Oddities

The Upas Tree

upas tree

In the 18th century, tales circulated of a terrible tree in Java, so poisonous that it destroyed all life within 15 miles. It grew alone in a desolate valley, surrounded by dead bodies; there were no fish in the streams nearby, and birds fell from the sky. The upas tree’s poison could be harvested only by condemned criminals wearing leather hoods fitted with glass eyeholes, and scarcely a tenth of these returned.

Lord Byron and Charlotte Brontë popularized this account, and so did Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, but the truth is more prosaic. There is a upas tree, but its poison is generally only dangerous if you receive it via an arrow. It lives in Southeast Asia.

The exaggeration can be traced to one man, a French surgeon named Foersch who published a florid account in the London Magazine of December 1783. He was either sly or gullible — it’s not clear which.

The “Toxic Lady”

On Feb. 19, 1994, Gloria Ramirez was admitted to California’s Riverside General Hospital complaining of chest and stomach pains. She was in cardiac arrest about 15 minutes after arriving at the emergency room.

A doctor and two nurses drew blood for testing, which the nurses later said contained small white crystals and smelled of ammonia. Almost immediately after smelling the fumes, all three passed out. The emergency room was evacuated, patients were moved to the parking lot, and a hazardous materials crew had to seal Ramirez’s body in an airtight coffin.

What happened? No one knows. The fumes hospitalized six workers, but an autopsy on Ramirez’s body suggested only kidney failure related to cervical cancer. After conducting 34 interviews, the California Department of Health Services chalked up the outbreak to “mass sociogenic illness.” But more investigations may be forthcoming — the lawsuits are just starting up.

High and Dry

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The Aral Sea is shrinking. In 38 years it’s dropped from being the world’s fourth-largest lake to its eighth-largest. Soviet planners diverted the rivers that fed it.

“A Monsieur Chaban”

A Monsieur Chaban, in Paris, exhibited his astonishing powers of resisting heat, in so wonderful a manner, that the National Institute, and other learned societies, appointed delegates to view and inspect the performances, and to report thereon. Among other singular feats exhibited by this man, and reported to the National Institute, was his going into a common baker’s oven, with a leg of mutton in his hands, and remaining, in the usual manner, closed in until the mutton was completely dressed; another, that standing in the midst of a tar barrel, he remained therein till the whole was consumed to ashes around him. In 1818, he arrived in London, and publicly exhibited himself in Piccadilly, where he offered to repeat these last two exhibitions, before any number of persons, on being properly remunerated for the same; at the same time; he generously offered himself to the fire-offices and the public, in cases of calamitous fires, whenever they should be pleased to call on him, without fee or reward.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1820

Bad Advice

In 1887, president Grover Cleveland welcomed an old friend to the White House. Weary of the office, he said to the man’s 5-year-old son, “My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be president of the United States.”

The boy was Franklin Roosevelt.

“A Dog Lost in a Coal-Pit Eight Weeks”

Eight weeks ago, a terrier dog, in pursuit, so it is supposed, of a hare, was seen to fall into the shaft of an unwrought coal-pit, in Elswick-fields, near this town. Its howling was frequently heard, and many persons threw stones down, with the view of putting it out of its misery, but without effect. On Wednesday last, a mason of this town, prompted by humanity, sent down his boy, who brought up the poor sufferer, a mere skeleton; but by care it is recovering. When first brought up, it could not eat, but lapped water; which during the whole of the dismal period of its confinement (except the hare which probably fell in with it) must have been its only sustenance.

Tyne Mercury, July 17, 1806

Surf and Turf

Leghorn, August 9, 1817. On the 24th of July, about mid-day, after a very loud detonation, the Lake of Canterno, also called Porciano, totally disappeared. A large opening was discovered in the bottom, through which the waters have probably escaped into sinuosities of the neighbouring mountains.

— London Morning Post, August 30, 1817

The Tarim Mummies

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Who is this? His angular features and recessed eyes suggest that he’s Caucasian, and genetic tests support this, but he was found in the Tarim Basin of western China in 1910. Many such mummies have been found there, desiccated by the desert and sometimes still bearing blond or red hair. Who were they, and where did they come from?

It had been commonly believed that civilizations developed independently in East and West, but these finds suggest that Western nomads may have reached China by 1,000 B.C. or earlier, traveling from Europe, the Mediterranean, or even Iran.

Ancient Chinese books describe tall figures with deep-set blue or green eyes, long noses, full beards, and red or blond hair. Apparently they weren’t legends.

Good Boy

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/489777

A terrier, known to Professor Owen, was taught to play at hide and seek with his master, who summoned him, by saying ‘Let us have a game;’ upon which the dog immediately hid his eyes between his paws, in the honourable manner, and when the gentleman had placed a sixpence, or a piece of cake in a most improbable place, he started up and invariably found it. His powers were equalled by what was called a fox-terrier, named Fop, who would hide his eyes, and suffer those at play with him to conceal themselves before he looked up. If his play-fellow hid himself behind a window-curtain, Fop would, for a certain time, carefully pass that curtain, and look behind all the others, behind doors, etc., and when he thought he had looked long enough, seize the concealing curtain and drag it aside in triumph.

— Edmund Fillingham King, Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860

Mushroom Rocks

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Mushroom_rocks.jpg

Put a rock in the desert and wait a jillion years, and the blowing sand will make one of these for you. They’re also known as rock pedestals.

Loopy

You can measure a circle’s circumference by “unrolling” it along a line, like this:

circumference fallacy

But note that the smaller circle unrolls at the same time … and it gives the same length. Clearly we could do the same thing with circles of any size. Do all circles have the same circumference?

Fathomless Genius

On Aug. 11, 1966, a fishing boat came upon a badly bruised man floating in the water off Brest, France, clutching an inflatable life raft. He identified himself as Josef Papp, a Hungarian-Canadian engineer, and claimed he had just bailed out of a jet-powered submarine that had crossed the Atlantic in 13 hours.

The media laughed at this, but Papp insisted he had built a cone-shaped sub in his garage that could reach 300 mph using the same principle as a supercavitating torpedo. He even wrote a book, The Fastest Submarine, to answer his critics … but somehow this failed to explain how the sub worked, or why plane tickets to France had been found in his pocket, or why a man matching his description had been seen boarding a plane to France hours earlier.

For what it’s worth, Papp did patent a number of other inventions, including a fuel mixture composed from inert noble gases. So maybe he was telling the truth.

Exception Paradox

If every rule has an exception, then there must be an exception to the rule that every rule has an exception.

Purple Rain

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/327153

The sky isn’t blue. It’s actually violet, but a quirk of human vision makes us less sensitive to those wavelengths.

The Hard Way

In 1896, New Jersey clam diggers Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo decided to make a name for themselves by rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. On June 6 they set out from the Battery in an 18-foot oak rowboat with a compass, a sextant, and a copy of the Nautical Almanac. They reached England’s Isles of Scilly in 55 days, a record that still stands.

Ironically, on the way home their passenger steamer ran out of coal. The pair launched their boat and rowed back to New York.

The Eyes Have It

eye illusion

Decide which direction each of these men is looking in. Then cover their lower faces.

Little Boy Lost

In November 1890, 4-year-old Ottie Cline Powell was gathering firewood when he wandered away from his schoolhouse in Amherst County, Virginia. An extensive search couldn’t find him.

His body was found the following spring on the peak of Bluff Mountain in the Blue Ridge — 7 miles away, at an elevation of 3,372 feet.

Floating Saucers

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1871UFO.gif

This may be the first UFO photo ever taken. It’s half of a stereo photograph dating from 1871, showing a cigar-shaped ship over Mount Washington, N.H.

“Mystery airships” were floating ominously over America between 1896 and World War I, but neither the ships nor the witnesses had quite got the hang of things yet. In 1897 the Washington Times suggested that the dirigibles were “a reconnoitering party from Mars”; the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch agreed that “these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking.”

But other accounts said they were terrestrial airships piloted by mysterious humans. One of these supposedly told an Arkansas state senator that he was flying to Cuba to use his “Hotchkiss gun” to “kill Spaniards.” In Texas, witnesses told of meeting “five peculiarly dressed men” who had descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel; they had learned English from British explorer Hugh Willoughby’s ill-fated 1553 expedition to the North Pole.

Much of this is documented, but newspaper writers themselves were prone to practical jokes in that era, which makes the whole thing impossible to untangle. Plus, people seem to want to believe this stuff: In April 1897, hoaxers sent up a balloon made of tissue paper over Burlington, Iowa. The Des Moines Leader received reports that the ship had “red and green lights” and that “one reputable citizen swore he heard voices.” Oh well.

Nevermore

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/86239

Seeing a red apple should increase your confidence that all ravens are black.

Why? Because the statement “All ravens are black” is logically equivalent to “All non-black things are non-ravens.” And seeing a red apple (or green grass) confirms this belief.

This is logically inescapable, even if it’s counterintuitive. It’s known as Hempel’s paradox.

Kaspar Hauser

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

On May 26, 1828, a 16-year-old boy wandered into Nuremberg. He appeared to have the mental development of a 6-year-old; he could not say where he had come from, only repeating the sentence “I want to be a knight, as my father was” and the name “Kaspar Hauser.”

Two letters carried by the boy implied that his widowed mother had given him up to the care of a laborer, who had raised him in a secluded room. He said he had spent most of his life in a tiny cell with a straw bed, fed only on bread and water and occupied only with a carved wooden horse. Occasionally he was drugged so that his clothes could be changed and his hair cut. A mysterious man would visit him on occasion, always careful to hide his face.

It was noted that Hauser bore a passing resemblance to the grand duke of Baden. Officially the house of Baden had no comment about his case (it doesn’t to this day), but it seems someone was anxious to silence him: In 1829 a hooded man attacked him with an ax, succeeding only in wounding him slightly, and four years later another stranger waylaid and stabbed him. He died three days later.

Searching the crime scene, police found a small black purse with a note: “Hauser will be able to tell you how I look, where I came from and who I am. To spare him from this task I will tell you myself. I am from … on the Bavarian border … My name is MLO.”

Hauser lies now in a country graveyard. His headstone reads, “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious.”

Oral Exam

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Math prodigy George Bidder was born to a Devonshire stonemason in 1806. In a public appearance at age 11, he answered each of these questions in less than a minute:

  • What is the cube root of 673,373,097,125? “Answer, 8,765.”
  • If a mouse can draw one ounce and a half, how many mice can draw 50,000 tons? “Answer, 1,194,666,666, and one ounce over.”
  • If a coach travels from Exeter to Plymouth, 44 miles, every day in a year, how often does a wheel turn round that is 2 feet 9 inches? “Answer, 30,835,200.”
  • If a fan of a windmill goes round 15 times in a minute, how many times will it go round in 7 years, 4 months, 1 week, 2 hours, 3 minutes — 365 days 6 hours to the year, and 28 days to the month? “Answer, 57,897,245.”
  • If the ministers have taken of the income tax 12 millions of money in 1-pound notes, how many miles would they cover a road 30 feet wide, each note being 8 inches by 4 and a half? “He directly answered, 18 miles, 1,653 yards, and one foot.”
  • Suppose the earth to consist of 971 million of inhabitants, and suppose they die in 33 years and four months, how many have returned to dust since the time of Adam, computing it to be 5,850 years? “Answer, 170,410,500,000.” Multiply it again by 99. “Answer, 16,870,639,500,000.”

(Reported in Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1820)

“Monkeys Demanding Their Dead”

Mr. Forbes tells a story of a female monkey (the Semnopithecus Entellus) who was shot by a friend of his, and carried to his tent. Forty or fifty of her tribe advanced with menacing gestures, but stood still when the gentleman presented his gun at them. One, however, who appeared to be the chief of the tribe, came forward, chattering and threatening in a furious manner. Nothing short of firing at him seemed likely to drive him away; but at length he approached the tent door with every sign of grief and supplication, as if he were begging for the body. It was given to him, he took it in his arms, carried it away, with actions expressive of affection, to his companions, and with them disappeared. It was not to be wondered at that the sportsman vowed never to shoot another monkey.

— Edmund Fillingham King, Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860

A Chilly Reception

Once exclusive to Europe, the ice hotel jumped to Quebec City in 2000. With 22 beds, this Canadian establishment is smaller than its Swedish cousin, but it does have room for two art galleries, a bar, a movie theater and a chapel. Room service serves cold cuts on ice plates.

Ghost Ship

When the Swedish cargo steamer Baychimo became trapped in pack ice in 1931, the crew abandoned her and assumed that she sank in a subsequent blizzard. So they were surprised to hear that a local seal hunter had spotted her 45 miles away. They found the ship and retrieved the most valuable cargo, but still she did not sink. In fact, the Baychimo would be sighted numerous times throughout the next 38 years, most recently in the Beaufort Sea in 1969. For all anyone knows, she’s still up there.