Podcast Episode 40: The Mary Celeste: A Great Sea Mystery


In 1872 the British merchant ship Mary Celeste was discovered drifting and apparently abandoned 600 miles off the coast of Portugal. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review this classic mystery of the sea: Why would 10 people flee a well-provisioned, seaworthy ship in fine weather?

We’ll also get an update on the legal rights of apes and puzzle over why a woman would not intervene when her sister is drugged.

Sources for our segment on the Mary Celeste:

Paul Begg, Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea, 2005.

Charles Edey Fay, Mary Celeste: The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship, 1942.

J.L. Hornibrook, “The Case of the ‘Mary Celeste’: An Ocean Mystery,” Chambers Journal, Sept. 17, 1904.

Listener mail:

George M. Walsh, “Chimpanzees Don’t Have The Same Rights As Humans, New York Court Rules,” Associated Press, Dec. 5, 2014.

The opinion from the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division:

The People of the State of New York ex rel. The Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc., on Behalf of Tommy, Appellant, v. Patrick C. Lavery, Individually and as an Officer of Circle L Trailer Sales, Inc., et al.

“Orangutan in Argentina Zoo Recognised by Court as ‘Non-Human Person’,” Guardian, Dec. 21, 2014.

Coffitivity “recreates the ambient sounds of a cafe to boost your creativity and help you work better.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Nick Madrid.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Rough Cuts


In 1968, artist Tim Ulrichs released Schleifpapier-Schallplatten, a set of 13 discs made from commercial sandpaper in various degrees of coarseness, with blank center labels. They were billed as “monosandpaper records.”

V.A. Wölfli’s industrial noise composition “Pferd/Horse/Elastic” was named after the Pferd company’s steel-cutting discs — he simply put 100 of the construction-duty grinding wheels inside record covers.

The first single by the Dust Breeders, “Sandpaper Mantra” (1989), was a 7-inch piece of sandpaper inside a record sleeve. Their 1995 composition “I’m Psycho 4 Yur Love” swapped these materials, with a sandpaper sleeve housing a vinyl record that gets scratchier every time it’s removed.

The Durutti Column’s The Return of the Durutti Column (1980), the Feederz’ Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss? (1984), and Illusion of Safety’s Illusion of Safety (1999) were all released in sandpaper sleeves.

This may have been an homage to Guy Debord’s 1957 autobiography, Mémoires, which was bound in a sandpaper cover in order to destroy any book placed next to it.

(From Craig Dworkin, No Medium, 2013.) (Thanks, Vinny.)

Land of Opportunity


Auguste Bartholdi patented the Statue of Liberty. In 1879, seven years before its dedication in New York Harbor, the French sculptor filed a one-page abstract describing his “design for a sculpture”:

The statue is that of a female figure standing erect upon a pedestal or block, the body being thrown slightly over to the left, so as to gravitate upon the left leg, the whole figure being thus in equilibrium, and symmetrically arranged with respect to a perpendicular line or axis passing through the head and left foot. The right leg, with its lower limb thrown back, is bent, resting upon the bent toe, thus giving grace to the general attitude of the figure. The body is clothed in the classical drapery, being a stola, or mantle gathered in upon the left shoulder and thrown over the skirt or tunic or under-garment, which drops in voluminous folds upon the feet. The right arm is thrown up and stretched out, with a flamboyant torch grasped in the hand. The flame of the torch is thus held high up above the figure. The arm is nude; the drapery of the sleeve is dropping down upon the shoulder in voluminous folds. In the left arm, which is falling against the body, is held a tablet, upon which is inscribed ‘4th July, 1776.’ This tablet is made to rest against the side of the body, above the hip, and so as to occupy an inclined position with relation thereto, exhibiting the inscription. The left hand clasps the tablet so as to bring the four fingers onto the face thereof. The head, with its classical, yet severe and calm, features, is surmounted by a crown or diadem, from which radiate divergingly seven rays, tapering from the crown, and representing a halo. The feet are bare and sandal-strapped.

Bartholdi also received copyright 9939G for his “Statue of American Independence,” and architect Richard Morris Hunt received copyrights for the pedestal.

Barry Moreno’s Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia (2005) recounts the memory of a German immigrant who encountered the statue in 1911: “I remember we see Statue of Liberty. Gus asked me, ‘What’s the statue?’ And then we’re looking … and his father say, ‘That’s Christopher Columbus.’ And I put my two cents out. I say, ‘Listen, this don’t look like Christopher Columbus. That’s a lady there.'”

Chebyshev’s Paradoxical Mechanism

Russian mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev devised this puzzling mechanisms in 1888. Turning the crank handle once will send the flywheel through two revolutions in the same direction, or four revolutions in the opposite direction. (A better video is here.)

“What is so unusual in this mechanism is the ability of the linkages to flip from one configuration to the other,” write John Bryant and Chris Sangwin in How Round Is Your Circle? (2011). “In most linkage mechanisms such ambiguity is implicitly, or explicitly, designed out so that only one choice for the mathematical solution can give a physical configuration. … This mechanism is really worth constructing, if only to confound your friends and colleagues.”

(Thanks, Dre.)



The Martian parliament consists of a single house. Every member has three enemies at most among the other members. Show that it’s possible to divide the parliament into two houses so that every member has one enemy at most in his house.

Click for Answer

10 Years

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of Futility Closet — I started it on January 1, 2005. I don’t have any plans for a big celebration, but I wanted to share some thoughts about where the site has been and where it’s headed.

Over its lifetime this site has served 78 million pageviews, vastly more than I’d ever dreamed of when I started. But traffic actually peaked four years ago, and it’s been dropping steadily since then. I left my job in April 2013 to devote myself full-time to Futility Closet, and in the ensuing period we’ve published two books, 39 podcast episodes, and a thousand blog posts. In that time we’ve had record amounts of media attention, fan mail, new readers, and general good wishes, but traffic and revenue have continued to drop.

Practically everyone is struggling these days, and I don’t think there’s anything unique about our situation. The main reason I’m writing is to see whether anyone can suggest new measures that could help us to support the site, things we’re overlooking. Should we be exploring other formats? Is there some feature or functionality that would make the site or its content more appealing or useful, or some means of monetizing the content or soliciting support that we haven’t thought of and that might be more effective?

I’d like to keep going — my notes contain hundreds of items that I want to research and write about, and to judge from the response, particularly last year, you like what we’re doing. We’re very grateful to everyone who’s made donations to help keep us going, both here and on the podcast’s Patreon campaign. But if we can’t reverse the decline I’ll have to consider stopping.

You can reach me at gregblog@gmail.com. I’ll post any updates below. Thanks.

01/03/2015 Update: Many thanks for all your ideas and support! I had hoped to be able to respond to each individually, but there are so many now that I don’t think that will be possible. But I’m reading, considering, and appreciating every message, and Sharon and I are both very grateful as well for your financial support. Please keep your suggestions coming. I’ll write more later once I’ve gotten organized and considered the possibilities. Thanks again.

01/26/2015 I think we’re going to start by working on social media. The first thing to do is to establish a findable presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. If you control one of the existing Futility Closet accounts on those platforms, and would be willing to transfer it to us, please write to me. Thanks.


1927 solvay conference

At the Fifth Solvay International Conference, held in Brussels in October 1927, 29 physicists gathered for a group photograph. Back row: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Léon Brillouin. Middle: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr. Front: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, Owen Willans Richardson.

Seventeen of the 29 were or became Nobel Prize winners. Marie Curie, the only woman, is also the only person who has won the prize in two scientific disciplines.

Below: On Aug. 12, 1958, 57 notable jazz musicians assembled for a group portrait at 17 East 126th Street in Harlem. They included Red Allen, Buster Bailey, Count Basie, Emmett Berry, Art Blakey, Lawrence Brown, Scoville Browne, Buck Clayton, Bill Crump, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Art Farmer, Bud Freeman, Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn, Benny Golson, Sonny Greer, Johnny Griffin, Gigi Gryce, Coleman Hawkins, J.C. Heard, Jay C. Higginbotham, Milt Hinton, Chubby Jackson, Hilton Jefferson, Osie Johnson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Jimmy Jones, Taft Jordan, Max Kaminsky, Gene Krupa, Eddie Locke, Marian McPartland, Charles Mingus, Miff Mole, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Pettiford, Rudy Powell, Luckey Roberts, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Russell, Sahib Shihab, Horace Silver, Zutty Singleton, Stuff Smith, Rex Stewart, Maxine Sullivan, Joe Thomas, Wilbur Ware, Dickie Wells, George Wettling, Ernie Wilkins, Mary Lou Williams, and Lester Young. Photographer Art Kane called it “the greatest picture of that era of musicians ever taken.”


The Wisdom of the Crowd


At a livestock exhibition at Plymouth, England, in 1907, attendees were invited to guess the weight of an ox and to write their estimates on cards, with the most accurate estimates receiving prizes. About 800 tickets were issued, and after the contest these made their way to Francis Galton, who found them “excellent material.”

“The average competitor,” he wrote, “was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge justly was probably much the same in either case.”

Happily for all of us, he found that the guesses in the aggregate were quite accurate. The middlemost estimate was 1,207 pounds, and the weight of the dressed ox proved to be 1,198 pounds, an error of 0.8 percent. This has been borne out in subsequent research: When a group of people make individual estimates of a quantity, the mean response tends to be fairly accurate, particularly when the crowd is diverse and the judgments are independent.

Galton wrote, “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.”

(Francis Galton, “Vox Populi,” Nature, March 7, 1907.)

Nicomachus’ Theorem

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 100 C.E., Nicomachus of Gerasa observed that

13 + 23 + 33 + … + n3 = (1 + 2 + 3 + … + n)2

Or “the sum of the cubes of 1 to n is the same as the square of their sum.” The diagram above demonstrates this neatly: Counting the individual squares shows that

1 × 12 + 2 × 22 + 3 × 32 + 4 × 42 + 5 × 52 + 6 × 62
= 13 + 23 + 33 + 43 + 53 + 63
= (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6)2