The Power of Prayer

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In 1872 Francis Galton reflected that congregations throughout Britain pray every Sunday for the health of the British royal family. If prayer has tangible effects, he wondered, shouldn’t all this concentrated well-wishing result in greater health for its objects? He compared the longevity of royalty to clergy, lawyers, doctors, aristocracy and gentry, as well as other professions, and found that

[t]he sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence. The prayer has therefore no efficacy, unless the very questionable hypothesis be raised, that the conditions of royal life may naturally be yet more fatal, and that their influence is partly, though incompletely, neutralized by the effects of public prayers.

He noted also that missionaries are not vouchsafed a long life, despite their pious purpose; that banks that open their proceedings with prayers don’t seem to receive any benefit from doing so; and that insurance companies don’t offer annuities at lower rates to the devout than to the profane. Certainly men may profess to commune in their hearts with God, he wrote, but “it is equally certain that similar benefits are not excluded from those who on conscientious grounds are sceptical as to the reality of a power of communion.”

(Francis Galton, “Statistical Inquiries Into the Efficacy of Prayer,” Fortnightly Review 12 [1872], 125-35.)

Expecting

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

During a visit to the Colt firearms factory in Connecticut in 1995, English sculptor Cornelia Parker was captivated by the recognizably gun-shaped casts of metal produced early in the manufacturing process. As blank casts they had none of the capacities of working weapons, but “in one further step, a hole drilled, a surface filed, they would technically become firearms.”

Fascinated by this transition, “I asked the foreman if I could possibly have a pair of guns at this early stage in the production, and if he could give them the same finish that they’d get at the end of the process,” she wrote later. “Amazingly, he agreed, and they became Embryo Firearms, conflating the idea of birth and death in the same object.”

Ironically, as she was leaving America, customs officials discovered the casts in her luggage and “an argument ensued that perfectly reflected the questions raised by Parker’s work,” writes Jessica Morgan in Cornelia Parker (2000). “The American Customs department insisted that Embryo Guns were weapons, while the police department, in Parker’s defense, argued that they were harmless metal forms and Parker was released from questioning.”

The Paulding Light

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1966, a group of teenagers in the town of Paulding, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, reported seeing a ghostly light in a valley nearby. Locals claimed that the light, which appears every night when viewed from a precise location, was the lantern of a ghostly railroad brakeman who had been killed trying to warn an oncoming train of railway cars stopped on the track.

A more prosaic explanation is that the specter is produced by the headlights of cars traveling on US 45, about 5 miles away. In 2010, a group of student engineers from Michigan Tech studied the light with a telescope and distinguished individual vehicles and even an Adopt a Highway sign. They were able to produce the effect themselves by driving a car along the suspected stretch of highway. It’s thought that an inversion layer may create a volume of unusually stable air that accounts for the lights’ visibility at such a distance.

That didn’t end the ghost theory, though. “We’ve been told we haven’t seen the real Paulding Light,” Ph.D. candidate Jeremy Bos told Michigan Tech News in 2010. “I’ve been out there 15 times, hours at a time, in the heat, the cold, and the rain. It’s always the same. We were there Monday with a man who saw the headlights on our computer, and he refused to believe it.”

“No matter what, some people will believe what they want to believe.”

Urban Studies

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Hans Hollein’s 1964 photomontage “Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape” challenged viewers’ conception of a city, suggesting that any structure that supports a large population might earn this title.

In the same year, British architect Ron Herron proposed building a massive “walking city” (below) that could roam the world as needed. Ironically, the closest we’ve come to building this is an aircraft carrier.

herron walking city

Head and Heart

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In 2001 UC-San Diego sociologist David Phillips and his colleagues noted that deaths by heart disease seem to occur with unusual frequency among Chinese and Japanese patients on the 4th of the month. A study of death records revealed a 7 percent increase in cardiac deaths on that date, compared with the daily average for the rest of the week. And deaths from chronic heart disease were 13 percent higher.

One explanation is that the number 4 sounds like the word for “death” in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, which causes discomfort and apprehension among some people. The effect is so strong that some Chinese and Japanese hospitals refrain from assigning the number 4 to floors or rooms. The psychological stress brought on by that date, the researchers suggest, may underlie the higher mortality.

They dubbed this the Baskerville effect, after the Arthur Conan Doyle novel in which a seemingly diabolical dog chases a man, who flees and suffers a fatal heart attack. “This Baskerville effect seems to exist in fact as well as in fiction,” they wrote in the British Medical Journal (PDF).

“Our findings are consistent with the scientific literature and with a famous, non-scientific story. The Baskerville effect exists both in fact and in fiction and suggests that Conan Doyle was not only a great writer but a remarkably intuitive physician as well.”

Company

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What it’s like to be attacked by the Red Baron:

Richthofen dove down out of the sun and took Dunn by surprise. The first notice I had of the attack was when I heard Dunn from his seat behind me shout something at me, and at the same time a spray of bullets went over my shoulder from behind and splintered the dashboard almost in front of my face.

I kicked over the rudder and dived instantly, and just got a glance at the red machine passing under me to the rear. I did not know it was Richthofen’s. … I endeavoured to get my forward machine gun on the red plane, but Richthofen was too wise a pilot, and his machine was too speedy for mine. He zoomed up again and was on my tail in less than half a minute. Another burst of lead came over my shoulder, and the glass faces of the instruments on the dashboard popped up in my face. I dived again, but he followed my every move. …

Another burst of lead from behind, and the bullets spattered on the breech of my own machine gun, cutting the cartridge belt. At the same time, my engine stopped, and I knew that the fuel tanks had been hit. There were more clouds below me at about six thousand feet. I dove for them and tried to pull up in them as soon as I reached them. No luck! My elevators didn’t answer the stick. …

I was busy with the useless controls all the time and going down at a frightful speed, but the red machine seemed to be able to keep itself poised just above and behind me all the time, and its machine guns were working every minute. I found later that bullets had gone through both of my sleeves and both of my boot legs but in all of the firing, not one of them touched me, although they came uncomfortably close. I managed to flatten out somehow in the landing and piled up with an awful crash. As I hit the ground, the red machine swooped over me, but I don’t remember him firing on me when I was on the ground.

Richthofen instructed his pilots: “Aim for the man and don’t miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don’t bother about the pilot.”

(From Floyd Gibbons’ The Red Knight of Germany, 1927, quoting British lieutenant Peter Warren.)

Going Nowhere

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A thousand miles off the coast of West Africa, where the equator crosses the prime meridian, lies a nonexistent point of land known as Null Island. It was invented by GIS analysts to help trap errors: When software converts misspelled street names, bad building numbers, and other faulty data into coordinates of latitude and longitude, the result is often 0°N 0°E — which led cartographers to joke that there’s a 1-square-meter island in the Gulf of Guinea where all these lost features reside. (In fact what’s there is a weather observation buoy, above, which must wonder what all the fuss is about.)

Related: Conceptual artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin considered a map on which the areas that we normally call Arizona, New Hampshire, Tennessee, etc., are instead labeled “Not Arizona,” “Not New Hampshire,” and “Not Tennessee.” This would have to be regarded as simply false, or at least as inviting new names for these places.

“Yet such a scheme would be correct if, for example, the delineated area normally named Arizona was labelled ‘Not New York’ and so on throughout the whole map synopsis. Only this time the map would be a map to indicate what was not where rather than the conventional what is where. Where there is no road in a certain place we do not conventionally indicate this fact upon the relevant map by labelling it ‘There is no road at this point.'”

(From Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art, 1998.)

In a Word

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perlegate
v. to read through (a text)

incondite
adj. consisting of parts which are ill composed

dehort
v. to advise against strongly

atrament
n. ink

Your last letter was a beauty as far as its length but it was vilely spelt. I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many mistakes in so few lines. Howe wood you lick it if I rote you a leter al ful of mispeld wurds? I no yu know kwite well howe to spel onli yu wonte taik the trubble to thinck!

— Rudyard Kipling to his son, John, at boarding school, Oct. 6, 1908

Recycling

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Pre-Raphaelite painters found an unusual source for one of their pigments: They ground up Egyptian mummies. In the words of one enthusiast, “A charming pigment is obtained by this means, uniting a peculiar greyness (due to the corpse and its bandages) with the rich brown of the pitch or bitumen, in a manner which it is very hard indeed to imitate. It flows from the brush with delightful freedom and evenness.”

Artist Edward Burne-Jones was so shocked at learning that this was the source of his umber paint that he staged a poignant little ceremony. “He left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then,” recalled his wife Georgiana. “So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.”

The production of “mummy brown” ceased in the 20th century — only because the supply of mummies was exhausted.