Costa Rica’s alligator bug, Fulgora laternaria, bears a protuberance that looks remarkably like a caiman’s head — a feature that may make a hungry bird think twice.
The leaf insects of Southeast Asia, below, so convincingly mimic living leaves that they even bear “bite marks.” This fooled Magellan’s companion Antonio Pigafetta, who encountered them in the Philippines in 1521:
In this island are also found certain trees, the leaves of which, when they fall, are animated, and walk. They are like the leaves of the mulberry tree, but not so long; they have the leaf stalk short and pointed, and near the leaf stalk they have on each side two feet. If they are touched they escape, but if crushed they do not give out blood. I kept one for nine days in a box. When I opened it the leaf went round the box. I believe they live upon air.
Suppose we have a complete wooden ship, and one day we replace one of its wooden planks with an aluminum one. Most people would agree that the ship survives this operation; that is to say, its identity remains unchanged. But suppose that we then replace a second plank, and then a third, until our wooden ship is made entirely of aluminum. Is this the same ship that we started with? If not, when did it change?
Thomas Hobbes adds a wrinkle: Suppose that, as we did all this refurbishing, someone had gathered up all the discarded wooden planks and used them to assemble a second ship. What are we to make of this? “This, without doubt, had also been the same numerical ship with that which was at the beginning; and so there would have been two ships numerically the same, which is absurd.”
And philosopher Roderick Chisholm adds another: “Let us suppose that the captain of the original ship had solemnly taken the vow that, if his ship were ever to go down, he would go down with it. What, now, if the two ships collide at sea and he sees them start to sink together? Where does his duty lie — with the aluminum ship or with the reassembled wooden ship?”
When Ernest Shackleton set out for Antarctica in 1914, his carpenter, Harry “Chippy” McNish, brought along a tabby who was quickly named “Mrs. Chippy,” though he proved to be a male. When the Endurance was crushed by pack ice, Shackleton ordered the “weakling” cat to be shot, a decision for which McNish never forgave him. Cat and carpenter were reunited in 2004, when a life-size bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy was added to McNish’s grave in Wellington.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s 1913 arctic expedition ended in disaster when the main vessel sank, but ship’s kitten Nigeraurak (“little black one”) was lugged safely home in a sack, “the only member of the expedition to survive the whole affair sleek and unscathed.”
And Matthew Flinders’ cat Trim accompanied him on several adventures, including the circumnavigation of Australia, a shipwreck in 1803, and imprisonment in Mauritius during the return to England. Today Sydney’s Mitchell Library bears a statue of the cat (below), with a plaque quoting Flinders’ own words:
TO THE MEMORY OF
The best and most illustrious of his race
The most affectionate of friends,
faithful of servants,
and best of creatures
He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to Australia,
which he circumnavigated, and was ever the
delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers.
On June 1, 1873, during a visit to New College, Oxford, South Carolina planter William Heyward Trapier asked for a mint julep, “to the utter bewilderment of the butler,” according to the Oxford Companion to the Year.
When his hosts confessed their ignorance of the American drink, Trapier gave them his family recipe, a silver pot in which to share it, and instructions to prepare it every year on the anniversary of his visit. Thereafter it became a college tradition to substitute juleps for the after-dinner port on June 1 each year, and to leave a place empty for Trapier.
This continued for a century, but apparently the tradition died out during World War II. But there’s good news — Oxford’s student newspaper now says that the college has approved a Mint Julep Quartermaster to start it up again.
Here’s the recipe that Trapier gave to the college, according to the Oxford Times:
- Crush two sprigs of mint and half a teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of a tall glass.
- Add two lumps of ice and cover with Bourbon whiskey.
- Fill the glass with cracked ice and chill for several hours before drinking.
Oxfordshire’s annual stag hunt took a strange turn in 1819:
Dec. 21, being St. Thomas’s Day, as usual, a stag was turned out from Blenheim Park, the property of his Grace, the Duke of Marlborough. It directed its course towards Wickham; from thence it took the high road and proceeded to Oxford; and then formed one of the most beautiful and picturesque sights that can be imagined. The stag, and dogs in close pursuit, followed by a great number of well-known and experienced sportsmen, proceeded up the High-street, as far as Brazenose College; when, to the no small astonishment of hundreds of spectators, the stag took refuge in the chapel, during divine service; where it was killed, sans ceremonie, by the eager dogs.
From The Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1820.
Psycho is certainly suspenseful on the first viewing. But why does it remain so on the second?
“How can there be suspense if we already know how things will turn out?” asks University of Michigan philosopher Kendall Walton. “Why, for example, should Tom and Becky’s plight concern or even interest a reader who knows, from reading the novel previously, that eventually they will escape from the cave? One might have supposed that, once we have experienced a work often enough to learn thoroughly the relevant features of the plot, it would lose its capacity to create suspense, and that future readings or viewings of it would lack the excitement of the first one. But this frequently is not what happens.”
The paradox extends to music. Why does a crescendo continue to “work” on repeated listenings? Why does it still move us?
(Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions,” The Journal of Philosophy 75:1 [January 1978], 26)
Between 1925 and 1963, Burma-Shave billboards were ubiquitous on American highways. Over the course of 18 seconds a motorist would pass six successive red and white signs that formed a rhymed verse:
SO NEAT AND TRIM
RED RIDING HOOD
IS CHASING HIM
At its peak the campaign had 40,000 signs posted between Maine and Texas. The jingles were clearly whimsical, but anything that popular invites some smart-alecks:
FREE OFFER! FREE OFFER!!
RIP A FENDER
OFF YOUR CAR
MAIL IT IN FOR
A HALF-POUND JAR
When this poem was posted, “scores of fenders of notable decrepitude arrived at the plant by parcel post and express,” noted Frank Rowsome Jr. in his 1965 history of the campaign, The Verse by the Side of the Road. “Many enterprising people scavenged Minnesota junkyards, triumphantly bearing off rusty horrors that they lugged to the Burma-Shave offices.” Each was gamely honored with a free jar of shaving cream, but this only made things worse:
FREE — FREE
At this Arliss “Frenchy” French, manager of a Red Owl supermarket in Appleton, Wis., produced 900 empty containers and demanded to be sent to Mars. Burma-Shave sent general manager Ralph Getchman to Appleton, where he found that French had heaped the jars in a huge pile in his store and taken out a full-page newspaper ad reading SEND FRENCHY TO MARS! After some bewildered havering, the company struck a deal with Red Owl’s publicist — they sent French and his wife to Moers, Germany. “The Frenches had a marvelous time,” remembered Burma-Shave president Leonard Odell. “We still get Christmas cards from them.”
A lump of clay exists on Monday. On Tuesday it’s fashioned into a statue. Are the lump and the statue the same thing? It would appear not: The statue didn’t exist on Monday, and it wouldn’t survive being squashed, but the lump did and would. But if the lump and the statue are two different material objects, how can they coincide? How can two things exist in the same place at the same time?
One last striking story about bird mimicry:
I was in the Outer Hebrides and I came across an abandoned derelict croft. It had no roof, but very substantial walls and in the gaps between the stonework was a starlings’ nest. I could hear the birds inside, and eventually one of the starlings came to defend its territory. I heard straight away that it wasn’t just the usual rambling song. It started to mimic a Corncrake, a species that is very rare in mainland Britain. It did this bird’s buzzing repetitive song, but then it immediately went into other sounds that seemed familiar and had a strong rhythm to them. As I was listening I was looking around and could see the remnants of farm machinery, including an ancient tractor that had not moved for 20-30 years. I realised this bird was singing the song of some of this machinery. It was singing the song of a mechanical pump that had obviously been active around this farm, and used by the people who had lived here.
I wasn’t listening to the same starling that heard these original sounds. These copied sounds are usually passed on from parents or neighbouring birds so that a young bird absorbs and then duplicates them. The strange thing was that I was recording the sounds in what had been somebody’s living room, a place that had obviously been full of the conversations of family life over generations and which had passed into history. Yet the birds had returned and taken it back — claimed this space and these rocks — and were singing their own song. And they were singing the songs that were around when the people were here.
— Chris Watson of Tyne and Wear, U.K., quoted in Mark Cocker’s Birds & People, 2013
adj. producing darkness
On Sept. 29, 1940, two Avro Anson training aircraft took off from a Royal Australian Air Force base near Wagga Wagga for a cross-country exercise over New South Wales. They were making a banking turn over Brocklesby when pilot Leonard Fuller lost sight of Jack Hewson’s plane beneath him, and the two collided with a “grinding crunch of metal and tearing of fabric.”
To his horror, Fuller found that the planes were now locked together. His own engines had been knocked out by the collision, but Hewson’s were still functioning, and he could still manipulate his own ailerons and flaps, so he found he could control the lumbering pair as one aircraft.
After the crew of the lower plane had bailed out, along with his own navigator, Fuller flew an additional five miles and made an emergency landing in a paddock, where he slid 200 yards to a safe stop. “I did everything we’ve been told to do in a forced landing,” he told air accident inspector Arthur Murphy. “Land as close as possible to habitation or a farmhouse and, if possible, land into the wind. I did all that. There’s the farmhouse, and I did a couple of circuits and landed into the wind. She was pretty heavy on the controls, though.”
Fuller was credited with saving £40,000 worth of military hardware and preventing any damage or injury in Brocklesby, and his plane was even returned to service. He died four years later in a road accident.
On Feb. 6, 1898, a worker preparing the front page of the New York Times added 1 to that day’s issue number, 14,499, and got 15,000.
Amazingly, no one caught the error until 1999, when 24-year-old news assistant Aaron Donovan tallied the dates since the paper’s founding in 1851 and found that the modern issue number was 500 too high.
So on Jan. 1, 2000, the paper turned back the clock, reverting from 51,753 to 51,254.
“There is something that appeals to me about the way the issue number marks the passage of time across decades and centuries,” Donovan wrote in a memo. “It has been steadily climbing for longer than anyone who has ever glanced at it has been alive. The 19th-century newsboy hawking papers in a snowy Union Square is in some minute way bound by the issue number to the Seattle advertising executive reading the paper with her feet propped up on the desk.”
In 1923, the Brazier family traveled from Oregon to Indiana, bringing their 2-year-old collie/shepherd mix, Bobbie. They were separated in Wolcott, Ind., when Bobbie was chased off by a group of local dogs, and after three weeks the family reluctantly returned to Oregon.
Exactly six months later, the family’s youngest daughter was walking down a Silverton street when she recognized a bedraggled dog. At her voice he “fairly flew at Nova, leaping up again and again to cover her face with kisses and making half-strangled, sobbing sounds of relief and delight as if he could hardly voice his wordless joy.”
He had traveled more than 2,500 miles. He was identified by three scars, and by letters the family later received from people who had housed and fed him along the way. The “wonder dog” received national publicity, and well-wishers gave him a jewel-studded harness, a silver collar, keys to various cities, and “a miniature bungalow, which weighed about nine hundred pounds, with eight windows curtained with silk.” He died in 1927, and Rin Tin Tin laid a wreath on his grave.
At a timber-mill in the Powelltown district (Victoria) it is customary to blow three blasts of the whistle to indicate an accident and six blasts to notify a fatality. One day the six blasts echoed about the hills and men ran from all directions to the mill. But there was no fatality; the ‘whistle’ was produced by a Lyrebird, which had heard the three blasts with some frequency, and, in imitating them, had added three more for good measure. That episode ranks with one related by Mervyn Bill, a forest surveyor, who has written that when he was camped at Hell’s Gates (Victoria), he was annoyed to see, through the theodolite telescope, his men doing certain field operations without the usual instructions. The fact became revealed, subsequently, that they had obeyed ‘instructions’ from a Lyrebird in an adjacent gully, which faultlessly imitated the surveyor’s shrill, staccato code of signals.
— Alec H. Chisholm, Bird Wonders of Australia, 1958
See Technical Fowl.
In April 1964, British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home was staying at the home of a friend in Scotland. One day when he happened to be alone there, he answered the door to find a group of students from Aberdeen University, who said they were there to kidnap him.
At first Douglas-Home said, “I suppose you realize if you do, the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300.” Then he stalled by asking for 10 minutes to pack a few things, and bought further time by offering beer to the students. Eventually his friends returned and the students departed willingly. Douglas-Home never spoke publicly of the incident, as the breach would have imperiled his bodyguard’s career, but in 1977 he mentioned it to a colleague, whose diary entry came to light in 2008.
Related: Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared entirely in 1967. He was visiting Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, with friends when he decided to go swimming. When he disappeared from view a search was organized, but it could find no trace of him. The beach is known for its rip tides, so he’s presumed to have drowned, but no body has ever been found.
An epitaph in the Pine Forest cemetery in Wilmington, N.C., reads:
BORN SEPT. 24, 1894
DIED MAY 18, 1904
THIS WAS THE ONLY DOG WE EVER KNEW
THAT ATTENDED CHURCH EVERY SUNDAY
Actually, dogs commonly attended services in former times. Indeed, until the 19th century, they could be so numerous that churches employed “dog whippers” to remove unruly dogs during services. The Great Church of St. Bavo in Haarlem, the Netherlands, contains a carving of the hondenslager at work (above).
The 18th-century zoologist Carl Linnaeus used to attend mass with his dog Pompe. Linnaeus always left after an hour, regardless of whether the sermon was finished. It’s said that when he was sick Pompe would arrive at the service alone, stay for the customary hour, and depart.
“Heaven goes by favor,” wrote Mark Twain. “If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
From Edmund Fillingham King’s Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860:
On the 9th of August, 1796, a cricket match was played by eleven Greenwich pensioners with one leg, against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new cricket ground, Montpelier gardens, Walworth. At nine o’clock the men arrived in three Greenwich stages; about twelve the wickets were pitched, and they commenced. Those with but one leg had the first innings, and got 93 runs; those with but one arm got but 42 runs during their innings. The one-leg commenced their second innings, and six were bowled out after they had got 60 runs; so that they left off one hundred and eleven more than those with one arm. Next morning the match was played out; and the men with one leg beat the one-arms by one hundred and three runs. After the match was finished the eleven one-legged men ran a sweep-stakes of one hundred yards distance for twenty guineas, and the three had first prizes.
From Henry Colburn’s London “calendar of amusements,” 1840:
From “Eccentric Cricket Matches,” Strand, 1903:
A few winters ago, when a fine stretch of water in Sheffield Park was frozen over, his lordship [the Earl of Sheffield] organized a match on the ice, in which several of his house guests appeared. All the players used skates, the wicket-keeper, as might be imagined, having no little difficulty to keep still, and the bowlers being continually no-balled for running, or rather skating, over the crease. The beauty of ice-cricket lies in the fact that the batsman may score half-a-dozen runs while the fieldsman is endeavouring to regain his feet and pick up the ball, which may be lodged in a bank of snow.
Lake Superior contains a phantom island. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris established the boundary between the United States and Canada as running “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake,” following an inaccurate map created by John Mitchell. In the 1820s surveyors discovered that Phelipeaux does not exist, and the boundary had to be negotiated anew.
Around the same time, the dramatically named Mountains of Kong appeared on maps of West Africa, apparently placed there originally by English cartographer James Rennell. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French explorer Louis Gustave Binger discovered that they don’t exist either. They persisted in Goode’s World Atlas until 1995.
On Nov. 29, 1970, on a remote hiking trail in Norway’s Isdalen Valley, a university professor and his two daughters discovered the body of a woman lying in a burned-out campfire. In the grass around her were a dozen pink sleeping pills, a packed lunch, an empty quart bottle of liqueur, and two plastic bottles that smelled of gasoline. She had died from a combination of burns and carbon monoxide poisoning, and an autopsy showed traces of at least 50 sleeping pills in her body. Her neck bore a bruise, possibly the result of a blow.
In the ensuing investigation, Bergen police found that the woman had visited the city three times between March and November that year. On the last visit she had checked into the Hotel Rosenkrantz for one day, then moved to the Hotel Holberg, where she had remained in her room and seemed watchful. On Nov. 23 she paid cash for the room and asked the receptionist to call a taxi for her. Her body was found six days later.
Her identity was an insoluble puzzle. She had checked into the Holberg as a Belgian named Elisabeth Leenhower, but police discovered that she had maintained at least nine different identities and spoke German, English, Dutch, and French, all with an indistinct accent. She had left two suitcases in a locker at the train station, but all identifying information had been removed: The labels had been cut out of her clothes, and even the name tag of a bottle of cream had been scraped away. Sketches of the woman were circulated throughout Norway, but no one knew her.
After interviewing 100 people in a three-week investigation, the police formally ruled her death a suicide. On Feb. 5, 1971, a procession of 18 officers bore her to the cemetery where she lies today. Her identity has never been discovered.
See The Somerton Man.
Henry Kettle painted this pyramid anamorphosis around 1770. If a mirrored pyramid is placed at the center of the canvas, then each of its sides reflects a portion of one of the four distorted heads … producing a true hidden portrait when viewed from above.
Some notable clock faces: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in Manhattan (upper left), the Palace of Westminster in London (upper right), the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower in Milwaukee (lower left), the Spasskaya Tower at the Kremlin (lower right), and the Abraj Al Bait tower in Mecca (center).
Unbelievably, these are shown to scale. Each of the four faces on the Abraj Al Bait is 43 meters square; the minute hand alone is 22 meters long.
The Palace of Westminster is unusual in that its clock uses the numeral IV — most clocks with Roman numerals use IIII in the fourth position, for unclear reasons.
In 1830, architect Thomas Willson proposed housing London’s dead in a gigantic pyramid, “a metropolitan cemetery on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the largest city in the world, embracing prospectively the demands of centuries, sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security, without interfering with the comfort, the health, the business, the property, or the pursuits of the living.”
Willson’s necropolis would have covered 18 acres but would consolidate graves that would require 50 times that space in a conventional graveyard. With a base the size of Russell Square and a height greater than St. Paul’s, its granite-faced bulk would surpass the great pyramid of Giza. Through an Egyptian portal visitors would enter a surrounding enclosure decorated with statuary, cenotaphs, and monuments, as well as a chapel, a register office, and dwellings for the keeper, the clerk, the sexton, and the superintendent. They could ascend any side of the pyramid by a vast flight of stairs, at the top reaching an obelisk crowned with an observatory.
“This grand mausoleum,” Willson announced, “will go far towards completing the glory of London. It will rise in majesty over its splendid fanes and lofty towers,–teaching the living to die, and the dying to live for ever.” The cost he estimated at £2.5 million, but with 30,000 interments per year at £5 each, the pyramid would bring in £150,000 per year, saving £12.5 million over the course of a century in a project whose necessity, sadly, was certain to endure.
“However, the pyramid cemetery, instead of rearing its gloomy mountain-side into the clouds, and casting the shadow of death over every part of London in succession in the course of the day, exists only upon paper,” runs a contemporary report. “The dividends were too remote, and joint-stock people would not wait one hundred years for one hundred per cent.”
On March 19, 1884, the French cargo ship Frigorifique was cruising through heavy fog in the Bay of Biscay when the British steamer Rumney loomed out of nowhere and struck it amidships. The French crew scrambled aboard the Rumney, and their own ship disappeared into the fog.
Some time later, while the injured Rumney was still lowering its boats, another ship hove out of the fog and struck it amidships. This proved to be the empty Frigorifique — her jammed rudder had led her in a great circle through the fog to return for a second collision.
Both ships sank this time, but the crews escaped safely in the Rumney‘s lifeboats.
If a pane of green glass gives the things behind it a green colour, it turns white to green, red to black, yellow to greenish yellow, blue to greenish blue. The white pane should, therefore, make everything whitish, i.e. it should make everything pale; and, then why shouldn’t it turn black to grey? — Even a yellow glass makes things darker, should a white glass make things darker too?
— Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, 1977
‘Our Second Experiment,’ the Professor announced, as Bruno returned to his place, still thoughtfully rubbing his elbows, ‘is the production of that seldom-seen-but-greatly-to-be-admired phenomenon, Black Light! You have seen White Light, Red Light, Green Light, and so on: but never, till this wonderful day, have any eyes but mine seen Black Light! This box,’ carefully lifting it upon the table, and covering it with a heap of blankets, ‘is quite full of it. The way I made it was this — I took a lighted candle into a dark cupboard and shut the door. Of course the cupboard was then full of Yellow Light. Then I took a bottle of Black ink, and poured it over the candle: and, to my delight, every atom of the Yellow Light turned Black! That was indeed the proudest moment of my life! Then I filled a box with it. And now would any one like to get under the blankets and see it?’
— Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893