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.”
W.H. Coltharp had a problem. He’d been asked to build a bank in Vernal, Utah, but the bricks he needed were in Salt Lake City, 127 miles away. Wagon freight would have been too expensive, so in 1916 he sent 50,000 bricks by parcel post, essentially mailing the bank to Vernal.
The post office was not delighted with Coltharp’s ingenuity. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson wrote that “it is not the intent of the United States Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail” — and he set a new limit of 200 pounds per day per receiver.
A clown’s face is his livelihood; it’s an unwritten rule among clowns that one must not copy the face of another. Accordingly, in 1946 London clown Stan Bult began painting the faces of his colleagues onto eggshells, effectively trademarking their identities. Bult’s collection was largely destroyed in an accident in 1965, but London’s Circus Clowns Club resurrected the practice in 1984 and added samples of its members’ costumes and wig hair, making each into a peculiar sort of portrait.
In 1979, Leon “Buttons” McBryde, a clown with the Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus, heard about the British practice and established his own egg registry, which now includes hundreds of portraits of clowns hand-painted by his wife, Linda. The U.S. registry has been used in at least one court case in which one clown charged another with infringing his design.
In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. As onlookers gathered it became clear that she could not stop; after many hours of exertion she collapsed and slept briefly but then rose and again began the dance. After three exhausting days she was bundled into a wagon and taken to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains, but her example had had its effect. Within days more than 30 more people had begun to dance uncontrollably, and their numbers grew; according to one chronicle, within a month 400 people were dancing.
The fact of the plague is well attested; a manuscript chronicle in the city’s archives reads:
There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Which they kept up day and night,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.
The sickness lasted until early September, when it passed away just as mysteriously. A number of explanations have been put forward, including convulsion brought on by ergot, a mold that flourishes on the stalks of damp rye. The most convincing was advanced by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: He found that a series of famines had preceded the dancing plague, spreading fear and anxiety through the city, and that a Christian church legend had told that a wrathful Saint Vitus would send down plagues of compulsive dancing on anyone who angered him. The dancing, Waller believes, was a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by this belief.
Vanderbilt epidemiologist Timothy Jones says the plague is “of immense historical value”; it “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.”
If human behavior is essentially rational, what are we to make of procrastination? I have to write a paper; it’s a requirement of the course, and I know I’ll be better off for writing it, but instead I alphabetize my spice rack. “The procrastinator is someone who knows what (s)he wants to do, in some sense can do it, is trying to do it — yet doesn’t do it,” write psychologists Maury Silver and John Sabini. Bewildered by his own delay, Hamlet says
I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do;”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.
“Hamlet knew what he had to do, wanted to do it, had the means to do it, and was prepared to do it — constantly — but was ‘unable’,” they write. Procrastination is “a psychopathology of everyday life, as curious to those who suffer it as to those who would explain it.”
(Maury Silver and John Sabini, “Procrastinating,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 11:2, July 1981.)
We know that Sherlock Holmes lived in London — we have this on the authority of Arthur Conan Doyle. But we would resist saying that the residents of London have included Sherlock Holmes. How can the one be true but not the other?
Suppose that Doyle had written a story in which Holmes had had tea with prime minister William Gladstone. Then it would seem correct to say that Holmes had had tea with Gladstone, but wrong to say that William Gladstone had once had tea with Sherlock Holmes. What can we make of this? Can Doyle be wrong about his own character’s actions? Is all fictional discourse false?
We don’t normally regard it so. “If you say that Sherlock Holmes lived in Baker Street I may wager that you are mistaken,” writes philosopher John Woods. “Then, as we all very well know, what you say wins the bet; what I say loses it. … It is an interesting and important curiosity of the affair that [the argument] that Holmes could not have lived in Baker Street because he could not have lived anywhere, he being but fictional, is not automatically, or always, if ever, deemed a satisfactory endorsement of my claim at the expense of yours. The bet is still yours.”
(From The Logic of Fiction, 1974.)
In late March 1938, Antonio Carrelli received a letter and a telegram in short succession. Both were from Ettore Majorana, the brilliant Italian physicist who had recently joined the faculty of the Naples Physics Institute, where Carrelli was director.
The letter read, “Dear Carrelli, I made a decision that has become unavoidable. There isn’t a bit of selfishness in it, but I realize what trouble my sudden disappearance will cause you and the students. For this as well, I beg your forgiveness, but especially for betraying the trust, the sincere friendship and the sympathy you gave me over the past months. I ask you to remind me to all those I learned to know and appreciate in your Institute, especially Sciuti: I will keep a fond memory of them all at least until 11 pm tonight, possibly later too. E. Majorana.”
The telegram had been sent immediately afterward: “Dear Carrelli, I hope you got my telegram and my letter at the same time. The sea rejected me and I’ll be back tomorrow at the Hotel Bologna traveling perhaps with this letter. However, I have the intention of giving up teaching. Don’t think I’m like an Ibsen heroine, because the case is different. I’m at your disposal for further details. E. Majorana.”
On investigation it was found that Majorana had withdrawn all the money from his bank account and taken the night boat from Naples to Palermo on March 23. He had sent both messages from Palermo and then boarded the steamer to return to Naples on the night of March 25.
But there the trail ended. On the return journey Majorana had shared a compartment with a local university professor, but beyond this point no trace of him could be found. His family offered a reward of 30,000 lire for his whereabouts, and Enrico Fermi implored Mussolini for aid, citing the “deep brilliance” of Majorana’s physics, which he compared to those of Galileo and Newton. A police search found no body but offered no clues.
What happened to him? Theories abound: The most natural explanation, that he committed suicide, is discounted by both his family and the bishop of Trapani, citing his strong Catholic faith. (Also, it doesn’t explain the withdrawal of the money.) Other theories contend that he was murdered, that he fled physics because he foresaw the advent of nuclear weapons, that he had a spiritual crisis and joined a monastery, that he became a beggar, and that he moved to South America. No one knows.
(Barry R. Holstein, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana,” from the Carolina International Symposium on Neutrino Physics, 2008.)
I’ve had some incredible experiences with lyrebirds of late in Sydney’s southwest. Recently on the Old Ford Road, Kentlyn, I observed a male in full display on his mound, going through a repertoire of vocal impressions that would have put Peter Sellers to shame. Among the imitations I recognised were kookaburra, currawong, butcherbird, cockatoo and even a small dog. But my most startling experience was last Christmas morning, about 7 a.m. From a group of three or four lyrebirds arose a distinct call of ‘Fire! Fire!’ It seems that one bird must have overheard this cry on some earlier danger-fraught occasion. Or, as the far side of the Georges River is Defence Department territory, maybe it picked it up during military training.
— Frederick Hill, “Members’ Mailbag,” Australian Geographic, July-September 2005
Letter to the Times, Feb. 6, 1946:
I have just written you a long letter.
On reading it over, I have thrown it into the waste paper basket.
Hoping this will meet with your approval,
I am, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
November 1896 saw the start of a strange wave of airship sightings across the United States — the San Francisco Call published the image above on Nov. 19, claiming that the craft had passed over eastern Sacramento the previous night, where hundreds had seen “its brilliant searchlight traveling over the city, and who will also swear that they heard the voices of its occupants and distinguished their merry song and laughter.”
In the frenzy that followed, the San Francisco Chronicle published an interview with attorney George D. Collins, who claimed that he represented the airship’s inventor, a wealthy Maine man who had spent 17 years and $100,000 perfecting the craft. “The reports from Sacramento the other night were quite true. It was my client’s ship that inhabitants saw. It started from Oroville, in Butte County, and flew in a straight line for sixty miles directly over Sacramento. After running up and down once or twice over the capital, my friend came on a distance of another seventy miles and landed on a spot on the Oakland side of the bay, where the ship now lies guarded by six men. In another six days several defects will be done away with and it is then his intention to fly right over San Francisco.”
That never happened, and Collins was quickly forgotten, but it’s interesting to note that 10 years earlier, in 1886, inventor Moses Cole had patented a strikingly similar “new and improved aerial vessel” (below). “It consists of two semi-spheroidal balloons,” Scientific American had reported, “between which are situated the cabins for the passengers and crew, these being fitted with windows and surrounded by a circular balcony.” Possibly the Call’s artist had used Cole’s patent for inspiration. Or possibly Collins was telling the truth. Or possibly Martians had adopted Cole’s design as a disguise. We’ll never know.
See Just Visiting.
When Arizona copper prospector James Kidd disappeared in 1949, he left behind a curious will:
this is my first and only will and is dated the second day in January 1946. I have no heirs have not married in my life, after all my funeral expenses have been paid and #100, one hundred dollars to some preacher of the gospital to say fare well at my grave sell all my property which is all in cash and stocks with E F Hutton Co Phoenix some in safety deposit box, and have this balance money go into a reserach or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death I think in time their can be a Photograph of soul leaving the human at death, James Kidd
He left it in a safe deposit box, so it didn’t come to light until 1963, by which time Kidd’s estate had appreciated to nearly $200,000. This attracted more than 100 claimants, each of which argued it was best qualified to find the human soul. The Neurological Sciences Foundation of Phoenix, for example, said that it was working with hallucinogenic agents, biochemical controls of the brain, and the nervous system. “To the extent that the ‘soul’ is a function of the human body,” it insisted, “to this extent our work … is relevant to the intent of the will.”
Arizona superior court judge Robert L. Myers finally awarded the legacy to a local neurological institute, but after an additional six years of litigation it went to the American Society for Psychical Research. “The Kidd legacy was not only a windfall,” wrote Nicholas Wade in Science, “but proved the parapsychologists could at least convince a court of the seriousness of their intentions.”
What is this? For more than 30 years, shortwave radio bands around the world have been haunted by “numbers stations” on which anonymous voices recite strings of numbers and letters. These stations transmit in various languages, following strict schedules, but they never identify themselves or give any hint as to their purpose. It seems likely that they’re run by government agencies, sending messages to spies in the field using a prearranged code. But why does the station known as “The Buzzer” send out buzzing sounds on 4625 kHz continuously, throughout the year? And why on earth does the station recorded above, known as the “Swedish Rhapsody,” transmit the sound of a music box and a little girl’s voice?
Numbers stations are beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act because (presumably) secrecy is essential to their missions, and in fact in the United Kingdom it’s illegal even to listen to them. So we’re unlikely to learn the full story anytime soon. But in 1997 the Irdial-Discs record label assembled a 5-CD set of recordings and has made it freely available to those who want to study them.
It’s possible to visit all six New England states in a single afternoon. The Big E, the region’s annual exposition, features an Avenue of States that includes a replica of each state’s original statehouse. Like an embassy, each building and the land on which it stands is owned by the state it represents, so Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont are all present on the same street.
This arrangement permits each house to sell lottery tickets, so it’s possible to enter six state lotteries at the same time.
On March 31, 1943, Army Air Corps second lieutenant Owen Baggett’s B-24 was hit by Japanese fighters while en route to destroy a railroad bridge in Burma. Baggett and four others bailed out before the bomber exploded, and the fighters began strafing them as they descended. Two of the parachutists were killed, and Baggett’s arm was grazed. He drew his .45 and sagged in his harness, hoping the Japanese would think him dead.
Presently a Zero approached him at near stall speeds and the pilot opened his canopy to get a better look. Baggett fired four rounds into the cockpit and the fighter dropped out of sight.
Had he downed a fighter with a pistol? It’s impossible to know for certain. Baggett was captured by the Burmese and spent two years in a Japanese prison camp and eventually retired from the Air Force as a colonel. When journalist John L. Frisbee contacted him in 1996, he was reluctant to talk about the incident — he believed he had hit the pilot but acknowledged that the evidence for this was indirect and circumstantial. Frisbee wrote that a few months after Baggett’s imprisonment, “Col. Harry Melton, commander of the 311th Fighter Group who had been shot down, passed through the POW camp and told Baggett that a Japanese colonel said the pilot Owen Baggett had fired at had been thrown clear of his plane when it crashed and burned. He was found dead of a single bullet in his head. Colonel Melton intended to make an official report of the incident but lost his life when the ship on which he was being taken to Japan was sunk.” Make your own judgment.
In Nature (January 23, p. 271) you give a letter from Mr. Scouller describing an interesting case of a rainbow, due to the image of the sun in water, which, with the ordinary primary and secondary bows, make up (there being no secondary to that formed by the reflected sun) the three which he saw. Here is a short account of what I saw long ago, almost in prehistoric times, in Scotland, where such sights ought, according to your correspondent, to be very commonly seen. I may mention that I saw at the same time, lasting some five minutes, eight well-defined rainbows of one sort or another.
In 1841, during the time of a long vacation party, spent at Oban, I walked out with my brother to Dunstaffnage, and we were on the top of the Castle, somewhere between 3 and 4 p.m., on a day in the middle of August. Not a breath of wind, bright sun over, I think, Lismore Lighthouse, dusky clouds all over Ben Cruachan and Conoll Ferry; the sea in the bay (bounded by Dunstaffnage in the west) as smooth as a pond. Gradually there appeared before us the astonishing sight of the aforesaid eight distinct rainbows, viz. primary and secondary ordinary bows; primary and secondary bows by reflected sun; primary and secondary bows formed by light from the real sun reflected from the water after leaving certain drops; primary and secondary formed by light from the sun reflected at the water, and, after leaving certain other drops, again reflected at the water. I have called the latter four distinct bows, because, although they looked like reflections of a solid set of four arcs, they were really formed by means of drops distinct from those which helped to make the first four bows. I append a sketch of what I saw.
— Percival Frost, letter to Nature, Feb. 6, 1890
Inspired by Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Colorado miniaturist Elaine Diehl spent 13 years and 6,000 hours creating Astolat Castle, a 9-foot dollhouse weighing 600 pounds. The weathered copper roof covers 29 rooms and 10 adjoining areas, staircases, and hallways outfitted with parquet floors, framed mirrors, tapestries, gold chandeliers, oil paintings, and fireplaces. The seven levels range from a wine cellar and an armory in the basement to a “wizard’s tower” outfitted with telescopes and zodiacal signs. The 1″ scale furnishings include seven periods and styles, including Spanish, Oriental, Tudor, 18th-century English, and Victorian.
“It’s been a wonderful hobby,” she told the Prescott, Ariz., Courier in 1990. “I used to not be able to wait to get home from work so I could play. The hours slipped by so easily, I would look at my watch and it would be three in the morning. … With this hobby, you can be in control of your own little world. In real life, you don’t have all those choices available to you.”
When Dutch army colonel J.W.C. van Gorkum died in 1880, he was laid to rest in a Protestant cemetery. His wife, Lady J.C.P.H. van Aefferden, knew that her Catholic faith destined her for a separate cemetery. So she contrived a solution: Before her death in 1888, she requested the burial plot abutting the colonel’s and asked that the tombstones “join hands” over the wall — so that the two of them could hold hands through eternity.
On Sept. 19, 1927, a bedraggled woman arrived at a telegraph maintenance cabin in British Columbia. The operator, Bill Blackstock, fed her and asked where she was going. “Siberia,” she said.
Her name was Lillian Alling, and she had crossed the continent on foot since entering Canada at Niagara Falls the previous year. She said she had emigrated from Russia to New York City, where she had worked as a maid but found herself unhappy there. She had decided to return to Russia, but realized it would be impossible to save enough for a steamer ticket. After consulting a map of North America in a public library, she had resolved to walk home.
Fearing for her safety in the Yukon winter, Provincial Police constable George Wyman contrived to charge her with vagrancy. “I was so surprised to see that woman there,” he told journalist Donald Stainsby. “She was so scantily clad and had no firearms or anything to see her through that country. She was about five foot five and thin as a wisp. When I first saw her, she was wearing running shoes. She had a knapsack with a half-dozen sandwiches in it, some tea and some other odds and ends, a comb and personal effects, but no makeup. I had a time getting her name; she wasn’t going to say anything to anybody. But I finally got it, and when she said she was going to Siberia, I couldn’t say anything. I thought she was out of her mind.”
Alling was released from prison by early November and resumed her journey. She reached Nome in 1929 and headed west, having covered more than 6,000 miles in less than three years. Her trail disappears there, but there’s an intriguing postscript: When True West magazine published an article about Alling in 1972, an Arthur F. Elmore of Lincoln, Calif., wrote to say that a Russian friend of his had grown up across the Bering Strait from Wales, Alaska. In the autumn of 1930, while on an errand for his mother, he had noticed three officials questioning a woman accompanied by three Eskimos:
“He remembered the woman telling the officials she had come from America where she said she had been unable to make a living or make friends. … She said she had had to walk ‘a terrible long way because no one would lift as much as a finger to help me in any way because they didn’t want to — or couldn’t understand — my feelings. I tried to make friends at first, but everyone wanted no part of me — as a foreigner — and that so deeply hurt me I couldn’t bear it and so I began to walk. I knew it was far and it would be hard but I had to do it even if no one understood. And I did it!'”
(From Susan Smith-Josephy’s monograph Lillian Alling: The Journey Home, 2011.)
On the evening of Aug. 12, 1964, 41-year-old California businessman Charles Ogle climbed into a four-seat Cessna 210 and took off from Oakland International Airport without filing a flight plan. He was never seen again.
Rescuers searched for Ogle for 60 hours before giving up.
“This has hung over me my whole life,” Ogle’s son William told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “I don’t remember the emotional impact because I was too young, but my teachers would complain to my mother because I would look out the windows all the time looking for his plane. I just thought he didn’t come down yet.”
Two things cannot occupy the same place at the same time. That seems reasonable. But:
A cat called Tibbles loses his tail at time t2. But before t2 somebody had picked out, identified, and distinguished from Tibbles a different and rather peculiar animate entity — namely, Tibbles minus Tibbles’ tail. Let us suppose that he decided to call this entity ‘Tib.’ Suppose Tibbles was on the mat at time t1. Then both Tib and Tibbles were on the mat at t1. … But consider the position from t3 onward when, something the worse for wear, the cat is sitting on the mat without a tail. Is there one cat or are there two cats there? Tib is certainly sitting there. In a way nothing happened to him at all. But so is Tibbles. For Tibbles lost his tail, survived this experience, and then at t3 was sitting on the mat. And we agreed that Tib ≠ Tibbles. We can uphold the transitivity of identity, it seems, only if we stick by that decision at t3 and allow that at t3 there are two cats on the mat in exactly the same place at exactly the same time.
Tibbles and Tib were distinct material objects, but after the amputation they appear to occupy exactly the same space. Were we mistaken?
(From David Wiggins, “On Being in the Same Place at the Same Time,” The Philosophical Review, 77:1 [January 1968], 90-95.)
No cat has two tails.
Every cat has one tail more than no cat.
Therefore every cat has three tails.
In composing a state map of New York in the 1930s, the General Drafting Company wanted to be sure that competing mapmakers would not simply copy its work. So the company’s founder, Otto G. Lindberg, and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, scrambled their initials and placed the fictional town of Agloe at the intersection of two dirt roads in the Catskills north of Roscoe.
Several years later, they discovered Agloe on a Rand McNally map and confronted their competitor. But Rand was innocent: It had got the name from the county government, which had taken it from the Agloe General Store, which now occupied the intersection. The store had taken the name from a map by Esso, which had (apparently) copied it from Lindberg’s map. Agloe had somehow clambered from imagination into reality.
Similarly, in 2001 editors placed a fake word in the New Oxford American Dictionary as a trap for other lexicographers who might steal their material. Fittingly, the word was esquivalience, “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.”
Sure enough, the word turned up at Dictionary.com (it’s since been taken down), citing Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary.
And as with Agloe, the invention has taken on a life of its own. NOAD editor Christine Lindberg, who coined esquivalience, told the Chicago Tribune that she finds herself using it regularly. “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it: ‘Those esquivalient little wretches.’ Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”
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.