Finding Yourself

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

Choose any word in the first two lines, count its letters, and count forward that number of words. For example, if you choose STAR, which has four letters, you’d count ahead four words, beginning with HOW, to reach WHAT. Count the number of letters in that word and count ahead as before. Continue until you can’t go any further. You’ll always land on YOU in the last line.


In 1966, asked to describe the person least likely to develop atherosclerosis, Cambridge research fellow Alan N. Howard answered, “A hypotensive, bicycling, unemployed, hypo-beta-lipoproteinic, hyper-alpha-lipoproteinic, non-smoking, hypolipaemic, underweight, premenopausal female dwarf living in a crowded room on the island of Crete before 1925 and subsisting on a diet of uncoated cereals, safflower oil, and water.”

Oxford physician Alan Norton added that her male counterpart was an ectomorphic Bantu who worked as a London bus conductor, had spent the war in a Norwegian prison camp, never ate refined sugar, never drank coffee, always ate five or more small meals a day, and was taking large doses of estrogen to check the growth of his prostate cancer.

“All these phrases mark correlations established in the last few years in a field of medical research which, in volume at least, is unsurpassed,” noted Richard Mould in Mould’s Medical Anecdotes. “The conflict of evidence is unequalled as well.”


If this sentence is true, then Santa Claus exists.

If that sentence is true, then it’s the case that Santa Claus exists. But wait — in making this observation, we seem to have confirmed the truth of the original sentence. And if that sentence is true, then Santa Claus exists! Where is the error?

(By Raymond Smullyan.)

Times Square

Prove that the product of four consecutive positive integers cannot be a perfect square.

Click for Answer

Dinner Charge

A curious effect produced by lightning is described to us by Dr. Enfield, writing from Jefferson, Iowa, U.S. A house which he visited was struck by lightning so that much damage was done. After the occurrence, a pile of dinner plates, twelve in number, was found to have every other plate broken. It would seem as if the plates constituted a condenser under the intensely electrified condition of the atmosphere. The particulars are, however, so meagre that it is difficult to decide whether the phenomenon was electrical or merely mechanical.

Nature, June 12, 1902

A Body at Rest

newton mausoleum

In an anonymous letter to the London Times in 1825, Thomas Steele of Magdalen College, Cambridge, proposed enshrining Isaac Newton’s residence in a stepped stone pyramid surmounted by a vast stone globe. The physicist himself had died more than a century earlier, in 1727, and lay in Westminster Abbey, but Steele felt that preserving his home would produce a monument “not unworthy of the nation and of his memory”:

When travelling through Italy, I was powerfully struck by the unique situation and singular appearance of the Primitive Chapel at Assisi, founded by St. Francis.

As you enter the porch of the great Franciscan church, you view before you this small cottage-like chapel, standing directly under the dome, and perfectly isolated.

Now, Sir, among the many splendid improvements which are making in the capital, would it not be a noble, and perhaps the most appropriate, national monument which could be erected, if an azure hemispherical dome, or what would be better, a portion of a sphere greater than a hemisphere, supported on a massive base, were to be reared, like that of Assisi, over the house and observatory of the writer of the Principia?

The house might be fitted up in such a manner as to contain a council-chamber and library for the Royal Society; and it is perhaps not unworthy of being remarked, that it is not more than about two hundred yards distant from the University Club House.

Protected, by the means which I have described, from the dilapidating influence of rains and winds, the venerable edifice in which Newton studied, or was inspired, — that ‘palace of the soul,’ might stand fast for ages, a British monument more sublime than the Pyramids, though remote antiquity and vastness be combined to create their interest.

Steele wasn’t an architect, and he left the details to others, but he was imagining something enormous: In a subsequent letter to the Mechanics’ Magazine he wrote that “the base of my design [appears] to coincide with the base of St. Paul’s (a sort of crude coincidence of course, in consequence of the angle at the transept), and that the highest point of my designed building should, at the same time, appear to coincide with a point of the great tower of the cathedral, about 200 feet high — the height of the building which I propose to have erected.”

The plan never went forward, but the magazine endorsed the idea: “We need scarcely add, that there is no description of embellishment which might not be with ease introduced into the structure, so as to render it as perpetual a monument to the taste as it would be to the national spirit and gratitude of the British people.”

Warm Words

Future president Herbert Hoover published a surprising title in 1912: An English translation of the 16th-century mining textbook De Re Metallica, composed originally by Georg Bauer in 1556. Bauer’s book had remained a classic work in the field for two centuries, with some copies deemed so valuable that they were chained to church altars, but no one had translated the Latin into good modern English. Biographer David Burner wrote, “Hoover and his wife had the distinct advantage of combining linguistic ability with mineralogical knowledge.”

Hoover, a mining engineer, and his wife Lou, a linguist, spent five years on the project, visiting the areas in Saxony that Bauer had described, ordering translations of related mining books, and spending more than $20,000 for experimental help in investigating the chemical processes that the book described.

The Hoovers offered the 637-page work, complete with the original woodcuts, to “strengthen the traditions of one of the most important and least recognized of the world’s professions.” Of the 3,000 copies that were printed, Hoover gave away more than half to mining engineers and students.

Yablo’s Paradox

All the statements below this one are false.
All the statements below this one are false.
All the statements below this one are false.
All the statements below this one are false.
All the statements below this one are false.

These statements can’t all be false, because that would make the first one true, a contradiction. But neither can any one of them be true, as a true statement would have to be followed by an infinity of false statements, and the falsity of any one of them implies the truth of some that follow. Thus there’s no consistent way to assign truth values to all the statements.

This is reminiscent of the well-known liar paradox (“This sentence is false”), except that none of the sentences above refers to itself. MIT philosopher Stephen Yablo uses it to show that circularity is not necessary to produce a paradox.