“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.



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.”



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


rectangle theorem

For any rectangle, the sum of the squares of the distances from any point P to two opposite corners is equal to the sum of the squares of the distances from that point to the two other corners (so, above, a2 + c2 = b2 + d2). This remains true whether the point is inside or outside the rectangle, on a side or a corner, or even outside the plane.

Pushkin wrote, “Inspiration is needed in geometry, just as much as in poetry.”

Plane Dealing

A pilot is about to depart in his plane when he meets a young woman on the airport concourse. She has missed her flight.

“I can give you a lift if you like,” he says.

“But you don’t know where I’m going,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter. I can drop you off wherever you like and continue to my destination without going out of my way.”

This seems preposterous until he explains where he’s going. Where is it?

Click for Answer

Surface Mail

On Christmas night 1945, Army serviceman Frank Hayostek tossed a bottle over the rail of the troopship that was carrying him home from France. It contained this message:

Dear Finder,

I am an American soldier … 21 years old … just a plain American of no wealth, but just enough to get along with. This is my third Christmas from home. … God bless you.

In September 1946, he received a letter from Ireland:

I have found your bottle and note. I will tell you the whole story.

I live on a farm at the southwest coast of Ireland. On Friday, Aug. 23, 1946, I drove the cows to the fields beside the sea and then went for walk on the strand called The Beal. It is an inlet of Dingle Bay.

Well, my dog was running before me and I saw him stop and sniff something light on the sand, and then he went off in pursuit of sea gulls. I found the object was a brown bottle. … The cork … crumbled in my fingers. How the note kept dry, nobody can understand. … I sat there on the beach and read it.

I thought at first I was dreaming. This is just a little common Irish village where nothing strange ever occurs, and this is something for the farmers to talk about while they cut the oats and bring the hay into the barn. Well, imagine, the bottle has been on the sea for eight months. … Who knows where it has been? It may have traveled around the world. How did it escape being broken on the rocks? If you had only seen where I got it! It’s all a mess of rocks. The hand of Providence must surely have guided it.

Well, I hope to hear from you soon. … You mention offering no reward to the finder of the bottle. Well, I ask no reward, as it was a very pleasant surprise. Wishing you very good luck, your loving friend,

Breda O’Sullivan

Hayostek and O’Sullivan exchanged 70 letters over the next seven years. She was a farm girl in the village of Lispole in County Kerry, and he found work as a welder in Johnstown, Pa., saving $80 a month in order to visit her.

In August 1952 Hayostek flew to Ireland, where both were besieged by reporters.

“It’s in the hands of God,” he said. “She’s very nice.”

“After all,” she said, “we only met a few hours ago. Up to then, he was only a man in a bottle.”

But after two weeks O’Sullivan announced, “There is no romance and there will be no wedding. We will remain good pen pals.” She continued to correspond with Hayostek until 1959, when she married a local man. “If I had known that I would get all that publicity by answering the letter,” she told a reporter later, “I would have left the bottle lying there.”

Hayostek may have felt differently. His gravestone reads: “Frank L Hayostek, June 11, 1924-November 15, 2009: Frank Hayostek met in Tralee, Ireland, with Breda O’Sullivan who found a message-laden bottle he had tossed from a Liberty ship seven years before.”

Inner Space


In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core, a fantastic tale in which an elderly inventor and his young friend discover that the earth is hollow and contains a concave world lit by a tiny sun. This land, known as Pellucidar, is peopled by intelligent races and inhabited by monstrous prehistoric creatures.

Strikingly, a year earlier Marshall Blutcher Gardner had proposed nearly the same idea in earnest. In A Journey to the Earth’s Interior he had described a hidden land lining the interior of our hollow planet:

Here, indeed, we may expect to find a new world — a world the surface of which is probably subdivided, like ours, into continents, oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Here, through the heat of the interior sun, plant life may exceed in size and luxuriance any vegetation that ever grew upon the outside surface of the earth. Here may be found strange animals of every description; some of them even larger, perhaps, than the prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, on account of the abundant supply of vegetation, and others of species unrecorded by zoologists. Here, also, may tread the feet of a race of people whose existence is entirely unknown or hitherto unsuspected by us.

Gardner had even patented a hinged globe to help explain his theory. He concluded his book with a call for an expedition to explore this new world, declaring that “the whole truth apparently has not yet been revealed.” In a strange sense, Burroughs’ characters discovered that world the following year.

Terrible Poetry

We turned, as the winter-flakes fell from the cloud,
And the keen wind blew colder and colder;
And there, in his little grey coffin and shroud,
Left our darling to silently moulder.

— Henry Doman, “The Burial of the Darling,” from “The Cathedral” and Other Poems, 1864

Attend, ye fair, ye thoughtless, and ye gay!
For Mira dy’d upon the nuptial day!
The grave, cold bridegroom! clasp’d her in his arms,
And kindred worms destroyed her pleasing charms.

— Henry More, “Night Thoughts,” from An Elegaic Poem Amidst the Ruins of an Abbey, 1803

I tell you I’m the youngest son of five;
And three lie in their gore
Down by the great hall-door,
And Fred and I are all that are alive.

— John Stanyan Bigg, “The Huguenot’s Doom,” from Shifting Scenes, and Other Poems, 1862

Yet to the mariner, when tempest tost,
Thy presence brings to him but sore dismay;
Contact with thee, all hope were surely lost,
Death then engulphs his helpless prey.

— William Igglesden, “To an Iceberg in the Southern Ocean,” from Poetical Miscellanea, 1858

S.L. Francis’ 1760 “Elegy on Colonel Robert Montgomery Written on the Fatal Spot Where the Lamentable Duel Transpired” ends with the line “Submerged he lies, co-wretched am I now.” “All poets write bad poetry,” wrote Umberto Eco. “Bad poets publish them, good poets burn them.”

Black and White

loyd chess problem

By Sam Loyd. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer