Oddities

An Airborne Doppelganger

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15884/15884-h/15884-h.htm

French astronomer Camille Flammarion writes of a curious ballooning incident in Wonders of Earth, Sea And Sky (1902):

On April 15, 1868, at about half-past three in the afternoon, we emerged from a stratum of clouds, when the shadow of the balloon was seen by us, surrounded by colored concentric circles, of which the car formed the centre. It was very plainly visible upon a yellowish white ground. A first circle of pale blue encompassed this ground and the car in a kind of ring. Around this ring was a second of a deeper yellow, then a grayish red zone, and lastly as the exterior circumference, a fourth circle, violet in hue, and imperceptibly toning down into the gray tint of the clouds. The slightest details were clearly discernible — net, robes, and instruments. Every one of our gestures was instantaneously reproduced by the aerial spectres. … It is … certain that this is a phenomenon of the diffraction of light simply produced by the vesicles of the mist.

A Prophetic Monk

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

The English Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury saw Halley’s comet as a young boy in 989.

When he saw it again 76 years later, he declared: “You’ve come, have you? … You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.”

The year was 1066. That October, with the Battle of Hastings, the Normans began their conquest of England.

The Void

In 1969, French author Georges Perec wrote a 300-page novel without the letter e:

Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pin it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp — fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? — a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign — but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.

Remarkably, La Disparition has been translated into six different languages, each imposing a similar constraint — the Spanish, for instance, contains no a, and the English, here, no e.

Bog Bodies

Celts killed each other. During the Iron Age, they’d stab, bludgeon, hang, and strangle their victims, then dump them in the sphagnum bogs that dot Northern Europe, sometimes with the ropes still around their necks.

We know this because the acidity of the bog water, the cold temperature, and the lack of oxygen have effectively prevented these corpses from decomposing. More than 700 bodies have been recovered, some as old as 10,000 years and some still appearing fresh enough to be mistaken for recent murder victims.

The “Grauballe Man,” above, was found in 1952 by a Dane digging for peat. His throat was cut in 290 B.C., but his body was well enough preserved to yield fingerprints. Why was he killed? Maybe ritual, maybe execution for a crime, maybe human sacrifice. Here’s one odd clue: Judging from their nutrition and manicures, the bodies appear consistently to have been from the upper classes.

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

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

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

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

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.”