“A Rough Justice”


British inventor Sir Robert Watson-Watt pioneered the development of radar, a contribution that helped the Royal Air Force win the Battle of Britain. Ironically, after the war he was pulled over for speeding by a Canadian policeman wielding a radar gun. His wife tried to point out the absurdity of the situation, but the officer wasn’t interested, and the couple drove away with a $12.50 fine. Watson-Watt wrote this poem:

Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot

And thus, with others I can mention,
the victim of his own invention.

His magical all-seeing eye
enabled cloud-bound planes to fly

but now by some ironic twist
it spots the speeding motorist

and bites, no doubt with legal wit,
the hand that once created it.

Oh Frankenstein who lost control
of monsters man created whole,

with fondest sympathy regard
one more hoist with his petard.

As for you courageous boffins
who may be nailing up your coffins,

particularly those whose mission
deals in the realm of nuclear fission,

pause and contemplate fate’s counter plot
and learn with us what’s Watson-Watt.

(Thanks, Chris.)

Black and White

shinkman chess problem

By William Anthony Shinkman. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Round Trip

A time-travel paradox from Robin Le Poidevin’s Travels in Four Dimensions, 2003:

Tim is spending the summer holiday at his grandfather’s house in rural Sussex. Bored one day, he wanders into his grandfather’s library. On one of the more remote shelves, Tim discovers a dusty book with no title on its spine. Opening it, he sees it is a diary, written in a familiar hand. With a growing sense of wonder he realizes that one of the entries provides detailed instructions on how to build a time machine. Over the next few years, following the instructions to the last detail, Tim builds such a machine. It is finally completed, and he steps on board, and throws the switch. Instantly, he is transported back fifty years. Unfortunately, both the machine and book are destroyed in the process. Tim writes down everything he can remember in a diary. He cannot rebuild the machine, however, because it requires technology that is not yet available. Reconciled to getting back to the twenty-first century by the traditional method of doing nothing and letting time carry one back, he marries and has a daughter. The family move to a rambling mansion in rural Sussex. The diary is left to gather dust in the library. Years later, Tim’s grandson, spending his summer holidays with his grandfather, discovers the diary.

“The identity of Tim will be obvious,” writes Le Poidevin, “and this in itself is rather strange. But the question we are concerned with is this: where did the inforation on how to build a time machine come from? From the diary, of course, which itself was written by Tim. But where did he get the information from? From the very same diary! So the information has appeared from nowhere. At no stage has someone worked out for themselves how to build a time machine and passed on the information. The existence of this information is therefore utterly mysterious.”

Talking Down

The interactive installation Text Rain (1999), by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, invites participants to view themselves on a monitor while letters rain down upon them. “Like rain or snow, the text appears to land on participants’ heads and arms. The text responds to the participants’ motions and can be caught, lifted, and then let fall again. The falling text will land on anything darker than a certain threshold, and ‘fall’ whenever that obstacle is removed.”

The letters aren’t random — they form the poem “Talk, You,” from Evan Zimroth’s 1993 book Dead, Dinner, or Naked:

I like talking with you,
simply that: conversing,
a turning-with or -around,
as in your turning around
to face me suddenly …
At your turning, each part
of my body turns to verb.
We are the opposite
of tongue-tied, if there
were such an antonym;
We are synonyms
for limbs’ loosening
of syntax,
and yet turn to nothing:
It’s just talk.

“If a participant accumulates enough letters along their outstretched arms, or along the silhouette of any dark object, they can sometimes catch an entire word, or even a phrase,” the artists note. “‘Reading’ the phrases in the Text Rain installation becomes a physical as well as a cerebral endeavor.”



Ohio State University philosopher Stewart Shapiro relates a puzzling experience that a friend once encountered in a physics lab. “The class was looking at an oscilloscope and a funny shape kept forming at the end of the screen. Although it had nothing to do with the lesson that day, my friend asked for an explanation. The lab instructor wrote something on the board (probably a differential equation) and said that the funny shape occurs because a function solving the equation has a zero at a particular value. My friend told me that he became even more puzzled that the occurrence of a zero in a function should count as an explanation of a physical event, but he did not feel up to pursuing the issue further at the time.

“This example indicates that much of the theoretical and practical work in a science consists of constructing or discovering mathematical models of physical phenomena. Many scientific and engineering problems are tasks of finding a differential equation, a formula, or a function associated with a class of phenomena. A scientific ‘explanation’ of a physical event often amounts to no more than a mathematical description of it, but what on earth can that mean? What is a mathematical description of a physical event?”

What right do we have to presume that the natural world will hew to mathematical laws? And why does the universe oblige us so graciously by doing so? Repeatedly, mathematicians have developed abstract structures and concepts that have later found unexpected applications in science. How can this happen?

“It is positively spooky how the physicist finds the mathematician has been there before him or her.” — Steven Weinberg

“I find it quite amazing that it is possible to predict what will happen by mathematics, which is simply following rules which really have nothing to do with the original thing.” — Richard Feynman

“One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulae have an independent existence and intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them.” — Heinrich Hertz

“The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” — Eugene Wigner

(From Stewart Shapiro, Thinking About Mathematics, 2000; also his paper “Mathematics and Reality” in Philosophy of Science 50:4 [December 1983].)

Postal Constraints

Letter from Lewis Carroll to Gertrude Chataway, Dec. 9, 1875:

This really will not do, you know, sending one more kiss every time by post: the parcel gets so heavy it is quite expensive. When the postman brought in the last letter, he looked quite grave. ‘Two pounds to pay, sir!’ he said. ‘Extra weight, sir!’ (I think he cheats a little, by the way. He often makes me pay two pounds, when I think it should be pence). ‘Oh, if you please, Mr. Postman!’ I said, going down gracefully on one knee (I wish you could see me go down on one knee to a postman — it’s a very pretty sight), ‘do excuse me just this once! It’s only from a little girl!’

‘Only from a little girl!’ he growled. ‘What are little girls made of?’ ‘Sugar and spice,’ I began to say, ‘and all that’s ni–‘ but he interrupted me. ‘No! I don’t mean that. I mean, what’s the good of little girls, when they send such heavy letters?’ ‘Well, they’re not much good, certainly,’ I said, rather sadly.

‘Mind you don’t get any more such letters,’ he said, ‘at least, not from that particular little girl. I know her well, and she’s a regular bad one!’ That’s not true, is it? I don’t believe he ever saw you, and you’re not a bad one, are you? However, I promised him we would send each other very few more letters — ‘Only two thousand four hundred and seventy, or so,’ I said. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘a little number like that doesn’t signify. What I meant is, you mustn’t send many.’

So you see we must keep count now, and when we get to two thousand four hundred and seventy, we mustn’t write any more, unless the postman gives us leave.

A Step Up

addison patent

Shropshire furniture maker Henry Addison patented these “elevators” in 1902:

My invention has for its object a new or improved device or stand for attaching to the foot by means of which those people who are at the rear of, or short people who are in the midst of a large gathering or crowd are enabled to easily and comfortably see over the heads of the people in front thus enabling them to witness a procession or game or other sight without any inconvenience or crushing which will be found of considerable advantage.

Addison thought they’d be particularly valuable at football matches, race meetings, sports, “or games of any kind where a crowd of spectators are assembled.” Of course, the people behind you will have to get stilts.


  • Denver International Airport is larger than Manhattan.
  • C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy died on the same day.
  • Shakespeare mentions America only once, in Act 3, Scene 2 of The Comedy of Errors.
  • π4 + π5e6
  • “All styles are good except the boring kind.” — Voltaire

(Thanks, Larry.)


“The really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.” — Albert Einstein

“Aside from purely technical analysis, nothing can be said about music, except when it is bad; when it is good, one can only listen and be grateful.” — W.H. Auden

Podcast Episode 24: The World’s Worst Poet


William McGonagall has been called “the only truly memorable bad poet in our language,” responsible for tin-eared verse that could “give you cauliflower ears just from silent reading”:

Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast;
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample McGonagall’s writings, follow the poor poet’s sadly heroic wanderings, and wonder whether he may have been in on the joke after all. We’ll also consider a South Carolina seventh grader’s plea to Ronald Reagan and puzzle over a man’s outrageous public behavior.

Our segment on William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, is drawn from Norman Watson’s beautifully researched 2010 book Poet McGonagall: A Biography. The best online source on McGonagall is Chris Hunt’s site McGonagall Online, which contains extensive biographical materials, a map of the poet’s travels, and a complete collection of his poems.

South Carolina seventh grader Andy Irmo’s 1984 letter to Ronald Reagan asking that his room be declared a disaster area appears in Dwight Young’s 2007 book Dear Mr. President: Letters to the Oval Office from the Files of the National Archives. Our post about it ran on Aug. 14, 2006.

Thanks to listener Nick Madrid for this week’s lateral thinking puzzle.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. 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!

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