Fire Fight

In October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of American destroyers trapped a Soviet submarine near Cuba. When the ships began dropping depth charges, the sub’s captain prepared to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo, believing that a war between the superpowers might already be under way.

But the launch was permitted only if three officers agreed to it, and second-in-command Vasili Arkhipov held out against his superior. An argument ensued, but eventually he persuaded the captain to surface instead and seek orders from Moscow.

“The lesson from this,” remarked NSA director Thomas Blanton in 2002, “is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

See Close Call.

A Better Nature

Trisect the angles of any triangle and you’ll find an equilateral triangle at its heart.

This theorem has a curious cousin: If you trisect the sides of any triangle and erect an equilateral triangle outwardly on the middle third of each leg, then the outermost vertices of these equilateral triangles will themselves form an equilateral triangle.

Group Study

A Frenchman, while looking at a number of vessels, exclaimed, ‘See what a flock of ships!’ He was told that a flock of ships was called a fleet, but that a fleet of sheep was called a flock. To assist him in mastering the intricacies of the English language, he was told that a flock of girls was called a bevy, that a bevy of wolves is called a pack, but that a pack of cards is never called a bevy, though a pack of thieves is called a gang, and a gang of angels is called a host, while a host of porpoises is termed a shoal. He was told that a host of oxen is termed a herd, and a herd of children is called a troop, and a troop of partridges is termed a covey, and a covey of beauty is called a galaxy, and a galaxy of ruffians is called a horde, and a horde of rubbish is called a heap, and a heap of bullocks is called a drove, and a drove of blackguards is called a mob, and a mob of whales is called a school, and a school of worship is called a congregation, and a congregation of engineers is called a corps, and a corps of robbers is called a band, and a band of locusts is called a crowd, and a crowd of gentlefolks is called the elite. The last word being French, the scholar understood it and asked no more.

— Charles William Bardeen, A System of Rhetoric, 1884

Off the Books

The British merchant cruiser Hilary was patrolling the North Sea in 1917 when commander F.W. Dean was called to the bridge to witness a “living thing” on the starboard quarter.

“The head was about the shape of, but somewhat larger than that of, a cow,” Dean recalled three years later in Herbert Strang’s Annual, “though with no observable protrusions such as horns or ears, and was black, except for the front of the face, which could be clearly seen to have a strip of whitish flesh, very like a cow has, between its nostrils. As we passed, the head raised itself two or three times, apparently to get a good look at the ship.”

Dean estimated that the creature was 60 feet long and ordered his men to use it for target practice. The first two crews missed it, but the third hit “and produced at once a furious commotion, which reminded me more than anything else of a bather lying on his back in smooth water and kicking out with all his force to splash the water.” The creature disappeared.

All this was noted in the log, over the objections of a superstitious crewman who insisted it was bad luck to record such encounters. Two days later, Hilary was torpedoed and sank. “If you ask me ‘Am I superstitious about seeing a sea-serpent?'” Dean wrote, “I only reply, ‘Well, if ever I found myself again at sea in command of a ship, and anything of the sort was sighted, I should leave it alone and make no entry in the log!'”

The Thatcher Effect

thatcher effect

When we look at another person’s face, her eyes and mouth convey the most information about her mood.

Indeed, when a face is inverted we can have trouble recognizing it because we can’t read its expression.

So in 1980 University of York psychologist Peter Thompson tried inverting everything but the eyes and mouth.

Most people can recognize the face at left and assign a mood to it, but they’re often surprised to see it right side up.

“Further research into this illusion might help determine whether face recognition is a serial or parallel process,” Thompson wrote in Perception that summer. “It might even tell us something about Margaret Thatcher.”

Domestic Harmony

The Musical World of London, Nov. 28, 1874, reports a surprising project — apparently a Massachusetts composer set the entire American constitution to music:

The authors of the Constitution of the Union thought more of reason than of rhyme, and their prose is not too well adapted to harmony, but the patriotic inspiration of Mr. Greeler, the Boston composer, overcomes every difficulty. He has made his score a genuine musical epopœia, and had it performed before a numerous public. The performance did not last less than six hours. The preamble of the Constitution forms a broad and majestic recitative, well sustained by altos and double basses. The first clause is written for a tenor; the other choruses are given to the bass, soprano, and baritone. The music of the clause treating of state’s rights is written in a minor key for bass and tenor. At the end of every clause, the recitative of the preamble is re-introduced and then repeated by the chorus. The constitutional amendments are treated as fugues and serve to introduce a formidable finale, in which the big drum and the gong play an important part. The general instrumentation is very scholarly, and the harmony surprising.

The music has been lost, but it would be out of date now anyway — we’ve added 12 amendments since then.

Light Headed

With Benjamin Oppenheimer’s “improvement in fire-escapes,” patented in 1879, you can jump safely from the window of a burning building and land “without injury and without the least damage” thanks to a 5-foot parachute and shock-absorbing shoes.

Samuel Mott patented a similar idea in 1920: an aviators’ helmet that contains a folded parachute that can be “readily released in case of emergency.”

But what if you bail out of an airplane that’s over a burning building?

Scholars and Sense

O Cleinias, are those who learn the wise or the ignorant?

He answered that those who learned were the wise.

Euthydemus proceeded: There are some whom you would call teachers, are there not?

The boy assented.

And they are the teachers of those who learn — the grammar-master and the lyre master used to teach you and other boys; and you were the learners?


And when you were learners you did not as yet know the things which you were learning?

No, he said.

And were you wise then?

No, indeed, he said.

But if you were not wise you were unlearned?


You then, learning what you did not know, were unlearned when you were learning?

The youth nodded assent.

Then the unlearned learn, and not the wise, Cleinias, as you imagine.

— Plato, Euthydemus