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In Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice, a head injury gives James Bond amnesia, and the world briefly thinks him dead. An obituary appears in the London Times:

To serve the confidential nature of his work, he was accorded the rank of lieutenant in the Special Branch of the RNVR, and it is a measure of the satisfaction his services gave to his superiors that he ended the war with the rank of commander.

In For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Ben MacIntyre notes that this wording contains a “knowing glimmer of self-congratulation”: Fleming himself had been commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in July 1939 as a lieutenant and was promoted to commander a few months later.

Prince Rupert’s Drops

Drop a bit of molten glass into a bucket of cold water and you’ll produce a teardrop-shaped bauble with a long tail. Surprisingly, you can pound on the bulbous end with a hammer without breaking it, but snipping the delicate tail causes the whole drop to explode. The water hardens the outer shell before the interior has cooled and contracted, so the finished drop carries high compressive stresses on the surface and tensile stress at the core.

The drops were known in northern Germany as early as 1625 and distributed through Europe as toys, though the underlying principles were not well understood until the 20th century. Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682) did not discover the drops but was the first to bring them to England, where Charles II delivered them to the Royal Society. The anonymous Ballad of Gresham College (1663) immortalizes the experiments that followed:

And that which makes their Fame ring louder,
With much adoe they shew’d the King
To make glasse Buttons turn to powder,
If off the[m] their tayles you doe but wring.
How this was donne by soe small Force
Did cost the Colledg a Month’s discourse.

Cover Story

On the floor of a room of area 5, you place 9 rugs. Each is an arbitrary shape but has area 1. Prove that there are two rugs that overlap by at least 1/9.

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A Thief’s Welcome

Idaho farmer John Barnes patented this “coyote alarm” in 1903. Near his sheep pens he mounted a man-shaped scarecrow wearing a metal breastplate. In the breastplate was a cylinder “analogous to the cylinder of a revolver of large size” holding blank cartridges. A clockwork mechanism turned the cylinder, and a plunger dropped at intervals and fired a cartridge. Barnes would wind up the mechanism with a key at dusk, and the artificial farmer would fire its imaginary gun “every quarter of an hour throughout the night.” I wonder what the sheep thought of this.

This is actually less alarming than James Williams’ pest exterminator of 1882. That’s progress.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sigourney Weaver was born Susan Weaver. She named herself Sigourney at 14, after a character mentioned briefly by Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby:

She came over to me and whispered, ‘I’ve just heard the most surprising thing. Look, please come and see me. I’m staying at my aunt’s … Mrs. Sigourney Howard … phone book …’ She was hurrying away as she spoke, to join her friends who were waiting to drive her home.

“I was so tall,” Weaver told Time in 1986, “and Susan was such a short name. To my ear Sigourney was a stage name — long and curvy, with a musical ring.”

She couldn’t have known it at the time, but it appears that Fitzgerald intended Sigourney to be a man’s name: He had borrowed it from his friend Father Sigourney Fay, to whom This Side of Paradise is also dedicated.

“Jordan, it is clear, is here adopting the formal ‘English’ style of addressing her aunt by her husband’s name(s),” writes John Sutherland in Curiosities of Literature. “This was not just etiquette in the best circles; it was standard procedure in phone books of the 1920s. The husband paid the bills, and his was the name listed.”

Have Gun

Welshman Henry Morton Stanley — famous for seeking explorer David Livingstone in Africa — fought on both sides in the American Civil War.

In April 1862, when just 21 years old, he fought in the Confederate Army’s 6th Arkansas infantry regiment at the Battle of Shiloh. Captured, he swore allegiance to the United States and joined the Union Army in June. He was discharged after two weeks’ service due to severe illness, but recovered and went on to join the U.S. Navy in 1864.

In The Galvanized Yankees, Dee Brown writes, Stanley “probably became the only man ever to serve in the Confederate Army, the Union Army, and the Union Navy.”


Two mathematicians were having dinner. One was complaining: ‘The average person is a mathematical idiot. People cannot do arithmetic correctly, cannot balance a checkbook, cannot calculate a tip, cannot do percents, …’ The other mathematician disagreed: ‘You’re exaggerating. People know all the math they need to know.’

Later in the dinner the complainer went to the men’s room. The other mathematician beckoned the waitress to his table and said, ‘The next time you come past our table, I am going to stop you and ask you a question. No matter what I say, I want you to answer by saying “x squared.”‘ She agreed. When the other mathematician returned, his companion said, ‘I’m tired of your complaining. I’m going to stop the next person who passes our table and ask him or her an elementary calculus question, and I bet the person can solve it.’ Soon the waitress came by and he asked: ‘Excuse me, Miss, but can you tell me what the integral of 2x with respect to x is?’ The waitress replied: ‘x squared.’ The mathematician said, ‘See!’ His friend said, ‘Oh … I guess you were right.’ And the waitress said, ‘Plus a constant.’

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998

In a Word

adj. musing, meditating, thoughtful, deep in thought

In his Treatise of the System of the World, Isaac Newton imagines firing cannonballs with greater and greater velocity from a high mountaintop. “The body projected with a less velocity, describes the lesser arc VD, and with a greater velocity, the greater arc VE, and augmenting the velocity, it goes farther and farther to F and G; if the velocity was still more and more augmented, it would reach at last quite beyond the circumference of the Earth, and return to the mountain from which it was projected.”

Indeed, if air resistance is not a factor, the cannonball will return to the mountain with the same velocity with which it left it, “and retaining the same velocity, it will describe the same curve over and over, by the same law,” like the moon. Thus with a simple thought experiment Newton conceived that gravity was the key force underlying planetary motion.

In a fitting tribute, the diagram above is now traveling beyond the solar system on the Voyager Golden Record, on a journey that its author helped to make possible.