Podcast Episode 173: The Worst Journey in the World


In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called “the worst journey in the world.”

We’ll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways.


In 2014, mathematician Kevin Ferland determined the largest number of words that will fit in a New York Times crossword puzzle.

In 1851, phrenologist J.P. Browne examined Charlotte Brontë without knowing her identity.

Sources for our feature on Apsley Cherry-Garrard:

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 1922.

Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, 2007.

“Scott Perishes Returning From Pole,” Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 11, 1913.

Paul Lambeth, “Captain Scott’s Last Words Electrify England and World by Their Pathetic Eloquence,” San Francisco Call, Feb. 12, 1913.

Hugh Robert Mill, “The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic, 1910-1913,” Nature 111:2786 (March 24, 1923), 386-388.

“Cherry-Garrard, Explorer, Dead,” New York Times, May 19, 1959.

“Obituary: Apsley Cherry-Garrard,” Geographical Journal 125:3/4 (September-December 1959), 472.

James Lees-Milne, “From the Shavian Past: XCII,” Shaw Review 20:2 (May 1977), 62.

W.N. Bonner, “British Biological Research in the Antarctic,” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 14:1 (August 1980), 1-10.

John Maxtone-Graham, “How Quest for Penguin Eggs Ended,” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1994.

Gabrielle Walker, “The Emperor’s Eggs,” New Scientist 162:2182 (April 17, 1999), 42-47.

Gabrielle Walker, “It’s Cold Out There,” New Scientist 172:2315 (Nov. 3, 2001), 54.

Edward J. Larson, “Greater Glory,” Scientific American 304:6 (June 2011), 78-83.

“When August Was Cold and Dark,” New York Times, Aug. 8, 2011, A18.

Robin McKie, “How a Heroic Hunt for Penguin Eggs Became ‘The Worst Journey in the World,'” Guardian, Jan. 14, 2012.

Matilda Battersby, “Cache of Letters About Scott Found as Collection of His Possessions Acquired for the Nation,” Independent, July 19, 2012.

Karen May, “Could Captain Scott Have Been Saved? Revisiting Scott’s Last Expedition,” Polar Record 49:1 (January 2013), 72-90.

Karen May and Sarah Airriess, “Could Captain Scott Have Been Saved? Cecil Meares and the ‘Second Journey’ That Failed,” Polar Record 51:3 (May 2015), 260-273.

Shane McCorristine and Jane S.P. Mocellin, “Christmas at the Poles: Emotions, Food, and Festivities on Polar Expeditions, 1818-1912,” Polar Record 52:5 (September 2016), 562-577.

Carolyn Philpott, “Making Music on the March: Sledging Songs of the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic Exploration,” Polar Record 52:6 (November 2016), 698-716.


Listener mail:

Robinson Meyer, “Anti-Surveillance Camouflage for Your Face,” Atlantic, July 24, 2014.

Adam Harvey, “Face to Anti-Face,” New York Times, Dec. 14, 2013.

“How to Find a Spider in Your Yard on a Tuesday at 8:47pm.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Petr Smelý, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

Image: Ceská Televize

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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!

Worldly Wise

Picture 060

Proverbs from around the world:

  • A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner. (English)
  • Impulse manages all things badly. (Latin)
  • It is not the thief who is hanged, but the one who is caught stealing. (Czech)
  • Never promise a poor man, and never owe a rich one. (Brazilian)
  • A fool at forty is a fool indeed. (Ethiopian)
  • Quarrelsome dogs come limping home. (Swedish)
  • A canoe does not know who is king: when it turns over, everyone gets wet. (Malagasy)
  • A thousand regrets do not pay one debt. (Turkish)
  • Every road leads somewhere. (Filipino)
  • He who steals a needle will steal an ox. (Korean)
  • Cleverness is serviceable for everything, sufficient for nothing. (French)
  • The tongue is the neck’s worst enemy. (Egyptian)
  • If work were good for you, the rich would leave none for the poor. (Haitian)
  • Happiness is not a horse that can be harnessed. (Russian)
  • Relatives are scorpions. (Tunisian)
  • Silence does not make mistakes. (Hindi)


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Canada is south of Detroit.

Due to a curve in the border, Windsor, Ontario, lies south of Michigan’s largest city.

A floral compass in Windsor bears a plaque that reads:


Many Roads


The Spanish monk Florentius made a humble appeal to posterity in 945: Start at the F at top center, and as long as your path works steadily either southeast or southwest you’ll spell out FLORENTIUM INDIGNUM MEMORARE, “Remember unworthy Florentius.”

His manuscript is now in the Biblioteca Nacional de España, so it appears he got his wish.

Jump Cut

This must have scared the daylights out of people in 1895 — The Execution of Mary Stuart, one of the first films to use editing for special effects.

After the executioner raises his ax, the actress is replaced with a mannequin.

Black and White

shinkman chess problem

“We now give what is acknowledged to be the finest two-move problem extant,” wrote J.H. Blackburne in the Strand in 1908. “It is by the American expert, W.A. Shinkman, and is also claimed by G.E. Carpenter, a fellow countryman of his. Here we have not only a difficult key-move, but also beauty of theme and artistic construction, the three essential qualities necessary to a perfect problem.”

White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

In a Word


v. to move away or apart; to lose contact; to separate

n. something located in an incongruous position

n. greatness of distance; remoteness

adj. troubled; distressed

In 2007 Brazilian villagers were surprised to discover a 16-foot minke whale on a sandbank in the Tapajos River, 1,000 miles from the sea. Apparently it had got separated from its group in the Atlantic and swum up the Amazon.

After two days, rescuers managed to return it to the water. “What we can definitely say is that it lost its way,” biologist Fabia Luna told Globo television. “It entered the river, which on its own is unusual. But then to have travelled around 1,500 kilometers is both strange and adverse.”

Brazil’s environmental agency said the whale might have been in the region for two months before it was spotted. “It is outside of its normal habitat, in a strange situation, under stress, and far from the ocean,” said whale expert Katia Groch. “The probability of survival is low.”

The Fifth Element

pmej matrix puzzle

Charles W. Trigg offered this puzzle in the Fall 1977 issue of Pi Mu Epsilon Journal (PDF):

This square array contains the first 25 positive integers. Choose five, no two from the same row or column, so that the largest of the five elements is as small as possible, and justify your choice.

Click for Answer

The Alphabet Building


Dutch architects MVRDV created a unique design for Amsterdam’s Alfabetgebouw, an office building for small and mid-size creative companies. On the building’s east side a series of dotted windows spell out the building’s street number, 52, and on the north side the shape of each window reflects the unit number of its tenant.

To make the alphabet fit on a 6 × 4 facade they had to omit two letters — but “the IQ is inside the building.”