A Tall Tail

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As skywatchers prepared for the return of Halley’s comet in 1910, their excitement turned to trepidation when astronomer Camille Flammarion warned that cyanogen gas in the comet’s tail could poison the atmosphere. The New York Times reported growing alarm among astronomers and warned, “Prof. Flammarion is of the opinion that the cyanogen gas would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” The Washington Post quoted astronomer Henri Deslandres that the comet might cause torrential rains; his colleague D.J. McAdam warned that “Disease and death have frequently been ascribed to the admixture of cometary gases with the air.”

As the fateful date approached, an ad appeared in a South African newspaper: “Gentleman having secured several cylinders of oxygen and having bricked up a capacious room wishes to meet others who would share the expense for Wednesday night. Numbers strictly limited.” In Texas, salesmen went door to door selling “comet pills” and leather inhalers. In Germany, anxious residents began wearing comet hats and carrying comet umbrellas.

On the evening of May 18, as Earth passed into the comet’s tail, hundreds marched in a candlelight parade in San Juan, and prayer vigils were held in St. Petersburg churches and on the hilltops around Mexico City. In Lexington, Ky., excited citizens held all-night services, “praying and singing to prepare … [to] meet their doom.”

Nothing happened. Well, nearly nothing: In Towaco, N.J., two men had offered to pay $10 for the best description of the event as viewed from Walkman Mountain. When the town’s weary residents returned from their vigil, they found their chicken coops empty.

Sweet Home

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I am determined & feel sure, that the scenery of England is ten times more beautiful than any we have seen.– What reasonable person can wish for great ill proportioned mountains, two & three miles high? No, no; give me the Brythen or some such compact little hill.– And then as for your boundless plains & impenetrable forests, who would compare them with the green fields & oak woods of England?– People are pleased to talk of the ever smiling sky of the Tropics: must not this be precious nonsense? Who admires a lady’s face who is always smiling? England is not one of your insipid beauties; she can cry, & frown, & smile, all by turns.– In short I am convinced it is a most ridiculous thing to go round the world, when by staying quietly, the world will go round with you.

— Charles Darwin, letter to his sister, July 18, 1836. He was on board the Beagle, bound for Ascencion. He had written the previous December, “How glad I shall be, when I can say, like that good old Quarter Master, who entering the Channel, on a gloomy November morning, exclaimed, ‘Ah here there are none of those d—-d blue skys’.”

Reunion

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A Russian problem from the 1999 Mathematical Olympiad:

A father wants to take his two sons to visit their grandmother, who lives 33 kilometers away. His motorcycle will cover 25 kilometers per hour if he rides alone, but the speed drops to 20 kph if he carries one passenger, and he cannot carry two. Each brother walks at 5 kph. Can the three of them reach grandmother’s house in 3 hours?

Click for Answer

Unquote

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” — Cicero

Budget Trouble

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An energetic boy got a piggy bank for his birthday. He decided that from then on he will number every bill he gets from his grandparents (1, 2, …) and put it all in his bank. During the first half year he got 2 bills, but at the end of this period he pulled out 1 bill (chosen at random). In the next 1/4 year he got 2 more bills, but at the end of this period he pulled 1 bill chosen at random from the 3 bills in his bank. In the next 1/8 year he repeated the same routine etc. (each period is half the length of the previous period). What is the probability that any of the bills he got during this year will remain in his bank after a full year of the above activity? Paradoxically the probability is 0, even though it is clear that he only spent half of his money. Can we offer the boy good financial advice without making him cut his expenses?

— Talma Leviatan, “On the Use of Paradoxes in the Teaching of Probability,” Proceedings of ICOTS 6, 2002

Light Exercise

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William Howard Taft sometimes tipped the scales at 350 pounds. While serving as governor of the Philippines, he made a trip into the mountains for his health. He cabled Secretary of War Elihu Root:

STOOD TRIP WELL. RODE HORSEBACK 25 MILES TO 5,000 FEET ELEVATION.

Root wrote back:

REFERRING TO YOUR TELEGRAM … HOW IS THE HORSE?

The Meaning of Life

Along with art and love, life is one of those bedeviling concepts that we really ought to have a definition for but don’t. Philosophers tend to regard the question as too scientific, and scientists as too philosophical. Linus Pauling observed that it’s easier to study the subject than to define it, and, J.B.S. Haldane noted, “no definition will cover its infinite and self-contradictory variety.”

Classical definitions of life typically refer to structural features, growth, reproduction, metabolism, motion against force, response to stimuli, evolvability, and information content and transfer. But definitions built on these elements are prone to exceptions. Fire grows, moves, metabolizes, reproduces, and responds to stimuli, but is “nonliving.” So are free-market economies and the Internet, which evolve, store representations of themselves, and behave “purposefully.” I am nonreproducing but, I hope, still alive.

If we we look around us, it’s hard to find a property that’s unique to life, and even if we could, our observations are limited to Earth’s biosphere, a tiny, tenuous environment like a film of water on a basketball. But if we expand our list to include abstract properties such as resistance to entropy, then we risk including alien phenomena that we might not regard intuitively as living.

Perhaps the answer is more poetic. “As I see it, the great and distinguishing feature of living things … is that they have needs — continual, and, incidentally, complex needs,” wrote botanist Donald C. Peattie in 1935. “I cannot conceive how even so organized a dead system as a crystal can be said to need anything. But a living creature, even when it sinks into that half-death of hibernation, even the seed in the bottom of the driest Mongolian marsh, awaiting rain through two thousand years, still has needs while there is life in it.”

Workaround

When Dutch army colonel J.W.C. van Gorkum died in 1880, he was laid to rest in a Protestant cemetery. His wife, Lady J.C.P.H. van Aefferden, knew that her Catholic faith destined her for a separate cemetery. So she contrived a solution: Before her death in 1888, she requested the burial plot abutting the colonel’s and asked that the tombstones “join hands” over the wall — so that the two of them could hold hands through eternity.

A Cynic’s Glossary

Entries in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911):

CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.
EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
FAMOUS, adj. Conspicuously miserable.
HABIT, n. A shackle for the free.
HERS, pron. His.
IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.
IMPUNITY, n. Wealth.
LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
LANGUAGE, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.
MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.
OCEAN, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.
OTHERWISE, adv. No better.
POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
YEAR, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

He defined nonsense as “the objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.”

Reflections

bid symmetries

The word bid has vertical symmetry in lowercase and horizontal symmetry in uppercase.

(Thanks, Joseph.)

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