In a Word

v. to be particularly quarrelsome

n. a quarrel or argument

n. the raising of quibbles

n. one who constantly contradicts his companions

The Modern Prometheus

jacobson railroad

By 1958 many of the attributes of living things could be found in our technology: locomotion (cars), metabolism (steam engines), energy storage (batteries), perception of stimuli (iconoscopes), and nervous or cerebral activity (computers). The missing element was reproduction: We hadn’t yet created a nonliving artifact that could make copies of itself.

So Brooklyn College chemistry professor Homer Jacobson built one. Using an HO gauge model railroad, he designed an “organism” made of boxcars that could use sensors to select other cars on the track and assemble them on a siding into models of itself. “Head” cars have “brains,” and “tail” cars have “muscles” and “eyes”; together, a head and a tail make an organism in which the head directs the tail to watch for available cars elsewhere on the track and shunt them appropriately onto a siding to create a new organism.

“Any new ‘organisms’ formed continue the propagation in a linear fashion,” Jacobson wrote, “until the environment runs out of parts, or there are no more sidings available, or a mistake is made somewhere in the operation of a cycle, i.e., a ‘mutation.’ Such an effect, like that with living beings, is usually fatal.”

(Homer Jacobson, “On Models of Reproduction,” American Scientist, September 1958.)

Black and White

Herlin chess problem

By Theodore Adrien Louis Herlin. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

An Unexpected Departure

T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, shared his lonely life with a beloved Irish setter, Brownie, whom he called his child, wife, and mother, “myself with melting eye.” “It is a queer difference between this kind of thing and getting married,” he wrote, “that married people love each other at first (I understand) and it fades by use and custom, but with dogs you love them most at last.” In late November 1944 his friend David A. Garnett received this letter:

Dearest Bunny, Brownie died today. In all her 14 years of life I have only been away from her at night for 3 times, once to visit England for 5 days, once to have my appendix out and once for tonsils (2 days), but I did go in to Dublin about twice a year to buy books (9 hours away) and I thought she understood about this. To-day I went at 10, but the bloody devils had managed to kill her somehow when I got back at 7. She was in perfect health. I left her in my bed this morning, as it was an early start. Now I am writing with her dead head in my lap. I will sit up with her tonight, but tomorrow we must bury her. I don’t know what to do after that. I am only sitting up because of that thing about perhaps consciousness persisting a bit. She has been to me more perfect than anything else in all my life, and I have failed her at the end, an 180-1 chance. If it had been any other day I might have known that I had done my best. These fools here did not poison her — I will not believe that. But I could have done more. They kept rubbing her, they say. She looks quite alive. She was wife, mother, mistress & child. Please forgive me for writing this distressing stuff, but it is helping me. Her little tired face cannot be helped. Please do not write to me at all about her, for very long time, but tell me if I ought to buy another bitch or not, as I do not know what to think about anything. I am certain I am not going to kill myself about it, as I thought I might once. However, you will find this all very hysterical, so I may as well stop. I still expect to wake up and find it wasn’t. She was all I had.

love from TIM

Another letter followed:

Dear Bunny, Please forgive me writing again, but I am so lonely and can’t stop crying and it is the shock. I waked her for two nights and buried her this morning in a turf basket, all my eggs in one basket. Now I am to begin a new life and it is important to begin it right, but I find it difficult to think straight. It is about whether I ought to buy another dog or not. I am good to dogs, so from their point of view I suppose I ought. But I might not survive another bereavement like this in 12 years’ time, and dread to put myself in the way of it. If your father & mother & both sons had died at the same moment as Ray, unexpectedly, in your absence, you would know what I am talking about. Unfortunately Brownie was barren, like myself, and as I have rather an overbearing character I had made her live through me, as I lived through her. Brownie was my life and I am lonely for just such another reservoir for my love. But if I did get such reservoir it would die in about 12 years and at present I feel I couldn’t face that. Do people get used to being bereaved? This is my first time. I am feeling very lucky to have a friend like you that I can write to without being thought dotty to go on like that about mere dogs.

They did not poison her. It was one of her little heart attacks and they did not know how to treat it and killed her by the wrong kindnesses.

You must try to understand that I am and will remain entirely without wife or brother or sister or child and that Brownie supplied more than the place of these to me. We loved each other more and more every year.

He wrote later, “I have found … that the people who consider too close an affection between men and animals to be ‘unnatural’ are basing their prejudice on something real. It is the incompatibility of ages. It is in Lucretius. He says that centaurs cannot exist because the horse part would die before the man part. All I can do now is to remember her dead as I buried her, the cold grey jowl in the basket, and not as my heart’s blood, which she was for the last eight years of our twelve. I shall never be more than half a centaur now.”

The Vacuum Airship

A conventional balloon rises because its airbag displaces a large volume of air. But the gas that fills the bag has some weight; it, along with the weight of the gondola, reduces the balloon’s total lift.

Realizing this, Italian monk Francesco Lana de Terzi in 1670 proposed a “vacuum airship,” a balloon whose airbag was filled with nothing at all. Since a vacuum weighs nothing, this should maximize the vehicle’s lift — the vacuum could displace a large volume of air without itself adding any weight.

In principle this might work; the problem is that the vacuum would tend to collapse its container, and building a shell sturdy enough to withstand it would leave us with a ship too heavy to lift. It’s not clear whether any material or structure could overcome this problem.


“Man is an exception, whatever he is. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.” — G.K. Chesterton

Two Poems for Middle Age

Mezzo Cammin

Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,–
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,–
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

— Longfellow

To the Natural World: At 37

Exquisite world, powerful, joyous, splendid,
Where, almost when we learn to live, our life is ended,
Where, when we gather our trophy errors in,
And face the array and cannot again begin
To make another life less fatal, less
Like a poor travesty of some greatness,
World, you rebuke us calmly, ceaselessly,
With mute round of rising sun and mimicking sea,
With flood and ebb and taciturn refrain
In round diurnal rings, waxing to wane.
Our mortal life runs through you its swift line
Closing no circle, marking its scratch design,
Fusiform, the spindle, this is its mortal shape;­–
O lovely world, midway in large landscape
I pause, look forward. Weakness with wisdom lie
Ahead with nodding age; error and energy
Behind, dim in regret and chaos where
I left my early self and got the despair
That seizes all who see how folly gone
Is their sweet youth with darkness sudden on.
World deign, for one moment, O deign to culminate
One wave in me; O in me consummate
Your surge with all beholding happy power.
So, overlapping once, here in the midway hour,
Let me watch outward splendor solemnly for
Life’s brief in all this bigness, O sun’s calm, O
Sea’s roar.

— Genevieve Taggard

Weighty Matters

From the Second All Soviet Union Mathematical Competition, Leningrad 1968:

On a teacher’s desk sits a balance scale, on which are a set of weights. On each weight is the name of at least one student. As each student enters the classroom, she moves all the weights that bear her name to the other side of the scale.

Before any students enter, the scale is tipped to the right. Prove that there’s some set of students that you can let into the room that will will tip the scale to the left.

Click for Answer

Stamps and Math

Lee Sallows tells me that the postal system of Macau is releasing a new series of stamps based on magic squares. The full set will touch on everything from the Roman SATOR square to Dürer’s Melencolia. Details are here.

Charmingly, the values of the stamps will be 1, 2, …, 9 Macau patacas, so that the sheet of the nine stamps will itself form a classic Lo Shu magic square. Lee’s contribution, above, is a Nasik 2D geomagic square of order 3 — not only are all the rows and columns magic, but so are all six diagonals, including the four “broken” diagonals.

Somewhat related: In 2000 Finland issued seven stamps in classic tangram shapes, featuring images of science and education. (One of the small triangles, barely visible here, is a Sierpinski gasket.) Only three of the seven shapes are denominated postage, but I should think the temptation is overwhelming to arrange all seven on an envelope in the shape of a little man or a fish or something. I wonder what the post office makes of that.

Appalling Slave Punishments

From A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, From American Slavery, 1848:

“A large farmer, Colonel McQuiller in Cashaw county, South Carolina, was in the habit of driving nails into a hogshead so as to leave the point of the nail just protruding in the inside of the cask; into this, he used to put his slaves for punishment, and roll them down a very long and steep hill. I have heard from several slaves, (though I had no means of ascertaining the truth of this statement,) that in this way he had killed six or seven of his slaves.”

Roper himself escaped from slavery at least 16 times throughout the American South, most often from the prolifically sadistic South Carolina cotton planter J. Gooch. Examples:

“Mr. Gooch had gone to church, several miles from his house. When he came back, the first thing he did was to pour some tar upon my head, then rubbed it all over my face, took a torch with pitch on, and set it on fire; he put it out before it did me very great injury, but the pain which I endured was most excruciating, nearly all my hair having been burnt off.”

“This instrument he used to prevent the negroes running away, being a very ponderous machine, several feet in height, and the cross pieces being two feet four, and six feet in length. This custom is generally adopted among the slave-holders in South Carolina, and other slave States. One morning, about an hour before day break, I was going on an errand for my master; having proceeded about a quarter of a mile, I came up to a man named King, (Mr. Sumlin’s overseer,) who had caught a young girl that had run away with the above machine on her. She had proceeded four miles from her station, with the intention of getting into the hands of a more humane master. She came up with this overseer nearly dead, and could get no farther; he immediately secured her, and took her back to her master, a Mr. Johnson.”

“This is a machine used for packing and pressing cotton. By it he hung me up by the hands at letter a, a horse, and at times, a man moving round the screw e, and carrying it up and down, and pressing the block c into a box d, into which the cotton is put. At this time he hung me up for a quarter of an hour. I was carried up ten feet from the ground, when Mr. Gooch asked me if I was tired? He then let me rest for five minutes, then carried me round again, after which, he let me down and put me into the box d, and shut me down in it for about ten minutes.”

“To one of his female slaves he had given a doze of castor oil and salts together, as much as she could take; he then got a box, about six feet by two and a half, and one and a half feet deep; he put this slave under the box, and made the men fetch as many logs as they could get; and put them on the top of it; under this she was made to stay all night.”

Roper finally escaped to the North in 1834 and moved to England, where he published the book and toured making abolitionist speeches. He died in 1891.

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