The Thunder Stone

In Saint Petersburg, an equestrian statue of Peter the Great stands atop an enormous pedestal of granite. The statue was conceived by French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet, who envisioned the horse rearing at the edge of a great cliff under Peter’s restraining hand.

Casting the horse and rider was relatively easy; harder was finding a portable cliff. In September 1768 a peasant led authorities to an enormous boulder half-buried near the village of Konnaia, four miles north of the Gulf of Finland and about 13 miles from the center of Saint Petersburg. Falconet proposed cutting it into pieces, but Catherine the Great, who wanted to show off Russia’s technological potential, ordered it moved whole, “first by land and then by water.”

Incredibly, she got her wish. The unearthed boulder measured 42 feet long, 27 feet wide, and 21 feet high; even when trimmed by a third it weighed an estimated 3 million pounds. But it was mounted on a chassis and rolled along atop large copper ball bearings, a “mountain on eggs,” as stonecutters worked continuously to shape it. When they reached the Gulf of Finland it was transferred precariously to a barge mounted between two cutters of the imperial navy, which carried it carefully to the pier at Senate Square, where it was installed in 1770, after two years of work. The finished pedestal stands 21 feet tall.

“The daring of this enterprise has no parallel among the Egyptians and the Romans,” marveled the Journal Encyclopédique; the English traveler John Carr said that the feat astonished “every beholder with a stupendous evidence of toil and enterprise, unparalleled since the subversion of the Roman empire.” It remains the largest stone ever moved by man.

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A Dark Day

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On Oct. 21, 1966, an avalanche of mining debris descended into the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, filling the classrooms of a local junior school with mud and killing 144 people, 116 of them children. In response to a subsequent newspaper appeal, Shrewsbury psychiatrist J.C. Barker received 76 letters from people who claimed to have had precognition of the event. Of these, 22 were supported by witnesses. This account, by the parents of 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones, was compiled by a local minister and signed by them as correct:

She was an attractive dependable child, not given to imagination. A fortnight before the disaster she said to her mother, who at the time was putting some money aside for her, ‘Mummy, I’m not afraid to die.’ Her mother replied, ‘Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘But I shall be with Peter and June’ (schoolmates). The day before the disaster she said to her mother, ‘Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.’ Her mother answered gently, ‘Darling, I’ve no time now. Tell me again later.’ The child replied, ‘No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it.’ Her mother answered, ‘You mustn’t have chips for supper for a bit.’ The next day off to school went her daughter as happy as ever. In the communal grave she was buried with Peter on one side and June on the other.

“This last point may not, however, be significant, since the order of burial was apparently influenced by parents’ requests.”

(From the Oxford Book of the Supernatural.)

Five of a Kind

kordemsky multigrade

New Perspectives

A changeable sculpture by Swiss artist Markus Raetz:

A change of heart:

A similar idea in French:

The Dali Museum in Spain contains a room based on his 1934 painting “Mae West (Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment)”:

See Figure and Ground.

House Calls

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William … asks me to set down the story of Barbara Wilkinson’s Turtle Dove. Barbara is an old maid. She had 2 turtle Doves. One of them died the first year I think. The other bird continued to live alone in its cage for 9 years, but for one whole year it had a companion and daily visitor, a little mouse that used to come and feed with it, and the Dove would caress it, and cower over it with its wings, and make a loving noise to it. The mouse though it did not testify equal delight in the Dove’s company yet it was at perfect ease. The poor mouse disappeared and the Dove was left solitary till its death. It died of a short sickness and was buried under a tree with funeral ceremony by Barbara and her maiden, and one or two others.

— Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journals, Jan. 30, 1802

All Right Then

W.H. Auden won first prize for mathematics at St. Edmund’s School in Hindhead, Surrey, when he was 13. He recalled being asked to learn the following mnemonic around 1919:

Minus times Minus equals Plus;
The reason for this we need not discuss.

D.C. al Coda

katzensymphonie

This Katzensymphonie, by Moritz von Schwind (1804-71), resides in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in Germany. Dick Higgins, in Pattern Poetry, writes, “This piece, drawn in pencil and ink on music paper (but not orchestrated) has charm but does not appear to have been intended for performance at all. It may be a satire or lampoon on the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1904), to whom it is dedicated.”

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Perhaps it might be played on the Katzenklavier, a (thankfully) imaginary instrument described by Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in his Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre of 1877:

[A] chariot … carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvete, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave … (chromatically, I think).

In 1890 the Glasgow University magazine published this anonymous assessment of the musicianship of botanist and amateur violoncellist Frederick Orpen Bower:

There was a professor of flowers
The ‘cello he’d torture for hours
When the strings gave a growl
The cats gave a howl
And eclipsed all his musical powers.

Available Now!

Futility Closet 2

Today marks the official launch of our new book, a collection of hundreds of hand-picked favorites from the site’s 10-year archive of the marvelous, the diverting, and the strange — the perfect gift for people who are impossible to buy gifts for, or for yourself!

Like the website, Futility Closet 2: A Second Trove of Intriguing Tidbits contains hundreds of entertaining oddities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, plus scores of amusing inventions, curious words, and beguiling puzzles.

“A wild, wonderful, and educational romp through history, science, zany patents, math puzzles, wonderful words (like boanthropy, hallelujatic, and andabatarian), the Devil’s Game, self-contradicting words, and so much more. Buy this book and feed your mind!”— Clifford A. Pickover, author of The Mathematics Devotional

Futility Closet 2 joins our first book, Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, which reviewers have called “funny, interesting, thought-provoking, and completely original” and “a most entertaining compendium of unusual knowledge.”

Buy them now on Amazon!

Podcast Episode 32: The Wow! Signal

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In August 1977, Ohio astronomer Jerry Ehman discovered a radio signal so exciting that he wrote “Wow!” in the margin of its computer printout. Arriving from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, the signal bore all the characteristics of an alien transmission. But despite decades of eager listening, astronomers have never heard it repeated. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the story of the “Wow! signal,” which remains an intriguing, unexplained anomaly in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

We’ll also share some more nuggets from Greg’s database of oddities and puzzle over why a man chooses to drive a long distance at only 15 mph.

Sources for our segment on the Wow! signal:

Robert H. Gray, The Elusive Wow, 2012.

Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, “Searching for Interstellar Communication,” Nature, Sept. 19, 1959.

Frank White, The SETI Factor, 1990.

David W. Swift, SETI Pioneers, 1990.

David Darling, The Extraterrestrial Encyclopedia, 2000.

Michael Brooks, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, 2008.

“Humanity Responds to ‘Alien’ Wow Signal, 35 Years Later,” space.com, Aug. 17, 2012 (accessed Oct. 31, 2014).

Here’s Stephen Colbert’s message to the denizens of Sagittarius:

Notes and sources for our miscellany from Greg’s notes:

Iowa City’s web page explains that Lyman Dillon plowed a furrow from Iowa City to Dubuque in 1839.

The item on oil pit squids is from George Eberhart’s 2002 book Mysterious Creatures. The squids were found in “oil-emulsion pits containing antifreeze, stripper, oil, and chemicals used in manufacturing plastic automobile bumpers.” Eberhart cites Ken de la Bastide, “Creature in Plant 9 Pits,” Anderson (Ind.) Herald Bulletin, March 5, 1997.

Thanks to reader John McKenna for letter from the ancient Greek boy Theon to his father. It’s from the Oxyrhynchus papyri, from the 2nd or 3rd century:

Theon to his father Theon, greeting. It was a fine thing of you not to take me with you to the city! If you won’t take me with you to Alexandria I won’t write you a letter or speak to you or say goodbye to you; and if you go to Alexandria I won’t take your hand nor ever greet you again. That is what will happen if you won’t take me. Mother said to Archelaus, ‘it quite upsets him to be left behind.’ It was good of you to send me presents … on the 12th, the day you sailed. Send me a lyre, I implore you. If you don’t, I won’t eat, I won’t drink; there now!

The item on William and Henry James is from Vincent Barry’s 2007 book Philosophical Thinking About Dying.

According to the Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (2006), Gaff’s command to Deckard in Blade Runner is Monsieur, azonnal kövessen engem bitte (“Sir, follow me immediately please”).

The anecdote about Alfred Lunt and the green umbrella is from the Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2013).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle comes from Paul Sloane and Des MacHale’s 1998 book Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

Many thanks to Harry’s for supporting this week’s episode. Enter coupon code CLOSET with your first purchase and they’ll give you a $5 discount.

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.

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!

Warm Work

When Jos de Vink retired from a career in computer technology in 2002, he began casting about for an engaging project. His neighbor, a passionate model builder, challenged him to design a working hot air engine driven solely by the heat of a tea or wax light.

De Vink produced a trial engine using the principles of the first hot air engine built by Robert Stirling in 1816. He displayed it for his model club and at a model exhibition in the Netherlands and, encouraged by the response, began to build more.

By 2010 he had created about 27 engines and began construction on several Stirling low temperature difference (LTD) engines that can run on the warmth of a human hand.

“De Vink designs his engines from scraps of brass and bronze from a scrap dealer,” writes Art Donovan in The Art of Steampunk. “The machines demonstrate the possibility of moving large objects using little energy and show different drive techniques used by hot air engine builders for the past two centuries.”

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