Podcast Episode 180: An Academic Impostor

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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

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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.”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sound and Sense

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In this passage from Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur, the mail-clad Sir Bedivere carries his wounded king down to a lake by a narrow path along a cliff:

Dry clash’d his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clang’d round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels —
And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.

“This passage is particularly interesting in the sudden change from the harsh imitative sounds describing the trip itself to the peaceful passage, dominated by liquids and nasals, representing the arrival at the shore,” writes Calvin Brown in Music and Literature.

He gives two examples of poets attempting to imitate musical timbres. Detlev von Liliencron’s Die Musik kommt describes the progress of a military band through a little German village:

Klingling, tschingtsching und Paukenkrach,
Noch aus der Ferne tönt es schwach,
Ganz leise bumbumbumbum tsching,
Zog da ein bunter Schmetterling,
Tschingtsching, bum, um die Ecke?

And the first stanza of Paul Verlaine’s Chanson d’automne famously imitates a violin:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

In The Craft of Translation, John Biguenet writes, “English simply has no matching nasal sounds in words that would convey the meaning, unless we turn to trombones, and then we have changed instruments.”

Truth and Purity

https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/worlds-first-air-cleansing-poem-1.373843

In 2014 England’s University of Sheffield unveiled “the world’s first air-cleansing poem,” four stanzas by literature professor Simon Armitage that are printed on a 10-by-20-meter panel coated with particles of titanium dioxide that use sunlight and oxygen to clear the air of nitrogen oxide pollutants.

“This is a fun collaboration between science and the arts to highlight a very serious issue of poor air quality in our towns and cities,” said science professor Tony Ryan, who collaborated on the project. “This poem alone will eradicate the nitrogen oxide pollution created by about 20 cars every day.”

Armitage said, “Poetry often comes out with the intimate and the personal, so it’s strange to think of a piece in such an exposed place, written so large and so bold. I hope the spelling is right!”

Decisions

A puzzle by David Silverman:

Able, Baker, and Charlie are playing tag. Able is faster than Baker, who’s faster than Charlie. All three of them start at point P, and Able is “it.” At time -T, Baker runs north and Charlie runs south. After a count that takes time T, Able starts chasing one of the two quarries. The game ends when Able has tagged both Baker and Charlie. If Baker and Charlie maintain their speeds and directions, who should Able chase first to minimize the time required to make the second tag?

Click for Answer

Plea

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One sticks a finger into the ground to smell what country one is in. I stick my finger into the world — it has no smell. Where am I? What does it mean to say: the world? What is the meaning of that word? Who tricked me into this whole thing and leaves me standing here? Who am I? How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought from a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager — I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

— Kierkegaard, Repetition, 1843

Bullseye

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Rather than follow daylight saving time, the state of Arizona observes standard time throughout the year.

But the Navajo Nation observes daylight saving time throughout its territory, including the part that lies in Arizona.

And the Hopi Nation, which lies entirely in Arizona, surrounded entirely by the Navajo Nation, doesn’t.

So the Hopi Nation is a region that doesn’t observe daylight saving time inside one that does inside one that doesn’t inside one that does.

Related: Ontario contains an island in a lake on an island in a lake.

Fierljeppen

Since much of the Netherlands is below sea level, Dutch farmers needed a way to leap waterways to reach their various plots of land. Over time this evolved into a competitive sport, known as fierljeppen (“far leaping”) in which each contestant sprints to the water, seizes a 10-meter pole, and climbs it as it lurches forward over the channel. The winner is the one who lands farthest from his starting point in the sand bed on the opposite side.

The current record holder is Jaco de Groot of Utrecht, who leapt, clambered, swayed, and fell 22.21 meters in August.