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Phase Change

The Indonesian word for water is air.

Guys and Dolls

‘The other day,’ said a man passenger, ‘I saw a woman in an omnibus open a satchel and take out a purse, close the satchel and open the purse, take out a penny and close the purse, open the satchel and put in the purse. Then she gave the penny to the conductor and took a halfpenny in exchange. Then she opened the satchel and took out the purse, closed the satchel and opened the purse, put in the halfpenny and closed the purse, opened the satchel and put in the purse, closed the satchel and locked both ends. Then she felt to see if her back hair was all right, and it was all right, and she was all right. That was a woman.’

The Windsor Magazine, November 1907

It is necessary for technical reasons that these warheads be stored upside down; that is, with the top at the bottom and the bottom at the top. In order that there may be no doubt as to which is the bottom and which is the top, it will be seen to that the bottom of each warhead immediately be labelled with the word TOP.

– British Admiralty, quoted in Applied Optics, January 1968

Law and Order

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Niels Bohr liked westerns but found them exasperating. After one feature he told his friends, “I did not like that picture, it was too improbable. That the scoundrel runs off with the beautiful girl is logical, it always happens. That the bridge collapses under their carriage is unlikely but I am willing to accept it. That the heroine remains suspended in midair over a precipice is even more unlikely, but again I accept it. I am even willing to accept that at that very moment Tom Mix is coming by on his horse. But that at that very moment there should be a fellow with a motion picture camera to film the whole business — that is more than I am willing to believe.”

He did approve of movie gunfights, where the villain always draws first and yet the hero always wins. Bohr reasoned that the man who draws first in a gunfight is using conscious volition, where his opponent is relying on reflex, a much faster response. Hence the second man should win.

“We disagreed with this theory,” wrote George Gamow, “and the next day I went to a toy store and bought two guns in Western holders. We shot it out with Bohr, he playing the hero, and he ‘killed’ all his students.”

Traffic Forecast

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John Macnie’s 1883 utopian novel The Diothas describes paved roads on which cars achieve speeds of 20 miles per hour:

When we had fairly emerged into the country, the curricle, gradually increasing its speed, moved over the smooth track like a shadow, obedient to the slightest touch of its guide. Steering was effected much as in the tricycle of the present: the brakes were controlled by the feet. The forefinger, by means of a lever resembling the brake of a bicycle, regulated the amount of force allowed to issue from the reservoir.

That’s not the remarkable part, though. “‘You see the white line running along the centre of the road,’ resumed Utis. ‘The rule of the road requires that line to be kept on the left except when passing a vehicle in front. Then the line may be crossed, provided the way on that side is clear.’”

Unquote

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“It is not that I have accomplished too few of my plans, for I am not ambitious; but when I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had, all life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.”

– Yeats, Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, 1914

New Units

Since Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, Isaac Asimov proposed that one millihelen was the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship. And one negative helen is the amount of ugliness that will send a thousand ships in the other direction.

When the taciturn Paul Dirac was a fellow at Cambridge, the dons defined the dirac as the smallest measurable amount of conversation — one word per hour.

Robert Millikan was said to be somewhat conceited; a rival suggested that perhaps the kan was a unit of modesty.

And a bruno is 1158 cubic centimeters, the size of the dent in asphalt resulting from the six-story free fall of an upright piano. It’s named after MIT student Charlie Bruno, who proposed the experiment in 1972. The drop has become an MIT tradition; last year students dropped a piano onto another piano:

Three by Three

three by three puzzle

What’s the ratio between the areas of the two triangles?

Click for Answer

On Time

In Max Beerbohm’s 1916 short story “Enoch Soames,” an unsuccessful poet sells his soul to the devil for the chance to travel 100 years into the future to see how time has favored his work.

Under the agreement, Soames is transported to the Reading Room of the British Museum at 2:10 p.m. on June 3, 1997. He searches for references to his work but finds himself mentioned only once, as an “imaginary character” in a story by Max Beerbohm, and is whisked off to hell.

But, Beerbohm writes, “You realize that the reading-room into which Soames was projected by the devil was in all respects precisely as it will be on the afternoon of June 3, 1997. You realize, therefore, that on that afternoon, when it comes round, there the selfsame crowd will be, and there Soames will be, punctually. … The fact that people are going to stare at him and follow him around and seem afraid of him, can be explained only on the hypothesis that they will somehow have been prepared for his ghostly visitation.”

On June 3, 1997, about a dozen onlookers collected in the Reading Room of the British Museum to see what would happen. To their surprise, at precisely 2:10 p.m. a man matching Soames’ description — “a stooping, shambling person, rather tall, very pale, with longish and brownish hair” — appeared and began to search catalogs and speak with the librarians. Dejected, he finally disappeared among the stacks.

Among the onlookers was Teller, of the magician duo Penn & Teller.

Lecture Notes

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“While I am describing to you how Nature works, you won’t understand why Nature works that way. But you see, nobody understands that.” — Richard Feynman

“I am no poet, but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your minds.” — Michael Faraday

“Now, this case is not very interesting,” said Bell Labs mathematician Peter Winkler during a lecture at Rutgers. “But the reason why it’s not interesting is really interesting, so let me tell you about it.”

Ernest Rutherford addressed the Royal Institution in 1904:

I came into the room, which was half dark, and presently spotted Lord Kelvin in the audience and realised that I was in for trouble at the last part of the speech dealing with the age of the Earth, where my views conflicted with his. To my relief Kelvin fell fast asleep, but as I came to the important point, I saw the old bird sit up, open an eye, and cock a baleful glance at me. Then a sudden inspiration came and I said Lord Kelvin had limited the age of the Earth, provided no new source was discovered. That prophetic utterance referred to what we are now considering tonight, radium! Behold! the old boy beamed upon me.

When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek declined to teach his new methods in microbiology, Leibniz worried that they might be lost. Leeuwenhoek replied, “The professors and students of the University of Leyden were long ago dazzled by my discoveries. They hired three lens grinders to come to teach the students, but what came of it? Nothing, so far as I can judge, for almost all of the courses they teach there are for the purpose of getting money through knowledge or for gaining the respect of the world by showing people how learned you are, and these things have nothing to do with discovering the things that are buried from our eyes.”

Appearances

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When he [Benjamin Franklin] was in London, a member of the House of Lords took him to see a house he had just built in a narrow street on land that was so irregular all the rooms had to be oddly shaped and inconveniently arranged. The beautiful columns decorating the front made the rest of the house seem smaller. ‘My lord,’ Franklin told him, ‘if you wish to enjoy your house and its superb colonnade more, all you need do is rent a spacious apartment directly across the street.’

– From the papers of Franklin’s friend Abbé Lefebvre de la Roche