A Way Through

Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto makes labyrinths out of salt. Working alone, he refines his initial sketches on computer and then builds them meticulously by hand, forming large, intricate mazes that fill entire rooms.

The final effect resembles the surface of the brain. Yamamoto lost his sister in 1994 to brain cancer, and he chose salt, a funeral material in Japan, “to heal my grief.” His first labyrinth had a single path from the exterior to the center; later works have offered multiple paths and often multiple entrances and exits.

After a work has been exhibited, he invites the public to help him destroy it and toss it back into the sea. “Drawing a labyrinth with salt is like following a trace of my memory,” he says. “Memories seem to change and vanish as time goes by; however, what I seek is to capture a frozen moment that cannot be attained through pictures or writings. What I look for at the end of the act of drawing could be a feeling of touching a precious memory.”

‘Tis the Season

Charles Trigg proposed this festive cryptarithm in the American Mathematical Monthly in 1956:

MERRY XMAS TO ALL

If each letter is a unique representation of a digit, and each word is a square integer, what are these four numbers?

Click for Answer

Long Haul

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prescott_and_Arizona_Central_3.jpg

Recognize this locomotive? You’ve almost certainly seen it before: Built in 1891, “Sierra No. 3” was adopted by Hollywood in 1948 and became “the most photographed locomotive in the world,” appearing in The Red Glove, The Terror, The Virginian, The Texan, Young Tom Edison, Sierra Passage, Wyoming Mail, High Noon, The Cimarron Kid, Kansas Pacific, The Moonlighter, Apache, Rage at Dawn, The Return of Jack Slade, Texas Lady, The Big Land, Terror in a Texas Town, Man of the West, Face of a Fugitive, The Outrage, The Rare Breed, The Great Race, The Perils of Pauline, Finian’s Rainbow, A Man Called Gannon, The Great Bank Robbery, Joe Hill, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Oklahoma Crude, Nickleodeon, Bound for Glory, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, The Long Riders, Pale Rider, Blood Red, Back to the Future Part III, Unforgiven, and Bad Girls.

Gary Cooper alone starred in four movies with it, including High Noon; Clint Eastwood, who appeared with it in Rawhide, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven, said it was “like a treasured old friend.” TV shows:

The Lone Ranger, Tales of Wells Fargo, Casey Jones, Rawhide, Overland Trail, Lassie, Death Valley Days, The Raiders, Petticoat Junction, The Wild Wild West, The Big Valley, The Legend of Jesse James, Scalplock, Iron Horse, Cimarron Strip, Dundee and the Culhane, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Ballad of the Iron Horse, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Great Man’s Whiskers, Inventing of America, Little House on the Prairie, Law of the Land, A Woman Called Moses, Lacy and the Mississippi Queen, Kate Bliss and the Ticker Tape Kid, The Night Rider, The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang, Belle Starr, East of Eden, Father Murphy, The A-Team, Bonanza: The Next Generation, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., and Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.

William L. Withhuhn, former transportation history curator at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote, “Sierra Railway No. 3 has appeared in more motion pictures, documentaries, and television productions than any other locomotive. It is undisputedly the image of the archetypal steam locomotive that propelled the USA from the 19th century into the 20th.”

Recoupling

From reader Dave Lawrence: What is notable about these 14 sets of words?

accost commit launch deeded
adhere heckle silent versed
ampere arrive angers theses
chance ascent tester stored
chaste ascend tinder seeded
cohere heckle silent versed
debase mucked refile stress
demure riffle silent versed
endure shelve riling nested
forego recess gossip needed
herein advice resins stones
rebate locket career tested
recast costar pirate esters
remade astute surest rested
Click for Answer

The Feynman Ciphers

https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Richard-feynman.jpg

In 1987, Chris Cole posted a message to the sci.crypt Usenet group:

When I was a graduate student at Caltech, Professor Feynman showed me three samples of code that he had been challenged with by a fellow scientist at Los Alamos and which he had not been able to crack. I also was unable to crack them. I now post them for the net to give it a try.

The first, marked “Easier,” was this:

MEOTAIHSIBRTEWDGLGKNLANEA
INOEEPEYSTNPEUOOEHRONLTIR
OSDHEOTNPHGAAETOHSZOTTENT
KEPADLYPHEODOWCFORRRNLCUE
EEEOPGMRLHNNDFTOENEALKEHH
EATTHNMESCNSHIRAETDAHLHEM
TETRFSWEDOEOENEGFHETAEDGH
RLNNGOAAEOCMTURRSLTDIDORE
HNHEHNAYVTIERHEENECTRNVIO
UOEHOTRNWSAYIFSNSHOEMRTRR
EUAUUHOHOOHCDCHTEEISEVRLS
KLIHIIAPCHRHSIHPSNWTOIISI
SHHNWEMTIEYAFELNRENLEERYI
PHBEROTEVPHNTYATIERTIHEEA
WTWVHTASETHHSDNGEIEAYNHHH
NNHTW

Jack Morrison of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had it solved the next day: “It’s a pretty standard transposition: split the text into 5-column pieces, then read from lower right upward.” This yields the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

WHANTHATAPRILLEWITHHISSHOURESSOOTET
HEDROGHTEOFMARCHHATHPERCEDTOTHEROOT
EANDBATHEDEVERYVEYNEINSWICHLICOUROF
WHICHVERTUENGENDREDISTHEFLOURWHANZE
PHIRUSEEKWITHHISSWEETEBREFTHINSPIRE
DHATHINEVERYHOLTANDHEETHTHETENDRECR
OPPESANDTHEYONGESONNEHATHINTHERAMHI
SHALVECOURSYRONNEANDSMALEFOWELESMAK
ENMELODYETHATSLEPENALTHENYGHTWITHOP
ENYESOPRIKETHHEMNATUREINHIRCORAGEST
HANNELONGENFOLKTOGOONONPILGRIM

But the other two ciphers have never been solved, despite 30 years of trying. Here they are:

#2 (“Harder”)

XUKEXWSLZJUAXUNKIGWFSOZRAWURORKXAOS
LHROBXBTKCMUWDVPTFBLMKEFVWMUXTVTWUI
DDJVZKBRMCWOIWYDXMLUFPVSHAGSVWUFWOR
CWUIDUJCNVTTBERTUNOJUZHVTWKORSVRZSV
VFSQXOCMUWPYTRLGBMCYPOJCLRIYTVFCCMU
WUFPOXCNMCIWMSKPXEDLYIQKDJWIWCJUMVR
CJUMVRKXWURKPSEEIWZVXULEIOETOOFWKBI
UXPXUGOWLFPWUSCH

#3 (“New Message”)

WURVFXGJYTHEIZXSQXOBGSVRUDOOJXATBKT
ARVIXPYTMYABMVUFXPXKUJVPLSDVTGNGOSI
GLWURPKFCVGELLRNNGLPYTFVTPXAJOSCWRO
DORWNWSICLFKEMOTGJYCRRAOJVNTODVMNSQ
IVICRBICRUDCSKXYPDMDROJUZICRVFWXIFP
XIVVIEPYTDOIAVRBOOXWRAKPSZXTZKVROSW
CRCFVEESOLWKTOBXAUXVB

Feynman, apparently, couldn’t break them either.

Eh

Tenth-century merchant captain Bjarni Herjólfsson spent his summers trading in Scandinavia but returned to his native Iceland each winter to visit his parents. In 986 he was told that his father had sailed to Greenland with Erik the Red, so he followed them west. Lacking a map or a compass, he was blown off course by a storm, and when the weather cleared he sighted a wooded country with low hills. This couldn’t be Greenland, so he sailed north, and after two days he came upon a second land, level and wooded. Despite his crew’s protestations, Bjarni didn’t stop here either, but sailed north three days more, when he sighted a land of mountains and glaciers. This couldn’t be Greenland either, so he sailed away from it, and after four days by a lucky chance he landed at his father’s estate.

Today, writes University of Manitoba historian T.J. Oleson, “There are strong arguments for the view that the three lands seen by Bjarni were Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island” — he was probably the first European to sight the east coast of North America, but he’d been too incurious to investigate.

Books

FC book covers

Just a reminder — Futility Closet books make great gifts for people who are impossible to buy gifts for. Both contain hundreds of hand-picked favorites from our 13-year archive of curiosities. Some reviews:

“A wild, wonderful, and educational romp through history, science, zany patents, math puzzles, wonderful words (like boanthropy, hallelujatic, and andabatarian), the Devil’s Game, self-contradicting words, and so much more. Buy this book and feed your mind!” — Clifford A. Pickover, author of The Mathematics Devotional

“Futility Closet delivers concentrated doses of weird, wonderful, brain-stimulating ideas and anecdotes, curated mainly from forgotten old books. I’m hooked — there’s nothing quite like it!” — Mark Frauenfelder, founder, Boing Boing

“Meant to be read in pieces, but impossible to put down.” — Gary Antonick, editor, New York Times Numberplay blog

“Futility Closet is a dusty museum back room where one can spend minutes or hours among seldom-seen curiosities, and feel that none of the time was wasted.” — Alan Bellows, DamnInteresting.com

The first book and the sequel are both available on Amazon. Thanks for your support!

Podcast Episode 180: An Academic Impostor

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:University_of_Utah_Presidents_Circle_.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marvin Hewitt never finished high school, but he taught advanced physics, engineering, and mathematics under assumed names at seven different schools and universities between 1945 and 1953. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the curious career of an academic impostor, whose story has been called “one of the strangest academic hoaxes in history.”

We’ll also try on a flashproof scarf and puzzle over why a healthy man would check into a hospital.

See full show notes …

Works in Progress

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_038.jpg

Because weather and daylight change continually, Claude Monet believed that any visual effect lasts for only seven minutes, much too brief to paint — he said he wanted to “render my impressions before the most fugitive effects.”

His solution was to work on multiple canvases at once, putting a new one on the easel every seven minutes or so to capture the effect he was after. Georges Clemenceau once found him in a poppy field juggling four different canvases: “He was going from one to the other, according to the position of the sun.” In 1885 Guy de Maupassant watched him stalking about Etretat; no longer a painter, “he was a hunter. He walked along, trailed by children carrying canvases, five or six canvases representing the same subject at various hours of the day and with varying effects. He would pick them up or drop them one by one according to how the sky changed.”

When Monet visited London in 1901 to capture the “unique atmosphere” of the city’s fog, John Singer Sargent found him surrounded by 90 canvases, “each one the record of a momentary effect of light over the Thames. When the effect was repeated and an opportunity occurred for finishing the picture, the effect had generally passed away before the particular canvas could be found.”

“I am chasing a dream,” Monet once said. “I want the impossible.”

(Ross King, Mad Enchantment, 2016.)

The Interlace

Designed by German architect Ole Scheeren, Singapore’s Interlace apartment complex was named 2015 World Building of the Year for its innovative form, which resembles 31 conventional buildings stacked atop one another, like Jenga blocks. Each block comprises six stories, but they’re stacked four high, so there’s a maximum of 24 floors, and nearly every unit has an excellent view. Viewed from above they form eight hexagons, each with a swimming pool, and the stacking ensures that light and air can flow among the blocks.

In Architecture Review, Laura Raskin wrote, “Architect Ole Scheeren hypothesized that dense urban residential living didn’t have to occur in an isolating skyscraper — and he was right.”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Interlace,_Singapore.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons