Science & Math

Enforced Rest

At a certain moment yesterday evening I coughed and at a certain moment yesterday I went to bed. It was therefore true on Saturday that on Sunday I would cough at the one moment and go to bed at the other. … But if it was true beforehand … that I was to cough and go to bed at those two moments on Sunday, 25 January 1953, then it was impossible for me not to do so.

— Gilbert Ryle, Dilemmas, 1954

Nobrow Cartoons by Mark Heath

nobrow klein bottles

After Hours

When the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University instituted an annual dinner in 1897, it began a tradition of “postprandial proceedings” — typically songs sung around a piano. This air, “Ions Mine,” was sung to the tune of “Clementine”:

In the dusty lab’ratory,
‘Mid the coils and wax and twine,
There the atoms in their glory
Ionize and recombine.

(chorus) Oh my darlings! Oh my darlings!
Oh my darling ions mine!
You are lost and gone forever
When just once you recombine!

In a tube quite electrodeless,
They discharge around a line,
And the glow they leave behind them
Is quite corking for a time.

(repeat chorus)

And with quite a small expansion,
1.8 or 1.9,
You can get a cloud delightful,
Which explains both snow and rain.

(repeat chorus)

In the weird magnetic circuit
See how lovingly they twine,
As each ion describes a spiral
Round its own magnetic line.

(repeat chorus)

Ultra-violet radiation
From the arc of glowing lime,
Soon discharges a conductor
If it’s charged with minus sign.

(repeat chorus)

Alpha rays from radium bromide
Cause a zinc-blende screen to shine,
Set it glowing, clearly showing
Scintillations all the time.

(repeat chorus)

Radium bromide emanation,
Rutherford did first divine,
Turns to helium, then Sir William
Got the spectrum, every line.

(repeat chorus)

The fourth verse was contributed by J.J. Thomson himself.

In a Word

n. a visible manifestation of Satan

Potassium chlorate brings out the worst in gummy bears.

In their 1996 manual Chemical Curiosities, H.W. Roesky and K. Möckel introduce this demonstration with an invocation from the Talmud: “He who ponders long over four things were better never to have been born: that which is above, that which is below, that which came before, and that which comes hereafter.”

(Please don’t try this yourself.)

Command Performance

J.B.S. Haldane’s father was a physiologist who would sometimes take his son along while investigating mines in order to teach him the rudiments of science. At one point they were lowered by a bucket into a pit in North Staffordshire, where a tunnel’s low roof forced their party to crawl:

“After a while, we got to a place where the roof was about eight feet high and a man could stand up. One of the party lifted his safety lamp. It filled with blue flame and went out with a pop. If it had been a candle this would have started an explosion, and we should probably have been killed. But of course the flame of the explosion inside the safety lamp was kept in by the wire gauze. The air near the roof was full of methane, or firedamp, which is a gas lighter than air, so the air on the floor was not dangerous.

“To demonstrate the effects of breathing firedamp, my father told me to stand up and recite Mark Anthony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, beginning ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen.’ I soon began to pant, and somewhere about ‘the noble Brutus’ my legs gave way and I collapsed on to the floor, where, of course, the air was all right. In this way I learnt that firedamp is lighter than air and not dangerous to breathe.”

So It Goes

The Man who thought about Proteids sat by the roadside, writing with an indelible pencil in a little notebook. And Spring, all in pink and white, came tripping by, and cried to him: ‘I will dance for you! Watch me dance!’ She danced very prettily, but the Man went on writing, and never looked at her once. So Spring, being young, burst into tears, and told her sister, Summer.

Summer said to herself: ‘Spring is very foolish to cry. Probably he does not like dancing. I will sing to him.’ She sang a beautiful sleepy song to him, but he never listened, being busy writing in his little notebook. Summer was indignant, and told her sister, Autumn.

Autumn said: ‘There are many good men who do not like dancing. I will give him some of my wine.’ So she went to the Man and offered him her purple wine, but he merely said, ‘I do not drink wine,’ and resumed his writing. Then Autumn was very angry indeed, and told her big brother, Winter, all that had passed.

Winter was an enormous fellow, with a dreadful roar and howl, and every time he moved, snowflakes came whirling from his flowing robes. ‘Show me the fellow,’ he bellowed, puffing out his cheeks. Then he saw the Man who thought about Proteids, still sitting by the roadside.

‘Do you know me?’ roared Winter, and the Man looked and his teeth chattered like dead men’s bones.

Then Winter seized him by the neck and whirled him round and round, and finally flung him over his left shoulder into space.

And the Man who thought about Proteids has not been seen since, but, the other day, a boy found the little note-book lying by the roadside.

— J.B. Priestley, Brief Diversions, 1922

That’s Logic

“If it is feared by a schizophrenic that nothing feared by a schizophrenic is the case, then there must be at least one other schizophrenic fear besides this one.”

— P.T. Geach, quoted in A.N. Prior, “On a Family of Paradoxes,” Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, 1961

Sicherman Dice

What’s unusual about these dice is obvious. But what’s normal about them?

When thrown together, they produce the same probability distribution as a pair of ordinary dice. There are six ways to throw a 7, five ways to throw an 8, etc. This the only possible alternate arrangement in which all the face values are positive.

They were discovered/invented by George Sicherman of Buffalo, N.Y.

A Chemical Traffic Light

A solution of glucose, sodium hydroxide, and indigo carmine, when shaken, will change from yellow to red to green. Left to sit, it will revert to red again, then yellow, and the process can be repeated.

The indigo carmine is green when oxidized, yellow when reduced, and red in the intermediate semiquinone state.


  • Holmes and Watson never address one another by their first names.
  • Until 1990, the banknote factory at Debden, England, was heated by burning old banknotes.
  • The vowels AEIOUY can be arranged to spell the synonyms AYE and OUI.
  • 741602 + 437762 = 7416043776
  • “In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.” — Mark Twain

Two trick questions:

Who played the title role in Bride of Frankenstein? Valerie Hobson — not Elsa Lanchester.

Did Adlai Stevenson ever win national office? Yes — Adlai Stevenson I served as vice president under Grover Cleveland in 1893.