A Little Story

IBM nanophysicists have made a stop-motion movie using individual atoms — carbon monoxide molecules arranged on a copper substrate and then magnified 100 million times using a scanning tunneling microscope. The molecules remain stationary because they form a bond with the substrate at this extremely low temperature (-268.15° C); each CO molecule stands “on end” so that only one atom is visible.

The result, “A Boy and His Atom,” holds the Guinness world record for the world’s smallest stop-motion film.

07/16/2017 UPDATE: The day I posted this, news broke that researchers have encoded five frames of an 1870s short film into bacterial DNA. (Thanks, Sharon.)

Monkey See

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1972 biologists Colin Tayler and Graham Saayman were observing a group of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in a South African aquarium. One of them, a 6-month-old calf named Dolly, began to seek their attention by pressing feathers, stones, seaweed, and fish skins against the glass of the viewing chamber. If they ignored her she swam off and returned with a different object.

At the end of one observation session, one of the investigators blew a cloud of cigarette smoke against the glass as Dolly was looking in. “The observer was astonished when the animal immediately swam off to its mother, returned and released a mouthful of milk which engulfed her head, giving much the same effect as had the cigarette smoke,” the biologists reported. “Dolly subsequently used this behaviour as a regular device to attract attention.”

“Dolly didn’t ‘copy’ (she wasn’t really smoking) or imitate with intent to achieve the same purpose,” argues ecologist Carl Safina in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. “Somehow Dolly came up with the idea of using milk to represent smoke. Using one thing to represent something else isn’t just mimicking. It is art.”

(C.K. Tayler and G.S. Saayman, “Imitative Behaviour by Indian Ocean Bottlenose Dolphins [Tursiops aduncus] in Captivity,” Behaviour 44:3 [1973], 286-298.)

Noted in Passing


In Visual Thinking in Mathematics, M. Giaquinto writes, “Calculus grew out of attempts to deal with quantitative physical problems which could not be solved by means of geometry and arithmetic alone. Many of these problems concern situations which are easy to visualize. In fact visual representations are so useful that most books on calculus are peppered with diagrams.” But there’s an intriguing footnote: “Moshé Machover brought to my attention a notable exception: Landau (1934). It has no diagram, and no geometrical application.”

That’s Differential and Integral Calculus, by Edmund Landau, a professor of mathematics at Gottingen University. Machover is right — the 366-page volume contains not a single diagram. Landau writes, “I have not included any geometric applications in this text. The reason therefor is not that I am not a geometer; I am familiar, to be sure, with the geometry involved. But the exposition of the axioms and of the elements of geometry — I know them well and like to give courses on them — requires a separate volume which would have to precede the present one. In my lecture courses on the calculus, the geometric applications do, of course, make up a considerable portion of the material that is covered. But I do not wish to wait any longer to make generally available an account, rigorous and complete in every particular, of that which I have considered in my courses to be the most suitable method of treating the differential and integral calculus.”

The book was quite successful — the first English edition appeared in 1950, and subsequent editions have continued right up through 2001.

His and Hers

russell illusion

Which of these faces is male, and which female? In fact both photos show the same androgynous face; the only difference is the amount of contrast in the image. But most people see the face on the left as female and the one on the right as male.

Gettysburg College psychologist Richard Russell says, “Though people are not consciously aware of the sex difference in contrast, they unconsciously use contrast as a cue to tell what sex a face is. We also use the amount of contrast in a face to judge how masculine or feminine the face is, which is related to how attractive we think it is.”

Cosmetics may serve to make a female face more attractive by heightening this contrast. “Cosmetics are typically used in precisely the correct way to exaggerate this difference,” Russell says. “Making the eyes and lips darker without changing the surrounding skin increases the facial contrast. Femininity and attractiveness are highly correlated, so making a face more feminine also makes it more attractive.”

(Richard Russell, “A Sex Difference in Facial Pigmentation and Its Exaggeration by Cosmetics,” Perception 38:8 [August 2009], 1211-1219.)

Higher Magic

The digits 1-9 can be arranged into a 3 × 3 magic square in essentially one way (not counting rotations or reflections) — the so-called lo shu square:

4    3    8

9    5    1

2    7    6

As in any magic square, each row, column, and diagonal produces the same total. But surprisingly (to me), the sum of the row products also equals the sum of the column products:

4 × 3 × 8 + 9 × 5 × 1 + 2 × 7 × 6 = 96 + 45 + 84 = 225

4 × 9 × 2 + 3 × 5 × 7 + 8 × 1 × 6 = 72 + 105 + 48 = 225

Even more surprisingly, the same is true of the Fibonacci sequence, if we arrange its first nine terms into a square array in the same pattern:

 3    2   21

34    5    1

 1   13    8

3 × 2 × 21 + 34 × 5 × 1 + 1 × 13 × 8 = 126 + 170 + 104 = 400

3 × 34 × 1 + 2 × 5 × 13 + 21 × 1 × 8 = 102 + 130 + 168 = 400

It turns out that this is true of any second-order linear recursion. (The sums won’t always be squares, though.)

From Edward J. Barbeau’s Power Play, 1997.

A Twist in History

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Swiss artist Max Bill conceived the Möbius strip independently of August Möbius, who discovered it in 1858. Bill called his figure Eindeloze Kronkel (“Endless Ribbon”), after the symbol of infinity, ∞, and began to exhibit it in various sculptures in the 1930s. He recalled in a 1972 interview:

I was fascinated by a new discovery of mine, a loop with only one edge and one surface. I soon had a chance to make use of it myself. In the winter of 1935-36, I was assembling the Swiss contribution to the Milan Triennale, and there was able to set up three sculptures to characterize and accentuate the individuality of the three sections of the exhibit. One of these was the Endless Ribbon, which I thought I had invented myself. It was not long before someone congratulated me on my fresh and original reinterpretation of the Egyptian symbol of infinity and of the Möbius ribbon.

He pursued mathematical inspirations actively in his later work. He wrote, “The mystery enveloping all mathematical problems … [including] space that can stagger us by beginning on one side and ending in a completely changed aspect on the other, which somehow manages to remain that selfsame side … can yet be fraught with the greatest moment.”

Table Talk

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When chemists at the University of California at Berkeley discovered elements 97 and 98, they named them berkelium and californium. The New Yorker suggested that the school showed “a surprising lack of public-relations foresight”: “Now it has lost forever the chance of immortalizing itself in the atomic tables with some such sequence as universitium (97), ofium (98), californium (99), berkelium (100).”

The discoverers sent back a reply: “By using these names first, we have forestalled the appalling possibility that after naming 97 and 98 ‘universitium’ and ‘ofium’, some New Yorker might follow with the discovery of 99 and 100 and apply the names ‘newium’ and ‘yorkium’.”

The magazine answered, “We are already at work in our office laboratories on ‘newium’ and ‘yorkium’. So far we just have the names.”

Podcast Episode 159: The Mozart of Mathematics

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mathematician Paul Erdős had no home, no job, and no hobbies. Instead, for 60 years he wandered the world, staying with each of hundreds of collaborators just long enough to finish a project, and then moving on. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the “magician of Budapest,” whose restless brilliance made him the most prolific mathematician of the 20th century.

We’ll also ponder Japanese cannibalism in World War II and puzzle over a senseless stabbing.


Elbert Hubbard published 12 blank pages in 1905.

A duck spent 18 months in the U.S. 2nd Marine Division in 1943.

Sources for our feature on Paul Erdős:

Paul Hoffman, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, 1999.

The magisterial biography of Erdős. The first chapter is here.

Bruce Schechter, My Brain Is Open, 2000.

Béla Bollobás, “Paul Erdős (1913-96),” Nature, 383:6601 (Oct. 17, 1996), 584.

Melvin Henriksen, “Reminiscences of Paul Erdős,” Mathematical Association of America (accessed June 10, 2017).

László Babai, Carl Pomerance, and Péter Vértesi, “The Mathematics of Paul Erdős,” Notices of the AMS 45:1 (January 1998).

László Babai and Joel Spencer, “Paul Erdős (1913–1996),” Notices of the AMS 45:1 (January 1998).

Ronald L. Graham, Jaroslav Nesetril, Steve Butler, eds., The Mathematics of Paul Erdős, 2013.

Rodrigo De Castro and Jerrold W. Grossman, “Famous Trails to Paul Erdős,” Mathematical Intelligencer 21:3 (January 1999), 51–53.

Bruce Torrence and Ron Graham, “The 100th Birthday of Paul Erdős/Remembering Erdős,” Math Horizons 20:4 (April 2013), 10-12.

Krishnaswami Alladi et al., “Reflections on Paul Erdős on His Birth Centenary,” Parts I and II, Notices of the American Mathematical Society 62:2 and 62:3 (February and March 2015).

Béla Bollobás, “To Prove and Conjecture: Paul Erdős and His Mathematics,” American Mathematical Monthly 105:3 (March 1998), 209-237.

“Information About Paul Erdős (1913-1996),” Oakland University (accessed June 13, 2017).

Calla Cofield, “An Arbitrary Number of Years Since Mathematician Paul Erdős’s Birth,” Scientific American, March 26, 2013.

Béla Bollobás, “Obituary: Paul Erdős,” Independent, Oct. 2, 1996.

N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős, Kanopy Streaming, 2014.

“Paul Erdős,” MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive (accessed June 10, 2017).

Above: Erdős teaching 10-year-old Terence Tao in 1985. Tao is now recognized as one of the world’s finest mathematicians; he received the Fields Medal in 2006.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Chichijima Incident” (accessed June 23, 2017).

Charles Laurence, “George HW Bush Narrowly Escaped Comrades’ Fate of Being Killed and Eaten by Japanese Captors,” Telegraph, Feb. 6, 2017.

James Bradley, Flyboys, 2003.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Waldo van der Waal, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Fleeting Thoughts


A low-tech model of human cognition, from William James’ The Principles of Psychology, 1890:

If we make a solid wooden frame with the sentence written on its front, and the time-scale on one of its sides, if we spread flatly a sheet of India rubber over its top, on which rectangular co-ordinates are painted, and slide a smooth ball under the rubber in the direction from 0 to ‘yesterday,’ the bulging of the membrane along this diagonal at successive moments will symbolize the changing of the thought’s content in a way plain enough, after what has been said, to call for no more explanation. Or to express it in cerebral terms, it will show the relative intensities, at successive moments, of the several nerve-processes to which the various parts of the thought-object correspond.

He was grappling with the stream of consciousness, the notion that thought is a flowing stream rather than a distinct chain of ideas, and with the realization that studying this by introspection is ultimately futile: “The rush of thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself. … The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch the motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.”

The SNARC Effect

In 1993, cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene asked respondents to classify a number as larger or smaller than 65, using response keys held in their hands. Interestingly, the subjects who held the “smaller” key in their left hand and the “larger” key in their right responded more quickly and with fewer errors than those in the opposite group. This suggests that we carry around a mental number line in our heads, implicitly associating left with “small” and right with “large”; the subjects in the slower group may have been fighting against this prejudice. Dehaene calls this the SNARC effect, for “spatial-numerical association of response codes.”

The effect was borne out in later studies. When subjects were asked to cross their arms, the group whose “smaller” button lay to their left were still faster than their counterparts. And the effect still obtains regardless of the range of numbers used, and even in tasks where the size of the number is irrelevant: In another experiment subjects were asked to report whether a given number was odd or even; here again, responses to numbers in the upper half of the test range were quicker when the appropriate response key was on the right, and likewise for small numbers on the left.

Interestingly, Iranian students living in France who had initially learned to read from right to left showed a reverse SNARC effect (associating small numbers with the right and large numbers with the left) if they’d recently immigrated, but those who had lived in France for some time showed the same SNARC effect as native French students.

“Very probably, then, this number-space association is learned, not innate,” writes M. Giaquinto in Visual Thinking in Mathematics. “But there may very well be an innate propensity in operation here. A left-right association has been found for familiar ordered sets of non-numerical items, namely, months and letters. This suggests that we have a tendency to form a linear spatial representation of any set of things whose customary presentation is well ordered (in the mathematical sense).”

(S. Dehaene, S. Bossini, and P. Giraux, “The Mental Representation of Parity and Numerical Magnitude,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 122, 371-396. See Number Forms.)