The Two Cultures

Tennyson’s poem “The Vision of Sin” contains this couplet:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

When he published it in 1842, Charles Babbage sent him a note:

I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that, in the next edition of your excellent poem, the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows:–

Every moment dies a man,
And one and a sixteenth is born.

“I may add that the exact figures are 1.167,” he added, “but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.”

“Strange Discovery in Ohio”

A queer exhumation was made in the Strip Vein coal bank of Capt. Lacy, at Hammondsville, Ohio, one day last week. Mr. James Parsons and his two sons were engaged in making the bank, when a huge mass of coal fell down, disclosing a large smooth slate wall, upon the surface of which were found, carved in bold relief, several lines of hieroglyphics. Crowds have visited the place since the discovery and many good scholars have tried to decipher the characters, but all have failed. Nobody has been able to tell in what tongue the words were written. How came the mysterious writing in the bowels of the earth where probably no human eye has ever penetrated? There are several lines about three inches apart, the first line containing twenty-five words. Attempts have been made to remove the slate wall, and bring it out, but upon tapping the wall it gave forth a sound that would seem to indicate the existence of a hollow chamber beyond, and the characters would have been destroyed in removing it. At last accounts Dr. Hartshorn, of Mount Union College, had been sent for to examine the writing.

Wellsville Union, quoted in The True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, Jan. 1, 1869

Dark Science

On Aug. 21, 1945, physicist Harry Daghlian accidentally dropped a brick of tungsten carbide into a plutonium bomb core at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The mass went critical, and Daghlian died of radiation sickness.

Exactly nine months later, physicist Louis Slotin was conducting an experiment on the same mass of plutonium when his screwdriver slipped and the mass again went critical. He too died of radiation sickness.

The mass became known as “the demon core.”

The Vanishing Debtor

Alpha approaches Beta, asking for payment of a debt.

Beta: If you had an odd number of pebbles — or for that matter an even one — and then chose to add or subtract a pebble, do you think you would have the same number?

Alpha: No.

Beta: If you had a measure of one cubit and chose to add or cut off some length of it, that measure would no longer exist, would it?

Alpha: No.

Beta: Well now, think of a human in the same way: one human is growing and another is diminishing. All are constantly in the process of change. But what by its nature changes and never stays put must already be different from what it changed from. You and I are different from who we were yesterday, and by the same argument will be different again tomorrow.

Exasperated, Alpha strikes Beta.

Beta: Why are you angry with me?

Alpha: As someone nearby just demonstrated, it was not I who hit you, not I at all, but someone else altogether.

(From a fragment by Epicharmus.)

“Disinterested Informer”

A lady walking over Lansdown, near Bath, was overtaken by a large dog, which had left two men who were travelling the same road with a horse and cart, and followed by the animal for some distance, the creature endeavouring to make her sensible of something by looking in her face, and then pointing with his nose behind. Failing in his object, he next placed himself so completely in front of the object of his solicitude, as to prevent her from proceeding any farther, still looking steadfastly in her face. The lady became rather alarmed; but judging from the manner of the dog, who did not appear vicious, that there was something about her which engaged his attention, she examined her dress, and found that her lace shawl was gone. The dog, perceiving that he was at length understood, immediately turned back; the lady followed him, and he conducted her to the spot where her shawl lay, some distance back in the road. On her taking it up, and replacing it on her person, the interesting quadruped instantly ran off at full speed after his master, apparently much delighted.

The Scrap Book, Or, A Selection of Interesting and Authentic Anecdotes, 1825

Rock and Roll

Every so often a Scottish farmer turns up a knobbly stone ball the size of an orange. No one knows precisely who made them or why: Were they weights for fishing nets? Die-like oracles? Flung weapons? Balls used in games? Some are quite elaborately carved, and they have as many as 160 knobs.

Whatever they were, they were immensely popular among Bronze Age Scots — more than 400 have been found to date in northeastern Scotland, most in Aberdeenshire.

Costa Ricans made stone balls with somewhat larger ambitions, and Romans made enigmatic dodecahedrons. Which of our own artifacts will baffle future civilizations?

Bears Repeating

While lecturing at Oxford, geologist William Buckland kept a bear named Tiglath Pileser. (Buckland was a lunatic.) In 1847 he dressed “Tig” in a cap and gown and took him to the annual meeting of the British Association and to a garden party at the Botanic Gardens. “The bear sucked all our hands and was very caressing,” remembered Charles Lyell. Eventually banished from Christ Church, Tig retired to Islip, where he terrorized the local sweetshop owner until he was sent to the Zoological Gardens.

Byron kept a bear in his chambers at Cambridge — because, he said, Trinity rules forbade dogs. “I had a great hatred of college rules, and contempt for academical honors.” It’s said he conducted it there in a stagecoach (as “Lord Byron and Mr. Bruin”) to sit for a fellowship.

“There was, by the by, rather a witty satire founded on my bear,” Byron later remembered. “A friend of Shelley’s made an ourang-outang (Oran Hanton, Esq.) the hero of a novel (‘Melincourt’), had him created a baronet, and returned for the borough of One Vote.”