“Curious Sculpture”


A letter from W.C. Trevelyan to John Adamson, secretary of the Antiquarian Society of Newcastle, Jan. 20, 1825:

In the autumn of 1823, I visited the interesting Church at Bridlington [Yorkshire] (founded about 1114, by Gilbert de Gant). On examining a tomb stone with an inscription and date of 1587, standing on two low pillars of masonry near the font, I found some appearances of sculpture on the under side of it, and having obtained leave to turn it over, the curious sculpture represented in the etching herewith sent, was discovered.

Its meaning, or date, I cannot attempt to explain. Can it have any reference to the building of the church? You will perceive both the circular and pointed arch (though the latter is probably only accidental, the space being limited).

The roof, I think, resembles some of the Roman buildings of the lower empire of which I have seen engravings.

The tiles, in shape, correspond exactly with those which were found among the remains of a Roman villa discovered a few years since at Stonesfield, near Oxford. The upper figures are very like some on Bridekirk Font (of the 10th century).

The figures of the Fox and Dove remind one of Æsop’s fable of the Fox and the Stork.

The society published the plate in its Archæologia Æliana. The best guess I can find is that it’s a 12th-century coffin lid that had been appropriated as a tombstone in 1587. But the meaning of the figures is unclear.

In a Word


v. to snarl back



When engineer E.W. Barton-Wright returned to England after three years in Japan, he brought with him a new discipline: Bartitsu, a martial art of his own devising that combined jujutsu, judo, boxing, and stick fighting. He listed its essential principles in an article in Pearson’s Magazine in March 1899:

1. To disturb the equilibrium of your assailant.
2. To surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength.
3. If necessary to subject the joints of any part of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, etc. to strain which they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.

The combination of systems, he wrote, “can be very terrible in the hands of a quick and confident exponent. One of its greatest advantages is that the exponent need not necessarily be a strong man, or in training, or even a specially active man in order to paralyse a very formidable opponent, and it is equally applicable to a man who attacks you with a knife, or a stick, or against a boxer; in fact, it can be considered a class of self-defence designed to meet every possible kind of attack, whether armed or otherwise.”

In 1899 Barton-Wright established an academy in London to promote the new art, but he proved an indifferent promoter and the school closed its doors within three years. His eccentric fighting style might have been forgotten entirely but for one immortal mention: In The Adventure of the Empty House, when asked how he defeated Professor Moriarty in their climactic struggle at the Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock Holmes credits “baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.”

Double Entendre

The Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry from the 10th century, contains three riddles that seem shockingly risqué until you see the answers:

I’m a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
a service to the neighbors! No one suffers
at my hands except for my slayer.
I grow very tall, erect in a bed,
I’m hairy underneath. From time to time
a good-looking girl, the doughty daughter
of some churl dares to hold me,
grips my russet skin, robs me of my head
and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
with plaited hair who has confined me
remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens.

(An onion.)

A strange thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
hidden by a garment. It has a hole
in its head. It is stiff and strong
and its firm bearing reaps a reward.
When the man hitches his clothing high
above his knee, he wants the head
of that hanging thing to poke the old hole
(of fitting length) it has often filled before.

(A key.)

A young man made for the corner where he knew
she was standing; this strapping youth
had come some way — with his own hands
he whipped up her dress, and under her girdle
(as she stood there) thrust something stiff,
worked his will; they both shook.
This fellow quickened: one moment he was
forceful, a first-rate servant, so strenuous
that the next he was knocked up, quite
blown by his exertion. Beneath the girdle
a thing began to grow that upstanding men
often think of, tenderly, and acquire.

(A churn.)

Visual Calculus


As a circle rolls along a line, a point on its circumference traces an arch called a cycloid. The arch encloses an area three times that of the circle, a result commonly proven using calculus. Now Armenian mathematician Mamikon Mnatsakanian has devised a “sweeping-tangent theorem” that accomplishes the same proof using intuition:

Imagine a tangent to the rolling circle. As the circle rolls, the tangent sweeps out a series of vectors (approximated here using colors). If these vectors are then gathered to a common point while preserving their length and orientation, they form a sort of bouquet whose size and shape turn out to match exactly those of the original circle. Because the enclosing rectangle has four times the area of the rolling circle (2πr × 2r = 4πr2), this shows that the area under the arch has three times the circle’s area.

All this is proven rigorously in Mnatsakanian’s 2012 book New Horizons in Geometry, written with his Caltech colleague Tom Apostol. The two have now collaborated on some 30 papers showing that many surprising and useful results that heretofore had required integration can now be obtained using intuitive methods that can appeal even to a young student.

That’s a welcome outcome for Mnatsakanian, who found himself stranded in the United States when the Armenian government collapsed in 1990. Apostol writes, “When young Mamikon showed his method to Soviet mathematicians they dismissed it out of hand and said ‘It can’t be right. You can’t solve calculus problems that easily.'”



Circling the earth aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, John Glenn had an odd encounter:

The strangest sight of all came with the very first ray of sunrise as I was crossing the Pacific toward the U.S. I was checking the instrument panel and when I looked back out the window I thought for a minute that I must have tumbled upside-down and was looking up at a new field of stars. I checked my instruments to make sure I was right-side-up. Then I looked again. There, spread as far as I could see, were literally thousands of tiny luminous objects that glowed in the black sky like fireflies. I was riding slowly through them, and the sensation was like walking backwards through a pasture where someone had waved a wand and made all the fireflies stop right where they were and glow steadily. They were greenish yellow in color, and they appeared to be about six to 10 feet apart. I seemed to be passing through them at a speed of from three to five miles an hour. They were all around me, and those nearest the capsule would occasionally move across the window as if I had slightly interrupted their flow. On the next pass I turned the capsule around so that I was looking right into the flow, and though I could see far fewer of them in the light of the rising sun, they were still there. Watching them come toward me, I felt certain they were not caused by anything emanating from the capsule. I thought perhaps I’d stumbled into the lost batch of needles the Air Force had tried to set up in orbit for communications purposes. But I could think of no reason why needles should glow like fireflies, nor did they look like needles. As far as I know, the true identity of these particles is still a mystery.

They seem to have been ice crystals, flakes of frost shed by the capsule and illuminated by the sun. Scott Carpenter saw a similar display on the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, a few months later.

(John Glenn, “If You’re Shook Up, You Shouldn’t Be There,” Life, March 9, 1962.)

The Peace Arch


The border between the United States and Canada blurs a bit between Blaine, Wash., and Surrey, B.C. There stands the Peace Arch, a 20-meter monument to amity between the two nations commissioned by railroad executive Sam Hill in 1921.

The arch stands precisely on the border, at the center of an international park: Citizens of either nation can pass without passport or visa into the other nation’s territory, provided they don’t stray beyond a dedicated area.

The U.S. side of the arch bears the inscription “Children of a common mother,” and the Canadian side reads “Brethren dwelling together in unity.” An iron gate stands open on either side, and an inscription above reads “May these gates never be closed.”

Two Futility Closet Books!

FC book covers

Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements and Futility Closet 2: A Second Trove of Intriguing Tidbits, are available now at Amazon. Both contain hundreds of hand-picked favorites from our 10-year archive of curiosities — perfect for your winter solstice peculiar-fact-sharing needs. Some sample items from the first book’s index:

gaiety, of bespectacled horses, 35
hallucination, useful in enlivening Bristol, 94
Nazis, poorly informed regarding Irish railway schedules, 36
chili sauce, and estate planning, 25
softball, at North Pole, 67
whinging, vaudevillian, placated, 86
corned beef sandwiches, weightless, 170
Nagel, Conrad, induced to reflect wearily upon his romantic choices, 116

Boing Boing founder Mark Frauenfelder says, “Futility Closet delivers concentrated doses of weird, wonderful, brain-stimulating ideas and anecdotes, curated mainly from forgotten old books. I’m hooked — there’s nothing quite like it!”

Hesiod’s Anvil


How far off is heaven? In the Theogony Hesiod gives us a clue:

For a brazen anvil falling down from heaven nine nights and days would reach the earth upon the tenth; and again, a brazen anvil falling from earth nine nights and days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth.

How far can an anvil fall in nine days? Galileo, who taught that “the distances measured by the falling body increase according to the squares of the time,” would have determined that the anvil starts 2.96 × 109 km from earth, a distance greater than that between the sun and Uranus.

But Galileo’s calculation assumes that gravitational force is independent of the object’s distance from the earth. If we assume instead that it varies inversely with the square of the distance between mass centers (and if we ignore all masses except those of the earth and the anvil, and assume that the anvil falls in a straight line), King College mathematician Andrew Simoson calculates that Galileo’s anvil wouldn’t reach us for

hesiod's anvil calculation

Instead, under this new assumption, to reach us in nine days an anvil would start 5.81 × 105 km away — about one and a half times the distance between the earth and the moon.

(Andrew J. Simoson, Hesiod’s Anvil, 2007.)



“Sir Winston Churchill once told me of a reply made by the Duke of Wellington, in his last years, when a friend asked him: ‘If you had your life over again, is there any way in which you could have done better?’ The old Duke replied: ‘Yes, I should have given more praise.'” — Bernard Montgomery, A History of Warfare, 1968

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