A Close Shave

Astronomers have the light-year, but nuclear physicists need an analogous unit for measuring tiny distances.

Happily, they have one: The Physics Handbook for Science and Engineering defines the “beard-second” as the length the average physicist’s beard grows in one second, or about 5 nanometers.

Google will even make the conversion for you — type 1 inch in beard-seconds into your search box and see what you get.

Peer Review

Was James Fenimore Cooper a great writer? His fellow authors didn’t think so. Mark Twain counted 114 literary offenses on a single page of The Deerslayer, including an “airy, complacent, monkey-with-a-parasol” style that Bret Harte parodied:

Judge Tompkins: ‘Genevra, the logs which compose yonder fire seem to have been incautiously chosen. The sibilation produced by the sap, which exudes copiously therefrom, is not conducive to composition.’

Genevra: ‘True, father, but I thought it would be preferable to the constant crepitation which is apt to attend the combustion of more seasoned ligneous fragments.’

Of Cooper’s characters, James Russell Lowell wrote, “The women he draws from one model don’t vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”

“Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,” Twain concluded, “and … the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.” Perhaps they were jealous.

Mate in Zero

We’ve seen chess problems in which White must mate in half a move and even in -1 moves.

In this one White must mate in 0 — he must deliver checkmate without touching any of his pieces:


How can he do this? Imagine that the position arose in an actual game.

Click for Answer

A Grave Cradle

The Hereford Times of November 16, 1901, reprints the following case from Pauillac. A Madame Bobin arrived there on board the steamer ‘La Plata,’ from Senegal. She was supposed to be suffering from yellow fever, and was transferred to the Lazaret by order of the officer of health. There she became worse, and apparently died. The body became rigid, and the face ashen and corpse-like, and in that condition she was buried. The nurse, however, had noticed that the body was not cold, and that there was tremulousness of the muscles of the abdomen, and expressed the opinion that Madame Bobin was prematurely buried. On this being reported to Madame Bobin’s father, he had the body exhumed, when it was found that a child had been born in the coffin. The autopsy showed also that Madame Bobin had not contracted yellow fever, and had died from asphyxiation in the coffin. A suit was begun against the health officers and the prefect, which resulted in a verdict for £8,000 damages against them.

— William Tebb, Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, 1905

Curiosities of Morse Code

  • SISSIES: ··· ·· ··· ··· ·· · ···
  • MOTTO: -- --- - - ---
  • ENTENTE: · -· - · -· - ·
  • TARTAR: - ·- ·-· - ·- ·-·
  • POSSESSIVENESS: ·--· --- ··· ··· · ··· ··· ·· ···- · -· · ··· ··· (18 dots in a row)
  • SERVOMOTOR: ··· · ·-· ···- --- -- --- - --- ·-· (12 dashes)

INTRANSIGENCE is a palindrome: ·· -· - ·-· ·- -· ··· ·· --· · -· -·-· ·

Coming and Going

Prospicimus modo quod durabunt faedera longo
Tempore, nec nobis pax cito diffugiet.

That means “We foresee now that the confederacy shall last a long time, and that peace will not quickly fly away from us.” But reverse it:

Diffugiet cito pax nobis, nec tempore longo
Faedera durabunt, quod modo prospicimus.

and it means “Peace will soon fly away from us, and the covenant shall not last long, which we foresee already.”

See also A Bilingual Palindrome.

Figure and Ground


Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

— Zhuangzi, Chinese text, fourth century B.C.

The Lady of the Haystack

In 1776 an unfortunate woman was found sheltering under a haystack in Bourton, near Bristol. By day she would seek charity from the local people, but at night she would always return to the haystack, saying only that “trouble and misery dwelt in houses.”

Curiously, she appeared well bred and accustomed to good society. Hannah More, who took up her cause, found her “handsome, young, interesting, enough Mistress of her reason carefully to shut up from our observation every avenue that might lead to her secret.”

More published “A Tale of Real Woe” in the St. James’s Chronicle in 1785, offering what little she had been able to learn about the woman: “that her Father was a German, her Mother an Italian; that she has one brother and one Sister; that her father had a very fine garden full of olive and orange Trees.”

Rumors abounded that “Louisa” was an illegitimate daughter of Francis I, emperor of Austria, and thus a half-sister to Marie Antoinette, but these have never been substantiated. Whoever she was, the woman spent the next 16 years in a succession of hospitals, never giving her identity, and when she died in 1801, she took her secret with her.