Oddities

Homework

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maria_Gaetana_Agnesi.jpg

On several occasions, mathematician Maria Agnesi (1718-1799) arrived in her study to discover that a vexing problem had been solved for her — and, eerily, solved in her own handwriting.

Agnesi was a somnambulist. In her sleep she would walk to the study, make a light, and solve a problem that she had left incomplete.

Then she’d return to bed with no memory of what she’d done.

A Natural Lighthouse

Sailors can navigate Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo easily at night — the sky is lit with almost continuous lightning 150 nights a year. The flashes are visible for hundreds of miles, but there is no thunder.

No one knows what causes it.

“Coincidence”

In Detroit, year ago, Street Sweeper Joseph Figlock was furbishing up an alley when a baby plopped down from a fourth-story window, struck him on the head and shoulders, injured Joseph Figlock and itself but was not killed. Last fortnight, as Joseph Figlock was sweeping out another alley, two-year-old David Thomas fell from a fourth-story window, landed on ubiquitous Mr. Figlock with the same results.

Time, Oct. 17, 1938

“How Did It Get There?”

http://books.google.com/books?id=qqovAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false

From The Strand, April 1901. R.C. Hardman of Meadhurst, Uppingham, ordered a ton of coal and found a coin dated 1397 embedded in one lump.

If there’s an explanation for this, I can’t find it.

Darwin’s Revenge

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_I_of_Greece.png

Some kings expire in bed. Some die gloriously in battle.

Alexander of Greece was bitten to death by monkeys.

He was walking in the royal garden in October 1920 when a monkey attacked his dog. He fought it off with a stick, suffering only a wound on the hand, but the monkey’s mate rushed in and gave him a much more severe bite. He died of blood poisoning three weeks later.

Alexander’s exiled father returned and led the nation into a bloody war with Turkey. “It is perhaps no exaggeration,” wrote Winston Churchill, “to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.”

See “Monkeys Demanding Their Dead.”

“An Extraordinary Cock, With Four Legs”

http://books.google.com/books?id=ZlUNpSm5tPIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false

He was hatched near Birmingham, purchased in the market of Alcester, in the county of Warwick, and is now the property of Mr. John Weisman, tailor, residing at No. 6, Lombard Street, Mint Street, Southwark. … He is strongly made, his plumage beautifully variegated and spangled, and of a fine tone of colour. When seen in front he appears to resemble any other animal of the same species, except that his beak is small for his size, and his comb and wattles are considerably larger than usual: but connected with the rump there is a smaller body, which is provided with a second pair of legs, with spurs equal in size to those of the other legs, being three inches in length and remarkably strong. These hinder legs the animal does not employ in walking; they hang down behind the others, not loosely, but on the contrary, in a firm and strong manner. He has two vents which he uses indiscriminately; and crows both loud and well.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1820

“Singular Discovery”

http://books.google.com/books?id=MgMDAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false

A very singular discovery of an inscription was made some time since at Coxwold, near Thirsk in Yorkshire. … An ash was … felled and split for firewood. Upon being riven asunder, the outer part of the tree was cleft in two like a case, leaving the inner portion of the trunk entire, and the following rude inscription was discovered, distinctly legible, both upon the inner part of the trunk, and with the letters inverted, upon the outer casing. The inscription can, without difficulty, be thus read:–

tree inscription

There is no date to the inscription, but … it would … appear that the tree has been cut down nearly a hundred years. Also, by the number of rings in the wood, each indicating a year’s growth, the tree appears to have been about fifty-five years old when the inscription was made, and to have subsequently grown for nearly two hundred years. The closeness of the rings under the circumference prevents this estimation of the date from being regarded as more than an approximation; but all the circumstances render it highly probable that the inscription was made about three centuries ago.

– Kazlitt Arvine, Cyclopaedia of Anecdotes of Literature and the Fine Arts, 1856

A Boston Accent

Harvard anthropologist Terrence Deacon was walking past the New England Aquarium one day in 1984 when a voice yelled, “Hey! Hey! Get outta there!”

He stopped, but saw no one. Again the voice said, “Hey! Hey you!” Eventually he traced it to an enclosure of harbor seals, and to one in particular that seemed to be speaking English:

On investigating, Deacon learned that “Hoover” (named for his appetite) had been discovered as a pup by a Maine fisherman and donated to the aquarium, where he became a star attraction.

Deacon studied the seal for a year. Regarding the vocalizing, he notes that some birds seem to learn their parents’ songs in early life but sing them only later. “Though we will never know for sure,” he writes, “the image of Hoover guzzling the food in the cupboard and the old fisherman yelling, ‘Hey! Hey! Hoover! Hey you! Get outta there!’ has a persuasive feel, or twisted irony.”

“This Gift of Heaven”

William Beckford’s 1835 travel memoir Italy: With Sketches of Spain and Portugal contains a startling episode in the monastery El Escorial, near Madrid:

Forth stalked the prior, and drawing out from a remarkably large cabinet an equally capacious sliding shelf–(the source, I conjecture, of the potent odour I complained of)–displayed lying stretched out upon a quilted silken mattress, the most glorious specimen of plumage ever beheld in terrestrial regions–a feather from the wing of the Archangel Gabriel, full three feet long, and of a blushing hue more soft and delicate than that of the loveliest rose. I longed to ask at what precise moment this treasure beyond price had been dropped–whether from the air–on the open ground, or within the walls of the humble tenement at Nazareth; but I repressed all questions of an indiscreet tendency–the why and wherefore, the when and how, for what and to whom such a palpable manifestation of archangelic beauty and wingedness had been vouchsafed.

It should be noted that Beckford was something of an eccentric; his enormous country house had collapsed 10 years earlier, and perhaps his writings too were built on dreams. But the monks aren’t telling.

FYI

One day last week a marvelous apparition was seen near Coney Island. At the height of at least a thousand feet in the air a strange object was in the act of flying toward the New Jersey coast. It was apparently a man with bat’s wings and improved frog’s legs. The face of the man could be distinctly seen, and it wore a cruel and determined expression. The movements made by the object closely resembled those of a frog in the act of swimming with his hind legs and flying with his front legs. … When we add that this monster waved his wings in answer to the whistle of a locomotive, and was of a deep black color, the alarming nature of the apparition can be imagined. The object was seen by many reputable persons, and they all agree that it was a man engaged in flying toward New Jersey.

New York Times, Sept. 12, 1880

A Dress Rehearsal

Sir:–Among many strange coincidences which I have experienced in my time, one of the most singular which I can recall at the moment happened to me in connection with a play which I wrote some twenty years ago for the German Reed entertainment. One of my characters was named Robert Golding, and for the requirements of the plot I had made him the sole survivor of the crew of a ship called the Caroline, which had been lost at sea. A few days after the production of the play I read in a newspaper an account of the shipwreck of a vessel named the Caroline, which had gone down with all hands, with one exception, and this exception was a man of the name of Golding. Now Golding is not at all a common name, and the circumstance of his being, both in fact and fiction, the sole survivor of the shipwrecked Caroline, impressed me at the time as being a coincidence of a very peculiar nature. Yours faithfully, ARTHUR LAW.

– London Daily Graphic, Sept. 7, 1905, quoted in Experiments in Psychical Research at Leland Stanford Junior University, 1917

Two-Legged Cats

http://books.google.com/books?id=ymrXAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&rview=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false

The cat on the left appeared in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in October 1836. It’s difficult to tell from the drawing, but I think she’s missing her left front and right rear legs. “She was active, and would leap on a table, to the height three or four feet. Her gait is odd, as might be supposed, and often she leaps like a frog. … She frequently sits in the posture as given in the annexed drawing, especially when expecting to receive food; and her appearance very singular and rather ludicrous. Though destitute of claws, she is a good mouse-catcher. The tail is usually extended, and then she resembles somewhat that singular animal, the kangaroo.”

The other was featured in Arthur’s Home Magazine in July 1891, “a most cheerful, healthy, engaging little creature” whose “fashion of walking was queer, but lively.” She belonged to F.C. Hill, a professor at Princeton, who returned from a two-week trip in spring 1877 to find her dead. “Poor kitty was well and happy while I was with her,” he wrote. “I really think she pined and died as much from loneliness as anything else.” Her skeleton was displayed in the museum at Princeton College, “so that pussy remains as serviceable after death as it was her warm will to be in life.”

“A Fiery Wind”

Out in Cheatham county about noon on Wednesday — a remarkably hot day — on the farm of Ed. Sharp, five miles from Ashland, a sort of whirlwind came along over the neighbouring woods, taking up small branches and leaves of trees and burning them in a sort of flaming cylinder that travelled at the rate of about five miles an hour, developing size as it travelled. It passed directly over the spot where a team of horses were feeding and singed their manes and tails up to the roots; it then swept towards the house, taking a stack of hay in its course. It seemed to increase in heat as it went, and by the time it reached the house it immediately fired the shingles from end to end of the building, so that in ten minutes the whole dwelling was wrapped in flames. The tall column of travelling caloric then continued its course over a wheat field that had been recently cradled, setting fire to all the stacks that happened to be in its course. Passing from the field, its path lay over a stretch of woods which reached the river. The green leaves on the trees were crisped to a cinder for a breadth of 20 yards, in a straight line to the Cumberland. When the ‘pillar of fire’ reached the water, it suddenly changed its route down the river, raising a column of steam which went up to the clouds for about half-a-mile, when it finally died out. Not less than 200 people witnessed this strangest of strange phenomena, and all of them tell substantially the same story about it. The farmer, Sharp, was left houseless by the devouring element, and his two horses were so affected that no good is expected to be got out of them in future. Several withered trees in the woods through which it passed were set on fire, and continue burning still.

– Nashville, Tenn., Press, quoted in Symons’s Monthly Meteorological Magazine, September 1869

Nature, Nurture

Identical twins Jack Yufe and Oskar Stohr were born in 1932 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Their parents divorced when the boys were six months old; Oskar was raised by his grandmother in Czechoslovakia, where he learned to love Hitler and hate Jews, and Jack was raised in Trinidad by his father, who taught him loyalty to the Jews and hatred of Hitler.

At 47 they were reunited by scientists at the University of Minnesota. Oskar was a conservative who enjoyed leisure, Jack a liberal workaholic. But both read magazines from back to front, both wore tight bathing suits, both wrapped rubber bands around their wrists, both liked sweet liqueur and spicy foods, both had difficulty with math, both flushed the toilet before and after using it — and both enjoyed sneezing suddenly in elevators to startle other passengers.

See Doppelgangers.

A Natural Seat

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Krubsack_chair.jpg

John Krubsack grew a chair. The Wisconsin banker planted 32 box elders in 1903, and as they grew he grafted them into a living piece of furniture.

In 1911 he began lending “The Chair That Grew” to international exhibitions; today it’s on display at his nephew’s furniture store.

Warm Work

(Please don’t try this.)

[T]ar … boils at a temperature of 220°, even higher than that of water. Mr. Davenport informs us, that he saw one of the workmen in the King’s Dockyard at Chatham immerse his naked hand in tar of that temperature. He drew up his coat sleeves, dipped in his hand and wrist, bringing out fluid tar, and pouring it off from his hand as from a ladle. The tar remained in complete contact with his skin, and he wiped it off with tow. Convinced that there was no deception in this experiment, Mr. Davenport immersed the entire length of his forefinger in the boiling cauldron, and moved it about a short time before the heat became inconvenient. Mr. Davenport ascribes this singular effect to the slowness with which the tar communicates its heat, which he conceives to arise from the abundant volatile vapour which is evolved ‘carrying off rapidly the caloric in a latent state, and intervening between the tar and the skin, so as to prevent the more rapid communication of heat.’ He conceives also, that when the hand is withdrawn, and the hot tar adhering to it, the rapidity with which this vapour is evolved from the surface exposed to the air cools it immediately. The workmen informed Mr. Davenport, that, if a person put his hand into the cauldron with his glove on, he would be dreadfully burnt, but this extraordinary result was not put to the test of observation.

– David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1868

Stormy Weather

In 1998 a retired naval pilot in California began receiving semi-coherent telephone calls from around the country blaming him for torrential rain and crop failures.

“Some of them absolutely curse me out and others just ask me, in a rather grudged way, if I can just stop the rain.”

He takes the calls with good humor and has maintained his listing in the phone book.

His name is Al Nino.

Spanish Ghosts

http://books.google.com/books?id=6bkUAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Clearing out a prehistoric mica mine in Macon County, N.C., in 1880, investigators discovered a curious collection of iron tools.

The inference to be drawn from the discovery of these iron relics, is, that some of the ‘old diggings’ are the work of Europeans, as the use of iron was unknown to the native American races. Is it not possible that there is a basis of truth in the old Cherokee tradition? That a party of Spanish explorers — and perhaps more than one — penetrated Western Carolina in search of gold, silver and other minerals, and, in some instances, finding the old mines of the Mound-builders, caused preliminary investigations of their value, does not seem improbable.

“To what expedition these Europeans belonged is a mystery. That of De Soto, according to the course traced out by Bancroft, passed within a comparatively short distance of North Carolina … From it an exploring party was sent to the north, which returned disheartened, without the precious gold, reporting the mountains impassable. Could the work have been done by stragglers from this or other parties, or have there been special expeditions to this region of which the historian has lost sight?”

(Frederic W. Simonds, “The Discovery of Iron Implements in an Ancient Mine in North Carolina,” American Naturalist, January 1881)

Senior Citizen

http://books.google.com/books?id=jFo-AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=wonderful+characters&as_brr=4&ei=d34RS56MCZecyATpk_iSDQ#v=onepage&q=&f=false

We know when Henry Jenkins died: Dec. 9, 1670. What we don’t know is when he was born. The Bolton laborer claimed to remember driving a cartload of arrows to North Allerton as a boy at the Battle of Flodden Field. That would mean he had been born in 1501 and was 169 years old at his death. Whether that’s true is anyone’s guess, but that’s the age that’s engraved on his tombstone.

If it is true, one author reckons, he certainly led an eventful life:

In his time the Invincible Armada was destroyed; the republic of Holland formed; three queens beheaded, Anne Boleyn, Catharine Howard, and Mary Queen of Scots; a king of Spain seated upon the throne of England; a king of Scotland crowned king of England at Westminster, and his son beheaded before his own palace, his family being proscribed as traitors; and, last of all, the great fire in London, which happened in 1666, toward the close of his wonderful life.

Indeed, to be a dutiful subject of the crown, he’d have had to change his religion eight times:

http://books.google.com/books?id=mkEFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA242&dq=%22mirror+of+literature%22+%22henry+jenkins%22&ei=JOANS8S2A56MzgTm-Z2DDQ#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Home Is the Sailor

A building curiously arranged to resemble the hull of a ship, the rooms of which were made to look like its cabins, used to be pointed out for many years in Wandsworth. Upon the top of it a small room, or rather turret, used to attract special attention, for it contained the corpse of its builder and former owner, an eccentric old sailor, whose will made it a condition of inheritance that his body should be buried on what he called ‘the deck’ of his ship-house. The house was pulled down by a railway company about 1860.

The World of Wonders, 1883

A Bad Week

On Aug. 6, 1945, Mitsubishi engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima visiting the company shipyard when the Enola Gay‘s atomic bomb exploded overhead.

Badly burned, he spent the night in an air raid shelter and then returned to his hometown.

He was explaining the ordeal to his supervisor there when “at that moment, outside the window, I saw another flash and the whole office, everything in it, was blown over.”

He lived in Nagasaki.

Air Balls

In the summer of 1938, a BOAC flying boat had just passed Toulouse, France, en route to Iraq when a ball of lightning entered the open cockpit window, singed the captain’s eyebrows and hair, made holes in his safety belt and dispatch case, and passed through the airplane to the rear cabin, where it exploded loudly.

In 1960, a KC-97 Air Force tanker was headed for Elko, Nev., at 18,000 feet when, the pilot reports, “a ball of yellow-white color approximately 18″ in diameter emerged through the windshield center panels and passed at a rate about that of a fast run between my left seat and the co-pilot’s right seat, down the cabin passageway past the Navigator and Engineer. … After approximately 3 seconds of amazingly quiet reaction by the 4 crew members in the flight compartment, the Boom operator sitting in the rear of the aircraft called on the interphone in an excited voice describing a ball of fire that came rolling through the aft cargo compartment abeam the wings, then danced out over the right wing and rolling off into the night and clouds!”

On March 19, 1963, British scientist R.C. Jennison was flying from New York to Washington, D.C., on a late-night flight on Eastern Airlines. “The aircraft encountered an electrical storm during which it was enveloped in a sudden bright and loud electrical discharge. Some seconds after this a glowing sphere a little more than 20 cm in diameter emerged from the pilot’s cabin and passed down the aisle of the aircraft approximately 50 cm from me, maintaining the same height and course for the whole distance over which it could be observed.”

Strange Passing

Account of “an extraordinary and probably hitherto unseen Phenomenon” over Biskopsberga, Sweden, May 16, 1808, reported by E. Acharius in the Transactions of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1808:

[A]t about 4 o’clock, P.M. the sun became dim … At the same time there appeared at the western horizon, from where the wind blew, to arise gradually, and in quick succession, a great number of balls, or spherical bodies, to the naked eye of a size of the crown of a hat, and of a dark brown colour. … [Near the sun] their course seemed to lessen, and a great many of them remained, as it were, stationary; but they soon resumed their former, and an accelerated, motion, and passed in the same direction with great velocity and almost horizontally. During this course some disappeared, others fell down, but the most part of them continued their progress almost in a straight line, till they were lost sight of at the eastern horizon. The phenomenon lasted uninterruptedly, upwards of two hours, during which time millions of similar bodies continually rose in the west, one after the other irregularly, and continued their career exactly in the same manner. No report, noise, nor any whistling or buzzing in the air was perceived.

“Such have been the real circumstances attending this phenomenon, to which all the people in the village can testify. I have drawn up this report from the accounts of none but eye witnesses, and have compared them one with the other; and I cannot doubt the truth of the incidents, having been related to me in a manner agreeing in particulars and details.”

See A War in the Sky.

Away From It All

If you’re looking for a challenge, see if you can reach 82°06’S 54°58’E — it’s the most inaccessible point in Antarctica, the farthest from the ocean and the coldest place in the world.

You’ll know you’ve arrived because you’ll find a bust of Lenin peering weirdly across the ice toward Moscow.

Dig down 20 feet and you’ll uncover a pair of locked doors. Get those open and you can enter an old Soviet research hut, now completely entombed in snow.

And inside the hut is a golden visitors’ book to sign.