Last November, Jacob and Bonnie Richter of West Palm Beach, Fla., drove their motor home to Daytona Beach to attend an RV rally. Their cat, Holly, bolted when Bonnie’s mother opened the door, and could not be found after several days’ search. Finally the Richters returned home.
On New Year’s Eve, Holly was spotted “barely standing” in a backyard about a mile from the Richters’ house in West Palm Beach. The 4-year-old tortoiseshell had traveled 200 miles over two months to return to her hometown. She was identified both by the black-and-brown harlequin patterns in her fur and by an implanted microchip.
No one is quite sure how cats navigate across such long distances. Like other animals they may rely to some extent on magnetic fields, olfactory cues, and the sun, but generally cat navigation seems surest over short distances. In a 1954 study in Germany, cats were placed in a circular maze with exits positioned every 15 degrees; a cat exited most reliably in the direction of home if home was less than 5 kilometers away.
But at least some cats are capable of much greater feats. British cat biologist Roger Tabor cites “Ninja,” a cat who found his way from Mill Creek, Wash., to his old home in Farmington, Utah, in 1997; Howie, an indoor Persian cat who was left with relatives and traveled 1,000 miles across Australia to return to his family’s home in 1978; and a Russian tortoiseshell who traveled 325 miles from Moscow to her owner’s mother’s house in Voronezh in 1989.
Those exploits, and Holly’s, remain unexplained. “We haven’t the slightest idea how they do this,” cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy told the New York Times in January. “Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please God, tell me what it is.”
Elis Stenman built a house out of paper. In 1922 the mechanical engineer began designing a summer home in Rockport, Mass., using wood for the frame, floor, and roof but fashioning the walls from newspaper pressed about an inch thick and coated with varnish.
“Actually, I guess he was supposed to cover the outside with clapboards, but he just didn’t,” Stenman’s grandniece, Edna Beaudoin, told the Cape Ann Sun in 1996. “You know, he was curious. He wanted to see what would happen to the paper, and, well, here it is, some 70 years later.”
In 1924 Stenman moved in and began making furniture, also out of newspaper, rolling it into logs, cutting it to length with a knife, and gluing or nailing it into usable finished pieces (one placard reads THIS DESK IS MADE OF THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR).
Stenman died in 1942, and his family has maintained the house ever since, showing it to curious visitors. “I think probably the most common question is just ‘Why?'” Beaudoin says. “We just really don’t know where he got the idea to build a house out of paper. He was just that sort of a guy.”
A letter to the Spectator, Dec. 12, 1891:
I am not versed in dog-lore, and it may be that my love for the animal makes me an ill judge of the importance of the following story; but a friend vouches for its truth, and to my mind it has its importance, not from its display of jealousy, but from the dog’s deliberate acceptance of the undoubtedly changed condition, and the clearly metaphysical character of his motive.
The story is this. A young man had owned for some years a dog who was his constant companion. Recently the young man married, and moved with his bride and his dog into a house on the opposite side of the street from his father’s house, his own former home. The dog was not happy, for the time and attention which had formerly been his was now given to the young wife. In many ways he showed his unhappiness and displeasure, in spite of the fact that the master tried to reconcile him and the bride to win him. One day when the master came home, his wife sat on his knee, while Jack was lying by the fire. He rose from his place, came over to the couple, and expressed his disapproval. ‘Why, Jack,’ said the master, ‘this is all right, she’s a good girl,’ and as he spoke, he patted her arm. Jack looked up at him, turned away, and left the room. In a moment they heard a noise, and going into the hall, they found Jack dragging his bed downstairs. When he reached the front door, he whined to be let out, and when the door was opened, he dragged his bed down the steps, across the street to his old home, where he scratched for admittance. Since then he has never been back to his master, refusing all overtures.
Chas. Morris Addison
From the log of the S.S. Esso Lancashire, sailing off Durban in the Indian Ocean, Aug. 5, 1968:
At 0845 GMT the vessel entered a wave at an altitude of approx. 20 ft and emerged seconds later very much the worse for wear. If Cdre. W.S. Byles, R.D. has any idea where ‘The One from Nowhere’ went, we found the wave that should be with his trough! The wave passed unbroken over the monkey island (a height of about 60 ft) and we struck it well above the trough. It was preceded by a wave slightly larger than usual and we rode that one fairly comfortably but the wavelengths to the big one appeared much less and we just did not make it.
The log for 0745 had noted swell reaching heights of 20 feet. If the monkey island was 60 feet tall then this wave towered 80 feet above the trough, four times the average wave height.
The “one from nowhere” was a deep trough encountered by RMS Edinburgh Castle in 1964: Commodore W.S. Byles reported that the cruiser had “charged, as it were, into a hole in the ocean at an angle of 30° or more, shoveling the next wave on board at a height of 15 to 20ft before she could recover.”
The photo above was taken in the Bay of Biscay around 1940 — a merchant ship was laboring in heavy seas off the coast of France when a crew member photographed a huge wave behind them.
On May 5, 1916, Ernest Shackleton and three exhausted companions were sailing in a small boat across the South Atlantic, trying to reach a settlement and get help for their shipmates, who were stranded on Elephant Island. At midnight Shackleton, alone at the tiller, looked behind them and noticed a horizontal line in the sky. At first he thought this was a rift in the clouds, but gradually he realized it was the white crest of an enormous wave:
I shouted ‘For God’s sake, hold on! it’s got us.’ Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us.
“During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic,” Shackleton wrote later. “It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days.” But they survived the disaster and reached their goal.
South Africa’s Table Mountain is sometimes overspread with a tablecloth of cloud.
William Webster, surgeon of the British sloop Chanticleer, described the phenomenon in 1834:
When a south-east wind, passing over the southern shores of the Cape, prevails sufficiently to surmount the Table Mountain, the first notice of the fact is a little mist floating as a cloud on a part of it about ten or eleven o’clock in the forenoon. By noon the mountain becomes fringed with dew; and half an hour after, a general obscuration takes place by the mist. In another half hour the little cleft between the Devil’s Berg and the Table Mountain pours over the cloudy vapour; and at two the Devil’s Berg is capped by the cloud. The table-cloth is now completely spread. … While the Table Mountain remains covered with the dense cloud, fragments of the vapour are torn from it by the force of the wind, and are hurried about the sides of the mountain, assuming a variety of fantastic shapes, and playing about the precipice according to the direction of the different currents of wind. This phenomenon lasts till about five in the afternoon, when a little clearing, which takes place on the western edge of the mountain, announces that the table-cloth is about to be folded up. By six or seven the clearance has considerably advanced; and by eight or nine every vestige of it is gone, and nothing is seen about the mountain but an ethereal sky and the twinkling stars.
Red deer still honor the Iron Curtain. During the Cold War, barbed wire and an electric fence divided Eastern Europe from the West, separating the deer population into two groups. Deer follow traditional trails, which are taught to each generation by its forebears. Now that the fence is gone, red deer range on both sides of the border but refuse to cross it.
“In the past, the deer didn’t go to the Czech side because of the fence,” German biologist Marco Heurich told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “Now the fence is gone but they still stop at the border.” Film producer Tom Synnatzschke added, “The wall in the head is still there.”
As with humans, it’s the young deer who are testing the old ways. “Our data showed that the animals behaved very traditionally,” said zoologist Pavel Sustr. “The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before.”
In 1924, air mail pilots were having trouble finding their way across the featureless American southwest, so the Post Office adopted a brutally low-tech solution: Every 10 miles they built a large concrete arrow illuminated by a beacon. Each arrow pointed the way to the next, so that a pilot could stay on course simply by connecting the dots.
The system was finished by 1929, permitting mail planes to find their way all the way to San Francisco. It was quickly superseded by more sophisticated navigation methods, but today the arrows still dot the American desert, ready to confuse hikers and, probably, future archaeologists.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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:
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:
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.)
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.
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.
‘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?’
‘I wonder what weapons they used?’ Al asked. ‘Did you use pikemen?’
‘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.