A Time Machine

In an April 1773 letter to Jacques Dubourg, Benjamin Franklin makes a curious observation:

I have seen an instance of common flies preserved in a manner somewhat similar. They had been drowned in Madeira wine, apparently about the time when it was bottled in Virginia, to be sent hither (to London). At the opening of one of the bottles, at the house of a friend where I then was, three drowned flies fell into the first glass which was filled. Having heard it remarked, that drowned flies were capable of being revived by the rays of the sun, I proposed making the experiment upon these: They were therefore exposed to the sun upon a sieve, which had been employed to strain them out of the wine. In less than three hours two of them began by degrees to recover life. They commenced by some convulsive motions in the thighs, and at length they raised themselves upon their legs, wiped their eyes with their fore feet, beat and brushed their wings with their hind feet, and soon after began to fly, finding themselves in Old England without knowing how they came hither. The third continued lifeless till sun-set, when, losing all hopes of him, he was thrown away.

He added, “I wish it were possible, from this instance, to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for, having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America an hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, the being immersed in a cask of Madeira wine, with a few friends, till that time, to be then recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But since in all probability we live in an age too early and too near the infancy of science to hope to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection, I must for the present content myself with the treat which you are so kind as to promise me, of the resurrection of a fowl or a turkeycock.”

Archy and Mehitabel

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_drawing_of_Archy.gif

In 1916, New York Sun columnist Don Marquis told his readers an unlikely story: He had arrived early at work to discover a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys of his typewriter.

“He did not see us, and we watched him,” Marquis wrote. “He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another.” The result was poetry:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life …

there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay

In the years that followed, the sensitive cockroach helped Marquis fill hundreds of pages with wry and sometimes trenchant social commentary:

as i was crawling
through the holes in
a swiss cheese
the other
day it occurred to
me to wonder
what a swiss cheese
would think if
a swiss cheese
could think and after
cogitating for some
time i said to myself
if a swiss cheese
could think
it would think that
a swiss cheese
was the most important
thing in the world
just as everything that
can think at all
does think about itself

And:

a good many
failures are happy
because they dont
realize it many a
cockroach believes
himself as beautiful
as a butterfly
have a heart o have
a heart and
let them dream on

It’s not clear what inspired Marquis to create such an unlikely pair of characters, but his friend Christopher Morley offered one idea. “I remember that in the early days of the ‘Sun Dial,’ when the paper moved from Park Row to Nassau Street, Don’s typewriter desk got lost in the skirmish; so for some years he rattled out his daily stint with his machine perched on an up-ended packing case. This box had stenciled on it the statement 1 GROSS TOM CAT, which meant Tomato Catsup, but became by legend the first suggestion of mehitabel.”

Hair Tomorrow

http://www.google.com/patents/US4932098

In 1990, as the length of manned space missions began to increase dramatically, NASA’s Richard Haines began to wonder: On an extended mission, how could crew members groom themselves without leaving bits of hair and beard floating about the cabin?

His solution was a clear plastic bubble fitted with slits for a groomer’s hands, as well as a vacuum hose. The same apparatus can be used for almost any grooming task, including haircuts, shaving, and manicures.

“The device may also be used to collect the aerosol droplets of hair spray or small powder residue and the residue of other cosmetics which otherwise would float freely throughout the cabin.”

Insight

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_of_knowledge.svg

Many a man floated in water before Archimedes; apples fell from trees as long ago as the Garden of Eden, and the onrush of steam against resistance could have been noted at any time since the discovery of fire and its use under a covered pot of water. In all these cases it was eons before the significance of these events was perceived. Obviously a chance discovery involves both the phenomenon to be observed and the appropriate, intelligent observer.

– Walter Cannon, The Way of an Investigator, 1945

Brothers in Binary

A number is said to be perfect if it equals the sum of its divisors: 6 is divisible by 1, 2, and 3, and 1 + 2 + 3 = 6.

St. Augustine wrote, “Six is a number perfect in itself, and not because God created all things in six days; rather the converse is true; God created all things in six days because this number is perfect, and it would have been perfect even if the work of the six days did not exist.”

Perfect numbers are rare. No one knows whether an infinite quantity exist, and no one knows whether any of them are odd. The early Greeks knew the first four, and in the ensuing two millennia we’ve uncovered only 44 more. But they have one thing in common — they reveal a curious harmony when expressed in base 2:

brothers in binary

“Winter Eve”

Drear fiend: How shall this spay be dent?
I jell you no toque — I do not know.
What can I do but snatch the woe
that falls beyond my pane, and blench
my crows and ted my briny shears?
Now galls another class. I’ll sit
and eye the corm that’s fought in it.
Maces will I fake, and heart my pare.
Is this that sold elf that once I was
with lapped chips and tolling lung?
I hollow sward and tight my bung
for very shame, and yet no cause –
save that the beery witchery
of Life stows grail. Shall I abroad?
Track up my punks? Oh gray to pod
for him who sanders on the wee!
I’ll buff a stag with shiny torts
and soulful hocks, a truthbush too,
perhaps a rook to bead — but no!
my wishes must be dashed. Reports
of danger shake the reaming scare.
Whack against blight! Again that tune,
“A gritty pearl is just like a titty prune”
blows from the fox. I canot bear
this sweetness. Silence is best. I mat
my mistress and my sleazy lumber.
I’ll shake off my toes, for they encumber.
What if I tub my stow? The newt
goes better fakèd to the cot.
I’ll hash my wands or shake a tower,
(a rug of slum? a whiskey sour?)
water my pants in all their plots,
slob a male hairy before I seep –
and dropping each Id on heavy lie,
with none to sing me lullaby,
slop off to dreep, slop off to dreep.

– Robert Morse, quoted in W.H. Auden’s commonplace book A Certain World

Unquote

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_027.jpg

“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.” — Mark Twain

“At last I fell fast asleep on the grass & awoke with a chorus of birds singing around me, & squirrels running up the trees & some Woodpeckers laughing, & it was as pleasant a rural scene as ever I saw, & I did not care one penny how any of the beasts or birds had been formed.” — Charles Darwin, letter to his wife, April 28, 1858

Future Plans

Futility Closet has been growing fast — there are now more than 7,000 posts in the archive, and subscriptions are setting new records every week now. But the functionality hasn’t changed since I launched the site in 2005. I want to devote this year to catching up and helping the site realize its full potential. I could use your help in doing this, as you know best what’s lacking. What new features would you like to see? What new media and formats should I publish in? Should I get involved in social media? Would you be interested in a Futility Closet book? Should we start a forum so that readers can interact? In general, how can I make the site more useful to you?

In the coming days I’m going to be starting a series of discussions on the blog to discuss these questions — see the link to “Blog” in the sidebar under Info. I’d really value your help and advice. Thanks in advance for your suggestions, and thanks, as always, for reading.

Greetings

http://www.scribd.com/doc/48771623/Lageos-Press-Kit

Launched in 1976, NASA’s Laser Geodynamic Satellite needed a stable orbit to permit precise measurements of continental drift, so its designers gave it a high trajectory and a heart of solid brass. As a result, it’s not expected to return to Earth for 8 million years. That raised an interesting challenge: What message could we attach to the satellite that might be intelligible to our descendants or successors, who might recover it thousands of millennia in the future?

Tasked with that problem, Carl Sagan came up with the “greeting card” at left, which is affixed to LAGEOS on a small metal plaque. Using it, whoever comes upon the plaque can calculate roughly the time between his own epoch and ours. In Sagan’s words, the card says, “A few hundred million years ago the continents were all together, as in the top drawing. At the time LAGEOS was launched the map of the Earth looks as in the middle drawing. Eight million years from now, when LAGEOS should return to Earth, we figure the continents will appear as in the bottom drawing. Yours truly.”

Discipline

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_de_Suzanne_Valadon_par_Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec.jpg

Morality turns on whether the pleasure precedes the pain or follows it (provided it is sufficient). Thus, it is immoral to get drunk because the headache comes after the drinking, but if the headache came first, and the drunkenness afterwards, it would be moral to get drunk.

– Samuel Butler, Notebooks, 1912