In short my dear Friend you and I have been indefatigable Labourers through our whole Lives for a Cause which will be thrown away in the next generation, upon the Vanity and Foppery of Persons of whom we do not now know the Names perhaps. — The War that is now breaking out will render our Country, whether she is forced into it, or not, rich, great and powerful in comparison of what she now is, and Riches Grandeur and Power will have the same effect upon American as it has upon European minds.
— John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, Oct. 9, 1787
On June 29, 1851, phrenologist J.P. Browne examined a subject he knew only as a “gentlewoman”:
In its intellectual development this head is very remarkable. The forehead is at once very large and well formed. It bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding. … This lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can, if she has done her talents justice by exercise, express her sentiments with clearness, precision, and force — sufficiently eloquent but not verbose. In learning a language she would investigate its spirit and structure. … In analyzing the motives of human conduct, this lady would display originality and power.
The subject was Charlotte Brontë. She had attended the reading with George Smith, presenting themselves as “Mr. and Miss Fraser.” Phrenology was fashionable at the time, and Charlotte, like many others, was willing to overlook its failures to appreciate its successes. Smith’s reading said, “He is an admirer of the fair sex. He is very kind to children. … Is active and practical though not hustling or contentious.” Smith found this “not so happy,” but Charlotte said, “It is a sort of miracle — like — like — like as the very life itself.”
Another of these dreams he had used as a basis for ‘Pickman’s Model,’ while still another formed the nucleus for ‘The Call of Cthulhu.’ I referred to this story one day, pronouncing the strange word as though it were spelled K-Thool-Hoo. Lovecraft looked blank for an instant, then corrected me firmly, informing me that the word was pronounced, as nearly as I can put it down in print, K-Lütl-Lütl. I was surprised, and asked why he didn’t spell it that way if such was the pronunciation. He replied in all seriousness that the word was originated by the denizens of his story and that he had only recorded their own way of spelling it. Lovecraft’s own invention had assumed an actual reality in his mind.
— Donald Wandrei, “Lovecraft in Providence,” in Peter Cannon, ed., Lovecraft Remembered, 1998
UPDATE: A number of readers questioned the validity of this solution, but I think that’s due to a bad writeup on my part. I don’t know who devised the problem originally; I found it in the 1995 collection Five Hundred Mathematical Challenges, by Edward Barbeau, Murray Klamkin, and William Moser. Here’s their presentation:
John tosses 6 fair coins, and Mary tosses 5 fair coins. What is the probability that John gets more “heads” than Mary?
More generally, suppose John tosses n + 1 coins and Mary tosses n coins. Then, either John tosses more heads than Mary does or John tosses more tails than Mary does — but not both. (Check this out!) Since these two outcomes are symmetric, each occurs with probability 1/2.
I think I confused the issue by failing to note that this reasoning addresses specifically the case of n coins vs. n + 1. I still haven’t had time to think about this carefully, but most of the people who’d objected wrote back later to change their minds. If you still think it’s incorrect, please do let me know, and I’ll post further updates here. Sorry for the confusion, and thanks to everyone who’s written in.
UPDATE #2: Yes, the solution appears to be valid with this change. Thanks to everyone who contributed!
Victorian children’s author Favell Lee Mortimer published three bizarre travel books that described a world full of death, vice, and peril. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample her terrifying descriptions of the lands beyond England and wonder what led her to write them.
We’ll also review the movie career of an Alaskan sled dog, learn about the Soviet Union’s domestication of silver foxes, and puzzle over some curious noises in a soccer stadium.
Favell Lee Mortimer’s travel books for children are all available online:
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
In 1794, at Strasbourg, the French Hussar François Fournier-Sarlovèze challenged a young man to a duel and killed him. When his fellow officer Pierre Dupont de l’Étang denied him entrance to a ball on the eve of the funeral, the fiery Fournier challenged him to a duel. The two fought with swords, and Fournier was wounded.
When he had recovered he challenged Dupont to a second duel, and wounded him. In their third meeting each inflicted a slight wound on the other. Finally the two agreed to a private war that would continue until one of them confessed that he was beaten or “satisfied.” They even drew up a contract:
Every time that Dupont and Fournier shall be a hundred miles from each other they will each approach from a distance to meet sword in hand.
Should one of the contracting parties be prevented by service duties, he who is free must travel the entire distance, so as to reconcile the obligations of service with the demands of the present treaty.
No excuse whatever, excepting those resulting from military obligations, will be admitted.
The present being a bona fide treaty, no alteration can be made to the conditions agreed upon by the contracting parties.
Over the ensuing 19 years the two fought at least 30 duels, each eventually rising to the rank of general. Finally, after a particularly savage meeting in Switzerland in 1813, in which Dupont ran his sword through Fournier’s neck, Dupont explained that he would be married soon and wanted to conclude the matter with a pistol duel in a nearby wood. Dupont twice tricked his opponent into firing at empty clothing, then advanced on him with pistols primed and claimed his victory. In The Duel, Robert Baldick writes, “Thus ended after a total period of nineteen years, the longest, friendliest and most mobile duel in history.”
(This story is so absurdly romantic that I doubted whether it happened at all, but every source I can find confirms at least the essentials. Joseph Conrad found an account of the rivalry in a provincial newspaper and turned it into his 1908 short story “The Duel,” and Ridley Scott turned Conrad’s story into the 1977 film The Duellists. I’ll keep digging.)
Walter Scott’s 1816 novel The Antiquary met with rapturous praise — the Edinburgh Review pronounced the chapter on the escape from the tide to be “the very best description we have ever met, in verse or in prose, in ancient or in modern writing.”
But, critic Andrew Lang quietly noted, “No reviewer seems to have noticed that the sun is made to set in the sea, on the east coast of Scotland.”
Asked for his opinion of Crime and Punishment, Paul Dirac said, “He describes a sunset, and then a little later the same evening the sun sets again. That kind of mistake does jar on me.”
When Glenn Seaborg appeared as a guest scientist on the children’s radio show Quiz Kids in 1945, one of the children asked whether any new elements, other than plutonium and neptunium, had been discovered at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago during the war.
In fact two had — Seaborg announced for the first time anywhere that two new elements, with atomic numbers 95 and 96 (americium and curium), had been discovered. He said, “So now you’ll have to tell your teachers to change the 92 elements in your schoolbook to 96 elements.”
In his 1979 Priestley Medal address, Seaborg recalled that many students apparently did bring this knowledge to school. And “judging from some of the letters I received from such youngsters, they were not entirely successful in convincing their teachers.”
Futility Closet is a collection of entertaining curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, designed to help you waste time as enjoyably as possible.
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