Podcast Episode 57: Jules Verne’s Lost Novel


Eight decades after Jules Verne’s death, his great-grandson opened a family safe and discovered an unpublished manuscript. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review some of Verne’s remarkable predictions for the 20th century and consider why he never published the novel.

We’ll also discuss listeners’ ideas about the mysterious deaths of nine Soviet ski hikers in 1959 and puzzle over how a man’s breakfast turns deadly.

Sources for our feature on Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century:

Arthur B. Evans, “The ‘New’ Jules Verne,” Science-Fiction Studies, March 1995.

Brian Taves, “Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century,” Science-Fiction Studies, March 1997.

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century, 1863.

Sources for listener mail:

“‘Partially Digested’ Human Head, Leg Found Inside Shark Caught by Filipino Fishermen,” Fox News Latino, Nov. 12, 2014 (accessed May 8, 2015).

Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, 2013.

Jason Zasky, “Return to Dead Mountain,” Failure Magazine, Feb. 1, 2014.

Greg’s article on animal infrasound appeared in the January-February 2004 issue of American Scientist.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle comes from Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles, suggested to us by listener David Morgan.

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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. And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Black and White

shinkman chess problem

By William Anthony Shinkman. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Local Color

Unusual names recorded in the American South by University of Florida linguist Thomas Pyles, 1986:

Oleander Lafayette Fitzgerald III
Ed Ek
Shellie Swilley
Early Hawaiian McKinnon
Sandy Gandy
Earl Curl Jr.
Percy Nursey
Rev. Fay de Sha
Lovie Slappey
Esperanza Le Socke
Pamela Gay Day
Staff-Sgt. Mehogany Brewer
Girlie Burns
Fawn Grey Trawick Dunkle
Alure Sweat
Bloomer Bedenbaugh
Martha Magdalene Toot
Okla Bobo
Melody Clinkenbeard

Cowboy Pink Williams served as lieutenant governor of Oklahoma from 1955 to 1959. And “The children of Mr. Stanford Bardwell, a realtor and a graduate of Louisiana State University, and his wife Loyola, are Stanford, Jr., Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Auburn, and the twins Duke and T’lane. When the Bardwells go on holiday they travel in a specially equipped school bus called the ‘Collegiate Caravan.'”

(Thomas Pyles, “Bible Belt Onomastics or Some Curiosities of Anti-Pedobaptist Nomenclature,” in Names and Their Varieties, American Name Society, 1986.) See Roll Call and Pink Labels.

Better Late

A curious classified ad from the New York Herald, March 30, 1849:

Found, four dollars, while leaving the cars at Paterson, in the summer of 1845. The loser (or agent) is requested to identify, in some respect, and receive the amount with interest. Address, pre-paid, I Found, Lower Post Office, N. Y. city.

Sara Bader featured the ad in her 2005 collection Strange Red Cow. “We have no idea what motivated this advertiser, who apparently waited years before stepping forward to return this money.”

Batter Up!


The first pitching machine was powered by gunpowder. Princeton mathematician Charles Hinton designed it for the school baseball team in 1897, hoping to spare human pitchers whose arms were giving out under the incessant demands of batting practice. At first he planned a catapult, but he found this too inaccurate. Then “it occurred to me that practically whenever men wished to impel a ball with velocity and precision, they drove it out of a tube with powder.”

The result, which he wrote up in Harper’s Weekly on March 20, was a shoulder-mounted cannon whose 4-foot barrel could send a ball across the home plate at 70 mph. With a fingerlike attachment it could even throw a curveball. That summer it pitched three innings in a game between two Princeton social clubs, allowing four hits, striking out eight batters, walking one, and throwing only one wild pitch.

The Washington Post predicted the end of the world (“There would be the base-burning, high-pressure, anti-friction catcher, and the shortstop made of aluminium and rivets and filled with cogs, cams, valves, shafts, and belting”), but Hinton praised the gun’s handiness: “It can be used so as to deliver ball after ball at the same speed in the same curve, or it can be varied from shot to shot, according to the wish or skill of the manipulator.” He took it with him to the University of Minnesota, where he worked until 1900.

In a Word


adj. wearied with tossing about

The Seventh Art Cinema


In the late 1990s, Frenchman Diynn Eadel set out to build an immense open-air movie theater in the desert near Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. He arranged financing in Paris and installed projection equipment, 700 cinema seats, and a generator in the desert.

Unfortunately, the theater was shut down by Egyptian authorities before its planned opening in October 1997. The reasons aren’t clear. It was largely forgotten until Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas rediscovered it in 2014.

“Dynn Eadel with Seventh Art attempts to prove that tourism is not necessarily a destructive element and that The Great Theatre of Nature can reconcile us with the elements,” reads an old flyer for the project. “When will be the first Sinai International Film Festival?”

Roll Call

A problem from the 2002 Moscow Mathematical Olympiad:

A group of recruits stand in a line facing their corporal. They are, unfortunately, rather poorly trained: At the command “Left turn!”, some of them turn left, some turn right, and some turn to face away from the corporal. Is it always possible for the corporal to insert himself in the line so that an equal number of recruits are facing him on his left and on his right?

Click for Answer

Tell Me, O Muse


Samuel Butler believed Homer was “a very young woman” living in Sicily. In his 1897 book The Authoress of the Odyssey he argues that the events in the poem fit neatly onto the province of Trapani and its islands. And a careful reading of the action, he says, reveals “jealousy for the honour and dignity of woman, severity against those who have disgraced their sex, love of small religious observances, of preaching, of white lies and small play-acting, of having things both ways, and of money.”

I have touched briefly on all the more prominent female characters of the ‘Odyssey.’ The moral in every case seems to be that man knows very little, and cannot be trusted not to make a fool of himself even about the little that he does know, unless he has a woman at hand to tell him what he ought to do. There is not a single case in which a man comes to the rescue of female beauty in distress; it is invariably the other way about.

“Moreover there are many mistakes in the ‘Odyssey’ which a young woman might easily make, but which a man could hardly fall into — for example, making the wind whistle over the waves at the end of Book ii., thinking that a lamb could live on two pulls a day at a ewe that was already milked (ix. 244, 245, and 308, 309), believing a ship to have a rudder at both ends (ix. 483, 540), thinking that dry and well-seasoned timber can be cut from a growing tree (v. 240), [and] making a hawk while still on the wing tear its prey — a thing that no hawk can do (xv. 527).” He didn’t find many supporters, but Robert Graves took up the idea in his 1955 novel Homer’s Daughter.

Math Notes

lausmann pyramid

(From Raymond F. Lausmann’s Fun With Figures, 1965.)

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