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.”
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.
adj. half again as large
adj. not tall
Born in 1915, giant Henry M. Mullins partnered with Tommy Lowe and little Stanley Rosinski to form the vaudeville act Lowe, Hite and Stanley. Of Mullins, who stood 7’6-3/4″ and weighed 280 pounds, doctor Charles D. Humberd said, “It is indeed amazing to watch so vast a personage doing a whirlwind acrobatic act. … He dances, fast and furiously, and engages in a comedy knock-about ‘business’ that would be found strenuous by any trained ‘Physical culturist.’ … He is alert, intelligent, well read, affable and friendly.” The act continued until Rosinski’s death in 1962.
When we say that the function of the heart is to pump the blood, what do we mean, exactly? Typically an object’s function is something that confers some good or contributes to some goal: In pumping blood my heart keeps me alive; in grasping objects my hands help me manipulate my environment.
But is that right? Suppose someone designs a sewing machine with a self-destruct button. Pressing the button will never have good consequences for anyone, and no one will ever set a goal that’s furthered by blowing up the machine. Still, it seems correct to say that the button’s function is to destroy the machine.
Another example, from Johns Hopkins philosopher Peter Achinstein: “Suppose that a magnificent chair was designed as a throne for the king, i.e., it was designed to seat the king. However, it is actually used by the king’s guards to block a doorway in the palace. Finally, suppose that although the guards attempt to block the doorway by means of that chair they are unsuccessful. The chair is so beautiful that it draws crowds to the palace to view it, and people walk through the doorway all around the chair to gaze at it. But its drawing such crowds does have the beneficial effect of inducing more financial contributions for the upkeep of the palace, although this was not something intended. What is the function of this chair?”
(Peter Achinstein, “Function Statements,” Philosophy of Science, September 1977.)
The following remarkable coincidence will be read with interest: Sometime since it was announced that a man at Titusville, Pennsylvania, committed suicide for the strange reason that he had discovered that he was his own grandfather. Leaving a dying statement explaining this singular circumstance, we will not attempt to unravel it, but give his own explanation of the mixed-up condition of his kinsfolk in his own words. He says, ‘I married a widow who had a grown-up daughter. My father visited our house very often, fell in love with my stepdaughter, and married her. So my father became my son-in law, and my step-daughter my mother, because she was my father’s wife. Some time afterwards, my wife gave birth to a son; he was my father’s brother-in-law, and my uncle, for he was the brother of my step-mother. My father’s wife — i.e. my step-daughter — had also a son; he was, of course, my brother, and in the mean time my grandchild, for he was the son of my daughter. My wife was my grandmother, because she was my mother’s mother. I was my wife’s husband and the grandchild at the same time. And as the husband of a person’s grandmother is his grandfather, I was my own grandfather.’ After this logical conclusion, we are not surprised that the unfortunate man should have taken refuge in oblivion. It was the most married family and the worst mixed that we ever heard of. To unravel such an entangling alliance could not have resulted otherwise than in an aberration of mind and subsequent suicide.
— Littell’s Living Age, May 9, 1868
(Yes, I know about the song!) (Thanks, Dave.)
A bit more on philosophy and time travel: It seems consistent to suppose that a time traveler can affect the past but not change it. Perhaps I will invent a time machine tomorrow and race heroically back to 1865 to save Lincoln from John Wilkes Booth. I might arrive at Ford’s Theater and race up to Lincoln’s box; I might even wrestle dramatically with Booth in the hallway. But we know in advance that I won’t be successful, because history tells us that Booth did shoot Lincoln that night.
This way of looking at it entails no paradoxes, but it does create a problem. If time travel is possible then presumably hundreds of well-intentioned time travelers converged on Lincoln’s box that night, all determined to save the president and all somehow slipping on banana peels at the wrong moment. This is not impossible, but it seems terrifically unlikely — so much so that the very fact of Lincoln’s death seems to imply that time travel is not possible.
But University of Sydney philosopher Nicholas J.J. Smith points out that we don’t quite know this: A time machine may be invented a century from now with a backward range of only 50 years. In that case we have no experience from which to judge these matters. “One cannot conclude from the supposition that local backward time travel would bring with it what we ordinarily regard as improbable coincidences, that such time travel will occur only rarely: for the only reason we regard the events in question as improbable coincidences is that within our experience, they have not occurred very often — and our experience does not (apparently) encompass backward time travel.”
(Nicholas J.J. Smith, “Bananas Enough for Time Travel?”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, September 1997.)
In the 1970 Scientific American article “How Snakes Move,” Carl Gans points out an oddity in a Sherlock Holmes story:
In ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ Sherlock Holmes solves a murder mystery by showing that the victim has been killed by a Russell’s viper that has climbed up a bell rope. What Holmes did not realize was that Russell’s viper is not a constrictor. The snake is therefore incapable of concertina movement and could not have climbed the rope. Either the snake reached its victim some other way or the case remains open.
This is indeed perplexing. If it’s not a fact that vipers can climb ropes, then how did Holmes solve the case? If vipers can climb ropes in Holmes’ world but not in ours, then how can we follow his reasoning in other matters? What other features of Holmes’ world differ from ours?
One way out: “The story never quite says that Holmes was right that the snake climbed the rope,” notes philosopher David Lewis. So perhaps the snake did reach its victim in some other way and Holmes was simply wrong.
(David Lewis, “Truth in Fiction,” American Philosophical Quarterly, January 1978.)
On Feb. 19, 1916, as workers were digging a new subway line under the East River toward Brooklyn Heights, a burst of compressed air blew 28-year-old Marshall Mabey up through 12 feet of river bed, through the river, and 25 feet into the air atop a geyser of water. Impossibly, he was not seriously injured. From the New York Times:
‘The first thing that told me something was wrong,’ he related yesterday, ‘was when I saw an opening in the earth ahead of the shield which was used to protect the tunnel as we went along. The hole was then about eighteen inches in size. Frank Driver, my partner, and I grabbed hold of a big plank and threw it at the hole to stop it up. I found that the air pressure was pushing me toward the hole, and I tried to save myself by grabbing the air pipes. I missed them, and then I felt myself being pushed into the hole.
‘As I struck the mud it felt as if something was squeezing me tighter than I had ever been squeezed. I was smothered and I guess I lost consciousness. They tell me I was thrown about twenty-five feet above the water when I came out, but I don’t remember that.
‘I am a good swimmer and I kept my mouth shut and came up to the surface. I had on my big rubber boots and they bothered me but I managed somehow to keep my head above the surface. My left leg was numb but I could move it. Finally men on a pier threw me a rope and I held on until I was taken out of the water.’
He said he hoped to return to work within a day or two. “Of course I know that Marshall is in danger every time he goes to work,” said his wife, “but all work is dangerous and my husband is as careful as he can be. His job is a good one and I am glad he has it.”
For most of the 20th century, a man in black appeared each year at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. In the predawn hours of January 19, he would drink a toast with French cognac and leave behind three roses in a distinctive arrangement. No one knows who he was or why he did this. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we review the history of the “Poe Toaster” and his long association with the great poet’s memorial.
We’ll also consider whether Winnie-the-Pooh should be placed on Ritalin and puzzle over why a man would shoot an unoffending monk.
Sources for our segment on the Poe Toaster:
“Mystery Man’s Annual Visit to Poe Grave,” China Daily, Jan. 20, 2008.
“Poe Toaster Remains a Mystery,” WBAL Radio, Jan. 19, 2013.
“‘Toaster’ Rejects French Cognac at Poe’s grave,” Washington Times, Jan. 19, 2004.
Sarah Brumfield, “Poe Fans Call an End to ‘Toaster’ Tradition,” AP News, Jan. 19, 2012.
Liz F. Kay, “Poe Toaster Tribute Is ‘Nevermore’,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 19, 2010.
Michael Madden, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Poe Toaster,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 26, 2011.
Mary Carole McCauley, “Poe Museum Could Reopen in Fall,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 20, 2013.
Ben Nuckols and Joseph White, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Mysterious Birthday Visitor Doesn’t Show This Year,” Huffington Post, March 21, 2010 (accessed Dec. 1, 2014).
Here’s the only known photo of the toaster, taken at his 1990 apparition and published in the July 1990 issue of Life magazine:
The psychiatric diagnoses of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends appear in Sarah E. Shea, Kevin Gordon, Ann Hawkins, Janet Kawchuk, and Donna Smith, “Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective on A.A. Milne,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 12, 2000.
Many thanks to Harry’s for supporting this week’s episode. Enter coupon code CLOSETHOLIDAY and get $5 off a Winter Winston set at Harrys.com.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening!
In A Thing or Two About Music (1972), Nicolas Slonimsky describes a series of “puzzle minuets” composed by 18th-century harpsichordist Johann Schobert:
Schobert is not a misprint for Schubert. He was an estimable Silesian-born musician who settled in Paris in 1760 and wrote many compositions in the elegant style of the time. Mozart knew his music well and was even influenced by his easy grace in writing piano pieces. Schobert was something of a musical scientist. Among his compositions is a page entitled, ‘A Curious Musical Piece Which Can Be Played on the Piano, on the Violin, and on the Bass, and at that in Different Ways.’ This page contained five minuets, one of which could be played upside down without any change, one which would result in a new piece when turned upside down, and one which would furnish a continuation upside down. Two could be played on the violin and on the bass by assigning the treble clef right side up and the bass clef upside down.
The full page is here. I haven’t tried playing it.
French aristocrat François Racine de Monville added a striking summer house to his estate in 1785 — it was designed to resemble the ruined column of an imaginary gigantic temple:
The “colonne brisée” contained four stories of oval rooms connected by a spiral staircase hung with rare plants under a skylight. It was admired by Benjamin Franklin, and it inspired Thomas Jefferson in his own architectural work. (“How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column!” he wrote to Maria Cosway.) It had fallen into disrepair by the 1950s, but it was renovated and reopened to the public in 2009.
In 1968, American Hugo Vihlen sailed from Casablanca to Florida in a boat 5 feet 11 inches long.
In 1992, Englishman Tom McNally sailed from Portugal to Fort Lauderdale in a boat 5 feet 4.5 inches long.
In 1993 Vihlen reclaimed the record by sailing from Newfoundland to Falmouth in a boat 5 feet 4 inches long.
“Tom McNally made plans to fight back with a minuscule three-foot, eleven-inch boat, and when Vihlen later heard about that he announced his intention to build a three-foot, eight-inch aluminum boat,” writes William Longyard in A Speck on the Sea (2003). “The battle would continue between these two friends and rivals.”
French writer Paul Fournel’s 1990 novel Suburbia begins conventionally enough:
Table of Contents
A Word from the Publisher vi
Foreword by Marguerite Duras vii
An Introductory Note by the Author viii
Afterword by François Caradec 215
Supplement for Use in Schools 217
And the “Word from the Publisher” promises that “the quality of this little novel, now that passions have subsided, has emerged ever more forcefully.” But the first page is blank except for four footnotes:
1. In French in the original.
2. Concerning the definition of suburb, see the epigraph et seq.
3. What intention on the author’s part does this brutal opening suggest?
4. Local judge.
The same thing happens on the second page:
1. Notice how Norbert comes crashing onto the scene.
2. This passage is a mixture of backslang and immigrant jargon. Transpose into normal English.
4. Obscene gesture.
And so on — except for footnotes, all the pages in Suburbia are blank. “In Suburbia Fournel was not attempting to give some postmodernist exploration of the nature of literature,” explains Robert Tubbs in Mathematics in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (2014). “Suburbia, instead, was written according to the lipogrammatic constraint that it contain no letters or symbols. This constraint force Fournel to write a textless narrative. Because of the footnotes on each page, it has content — it is not an empty text; it is simply a textless text, a text that just happens not to contain any words.”
Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo was inspired by a real event. In 1928 Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute received the remains of an 18th-century brass automaton that had been damaged in a fire. It had been donated by the descendants of wealthy manufacturer John Penn Brock; they knew it had been acquired in France and supposed it to be the work of the German inventor Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, famed for his metronome.
The institute’s machinist set about restoring the machine and discovered that its mechanism used an ingenious system of cams to store almost 300 kilobits of information. When he had finished his work, he placed a pen in its hand and watched it draw four strikingly elaborate illustrations and write three poems (click to enlarge):
The final poem contained a surprise — in its border the machine wrote Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet, “written by the automaton of Maillardet.” The automaton’s creator was not Johann Maelzel but the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet — and this fact had been remembered only because he had taught the machine to write his name.
Subsequent research showed that Maillardet had created the automaton in the 1700s and exhibited it throughout Europe and Russia. How it came to America is not known. It’s on display today at the Franklin Institute, which demonstrates its talents publicly several times a year.
The epilogue of The Time Machine contains this strange passage:
One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now — if I may use the phrase — be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age.
What indeed can “now” mean in this context? If the Time Traveller’s life ended on a prehistoric beach, argues philosopher Donald C. Williams, then surely this became an established fact on the day that it happened. If the concept of time is to have any coherence, then history is a tapestry that is eternal and unchanging; to say that it can be changed “at” some future moment seems to be a flat contradiction. “At” where?
“Time travel,” Williams writes, “is analyzable either as the banality that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one we occupied before, or the contradiction that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one which we are then occupying — that five minutes from now, for example, I may be a hundred years from now.”
(Donald C. Williams, “The Myth of Passage,” Journal of Philosophy, July 1951.)
A letter from W.C. Trevelyan to John Adamson, secretary of the Antiquarian Society of Newcastle, Jan. 20, 1825:
In the autumn of 1823, I visited the interesting Church at Bridlington [Yorkshire] (founded about 1114, by Gilbert de Gant). On examining a tomb stone with an inscription and date of 1587, standing on two low pillars of masonry near the font, I found some appearances of sculpture on the under side of it, and having obtained leave to turn it over, the curious sculpture represented in the etching herewith sent, was discovered.
Its meaning, or date, I cannot attempt to explain. Can it have any reference to the building of the church? You will perceive both the circular and pointed arch (though the latter is probably only accidental, the space being limited).
The roof, I think, resembles some of the Roman buildings of the lower empire of which I have seen engravings.
The tiles, in shape, correspond exactly with those which were found among the remains of a Roman villa discovered a few years since at Stonesfield, near Oxford. The upper figures are very like some on Bridekirk Font (of the 10th century).
The figures of the Fox and Dove remind one of Æsop’s fable of the Fox and the Stork.
The society published the plate in its Archæologia Æliana. The best guess I can find is that it’s a 12th-century coffin lid that had been appropriated as a tombstone in 1587. But the meaning of the figures is unclear.
When engineer E.W. Barton-Wright returned to England after three years in Japan, he brought with him a new discipline: Bartitsu, a martial art of his own devising that combined jujutsu, judo, boxing, and stick fighting. He listed its essential principles in an article in Pearson’s Magazine in March 1899:
1. To disturb the equilibrium of your assailant.
2. To surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength.
3. If necessary to subject the joints of any part of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, etc. to strain which they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.
The combination of systems, he wrote, “can be very terrible in the hands of a quick and confident exponent. One of its greatest advantages is that the exponent need not necessarily be a strong man, or in training, or even a specially active man in order to paralyse a very formidable opponent, and it is equally applicable to a man who attacks you with a knife, or a stick, or against a boxer; in fact, it can be considered a class of self-defence designed to meet every possible kind of attack, whether armed or otherwise.”
In 1899 Barton-Wright established an academy in London to promote the new art, but he proved an indifferent promoter and the school closed its doors within three years. His eccentric fighting style might have been forgotten entirely but for one immortal mention: In The Adventure of the Empty House, when asked how he defeated Professor Moriarty in their climactic struggle at the Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock Holmes credits “baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.”
Circling the earth aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, John Glenn had an odd encounter:
The strangest sight of all came with the very first ray of sunrise as I was crossing the Pacific toward the U.S. I was checking the instrument panel and when I looked back out the window I thought for a minute that I must have tumbled upside-down and was looking up at a new field of stars. I checked my instruments to make sure I was right-side-up. Then I looked again. There, spread as far as I could see, were literally thousands of tiny luminous objects that glowed in the black sky like fireflies. I was riding slowly through them, and the sensation was like walking backwards through a pasture where someone had waved a wand and made all the fireflies stop right where they were and glow steadily. They were greenish yellow in color, and they appeared to be about six to 10 feet apart. I seemed to be passing through them at a speed of from three to five miles an hour. They were all around me, and those nearest the capsule would occasionally move across the window as if I had slightly interrupted their flow. On the next pass I turned the capsule around so that I was looking right into the flow, and though I could see far fewer of them in the light of the rising sun, they were still there. Watching them come toward me, I felt certain they were not caused by anything emanating from the capsule. I thought perhaps I’d stumbled into the lost batch of needles the Air Force had tried to set up in orbit for communications purposes. But I could think of no reason why needles should glow like fireflies, nor did they look like needles. As far as I know, the true identity of these particles is still a mystery.
They seem to have been ice crystals, flakes of frost shed by the capsule and illuminated by the sun. Scott Carpenter saw a similar display on the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, a few months later.
(John Glenn, “If You’re Shook Up, You Shouldn’t Be There,” Life, March 9, 1962.)
The border between the United States and Canada blurs a bit between Blaine, Wash., and Surrey, B.C. There stands the Peace Arch, a 20-meter monument to amity between the two nations commissioned by railroad executive Sam Hill in 1921.
The arch stands precisely on the border, at the center of an international park: Citizens of either nation can pass without passport or visa into the other nation’s territory, provided they don’t stray beyond a dedicated area.
The U.S. side of the arch bears the inscription “Children of a common mother,” and the Canadian side reads “Brethren dwelling together in unity.” An iron gate stands open on either side, and an inscription above reads “May these gates never be closed.”
For 88 years the Memorial Bridge carried traffic across the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine.
At its opening in 1923, 5-year-old Eileen Foley cut the ribbon.
In 2011, Foley, now 93, tied a ribbon at the closing ceremony.
In the interval she had served several terms as mayor of Portsmouth. “Thank you very much for this afternoon,” she said. “I will never forget it.”
In 1892 Frederic Martyn was fighting in West Africa with the French Foreign Legion when he met with an incident “so remarkable that I hesitate to mention it, as it is pretty certain to be regarded as a mere traveller’s tale”:
A Dahomeyan warrior was killed while in the act of levelling his gun, from behind a cotton tree, at Captain Battreau of the Legion, at point-blank range, and as he fell his rifle clattered down at the officer’s feet. Captain Battreau, seeing that it was an old Chassepot, picked it up out of curiosity, and suddenly became very much interested in it. He examined it very carefully, and then exclaimed, with a gasp of astonishment, ‘Well, this is something like a miracle! Here is the very rifle I used in 1870 during the war with Germany! See that hole in the butt? That was made by a Prussian bullet at Saint-Privat. I could tell that gun from among a million by that mark alone; but here’s my number stamped on it as well, which is evidence enough for anybody. Who would have thought it possible that I could pick up in Africa, as a captain, a rifle that I used in France, as a sergeant, twenty-two years ago? It is incredible!’
Martyn writes, “The sceptical reader will probably think that the captain was ‘pulling our legs’ a bit; but this explanation is inconsistent with the fact that the officer asked for and obtained special permission to keep the rifle as personal property on account of its associations, and he was hardly likely to have done this unless he could prove that it was, in fact, the identical rifle he had formerly used.”
(From Martyn’s 1911 memoir Life in the Legion. Thanks, Kevin.)
On June 30, 1960, a thunderstorm struck the Columbia, Missouri, area and made time not only stand still, but go backward. The Columbia Missourian reported that Mr. C.W. Brenton looked at his electrical clock at 7:55 P.M. and was startled to see that the clock was running backward. During the storm a surge of lightning had entered his home along the power lines and fused some of the wiring in the clock. This apparently reversed the magnetic field of the motor, causing the hands to turn in the wrong direction.
— Peter Viemeister, The Lightning Book, 1961
On Oct. 21, 1966, an avalanche of mining debris descended into the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, filling the classrooms of a local junior school with mud and killing 144 people, 116 of them children. In response to a subsequent newspaper appeal, Shrewsbury psychiatrist J.C. Barker received 76 letters from people who claimed to have had precognition of the event. Of these, 22 were supported by witnesses. This account, by the parents of 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones, was compiled by a local minister and signed by them as correct:
She was an attractive dependable child, not given to imagination. A fortnight before the disaster she said to her mother, who at the time was putting some money aside for her, ‘Mummy, I’m not afraid to die.’ Her mother replied, ‘Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘But I shall be with Peter and June’ (schoolmates). The day before the disaster she said to her mother, ‘Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.’ Her mother answered gently, ‘Darling, I’ve no time now. Tell me again later.’ The child replied, ‘No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it.’ Her mother answered, ‘You mustn’t have chips for supper for a bit.’ The next day off to school went her daughter as happy as ever. In the communal grave she was buried with Peter on one side and June on the other.
“This last point may not, however, be significant, since the order of burial was apparently influenced by parents’ requests.”
(From the Oxford Book of the Supernatural.)
William … asks me to set down the story of Barbara Wilkinson’s Turtle Dove. Barbara is an old maid. She had 2 turtle Doves. One of them died the first year I think. The other bird continued to live alone in its cage for 9 years, but for one whole year it had a companion and daily visitor, a little mouse that used to come and feed with it, and the Dove would caress it, and cower over it with its wings, and make a loving noise to it. The mouse though it did not testify equal delight in the Dove’s company yet it was at perfect ease. The poor mouse disappeared and the Dove was left solitary till its death. It died of a short sickness and was buried under a tree with funeral ceremony by Barbara and her maiden, and one or two others.
— Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journals, Jan. 30, 1802