“Strange Phenomenon”

Seeing so many meteorological phenomena in your excellent paper, Knowledge, I am tempted to ask for an explanation of the following, which I saw when on board the British India Company’s steamer Patna while on a voyage up the Persian Gulf. In May, 1880, on a dark, calm night, about 11.30 p.m., there suddenly appeared on each side of the ship an enormous luminous wheel whirling round, the spokes of which seemed to brush the ship along. The spokes would be 200 or 300 yards long, and resembled the birch rods of the dames’ schools. Each wheel contained about sixteen spokes, and made the revolution in about twelve seconds. One could almost fancy one heard the swish as the spokes whizzed past the ship, and, although the wheels must have been some 500 or 600 yards in diameter, the spokes could be distinctly seen all the way round. The phosphorescent gleam seemed to glide along flat on the surface of the sea, no light being visible in the air above the water. The appearance of the spokes could be almost exactly represented by standing in a boat and flashing a bull’s-eye lantern horizontally along the surface of the water round and round. I may mention that the phenomenon was also seen by Captain Avern, commander of the Patna, and Mr. Manning, third officer. Lee Fore Brace.

Knowledge, Dec. 28, 1883

See Light Show for a remarkably similar account.

Ships’ Cats


British sailors had some furry help during World War II. Tiddles (left) spent his whole life aboard Royal Navy aircraft carriers, traveling some 30,000 miles with them. He was born at sea on HMS Argus and was later promoted to captain’s cat on HMS Victorious. He’s pictured in July 1942 at his favorite station, on the after capstan, where he could play with the bellrope.

Convoy, the ship’s cat on HMS Hermione, was so named because he often accompanied the ship on convoy escort duties. He was listed in the ship’s book and given a full kit, including his own hammock. He went down with 87 of his shipmates when the Hermione was torpedoed in 1942.

“In a cat’s eyes,” runs an English proverb, “all things belong to cats.”



Always eat grapes downwards–that is, always eat the best grape first; in this way there will be none better left on the bunch, and each grape will seem good down to the last. If you eat the other way, you will not have a good grape in the lot. Besides, you will be tempting Providence to kill you before you come to the best.

This is why autumn seems better than spring: in the autumn we are eating our days downwards, in the spring each day still seems ‘very bad.’ People should live on this principle more than they do, but they do live on it a good deal; from the age of, say, fifty we eat our days downwards.

— Samuel Butler, Notebooks, 1912

A Curious Conversation

You’re standing with your friends Val and Colin when a stranger approaches and shows you 16 cards:

A♥ Q♥ 4♥
J♠ 8♠ 7♠ 4♠ 3♠ 2♠
K♣ Q♣ 6♣ 5♣ 4♣
A♦ 5♦

He shuffles the cards, selects one, and tells Val the card’s value and Colin the card’s color. Then he asks, “Do you know which card I have?”

Val says, “I don’t know what the card is.”

Colin says, “I knew that you didn’t know.”

Val says, “I know the card now.”

Colin says, “I know it too.”

What is the card?

Click for Answer

“Wonderful Battel of Starlings”

Dubious but worth recording: A tract dated 1622 reports a vast war of starlings over Cork, Ireland, Oct. 12-14, 1621. Armies of birds had reportedly converged from the east and west some four or five days before, and on Oct. 12 “they forthwith, at one Instant, took Wing, and so mounting up into the Skies, encountered one another with such a terrible Shock, as the Sound amazed the whole City and the Beholders,” until “there fell down in the City, and into the Rivers, Multitudes of Starlings or Stares, some with Wings broken, some with Legs and Necks broken, some with Eyes picked out, some their Bills thrust into the Breast and Sides of their Adversaries, on so strage [sic] a Manner, that it were incredible, except it were confirmed by Letters of Credit, and by Eye-Witnesses with that Assurance which is without all Exception.”

The birds adjourned, for some reason, on Sunday, though visitors from Suffolk reported seeing a similar war over remote woods there. On Monday the fight resumed over Cork, and this time the dead included a kite, a raven, and a crow.

I can’t find the original pamphlet, but it’s referenced by Johns Hopkins (1905), the London Library (1888), the New York State Library (1882), and the Bodleian Library (1860), among others. Starlings do have a colorful history — see Oops and Fragments of Night.