Far From Home

bouvet island lifeboat

In 1964 British meteorologist Allan Crawford visited tiny, freezing Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic, the most remote island in the world, to investigate the possibility of establishing a weather station there. When his helicopter touched down near a shallow lagoon in the island’s interior he found a surprise:

There was an abandoned whaleboat in quite good condition, though lying at the bottom of the lagoon, gunwales awash. What drama, we wondered, was attached to this strange discovery? There were no markings to identify its origin or nationality. On the rocks a hundred yards away was a forty-four gallon drum and a pair of oars, with pieces of wood and a copper flotation or buoyancy tank opened out flat for some purpose.

Thinking that castaways might have landed on the uninhabited island, Crawford’s party made a brief search but found no human remains. The boat’s presence has never been explained.

(From Crawford’s book Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties, 1982.)

A Noisy Exit

In August 1883 James Wallis, the chief of police on the small island of Rodrigues in the western Indian Ocean, added this note to his official report for the month:

On Sunday the 26th the weather was stormy, with heavy rain and squalls; the wind was from SE, blowing with a force of 7 to 10, Beaufort scale. Several times during the night (26th-27th) reports were heard coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns. These reports continued at intervals of between three and four hours, until 3 pm on the 27th, and the last two were heard in the direction of Oyster Bay and Port Mathurie.

It wasn’t gunfire. It was the “death cry” of Krakatoa, 3,000 miles away in Indonesia — the loudest sound in recorded history.

Technical Fowl

The lyrebird of Australia is an astonishingly gifted mimic, and its talents extend beyond the natural world: Above, a lyrebird imitates the human technology it has encountered; below, a captive bird mimics construction at the Adelaide Zoo.

In 1969, park ranger Sydney Curtis heard a lyrebird producing flute sounds in New England National Park on the coast of New South Wales. After some sleuthing, Curtis discovered that a neighboring farmer had played the flute for a pet lyrebird in the 1930s. When ornithologist Norman Robinson studied the call, he discovered that the bird was singing two popular songs of the 1930s — “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance.”

“It is now seventy years since a lyrebird learned these fragments,” wrote David Rothenberg in 2006, “and today the flute song has been heard a hundred kilometers from the original source. A human tune is spreading through the lyrebird world, as they’ve decided through generations to prefer just two shards of our particular music.”

See A Feathered Maître d’ and The Parrot of Atures.

Buried Soldiers

The United Press syndicate published an eye-opening story in 1951 — a 32-year-old German soldier had emerged, “bearded, blinded and blubbering,” when workers cleared wreckage from the entrance to a Nazi supply depot in Babie Doly, Poland.

The soldier said that he and five companions had been buried alive in the food and supply warehouse when retreating German troops dynamited the entrance in 1945. Four of the six had died, two by suicide, but the man and one companion had survived for six years underground, drinking water that trickled through cracks and living in darkness when their supply of candles ran out in 1949. The second man had “dropped dead of shock on emerging into the daylight.”

Decide for yourself — here’s another UP story, and here’s an account in Time magazine. The story also turns up in the 1958 German film Nasser Asphalt and inspired the 1973 English film The Blockhouse, with Peter Sellers.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Related: During World War II, British naval intelligence conceived “Operation Tracer,” a secret plan to seal a group of soldiers in a bunker at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, so that if Nazis captured the rock the hidden soldiers could observe the movements of enemy vessels and report them to the Admiralty by wireless communication. A chamber, shown here, measuring 14 × 4.8 × 2.4 meters was constructed secretly in 1942, and six men volunteered to be sealed inside for at least a year (they had provisions for up to seven years). But the plan was never put into effect, and the empty chambers were ordered sealed. They came to light only in 1997, when they were discovered by the Gibraltar Caving Group.

(Thanks, James.)



The Woodrow Wilson Bridge carries the Capitol Beltway across the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., connecting Maryland on the eastern shore with Virginia on the western.

The southern tip of Washington’s jurisdiction just touches the bridge’s westbound lanes — a 90-meter section of that span belongs to the District of Columbia. This makes the Wilson the only bridge in the United States that occupies three jurisdictions.

This sounds like an opportunity for some sort of perfect crime, but I can’t quite work it out.

An Old Story


Whenever I passed, some few years ago, a certain shop-window in the West-end of London, I usually had an additional peep at a large card to which was attached a mummified cat grasping a mummified rat firmly in its jaws. If I remember rightly, these animals were discovered, in a preserved, albeit shrunken and dusty, condition, imprisoned between some rafters in the house during repairs. Evidently the unfortunate cat got jammed in its peculiar position accidentally, and being averse to releasing its own prisoner, and thereby being better able to release itself, held it securely until suffocation to both ensued. It was a striking illustration of the powerfulness of determination exercised by even the smaller class of animals.

— James Scott, “Shopkeepers’ Advertising Novelties,” Strand, November 1895

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1860s, workers discovered the remains of a cat and a rat behind the organ in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral.

There’s no telling how long they’d been there. Their bodies had been desiccated in the dry air of the church.

The Telltale Mart

The Journal of Portfolio Management published an unlikely article in 1986: “Is Time Travel Impossible? A Financial Proof.”

In it, California economist Marc Reinganum notes that anyone with a time machine would have an enormous incentive to manipulate investments and futures markets, using his knowledge of the future to amass huge profits.

If this were possible at all, it would be happening on such a large scale that interest rates would be driven to zero.

So the fact that we see positive interest rates proves that time travelers don’t exist.

A Full Life

Indeed, death can coexist with immortality. Consider Miss Paginate. She is born in 2000. In 2030 she time travels to a future funeral in 2050. She finds herself in the coffin as a fifty-year-old. Just as a distinction between temporal parts allows you to both sit and stand, it also allows Miss Paginate to be both dead and alive. Indeed, by slowing down her aging to an asymptotic rate from 31 to 39, Miss Paginate lives forever. At age 40, she finds herself back in 2040. She learns that she has been missing from 2031 to 2039. Miss Paginate also discovers that her normal rate of aging has resumed. She commences a memoir of her life, with special attention to the infinite portion that commences from 2050. She regrets her upcoming death in 2050. That will deprive her the time needed to complete her autobiography. But she takes comfort in knowing that she will live forever after her death (albeit as something akin to a partial amnesiac — since she will not remember her experiences from forty to fifty).

— Roy Sorensen, “The Symmetry Problem,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death, 2013

The Tombstone House

This unassuming house in Petersburg, Va., has an odd history — it was constructed from the tombstones of Union soldiers who had besieged the city in 1864. The curator of the city’s museum told author Gwyn Headley that, apparently to save on maintenance, nearly 2,000 marble headstones were removed from Poplar Grove Cemetery and sold to a Mr. O.E. Young, who assembled them into a two-story house.

“The tombstones face inward, so as the owner lay in bed the names of the dead stood about his head,” Headley writes in Architectural Follies in America (1996). “Later they were plastered over so that their descendants leave none the wiser.”

“The last word must be left to the lady living next door to the Tombstone House, who confessed with massive political incorrectness, ‘Ah don’t rightly see what all the fuss was about. They was jist Union boys.'”

All the News …


How’s that for a headline? It ran in the New York Times Sunday magazine on Aug. 27, 1911:

Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that … a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years.

The Times was relying on Percival Lowell, who was convinced that a dying Martian civilization was struggling to reach the planet’s ice caps. “The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut,” he’d told the newspaper — but he was already largely ostracized by skeptical colleagues who couldn’t duplicate his findings. The “spokes” he later saw on Venus may have been blood vessels in his own eye.

Whatever his shortcomings, Lowell’s passions led to some significant accomplishments, including Lowell Observatory and the discovery of Pluto 14 years after his death. “Science,” wrote Emerson, “does not know its debt to imagination.”