Along with art and love, life is one of those bedeviling concepts that we really ought to have a definition for but don’t. Philosophers tend to regard the question as too scientific, and scientists as too philosophical. Linus Pauling observed that it’s easier to study the subject than to define it, and, J.B.S. Haldane noted, “no definition will cover its infinite and self-contradictory variety.”
Classical definitions of life typically refer to structural features, growth, reproduction, metabolism, motion against force, response to stimuli, evolvability, and information content and transfer. But definitions built on these elements are prone to exceptions. Fire grows, moves, metabolizes, reproduces, and responds to stimuli, but is “nonliving.” So are free-market economies and the Internet, which evolve, store representations of themselves, and behave “purposefully.” I am nonreproducing but, I hope, still alive.
If we we look around us, it’s hard to find a property that’s unique to life, and even if we could, our observations are limited to Earth’s biosphere, a tiny, tenuous environment like a film of water on a basketball. But if we expand our list to include abstract properties such as resistance to entropy, then we risk including alien phenomena that we might not regard intuitively as living.
Perhaps the answer is more poetic. “As I see it, the great and distinguishing feature of living things … is that they have needs — continual, and, incidentally, complex needs,” wrote botanist Donald C. Peattie in 1935. “I cannot conceive how even so organized a dead system as a crystal can be said to need anything. But a living creature, even when it sinks into that half-death of hibernation, even the seed in the bottom of the driest Mongolian marsh, awaiting rain through two thousand years, still has needs while there is life in it.”
In studying the parasitic protozoan Plasmodium ovale in 1954, English parasitologist William Cooper volunteered to receive the bites of about a thousand mosquitos, and nine days later underwent a laparotomy in which a piece of his liver was removed. On recovering, he stained the sections himself, located the malaria parasite stages in his own tissue, and painted these in watercolors to accompany the resulting article.
His coauthor, University of London protozoologist Cyril Garnham, wrote that Cooper “attained everlasting fame by this episode.”
(P.C.C. Garnham et al., “The Pre-Erythrocytic Stage of Plasmodium Ovale,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 49:2 [March 1955], 158-167)
A gram is the mass of one cubic centimeter of water; the earth’s gravitational attraction is approximately 10 in metric units (9.8 meters/second2); and atmospheric pressure works out to about 1 kilogram per square centimeter.
This shows that the pressure under 10 meters of water is about one atmosphere. Ten meters of water is 1000 centimeters, so a column one centimeter square would weigh one kilogram and exert a pressure of 1 kilogram per square centimeter.
The autobiography of the 12th-century Muslim poet Usama ibn Munqidh tells of an incident in which the invading Crusaders appealed for a doctor to treat some of their number who had fallen ill. The Muslims sent a doctor named Thabit, who returned after 10 days with this story:
They took me to see a knight who had an abscess on his leg, and a woman with consumption. I applied a poultice to the leg, and the abscess opened and began to heal. I prescribed a cleansing and refreshing diet for the woman. Then there appeared a Frankish doctor, who said: ‘This man has no idea how to cure these people!’ He turned to the knight and said: ‘Which would you prefer, to live with one leg or die with two?’ When the knight replied that he would prefer living with one leg, he sent for the strong man and a sharp axe. They arrived, and I stood by to watch. The doctor supported the leg on a block of wood, and said to the man: ‘Strike a mighty blow, and cut cleanly!’ … The marrow spurted out of the leg (after the second blow) and the patient died instantaneously. Then the doctor examined the woman and said: ‘She has a devil in her head who is in love with her. Cut her hair off!’ This was done, and she went back to eating her usual Frankish food … which made her illness worse. ‘The devil has got into her brain,’ pronounced the doctor. He took a razor and cut a cross on her head, and removed the brain so that the inside of the skull was laid bare … the woman died instantly. At this juncture I asked whether they had any further need of me, as they had none I came away, having learnt things about medical methods that I never knew before.
Most people know that if you cut a Möbius band in two lengthwise you’ll produce one band rather than two. But splitting the ends and joining them also creates some surprising effects.
Starting with the figure above, join ends A and D directly, then pass B under A and join it to E. Now pass C over B and under A; pass F over D and under E; and join C and F. Extend the slits along the length of the band and you’ll have three linked rings.
Now compare this variant, suggested by Ellis Stanyon in 1930: Starting again from the diagram, give E a half-twist to the right and join it to C; give F a half-twist to the right and join it to B; then pass A under B and join it to D (without turning it over). Cut along the two slits and you’ll produce a small ring linked to a large one. What became of the third ring?
There’s a surprisingly simple way to produce a similar effect: Draw a line along the length of a Möbius band, one-third of the way across the strip. Cutting along this line will produce a large band linked to a small one — and this time the small band is itself a Möbius band, on which you can repeat the feat.
In other words, this is the day on which those charming little missives, ycleped Valentines, cross and intercross each other at every street and turning. The weary and all for-spent twopenny postman sinks beneath a load of delicate embarrassments, not his own. It is scarcely credible to what an extent this ephemeral courtship is carried on in this loving town, to the great enrichment of porters, and detriment of knockers and bell-wires. In these little visual interpretations, no emblem is so common as the heart,–that little three-cornered exponent of all our hopes and fears,–the bestuck and bleeding heart; it is twisted and tortured into more allegories and affectations than an opera-hat. What authority we have in history or mythology for placing the head-quarters and metropolis of god Cupid in this anatomical seat rather than in any other, is not very clear; but we have got it, and it will serve as well as any other thing. Else we might easily imagine, upon some other system which might have prevailed for any thing which our pathology knows to the contrary, a lover addressing his mistress, in perfect simplicity of feeling, ‘Madam, my liver and fortune are entirely at your disposal;’ or putting a delicate question, ‘Amanda, have you a midriff to bestow?’ But custom has settled these things, and awarded the seat of sentiment to the aforesaid triangle, while its less fortunate neighbours wait at animal and anatomical distance.
— Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia, 1823
A mathematical valentine:
Suppose that a house is robbed and police find a strand of the burglar’s hair at the scene of the crime. A suspect is in custody, and tests show that the strand matches his hair. A forensic scientist testifies that the chance of a random person producing such a match is 1/2000. Does this mean that there’s a 1999/2000 chance that the suspect is guilty?
No, it doesn’t. In a city of 5 million there will be 1/2000 × 5,000,000 = 2,500 people who produce a match, so on the basis of this evidence alone the probability that the suspect is guilty is only 1/2500.
In a 1987 article, William Thomson and Edward Schumann dubbed this “prosecutor’s fallacy.” Unfortunately, it’s matched by the “defense attorney’s fallacy,” which holds that the hair-match evidence is worthless because it increases the likelihood of the suspect’s guilt by a negligible amount, 1/2500. In fact it drastically narrows the range of possible suspects, from 5 million to 2,500, while failing to exclude the defendant, hardly cause for confidence.
Worryingly, Thompson and Schumann found an experienced prosecutor who insisted that if a defendant and a perpetrator match on a blood type found in 10 percent of the population, then there’s a 10 percent chance that the defendant would have this blood type if he were innocent and hence a 90 percent chance that he’s guilty. “If a prosecutor falls victim to this error,” they write, “it is possible that jurors do as well.”
(William C. Thompson and Edward L. Schumann, “Interpretation of Statistical Evidence in Criminal Trials,” Law and Human Behavior, 11:3 [September 1987], 167-187)
In 1899, British statistician Moses B. Cotsworth noted that recordkeeping could be greatly simplified if each month contained a uniform number of whole weeks. He proposed an “international fixed calendar” containing 13 months of 28 days each:
This makes everything easier. The 26th of every month falls reliably on a Thursday, for example, and statistical comparisons between months are made more accurate, as each month contains four tidy weeks with four weekends. (Unfortunately for the superstitious, every one of the 13 months contains a Friday the 13th.) A new month, called Sol, would be wedged between June and July, and an extra day, “Year Day,” would be added at the end of the year, but it would be independent of any month (as would Leap Day).
In 1922 the League of Nations chose Cotsworth’s plan as the most promising of 130 proposed calendar reforms, but the public, as always, resisted the unfamiliar, and by 1937 the International Fixed Calendar League had closed its doors. It left one curious legacy, though: George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, was so pleased with Cotsworth’s scheme that he adopted it as his company’s official calendar — and it remained so until 1989.
- Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times.
- EMBARGO spelled backward is O GRAB ME.
- The numbers on a roulette wheel add to 666.
- The fourth root of 2143/22 is nearly pi (3.14159265258).
- “A prosperous fool is a grievous burden.” — Aeschylus
Six countries have names that begin with the letter K, and each has a different vowel as the second letter: Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan.
In 1982, 24-year-old schizophrenic patient J.S. faced a difficult decision: The neuroleptic drug Prolixin relieved his psychotic symptoms, but it produced tardive dyskinesia, a progressive disorder that caused uncontrollable movements of his legs, arms, and tongue.
His therapist learned of an experimental program that might reduce this side effect, and J.S. signed consent forms to enter treatment. But the first step was to stop all medications, and without the Prolixin he descended again into psychosis and refused the experimental medication.
This produces an impossible dilemma: Does J.S.’ “sane” self have the right to overrule his “insane” self, if the two disagree? Can Dr. Jekyll bind Mr. Hyde? Such a directive is sometimes called a Ulysses contract, after the Greek hero who ordered his men to disregard his commands as they sailed past the sirens. If a patient directs his caregivers to ignore his own future requests, can the caregivers follow these orders?
In J.S.’ case, the answer was no. The research unit’s legal counsel decided that his earlier consent did not override his later refusal, and he was withdrawn from the program. When he resumed his antipsychotic medication and learned what had happened, he begged for another chance to try the experimental medication. Had they been wrong to refuse him?
(Morton E. Winston, Sally M. Winston, Paul S. Appelbaum, and Nancy K. Rhoden, “Can a Subject Consent to a ‘Ulysses Contract’?”, The Hastings Center Report, 12:4 [August 1982], 26-28)
Fit a circle into one corner of a triangle. Now fit a second circle into a second corner so that it’s tangent to the first circle. Then fit a third circle into the third corner so that it’s tangent to the second circle.
Keep this up, cycling among the three corners, and the sixth circle will be tangent to the first one.
Maybe figures can’t lie, but liars can certainly figure, and that is why statistics can be made to ‘prove’ almost anything. Consider a group of ten girls, nine of them virgins, one pregnant. On the ‘average’ each of the nine virgins is ten per cent pregnant, while the girl who is about to have a baby is ninety per cent a virgin. Or, assuming that a fox terrier two feet long, with a tail an inch and a half high, can dig a hole three feet deep in ten minutes, to dig the Panama Canal in a single year would require only one fox terrier fifteen miles long, with a tail a mile and a half high.
— Stuart Cloete, The Third Way, 1947
A paradox attributed to Proclus Lycaeus (412-485):
Consider two nonparallel lines, AQ and BP. BP is perpendicular to AB; AQ isn’t. Find the midpoint of AB and mark AC = BD = AB/2. Now if AQ and BP are going to intersect, it can’t happen on AC or BD; if it did, say at a point R, then that would give us a triangle ARB where the sum AR + RB < AB, which is impossible.
But now we can connect CD and follow the same process: CE and DF can't intersect for the same reason. EG and FH are likewise ruled out, and so on up the line forever.
This seems to mean that two nonparallel lines will never intersect. That can’t be right, but where is the error?
(From Alfred Posamentier, Magnificent Mistakes in Mathematics, 2013.)
Earth is the only planet not named after a god.
Sherlock Holmes is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
“Holmes did not exist, but he should have existed,” society chief David Giachardi said in bestowing the award in 2002. “That is how important he is to our culture. We contend that the Sherlock Holmes myth is now so deeply rooted in the national and international psyche through books, films, radio and television that he has almost transcended fictional boundaries.”
Thomas Jefferson, already absurdly accomplished by 1795, somehow found time to delve into cryptography, where he devised this cipher system. The letters of the alphabet are printed along the rim of each of 36 disks, which are stacked on an axle. One party rotates the disks until his message can be read along one of the 26 rows of letters, somewhat like a modern cylindrical bike lock. Now he can record the letters in any one of the other 25 rows and send that string safely to another party, who decodes it by reversing this procedure. If the message is intercepted, it’s useless even to someone who has the disks, because he must also know the order in which to stack them, and 36 disks can be stacked in 371,993,326,789,901,217,467,999,448,150,835, 200,000,000 different ways.
This is pretty robust. The cipher below, created in 1915 by U.S. Army cryptographer Joseph Mauborgne, has never been solved. “The known systems from this year (or earlier) shouldn’t be too hard to crack with modern attacks and technology,” writes NSA cryptologist Craig P. Bauer. “So, why don’t we have a plaintext yet? My best guess is that it used a cipher wheel” like Jefferson’s.
(L. Kruh, “A 77-year-old challenge cipher,” Cryptologia, 17(2), 172-174, 1993, quoted in Bauer’s Secret History: The Story of Cryptology, 2013.)
Squeeze six circles into a larger circle so that each is tangent to its two neighbors. Now the three lines drawn through opposite points of tangency will pass through the same point.
Remarkably, this wasn’t discovered until 1974.
If a quadrilateral circumscribes a circle, then the sums of its opposite sides are equal.
Above, a + c = b + d.
Two travelers are transporting identical antiques. Unfortunately, the airline smashes both of them. The airline manager proposes that each traveler write down the cost of his antique, any value from $2 to $100. If both write the same number, the airline will pay this amount to both travelers. If they write different numbers, the airline will assume that the lower number is the accurate price; the low bidder will receive this amount plus $2, and the high bidder will receive this amount minus $2. If they can’t confer, what strategy should the travelers take in deciding how to bid?
At first Traveler A might like to bid $100, the maximum allowed. If his opponent does the same then they’ll both net $100. But A can do better than this: If B bids $100 and A bids $99 then A will come away with $101.
Unfortunately if B is rational then he’ll have the same insight and also bid $99. So A had better undercut him again and bid $98.
This chain leads all the way down to $2. If both travelers are perfectly rational then they’ll both bid (and make) $2, the minimum price.
But this seems very unlikely to happen in actual practice — in real life both travelers would likely make high bids and get high (though perhaps unequal) payoffs.
“All intuition seems to militate against all formal reasoning in the traveler’s dilemma,” wrote economist Kaushik Basu in propounding the problem in 1994. “There is something very rational about rejecting (2, 2) and expecting your opponent to do the same. … The aim is to explain why, despite rationality being common knowledge, players would reject (2, 2), as intuitively seems to be the case.”
A Japanese geometry theorem from the Edo period: If the blue circles are equal, the green circles will be equal too.
This can be extended: Circles spanning three of these triangles will also be equal, and so on.
Jump into the sea and look up. The surface above you is dark except for a bright circle that follows you around like a portable skylight. This is Snell’s window: Because light is refracted as it enters the water, the 180-degree world above you is compressed into a tight 97 degrees.
Physicist Robert W. Wood was thinking of this effect when he created a new wide-angle lens in 1906. Fittingly, he called it the fisheye.
In 1990, Spanish philosopher Jon Perez Laraudogoitia submitted an article to Mind entitled “This Article Should Not Be Rejected by Mind.” In it, he argued:
- If statement 1 in this argument is trivially true, then this article should be accepted.
- If statement 1 were false, then its antecedent (“statement 1 in this argument is trivially true”) would be true, which means that statement 1 itself would be true, a contradiction. So statement 1 must be true.
- But that seems wrong, since Mind is a serious journal and shouldn’t publish trivial truths.
- That means statement 1 must be either false or a non-trivial truth. We know it can’t be false (#2), so it must be a non-trivial truth, and its antecedent (“statement 1 in this argument is trivially true”) is false.
- What then is the truth value of its consequent, “this article should be accepted”? If this were false then Mind shouldn’t publish the article; that can’t be right, since the article consists of a non-trivial truth and its justification.
- So the consequent must be true, and Mind should publish the article.
They published it. “This is, I believe, the first article in the whole history of philosophy the content of which is concerned exclusively with its own self, or, in other words, which is totally self-referential,” Laraudogoitia wrote. “The reason why it is published is because in it there is a proof that it should not be rejected and that is all.”
In 1964 Canadian writer Graeme Gibson bought a parrot in Mexico. The bird, which Gibson named Harold Wilson, was bright and affectionate at first, but he seemed to grow lonely in the dark Canadian winter, so in the spring Gibson made arrangements to donate him to the Toronto Zoo. At the aviary Gibson carried Harold into the cage that had been prepared for him, placed him on a perch, said his goodbyes, and turned to go.
“Then Harold did something that astonished me. For the very first time, and in exactly the voice my kids might have used, he called out ‘Daddy!’ When I turned to look at him he was leaning towards me expectantly. ‘Daddy’, he repeated.
“I don’t remember what I said to him. Something about him being happier there, that he’d soon make friends. The kind of things you say to kids when you abandon them at camp. But outside the aviary I could still hear him calling ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ as we walked away. I was shattered to discover that Harold knew my name, and that he did so because he’d identified himself with my children.
“I now believe he’d known it all along, but was using it — for the first time — out of desperation. Both Konrad Lorenz and Bernd Heinrich mention instances of birds calling out the private names of intimates when threatened by serious danger. I am no longer surprised by such information. We think of our captive birds as our pets, but perhaps we are theirs as well.”
(From Gibson’s Perpetual Motion, 1982.)