Second Chances

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know, that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

— Carl Sagan, in a 1987 address, quoted in Jon Fripp et al., Speaking of Science, 2000

To Whom It May Concern

On Jan. 9, 1793, two astonished farmers in Woodbury, N.J., watched a strange craft descend from the sky into their field. An excited Frenchman greeted them in broken English and gave them swigs of wine from a bottle. Unable to make himself understood, he finally presented a document:

The farmers helped the man fold his craft and load it onto a wagon for the trip back to Philadelphia. Before leaving, the Frenchman asked them to certify the time and place of his arrival. These details were important — he was Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and he had just completed the first balloon flight in North America.

One hundred sixty-nine years later, when John Glenn went into orbit aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, mission planners weren’t certain where he’d come down. The most likely sites were Australia, the Atlantic Ocean, and New Guinea, but it might be 72 hours before he could be picked up.

Glenn worried about spending three days among aborigines who had seen a silver man emerge from “a big parachute with a little capsule on the end,” so he took with him a short speech rendered phonetically in several languages. It read:

“I am a stranger. I come in peace. Take me to your leader, and there will be a massive reward for you in eternity.”

Three Theorems

Theorem 1. A crocodile is longer than it is wide.

Proof. A crocodile is long on the top and bottom, but it is green only on the top; therefore a crocodile is longer than it is green. A crocodile is green along both its length and width, but it is wide only along its width; hence a crocodile is greener than it is wide. Therefore a crocodile is longer than it is wide.

Theorem 2. Napoleon was a poor general.

Proof. Most men have an even number of arms. Napoleon was warned that Wellington would meet him at Waterloo. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. But four arms is a very odd number of arms for a man. The only number that is both even and odd is infinity. Therefore, Napoleon had an infinite number of arms in his battle against Wellington. A general who loses a battle despite having an infinite number of arms is very poor general.

Theorem 3. If 1/0 = ∞, then 1/∞ = 0.

Proof. Given:

three theorems 2

Rotate both sides 90° counterclockwise:

three theorems 3

Subtract 8 from both sides:

three theorems 4

Now reverse the rotation:

three theorems 5

Working Afield

sigurya barbulata

Dutch author Leo Lionni devoted most of his career to children’s books, but in 1977 he undertook a weird experiment. Parallel Botany is a catalog of made-up plants, whose made-up features are described by made-up botanists and illustrated by Lionni’s pencil drawings. Sigurya barbulata, at left, is distinguished by its crowning “cephalocarpus”; a specimen discovered in a Mexican pyramid was found to have been metallized into an organic mace, but how this had come about is the subject of “furious debates.”

“The difficulties of applying traditional methods of research to the study of parallel botany stem chiefly from the matterlessness of the plants,” Lionni wrote. “Deprived as they are of any real organs or tissues, their character would be completely indefinable if it were not for the fact that parallel botany is nonetheless botany, and as such it reflects, even if somewhat distantly, many of the most evident features of normal plants.”

Why do all this? Lionni closes with a quote by the made-up Swedish philosopher Erud Kronengaard: “There are two kinds of men, those who are capable of wonder and those who are not. I hope to God that it is the first who will forge our destiny.”

Alison’s Triangle

alison's triangle

I’m not sure who came up with this — this simple diagram reflects all possible true trigonometric identities of the form x ÷ y = z or x × y = z, where x, y, and z are the basic trigonometric functions of the same angle t.

For any three neighboring functions on the perimeter of the star, the product of the ends always equals the middle (e.g., tan t × cos t = sin t) and the middle function divided by one of the end functions is equal to the other end function (e.g., sin t ÷ tan t = cos t and sin t ÷ cos t = tan t). If you memorize the diagram you can reel off a list of 18 simple relations.

I found it in Michael Stueben’s Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998.

Shape Reference

thomas whales

The index to the fourth edition of George Thomas’ Calculus and Analytic Geometry contains an entry for “Whales” on page 188. That page contains no reference to whales, but it does include the figure above.,Erich_1920_G%C3%B6ttingen.jpg?uselang=de

German mathematician Erich Bessel-Hagen was often teased for his protruding ears.

In 1923 his colleague Béla Kerékjártó published a book, Vorlesungen Über Topologie, whose index lists a reference to Bessel-Hagen on page 151.

That page makes no mention of Bessel-Hagen, but it does contain this figure:


Is that libel?

Corner Market

corner market diagram

From Martin Gardner, via Michael Stueben: Obtain a slab of gold measuring 10″ x 11″ x 1″. Divide it diagonally and then cut a triangular notch in two corners as shown. Remove these notches as profit, and slide the remaining halves together to produce a new 10″ x 11″ x 1″ slab. The process can be repeated to yield any amount of money you like!

No Attraction

Kepler’s second law holds that a line segment connecting an orbiting planet to its sun sweeps out equal areas in equal periods of time: In the diagram above, if the time intervals t are equal, then so are the areas A.

If gravity were turned off, would this still be true?

Click for Answer


Pretend that you’ve never seen this before and that it’s an actual living person whose personality you’re trying to read. If you look directly at her face, she seems to hesitate, but if you look near it, say beyond her at the landscape, and try to sense her mood, she smiles at you.

In studying this systematically, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone found that “if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa’s mouth — which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision — appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea.

“This explains its elusive quality — you literally can’t catch her smile by looking at it. Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears because your central vision does not perceive coarse image components very well. People don’t realize this because most of us are not aware of how we move our eyes around or that our peripheral vision is able to see some things better than our central vision. Mona Lisa smiles until you look at her mouth, and then her smile fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.”

(From her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, 2002.)