“Proof That a Man Can Be His Own Grandfather”


From The World of Wonders, 1883:

“There was a widow [Anne] and her daughter [Jane], and a man [George] and his son [Henry]. The widow married the son, and the daughter married the father. The widow was therefore mother [in law] to her husband’s father, and grandmother to her own husband. By this husband she had a son [David], to whom she was also great-grandmother. Now, the son of a great-grandmother must be grandfather or grand-uncle to the person to whom his mother was great-grandmother; but Anne was great-grandmother to him [David]. Therefore David is his own grandfather.”

Hood’s Magazine (1846) adds, “This was the case with a boy at a school at Norwich.”


Composed in 390 B.C., Aristophanes’ play Ecclesiazusae concludes with the name of a dish on which the characters plan to feast.

The word is lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimupotrimmatosilphioliparomelitoaktakexhumeno-kichlepikossuphophattoperisteralektruonoptopiphallidokinklopeleioplagoosiraiobaphetragalopterugon. At 169 letters, it’s still the longest word in the Greek language.

Lord Combermere’s Ghost

combermere ghost

In 1891, Sybell Corbet took this photograph in the library of Combermere Abbey in Cheshire. The abbey’s owner, Lord Combermere, had just died after a London accident and was being buried that day in the family vault a few miles away.

Members of the family felt the figure in the chair was very like the dead man. But physicist William Barrett, noting that it was distinct only from the waist up, suggested that perhaps a manservant had sat down briefly during the 15 minutes that Corbet had left the shutter open.

Barrett had just published an article with these particulars in the Westminster Gazette when he received a letter from a Combermere relative. She shared his doubts, she said, but wanted to correct one error in the article. “You say he had not lost his legs,” she wrote, “but he died from an accident in which they were so much injured, he could never have used them again. He was run over by a wagon at Knightsbridge, crossing the street, and only lived a few weeks.”

Fine Scotch

A sentence composed entirely of contractions taken from Robert Burns poems:

E’en th’ flow’rs afiel’ ha’e fac’t heav’n wi’ th’ rightfu’, shinin’ blessin’ that’s prevail’d i’ th’ min’ o’ th’ faithfu’ servan’ an’ th’ mournfu’, wand’ring craz’d o’ th’ worl’: heav’n’s pray’rs ha’e honour’d th’ cheerfu’ an’ th’ gen’rous ‘gainst t’other worl’s glib-tongu’d, wither’d pow’r.

When the English poet laureate Alfred Austin unveiled a statue of Burns in 1896, Punch proposed some remarks for him.

“Ye ken I canna mak’ ye a lang speech, bein’ mair a wanchansie mon, ram-feezled wi’ writin’, than a skirlin’, tapetless glib-gabbet,” he was to say. “Burns was nae feckless gowk, sae it’s a pleasure tae me tae unveil this sonsie statue.”

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