes later, saying, “Doctor, here is business enough for you.” It appears that the rod had destroyed much of his left frontal lobe but left the rest of his brain intact — he lived for another 12 years and has survived ever after in psychology textbooks.

In 1978, Russian physicist Anatoli Bugorski suffered a high-tech version of the same accident — he was checking a piece of equipment when the safety mechanisms failed and he put his head in the path of a proton beam, which burned through his face and brain, passing out the back of his head. Doctors expected him to die, but he recovered and even completed his doctorate. The left half of his face was paralyzed and he lost hearing in his left ear, but he’s still alive today.

(Thanks, Pål.)

Odd Hamlets

In 1870, John Chippendall Montesquieu Bellew offered a sort of lip-synched Hamlet, in which he read the text at the front of the stage while performers dressed in character acted it out in dumbshow. “The dummies, with the exception of Hamlet, acted but indifferently,” wrote one reviewer. “The gentleman who doubled the characters of Polonius and the First Gravedigger disdained to open his mouth at all, whilst the representative of the King was evidently under the impression that his lips were in the region of his eyebrows, as he moved the latter up and down with great vigour. At present the performance has the attraction of novelty, but we doubt whether it will have a lasting success.”

And in 1809 one Jack Matthews offered a “dog Hamlet,” in which “the Prince of Denmark in every scene was attended by a large black dog, and in the last, the sagacious animal took upon himself the office of executioner by springing upon the king and putting an end to his wicked career in the usual orthodox fashion.”

Punch noted, “Yet surely the play has seldom been acted without the assistance of a great Dane.”

Good Boy


In November 1869 Missouri farmer Charles Burden sued his neighbor, Leonidas Hornsby, for shooting his dog Drum. Hornsby denied it, but neighbors had heard the shot and the dog’s cries of pain on the night in question, and Drum had been found dead of a gunshot the following morning. Furious, Burden sued Hornsby for $50, the maximum amount allowed by law. The two battled back and forth in the courts for a year. Finally, at end of the fourth trial, Burden’s attorney George Graham Vest rose to make this closing argument:

Gentlemen of the jury. The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is the dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground when the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.

When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws and his eyes sad but open, in alert watchfulness, faithful and true, even to death.

Burden won, getting $50 and justice for his dog. Hornsby appealed to the state supreme court but lost.

Vest, the attorney, had said he would “win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri.”

Mountain-Climbing Traditions


All climbers stop short of the peak of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. Joe Brown and George Band, who in 1955 became the first to climb the 28,169-foot Himalayan peak, stopped short of the summit to honor a promise given to the Maharaja of Sikkim that the top would remain inviolate. Every subsequent expedition has followed this tradition.

At 7,247 feet, Mount Townsend, below, is the second-highest peak in Australia, 63 feet shorter than nearby Mount Kosciuszko. By tradition each person who climbs it carries a rock to leave at the top, so that eventually it might surpass its neighbor.

In 2006 workers discovered a piano near the summit of Britain’s highest mountain, 4,409-foot Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands. “Our guys couldn’t believe their eyes,” conservation trust director Nigel Hawkins told The Guardian. “At first they thought it was just the wooden casing but then they saw the whole cast iron frame complete with strings.” Scots woodcutter Kenny Campbell came forward to acknowledge that he’d carried it up the mountain 35 years ago to support a charity. “When I got there,” he said, “I played ‘Scotland the Brave.'”

Overtoun Bridge


Image: Wikipedia

In the last 50 years, scores of dogs have jumped to their deaths from the bridge approaching Scotland’s Overtoun House. All the dogs have jumped between the final two parapets on the right-hand side, and nearly all have jumped on clear, sunny days. The dogs tend to be long-nosed breeds, labradors, collies, and retrievers.

It’s unlikely that the dogs are seeing something, because from their perspective little is visible. Acoustic experts have detected no unusual sounds. But mice and mink live under the bridge, and animal habitat expert David Sands found that the dogs he tested were strongly drawn to mink scents. Mink were introduced to Scotland in the 1920s and would have produced a significant population by the 1950s, when the jumps started occurring. The scents left by their anal glands would be strongest in dry conditions and most accessible to keen-nosed dogs with long snouts.

“When you get down to a dog’s level, the solid granite of the bridge’s 18-inch thick walls obscures their vision and blocks out all sound,” Sands told the Daily Mail. “As a result, the one sense not obscured, that of smell, goes into overdrive.”

Photo ID


This is the official White House photograph of Bill Clinton. It was taken on Jan. 1, 1993. But Clinton wasn’t inaugurated until Jan. 20. Can this be said, then, to be a photo of President Bill Clinton?

To get an answer to this cosmic question, a reporter called the chairman of the New York University philosophy department, Roy Sorensen. Sorensen said yes.

“Think of it this way,” he said. “A photograph of Clinton does not need to be a photograph of the full spatial extent of his body. Just a representative part of his body will do. The same applies for temporal parts; a photograph of one stage of Clinton is a photograph of Clinton. Even a baby picture of Clinton is a picture of President Clinton.”

(From Sorensen’s A Brief History of the Paradox, 2005.)

Fiction and Feeling


A puzzle from University of Michigan philosopher Kendall Walton:

“Charles is watching a horror movie about a terrible green slime. He cringes in his seat as the slime oozes slowly but relentlessly over the earth, destroying everything in its path. Soon a greasy head emerges from the undulating mas, and two beady eyes fix on the camera. The slime, picking up speed, oozes on a new course straight toward the viewers. Charles emits a shriek and clutches desperately at his chair. Afterwards, still shaken, he confesses that he was ‘terrified’ of the slime.”

Was he? Walton says no. Charles may have felt intense fear, even shrieking as the slime approached the camera. But he knew that he was not literally in danger. This was not a half-belief or a “gut” feeling — he never considered leaving the theater or calling the police, for instance. Charles wasn’t motivated to avoid the slime physically. Yet he says that what he felt was fear of the slime.

What are we to make of this? “This issue is of fundamental importance,” Walton writes. “It is crucially related to the basic question of why and how fiction is important, why we find it valuable, why we do not dismiss novels, films, and plays as ‘mere fiction’ and hence unworthy of serious attention.” What is the answer?

(Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions,” Journal of Philosophy, January 1978.)

Round Trip

A time-travel paradox from Robin Le Poidevin’s Travels in Four Dimensions, 2003:

Tim is spending the summer holiday at his grandfather’s house in rural Sussex. Bored one day, he wanders into his grandfather’s library. On one of the more remote shelves, Tim discovers a dusty book with no title on its spine. Opening it, he sees it is a diary, written in a familiar hand. With a growing sense of wonder he realizes that one of the entries provides detailed instructions on how to build a time machine. Over the next few years, following the instructions to the last detail, Tim builds such a machine. It is finally completed, and he steps on board, and throws the switch. Instantly, he is transported back fifty years. Unfortunately, both the machine and book are destroyed in the process. Tim writes down everything he can remember in a diary. He cannot rebuild the machine, however, because it requires technology that is not yet available. Reconciled to getting back to the twenty-first century by the traditional method of doing nothing and letting time carry one back, he marries and has a daughter. The family move to a rambling mansion in rural Sussex. The diary is left to gather dust in the library. Years later, Tim’s grandson, spending his summer holidays with his grandfather, discovers the diary.

“The identity of Tim will be obvious,” writes Le Poidevin, “and this in itself is rather strange. But the question we are concerned with is this: where did the inforation on how to build a time machine come from? From the diary, of course, which itself was written by Tim. But where did he get the information from? From the very same diary! So the information has appeared from nowhere. At no stage has someone worked out for themselves how to build a time machine and passed on the information. The existence of this information is therefore utterly mysterious.”

Long Distance

The widespread sail of a ship, rendered concave by a gentle breeze, is also a good collector of sound. It happened once on board a ship sailing along the coast of Brazil, far out of sight of land, that the persons walking on deck, when passing a particular spot, always heard very distinctly the sound of bells, varying as in human rejoicings. All on board came to listen, and were convinced, but the phenomenon was most mysterious. Months afterwards it was ascertained, that at the time of observation the bells of the city of St. Salvador, on the Brazilian coast, had been ringing on the occasion of a festival — their sound, therefore, favoured by a gentle wind, had travelled over perhaps 100 miles of smooth water, and had been brought to a focus by the sail in the particular situation on the deck where it was listened to.

— Neil Arnott, Elements of Physics, 1829