In 1805, during his return from India, the Duke of Wellington stayed briefly in a house on the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

By an odd coincidence, when Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo 10 years later, the deposed emperor was exiled to the very same house — while Wellington occupied his former palace.

“You may tell Bony,” the duke wrote to a friend, “that I find his apartments at the Elisée Bourbon very convenient, and that I hope he likes mine at Mr. Balcom’s. It is a droll sequel enough to the affairs of Europe that we should change places of residence.”

Dead Heat

Monument inscription, Whitby churchyard, North Yorkshire:

Here lies the bodies of FRANCIS HUNTRODDS and MARY his Wife who were both born on the same Day of the Week Month and Year (viz) Septr ye 19th 1600 Marry’d on the day of their Birth and after having had 12 Children born to them died Aged 80 Years on the same day of the year they were born September ye 19th 1680 the one not above five hours before ye other.

Husband, and Wife that did twelve Children bear,
Dy’d the same day; alike both aged were,
Bout eighty years they liv’d, five hours did part,
(Ev’n on the marriage day) each tender heart.
So fit a match, surely, could never be
Both, in their lives, and in their deaths agree.

“Reported Capture of the Sea-Serpent”

In February 1852, the New York Tribune published an account by a Charles Seabury, master of the whaleship Monongahela, of a titanic struggle with a sea serpent in the South Pacific. The crew harpooned the 103-foot monster on Jan. 13 and killed it with lances the following morning:

None of the crew who witnessed that terrible scene will ever forget it; the evolutions of the body were rapid as lightning, seeming like the revolving of a thousand enormous black wheels. The tail and head would occasionally appear in the surging bloody foam, and a sound was heard, so dead, unearthly, and expressive of acute agony, that a thrill of horror ran through our veins.

The serpent was too large to get into port, so the crew resolved to save the skin, head, and bones. As they were dissecting the creature they encountered the brig Gipsy, to whom Seabury gave his story. “As soon as I get in I shall be enabled to furnish you a more detailed account.”

That’s the story. But neither Seabury, his serpent, nor his detailed account ever appeared, and the Gipsy later told the Philadelphia Bulletin that it had never met such a ship. By that time the original 2700-word account had run in Galignani’s Messenger, the Illustrated London News, the London Times, and Spenerishe Zeitung.

Zoologist editor Edward Newman concludes, “Very like a hoax, but well drawn up.” You can decide for yourself — the original account is here.

The Great Filter

An advanced civilization passes through eight stages:

  1. A congenial star system
  2. Reproductive molecules
  3. Simple single-cell life
  4. Complex single-cell life
  5. Sexual reproduction
  6. Multicellular life
  7. Tool-using animals with big brains
  8. Colonization explosion

Now, we haven’t observed any intelligent extraterrestrials. That implies that at least one of these steps is very improbable, a “filter” that prevents life from colonizing space.

We’re on step 7. If the filter is among steps 1-6, then we’re not likely to meet any neighbors — something prevents most life forms from getting as far as we have. If the filter is in step 8, then it appears some catastrophe must strike us soon. Our future, it seems, must be either lonely or ruinous.

“The larger the remaining filter we face, the more carefully humanity should try to avoid negative scenarios,” writes George Mason University economist Robin Hanson. “Our main data point, the Great Silence, would be telling us that at least one of these scenarios [e.g., nuclear war, ecological collapse] is much more probable than it otherwise looks.”



American chess grandmaster Harry Nelson Pillsbury was renowned for his memory — he could play whist, chess, and checkers simultaneously, without sight of the boards. In 1896, researchers gave him the following list of words to memorize:

antiphlogistine, periosteum, takadiastase, plasmon, ambrosia, Threlkeld, streptococcus, staphylococcus, micrococcus, plasmodium, Mississippi, Freiheit, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, athletics, no war, Etchenberg, American, Russian, philosophy, Piet Potgelter’s Rost, Salamagundi, Oomisillecootsi, Bangmanvate, Schlechter’s Nek, Manzinyama, theosophy, catechism, Madjesoomalops

Pillsbury looked over the list for a few minutes, returned it, and repeated the words correctly in order.

Then he recited them backward.