Oddities

A Helping Hand

In 1978 a bottlenose dolphin at California’s Marine World swallowed a 3-inch bolt. When the frustrated veterinarian complained that his arms were too short to reach it, the park’s president, Mike Demetrios, had a brainstorm. He called 6’9″ Golden State Warriors center Clifford Ray, whose arms are 45 inches long.

Ray reached into the dolphin’s second stomach and retrieved the bolt while a Los Angeles vet instructed him via intercom (photos here).

“They are a very smart animal and I think he realized he was in trouble,” Ray told the Chicago Tribune. “He was pretty much cooperative through the whole thing.”

Demetrios rewarded Ray with the bolt mounted on a bronze plaque, plus lifetime passes to the park, and named a new tiger cub “Clifford Ray” in his honor. For his part, Ray was convinced the dolphin was grateful. “After that whole incident, whenever I would go to the park, he would always recognize me,” he told sportswriter Howard Beck in 2006. “He would come right up to me without being prompted.”

A Crowning Puzzle

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saturn_north_polar_hexagon_2012-11-27.jpg

There’s a hexagon of cloud at Saturn’s north pole. It surrounds the pole at 77 degrees north latitude, making it wider than two Earths. First discovered by Voyager in the early 1980s, it was still there in 2009, nearly 30 years later.

“The longevity of the hexagon makes this something special, given that weather on Earth lasts on the order of weeks,” said Caltech astronomer Kunio Sayanagi. “It’s a mystery on par with the strange weather conditions that give rise to the long-lived Great Red Spot of Jupiter.”

No one knows what causes the hexagon or how it has remained organized for so long. JPL atmospheric scientist Kevin Baines called it “one of the most bizarre things we’ve ever seen in the solar system.”

No Good Deed

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Sculpin_(SS-191).jpg

In 1939, the U.S. Navy submarine Sculpin helped to rescue the crew of her sister ship Squalus, which had flooded and sunk off the coast of Maine.

After the rescue the Sculpin went on to serve in World War II, where she was sunk in 1943 by a Japanese destroyer. Twenty-one of her crew were captive aboard a Japanese aircraft carrier when the carrier itself was sunk by torpedoes from an American sub.

The attacking sub was the salvaged and repaired Squalus — the same ship that Sculpin had saved four years earlier.

Higher Learning

Unusual dissertation titles from the University Microforms International dissertation database:

  • “Electrical Measurements on Cuticles of the American Cockroach”
  • “Determinants of Flossing Behavior in the College Age Population”
  • “Classification of Drinking Styles Using the Topographical Components of Beer Drinking”
  • “”More Fun Than Anything” (about cyclopropenium salts)
  • “Creep of Portland Cement Paste”
  • “Garage Sales as Practice: Ideologies of Women, Work and Community in Daily Life (Volumes I and II)”
  • “Finger Painting and Personality Diagnosis”
  • “Communication Use in the Motorcycle Gang”
  • “‘Santa Claus’: A Mime-Opera Based on The Morality by e.e. cummings”
  • “Ritual Drama in American Popular Culture: The Case of Professional Wrestling”
  • “Things That Are Good and Things That Are Chocolate: A Cultural Model of Weight Control as Morality”
  • “Acute Indigestion of Solipeds”
  • “The Making of a Hippie Self”
  • “Jock and Jill: Aspects of Women’s Sports History in America, 1870-1940″
  • “An Adaptive Surfing Apparatus”
  • “The Function of the Couch in Stimulating Altered States of Consciousness in Hypnosis and in Psychoanalysis”
  • “I Am You, You Are Me: A Philosophical Explanation of the Possibility That We Are All the Same Person”
  • “You Can’t Just Plug It In: Integrating the Computer Into the Curriculum”

One dissertation’s acknowledgment page read: “Yes, Mother, I am finally done; and no, Mom, I don’t know what good a doctor’s degree is either if I can’t fix you when you’re ill.”

(From a UMI press release, quoted in The Whole Library Handbook 2, 1995.)

The Rich Are Different

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Episodes from the friendship of the eccentric Sir George Sitwell and Henry Moat, the 16-stone Yorkshireman who served for 42 years as his butler-valet:

Sitwell: Henry, I’ve a new idea — knife-handles should be made of condensed milk!

Moat: Yes, Sir George, but what if the cat gets at them?

Sitwell: (when his dinner guests were 90 minutes late) Henry, it is now 8:30. If they don’t arrive in 10 minutes’ time, I intend to sit down to dinner — if necessary by myself.

Moat: Well, Sir George, you couldn’t ask for more cheerful company, could you?

At Sitwell’s 200-room Tuscan palace, the chauffer, the son of the bailiff, and the plasterer were all named Guido.

Moat: Any orders for the motor today, Sir George?

Sitwell: Yes, Henry. Tell Guido to drive into Florence to help Guido with the painting. Guido can wait while Guido has luncheon, and then Guido will go back to Florence and fetch Guido here.

Moat: Sir George, if you are going on like that, I had better give notice before my mind gives way.

Edith Sitwell described Moat as “an enormous purple man like a benevolent hippopotamus,” and Moat called Sir George “the strangest old bugger you ever met.” (Sitwell had once designed a tiny revolver for shooting wasps; his History of the Fork remained unpublished.) “He and my father [were] mutually critical and at the same time appreciative,” wrote Osbert Sitwell.

And Moat himself could be odd. When Sitwell’s 4-year-old grandson visited Italy, he was attended by a beloved Jamaican nanny whom the butler found inquisitive and bossy. When she asked what was for lunch, “Let me see,” he said, “slices of cold boiled missionary it is today.” At that, wrote Osbert, she became “notably more subdued in manner.”

AWOL

On July 4, 1989, Soviet MiG-23 pilot Nikolai Skuridin was on a routine training flight near Kolobrzeg, Poland, when his afterburner failed. Skuridin ejected, thinking the engine was completely dead, but the plane recovered and proceeded on autopilot into the west.

It must have had a lot of fuel, because it crossed out of Poland into East Germany, then into West Germany, then into the Netherlands, where a startled American air base sent up two F-15s to keep it company. As the MiG passed into Belgium the F-15s were told to shoot it down when it reached the North Sea, but it finally ran out of fuel near the French border, crashing into a house and killing a teenager.

The whole trip had covered 560 miles. Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens complained that the Soviets had issued no warning and no indication as to whether the pilotless plane was carrying dangerous weapons; it turned out that it was unarmed but carrying ammunition for a 23mm machine gun.

See Never Mind.

Presto

Johann Zöllner may have been too trusting. In 1878, convinced that spiritualism was the manifestation of a fourth dimension, the German astronomer proposed an experiment to English medium Henry Slade. If rings composed of two different woods could be interlinked, he said, without evidence of damage to their fibers, this would constitute a “miracle,” that is, “a phenomenon which our conceptions heretofore of physical and organic processes would be absolutely incompetent to explain.”

On May 9, he and Slade met in a room. Zöllner strung two rings on a length of catgut, tied the ends together, secured the knot with a seal of wax, and sat with his hands upon it:

slade-zollner experiment - 1

After a few minutes he smelled a burning odor that “seemed to come from under the table” and heard a rattling sound at the small round table “as of pieces of wood knocking together.” He opened his eyes to find this:

slade-zollner experiment - 2

He pronounced himself “astonished and highly delighted” at this result, though “it will be seen that my prepared experiments did not succeed in the manner expected by me.” But he found his fellow scientists unpersuaded. A colleague from Russia complained that Slade had refused to reproduce his results for a skeptical audience because “his medium was not strong enough for it.”

And “It has further been asked, why the communications which are written for Mr. Slade on his slates, as is supposed by invisible spirits, are for the most part so commonplace, and so completely within the compass of human knowledge. High spirits must yet necessarily write with more genius, and also spell properly.”

Crime Does Not Pay

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In 1799, the English cutter Sparrow intercepted the brig Nancy in the Caribbean. The area was forbidden to American ships, but the Nancy’s captain, Thomas Briggs, produced papers claiming she was owned by a Dutchman. Suspecting a smuggler but lacking evidence, the Sparrow’s captain sent Briggs to Jamaica to have his case heard by the vice-admiralty.

Two days later, another English ship, the Ferret, caught a large shark near the coast of Haiti. In its belly were the papers of the American ship Nancy — which Briggs had thrown overboard before getting false Dutch papers in Curaçao.

The “shark papers” were produced in court, and the Nancy and her cargo were confiscated.

So Ordered

On Feb. 18, 1986, frustrated that heavy rains had prevented some jurors from reaching his court, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King said, “I hereby order that it cease raining by Tuesday. Let’s see how that works.”

California immediately entered five years of severe drought, with strict water rationing.

When colleagues reminded King of his order in 1991, he said, “I hereby rescind my order of February 18, 1986, and order that rain shall fall in California beginning February 27, 1991.” Later that day the state received 4 inches of rain, the heaviest storm in a decade, and two further storms added another 3 inches.

In a letter to a local newspaper, King said this was “proof positive that we are a nation governed by laws.”

O Beautiful

https://www.google.com/patents/USD51415

What’s more patriotic than Uncle Sam or a bald eagle? A bald eagle with Uncle Sam’s head!

This appalling statuette, patented by Mary Harris in October 1917, was so inspiring that it actually ended World War I. Apparently.

Self-Help

In 1921, Pennsylvania surgeon Evan O’Neill Kane removed his own appendix. He wanted to show that a local anaesthetic would be adequate for some surgeries but wanted to be sure that a patient could tolerate the procedure. So on Feb. 15, propped up by pillows on an operating table, he cut into his own abdomen, using novocaine to dull the pain while a nurse held his head forward so that he could see the work.

“Just say that I am getting along all right,” he told the New York Times the following day. “I now know exactly how the patient feels when being operated upon under local treatment. … I have demonstrated the fact in my own case that a major operation can be performed by the use of a local anaesthesia without causing pain more severe than can be borne by the patient.”

He was 60 years old at the time. Nine years later he would repair his own hernia.

In a Word

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anemocracy
n. a government by the wind

Frank Hurley took the photo above during Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911. “The figure is actually leaning on a constant 100 miles per hour wind while picking ice for culinary purposes.”

Feeling Low

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In 1839, Louisville physician John Croghan opened a tuberculosis hospital inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. Thinking that the steady temperature and humidity would help restore his patients, he built a few small buildings deep inside the cave, and a number of patients moved in for several months. A guide from the period reads:

Immediately beyond the Great Bend, a row of cabins, built for consumptive patients, commences. All of these are framed buildings, with the exception of two, which are of stone. They stand in line, from thirty to one hundred feet apart, exhibiting a picturesque, yet at the same time, a gloomy and mournful appearance. They are well furnished, and without question, would with good and comfortable accommodations, pure air and uniform temperature, cure the pulmonary consumption.

But morale in the sunless environment was low, and the close air made their condition worse. Patient Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson wrote, “I left the cave yesterday under the impression that I would be better out than in as my lungs were constantly irritated with smoke and my nose offended by a disagreeable effluvia, the necessary consequence of its being so tenanted without ventilation.”

Croghan ended the experiment after five months, and himself died of TB six years later.

(Thanks, Sandy.)

Social Climbing

Argentine artist Leandro Erlich calls himself an “architect of the uncertain,” drawing equally from his countryman Jorge Luis Borges and from filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, who he says “have used the everyday as a stage for creating a fictional world obtained through the psychological subversion of everyday spaces.”

The apparently gravity-defying Victorian property above is actually a large mirror suspended at a 45° angle over a facade set into the ground, which visitors are free to climb on. It’s appearing this month on a street in Dalston, East London.

The same participatory spirit informs Erlich’s installation Swimming Pool, below, which appeared at New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 2008. The lower room is covered with a sheet of acrylic and a thin veil of water.

“Games and play are something that children do in order to learn the world,” Erlich says. “I do think [playing] is a positive way to trigger the process of thinking.”

On-the-Job Training

In the 1960s, biologist Karen Pryor was training two female rough-toothed dolphins to perform in a show at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park. Each dolphin had a different repertoire, and they were trained separately, though they could watch one another through a gate.

At one performance something was clearly wrong — each animal did everything she was asked to do, but with great agitation and sometimes in the wrong sequence. Pryor confessed her puzzlement to the audience and was pleased when the show concluded successfully. Afterward her assistant said, “Do you know what happened?”

“No.”

“We got the animals mixed up. Someone put Malia in Hou’s holding tank and Hou in Malia’s holding tank. They look so much alike now, I just never thought of that.”

Each dolphin had performed the other’s act, with no prior training, having only observed it in the earlier sessions. Hou had duplicated tricks that Malia herself had invented, an upside-down jump, a corkscrew, and coasting with her tail in the air, and Malia, wearing a blindfold, had retrieved three sinking rings in a sonar demonstration. Hou had jumped through a hoop held 6 feet above the water, a feat that normally requires weeks to train.

“I stopped the departing audience and told them what they had just seen,” Pryor wrote. “I’m not sure how many understood or believed it. I still hardly believe it myself.”

(From Pryor’s 1975 book Lads Before the Wind, quoted in Thomas I. White’s In Defense of Dolphins, 2007.)

Desperate Measures

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Shortly after the completion of Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam in 1942, engineers faced a difficult challenge: how to feed a cable through a 24-inch drain, two-thirds filled with grout, that wound 500 feet through the galleries inside the huge concrete structure.

The workers were stumped at first, but they hit on a novel solution. “An alley cat, raised on scraps from the construction men’s lunch pails, was summoned and one end of the 500-foot string was tied onto his tail,” reported the Spokane Daily Chronicle. “He was placed inside the drain, and an air hose was turned on to ‘encourage’ him to go forward.

“The feline scampered through the drain and was caught emerging at the other end, where he was freed. From then on it was a simple matter to tie a rope onto the string and then the cable and draw it through the drain.”

Physicist R.W. Wood had hit on the same technique 30 years earlier.

Philip

In 1972 the Toronto Society for Psychical Research set out to create a ghost. They invented a character named Philip, an English nobleman from the 17th century, and tried to contact him through sittings in which they discussed his life, to see whether they could induce a “collective hallucination.”

When a year of this produced no results, they adopted the trappings of a more formal séance, introducing colored lights, singing songs, and reciting poetry while trying to conjure Philip’s spirit. After three or four of these sessions, surprisingly, “the group felt a vibration within the table top, somewhat like a knock or rap.”

Philip had, apparently, shown up. After some initial confusion, the group established a convention by which he could express himself — one rap meant yes, two meant no. And he was quite willing to talk:

‘Did you have your own regiment?’ Sid asked.

(Rap) ‘Yes.’

‘Were you wounded in the fighting?’

(Rap, rap) ‘No.’

‘I wonder which battles he fought in,’ Lorne asked. ‘Philip, did you fight at Naseby?’

(Rap, rap) ‘No.’

‘Did you fight at Marston Moor?’

(Rap) ‘Yes.’

‘I wonder what weapons they used?’ Al asked. ‘Did you use pikemen?’

(Rap) ‘Yes.’

‘Would they have had guns of any kind then?’ someone asked.

‘They would have had muskets,’ Lorne said.

(Immediate confirmatory rap) ‘Yes.’

That’s from Conjuring Up Philip, a 1976 account by Iris Owen, a member of the group. With time the rappings grew stronger, and the table would occasionally move around the room and even levitate. Owen wrote, “In addition to sliding across the floor (which incidentally was covered with a thick pile carpet), the table would tilt in various ways, lifting one, two, or three legs, and pivot, sometimes almost dancing.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, most of Philip’s verbal communications were simply those that the group expected to receive. For example, he said that Charles I had loved cats but not horses or dogs; this isn’t historically accurate, but the questioner was a cat lover. Owen called Philip “a composite of [the group's] own invented imaginations … a character born of their own desire to bring him as much to actuality as they could.”

But the physical tricks are harder to understand. The simplest explanation is that some in the group were deliberately creating the “supernatural” effects, a possibility that all strongly denied. Or perhaps the group really had stumbled into some sort of collective, or wishful, hallucination. Whatever the case, the whole episode shows that even supernatural explorations that are known to be groundless can produce convincingly “otherworldly” effects for a receptive audience. To that extent, Philip was a ghost who helped to disprove his own existence.

Agitato

A fight with a piano that came near proving disastrous to the greatest of pianists, occurred on shipboard wile Paderewski was on his way to New York a short time ago. Paderewski in his state room had a small upright piano on which to practice. It was fastened to the floor by means of bolts. On the opposite side of the room was the bed. In a heavy storm the piano was loosened by the rolling of the vessel. Straight it made for the pianist and crashed into his bed, nearly pinning him to the wall. Paderewski on reaching the floor rushed to the opposite side of the room. Instantly the piano followed, coming at him with great force. He dodged it, but it came at him again, being hurled about in the room by the rolling of the boat. The pianist tried to get out the door, but could not loosen the bolt and he was thus hemmed in with the tumbling piano which threatened to crush him to death at every second. There was nothing to do but wrestle with the instrument. He grasped it as it came toward him again and after lengthy struggle in which he was nearly exhausted, succeeded in binding it to the wall.

Popular Mechanics, 1902

Plant Food

man-eating tree

Exploring a tabooed piece of land on Mindanao, Mississippian planter W.C. Bryant discovered a 35-foot tree surrounded by bones and the smell of carrion. He was entering the circle to examine a skull when his guide suddenly pinioned his arms and pulled him backward “with the strength of a maniac.” Bryant followed the man’s gaze and saw that “the tree was reaching for him”:

The whole thing had changed shape and was horribly alive and alert. The dull, heavy leaves had sprung from their compact formation and were coming at him from all directions, advancing on the ends of long vine-like stems which stretched across like the necks of innumerable geese and, now that the old man had stopped his screaming, the air was full of hissing sounds.

The leaves did not move straight at their target, but with a graceful, side-to-side sway, like a cobra about to strike. From the far side, the distant leaves were peeping and swaying on their journey around the trunk and even the tree top was bending down to join in the attack. The bending of the trunk was spasmodic and accompanied by sharp cracks.

The effect of this advancing and swaying mass of green objects was hypnotic, like the charm movements of a snake. Bryant could not move, though the nearest leaf was within an inch of his face. He could see that it was armed with sharp spines on which a liquid was forming. He saw the heavy leaf curve like a green-mittened hand, and as it brushed his eyebrows in passing he got the smell of it — the same animal smell that hung in the surrounding air. Another instant and the thing would have had his eyes in its sticky, prickly grasp, but either his weakness or the brown man’s strength threw them both on their backs.

The charm was broken. They crawled out of the circle of death and lay panting in the grass while the malignant plant, cracking and hissing, yearned and stretched and thrashed to get at them.

That’s from “Escaped From the Embrace of the Man-Eating Tree,” in the American Weekly, Jan. 4, 1925. Interestingly, naturalist Williard Clute tracked down the author and published a followup in American Botanist that April:

“The author of this tale, having been questioned, replies under date of January 8, 1925, that ‘the tree is there and in the main the account is true. The circle at the foot of the tree was about 80 maybe 100 feet in diameter. The tree looked nothing like the drawings [in the paper]. It was round as a smoke stack — the trunk, I mean, and dark gray or ash-color. The whole tree was symmetrical and the tree and ground under it, was very inviting to a storm-beset or sun-depressed traveller. The clucking and hissing was, I judged, from a gluey consistency of, or on, the leaves. My impression was that if it reached me, it would fasten and hold me, thus it had done to apes, birds, and animals.’” Stay out of the Philippines, I guess.

Ill Will

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A person with Münchausen syndrome feigns illness to get attention. In order to get this diagnosis, she must be faking symptoms of a condition that she doesn’t really have. But any such faked symptoms are an authentic sign of Münchausen syndrome. Does this mean it’s impossible to have the disorder?

(By Washington University philosopher Roy Sorensen.)

“The Man With the Golden Arm”

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When James Harrison had chest surgery at age 13, he resolved to begin donating blood to help others in need. When he did so, doctors realized that he carries a rare immune globulin that can prevent unborn babies from suffering attacks by their mothers’ antibodies, a condition known as Rhesus disease.

In the 59 years since this was discovered, Harrison has given blood more than 1,000 times, an average of once every three weeks for five decades, and his donations have saved an estimated 2.4 million babies.

This has earned Harrison a spot in Guinness World Records. He calls this “the only record that I hope is broken.”

Nose Knowledge

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/698003

Seeing a rose seems to give me information about a flower out there in the world. But smelling it, blindfold, is a curiously internal experience: I can suppose, even confidently, that it’s a rose I’m smelling, but this feels like a surmise, and one based only on an impression in my mind. The visual world seems to be made up of independent objects with observable properties, but the world of smell seems to exist only in our consciousness.

If there were no creatures here to observe them, roses would still be red. But would they still smell sweet?

Far From Home

In 1954, archaeologists excavating an eighth-century Viking settlement on Helgö Island in Sweden turned up a 10-centimeter statuette of the Buddha.

It’s thought to have originated in northwestern India around 600. How it made its way to Sweden is unknown.

Outreach

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

There’s a museum on the moon. As Apollo 12 prepared to depart in 1969, New York sculptor Forrest Myers commissioned drawings from six prominent artists and had them engraved on a ceramic wafer, then arranged for a Grumman engineer to smuggle it onto the lunar lander.

Two days before launch he received a telegram confirming that the engineer had been successful. If he was, then the tiny museum is still up there, bearing drawings by Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Forrest Myers, and Andy Warhol. Perhaps they’ll attract some patrons.