A Little Help

In 1987, a Palermo physicist named Stronzo Bestiale published major papers in the Journal of Statistical Physics, the Journal of Chemical Physics, and the proceedings of a meeting of the American Physical Society in Monterey.

Why is this remarkable? Stronzo bestiale is Italian for “total asshole.”

Italian journalist Vito Tartamella wrote to one of “Bestiale’s” co-authors, Lawrence Livermore physicist William G. Hoover, to get the story. Hoover had been developing a sophisticated new computational technique, non-equilibrium molecular dynamics, with Italian physicist Giovanni Ciccotti. He found that the journals he approached refused to publish his papers — the ideas they contained were too innovative. But:

While I was traveling on a flight to Paris, next to me were two Italian women who spoke among themselves, saying continually: ‘Che stronzo (what an asshole)!’, ‘Stronzo bestiale (total asshole)’. Those phrases had stuck in my mind. So, during a CECAM meeting, I asked Ciccotti what they meant. When he explained it to me, I thought that Stronzo Bestiale would have been the perfect co-author for a refused publication. So I decided to submit my papers again, simply by changing the title and adding the name of that author. And the researches were published.

Renato Angelo Ricci, president of the Italian Physical Society, called the joke “an offense to the entire Italian scientific community.” But Hoover had learned a lesson: He thanked “Bestiale” at the end of another 1987 paper, saying that discussions with him had been “particularly useful.”

(From Parolacce, via Language Log. Thanks, Daniel.)


A spelling net is the pattern made when one writes down one instance of each unique letter that appears in a word and then connects these letters with lines, spelling out the word. For instance, the spelling net for VIVID is made by writing down the letters V, I, and D and drawing a line from V to I, I to V, V to I, and I to D.

Different words produce different spelling nets, of course, but every spelling net is an example of a graph, a collection of points connected by lines. A graph is said to be non-planar if some of the lines must cross; in the case of the spelling net, this means that no matter how we arrange the letters on the page, when we connect them in order we find that at least two of the lines must cross.

A word with a non-planar spelling net is called an eodermdrome, an ungainly name that itself illustrates the idea. The unique letters in EODERMDROME are E, O, D, R, and M. Write these down and run a pen among them, spelling out the word. You’ll find that no matter how the letters are arranged, it’s never possible to complete the task without at least two of the lines crossing:

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ross Eckler sought all the eodermdromes in Webster’s second and third editions; another example he found is SUPERSATURATES:

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Since spelling nets are graphs, they can be studied with the tools of graph theory, the mathematical study of such networks. One result from that discipline says that a graph is non-planar if and only if it can be reduced to one of the two patterns marked K5 and K(3, 3) above. Since both EODERMDROME and SUPERSATURATES contain these forbidden graphs, both are non-planar.

A good article describing recreational eodermdrome hunting, by computer scientists Gary S. Bloom, John W. Kennedy, and Peter J. Wexler, is here. One warning: They note that, with some linguistic flexibility, the word eodermdrome can be interpreted to mean “a course on which to go to be made miserable.”

The Simson Line


The three corners of any triangle ABC define a circle that surrounds it, called its circumcircle. And for any point P on this circle, the three points closest to P on lines AB, AC, and BC are collinear.

The converse is also true: Given a point P and three lines no two of which are parallel, if the closest points to P on each of the lines are collinear, then P lies on the circumcircle of the triangle formed by the lines.

This discovery is named for Robert Simson, though, as often happens, it was first published by someone else — William Wallace in 1797.

The Power of Prayer


In 1872 Francis Galton reflected that congregations throughout Britain pray every Sunday for the health of the British royal family. If prayer has tangible effects, he wondered, shouldn’t all this concentrated well-wishing result in greater health for its objects? He compared the longevity of royalty to clergy, lawyers, doctors, aristocracy and gentry, as well as other professions, and found that

[t]he sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence. The prayer has therefore no efficacy, unless the very questionable hypothesis be raised, that the conditions of royal life may naturally be yet more fatal, and that their influence is partly, though incompletely, neutralized by the effects of public prayers.

He noted also that missionaries are not vouchsafed a long life, despite their pious purpose; that banks that open their proceedings with prayers don’t seem to receive any benefit from doing so; and that insurance companies don’t offer annuities at lower rates to the devout than to the profane. Certainly men may profess to commune in their hearts with God, he wrote, but “it is equally certain that similar benefits are not excluded from those who on conscientious grounds are sceptical as to the reality of a power of communion.”

(Francis Galton, “Statistical Inquiries Into the Efficacy of Prayer,” Fortnightly Review 12 [1872], 125-35.)

Head and Heart


In 2001 UC-San Diego sociologist David Phillips and his colleagues noted that deaths by heart disease seem to occur with unusual frequency among Chinese and Japanese patients on the 4th of the month. A study of death records revealed a 7 percent increase in cardiac deaths on that date, compared with the daily average for the rest of the week. And deaths from chronic heart disease were 13 percent higher.

One explanation is that the number 4 sounds like the word for “death” in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, which causes discomfort and apprehension among some people. The effect is so strong that some Chinese and Japanese hospitals refrain from assigning the number 4 to floors or rooms. The psychological stress brought on by that date, the researchers suggest, may underlie the higher mortality.

They dubbed this the Baskerville effect, after the Arthur Conan Doyle novel in which a seemingly diabolical dog chases a man, who flees and suffers a fatal heart attack. “This Baskerville effect seems to exist in fact as well as in fiction,” they wrote in the British Medical Journal (PDF).

“Our findings are consistent with the scientific literature and with a famous, non-scientific story. The Baskerville effect exists both in fact and in fiction and suggests that Conan Doyle was not only a great writer but a remarkably intuitive physician as well.”

Cultural Outreach


Scotland’s 1904 antarctic expedition made a unique contribution to science:

A number of emperor penguins, which were here very numerous, were captured. … To test the effect of music on them, Piper Kerr played to one on his pipes, — we had no Orpheus to warble sweetly on a lute, — but neither rousing marches, lively reels, nor melancholy laments seemed to have any effect on these lethargic phlegmatic birds; there was no excitement, no sign of appreciation or disapproval, only sleepy indifference.

— Rudmose Brown et al., The Voyage of the “Scotia,” 1906

(This has produced a memorable Wikipedia image caption.)

Organic Chemistry

findig benzene

In a joke issue of the Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft in 1886, F.W. Findig offered an article on the constitution of benzene in which he finds that “zoology is capable of rendering the greatest service in clearing up the behavior of the carbon atom”:

Just as the carbon atom has 4 affinities, so the members of the family of four-handed animals possess four hands, with which they seize other objects and cling to them. If we now think of a group of six members of this family, e.g. Macacus cynocephalus, forming a ring by offering each other alternately one and two hands, we reach a complete analogy with Kekulé’s benzene-hexagon (Fig. 1).

Now, however, the aforesaid Macacus cynocephalus, besides its own four hands, possesses also a fifth gripping organ in the shape of a caudal appendix. By taking this into account, it becomes possible to link the 6 individuals of the ring together in another manner. In this way, one arrives at the following representation: (Fig. 2).

“It appears to me highly probable that a complete analogy exists between Macacus cynocephalus and the carbon atom,” Findig wrote. “In this case, each C-atom also possesses a caudal appendix, which, however, cannot be included among the normal affinities, although it takes part in the linking. Immediately this appendix, which I call the ‘caudal residual affinity’, comes into play, a second form of Kekulé’s hexagon is produced; this, being obviously different from the first, must behave differently.”

(From John Read, Humour and Humanism in Chemistry, 1947.)



“A Kiss and Its Consequences,” English carte de visite, 1910.

In 1965, Caltech computer scientist Donald Knuth privately circulated a theorem that, “under special circumstances, 1 + 1 = 3”:

Proof. Consider the appearance of John Martin Knuth, who exhibits 
the following characteristics:

Weight      8 lb. 10 oz.      (3912.23419125 grams)         (3)
Height      21.5 inches          (0.5461 meters)            (4)
Voice          loud               (60 decibels)             (5)
Hair         dark brown       (Munsell 5.0Y2.0/11.8)        (6)


He conjectured that the stronger result 1 + 1 = 4 might also be true, and that further research on the problem was contemplated. “I wish to thank my wife Jill, who worked continuously on this project for nine months. We also thank Dr. James Caillouette, who helped to deliver the final result.”

(From Donald E. Knuth, Selected Papers on Fun & Games, 2011.)

Moessner’s Theorem

moessner's theorem

Write out the positive integers in a row and underline every fifth number. Now ignore the underlined numbers and record the partial sums of the other numbers in a second row, placing each sum directly beneath the last entry that it contains.

Now, in this second row, underline and ignore every fourth number, and record the partial sums in a third row. Keep this up and the entries in the fifth row will turn out to be the perfect fifth powers 15, 25, 35, 45, 55

If we’d started by ignoring every fourth number in the original row, we’d have ended up with perfect fourth powers. In fact,

For every positive integer k > 1, if every kth number is ignored in row 1, every (k – 1)th number in row 2, and, in general, every (k + 1 – i)th number in row i, then the kth row of partial sums will turn out to be just the perfect kth powers 1k, 2k, 3k

This was discovered in 1951 by Alfred Moessner, a giant of recreational mathematics who published many such curiosa in Scripta Mathematica between 1932 and 1957.

(Ross Honsberger, More Mathematical Morsels, 1991.)