In a Word

n. the reverse of goodness; unkindness

n. harm, damage; evil

adj. incapable of repentance

adj. incapable of weeping

Borromean Tribars

borromean tribars

Only the brilliantly inventive Lee Sallows would think of this. The figure above combines Penrose triangles with Borromean rings: Each of the triangles is an impossible object, and they’re united in a perplexing way — although the three are linked together, no two are linked.

(Thanks, Lee.)

The Dancing Plague

In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. As onlookers gathered it became clear that she could not stop; after many hours of exertion she collapsed and slept briefly but then rose and again began the dance. After three exhausting days she was bundled into a wagon and taken to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains, but her example had had its effect. Within days more than 30 more people had begun to dance uncontrollably, and their numbers grew; according to one chronicle, within a month 400 people were dancing.

The fact of the plague is well attested; a manuscript chronicle in the city’s archives reads:

There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Began dancing,
Which they kept up day and night,
Without interruption,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.

The sickness lasted until early September, when it passed away just as mysteriously. A number of explanations have been put forward, including convulsion brought on by ergot, a mold that flourishes on the stalks of damp rye. The most convincing was advanced by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: He found that a series of famines had preceded the dancing plague, spreading fear and anxiety through the city, and that a Christian church legend had told that a wrathful Saint Vitus would send down plagues of compulsive dancing on anyone who angered him. The dancing, Waller believes, was a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by this belief.

Vanderbilt epidemiologist Timothy Jones says the plague is “of immense historical value”; it “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.”

Working Afield

sigurya barbulata

Dutch author Leo Lionni devoted most of his career to children’s books, but in 1977 he undertook a weird experiment. Parallel Botany is a catalog of made-up plants, whose made-up features are described by made-up botanists and illustrated by Lionni’s pencil drawings. Sigurya barbulata, at left, is distinguished by its crowning “cephalocarpus”; a specimen discovered in a Mexican pyramid was found to have been metallized into an organic mace, but how this had come about is the subject of “furious debates.”

“The difficulties of applying traditional methods of research to the study of parallel botany stem chiefly from the matterlessness of the plants,” Lionni wrote. “Deprived as they are of any real organs or tissues, their character would be completely indefinable if it were not for the fact that parallel botany is nonetheless botany, and as such it reflects, even if somewhat distantly, many of the most evident features of normal plants.”

Why do all this? Lionni closes with a quote by the made-up Swedish philosopher Erud Kronengaard: “There are two kinds of men, those who are capable of wonder and those who are not. I hope to God that it is the first who will forge our destiny.”

Podcast Episode 6: Texas Camels, Zebra Stripes, and an Immortal Piano

The 1850s saw a strange experiment in the American West: The U.S. Army imported 70 camels for help in managing the country’s suddenly enormous hinterland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll see how the animals acquitted themselves in an unfamiliar land under inexperienced human masters.

We’ll also learn a surprising theory regarding the origin of zebra stripes; follow the further adventures of self-mailing ex-slave Henry “Box” Brown; ask whether a well-wrought piano can survive duty as a beehive, chicken incubator, and meat safe; and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

Our original post on the U.S. Camel Corps appeared on Jan. 2, 2006.

Here’s an illustration of a disconsolate camel embarking for Texas, from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis’ 1857 report to Congress. After two months at sea, the animals were delighted to reach dry land: No sooner were they set ashore than they “became excited to an almost uncontrollable degree, rearing, kicking, crying out, breaking halters, tearing up pickets, and by other fantastic tricks demonstrating their enjoyment of ‘liberty of the soil.’ Some of the males, becoming even pugnacious in their excitement, were with difficulty restrained from attacking each other.”

A stunning example of the camels’ capability: In Indianola, to show the value of the animals, Maj. Henry Wayne ordered a camel to be loaded with 1,226 pounds (!) of hay. Wayne wrote, “When the camel arose, without a strain, and quietly walked away with his four bales, as one who felt himself master of the situation, there was a sudden change of public sentiment, most flattering to the outlandish brute and encouraging to his military sponsors.”

Further sources:

Odie B. Faulk, The U.S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment, 1976.
Harlan D. Fowler, Camels to California: A Chapter in Western Transportation, 1950.
Lewis Burt Lesley, Uncle Sam’s Camels: The Journal of May Humphreys Stacey Supplemented by the Report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, 1929.
“The Camels That Jefferson Davis Bought,” New York Times, Aug. 20, 1922.

A few articles on the conjectured origins of zebra stripes:

Christine Dell’Amore, “Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? New Study Offers Strong Evidence,” National Geographic, April 1, 2014.

Rachel Kaufman, “Zebra Stripes Evolved to Repel Bloodsuckers?”, National Geographic News, Feb. 9, 2012.

Jennifer Viegas, “Zebra Stripes Not for Camo, But They Do Something Else,” Discovery, April 1, 2014.

Here’s Charles Rosen playing Scarlatti’s Sonata in G major on the 1955 LP that introduced Avner Carmi’s restored “immortal piano” to the world:

My other sources for that segment:

Avner Carmi and Hannah Carmi, The Immortal Piano, 1961.
The Siena Pianoforte, Charles Rosen, pianist, Counterpoint LP, 1955.
Weldon Wallace, “Beehive, Booby Trap, Meat Locker,” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 30, 1955.
“The Harp of David,” Time, Aug. 29, 1955.
Weldon Wallace, “Siena Piano at Peabody,” Baltimore Sun, Nov. 2, 1955.
Claudia Cassidy, “Bechet’s Ballet, ‘Sunless Cycle,’ ‘Siena’ Story, Kodaly, Voodoo,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 4, 1955.
Ross Dunn, “Rommel Piano Up for Auction in Israel,” The Times, Sept. 7, 1996.

Thanks again to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to follow the flight of L’Oiseau Blanc, a French biplane that crossed the Atlantic two weeks before Lindbergh — but disappeared en route. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!


Via ovicapitum dura est. The way of the egghead is hard.” — Adlai Stevenson


When the Civil War ended, thousands of Confederates chose to leave the United States entirely and settle in Brazil. “Shall any Southerner be blamed, if he seeks a land where the night of vengeance has not come, that his day may not be one of threatening?” asked Ballard S. Dunn in Brazil, the Home for Southerners (1866). “Why should he? For, as surely as that these four years of disastrous war have left most of those who have been true to themselves and their ancestors penniless, homeless, despoiled, and bereaved, so surely the future, with its cumbrous disabilities, and fearful forebodings, promises nothing better than poverty and humiliation.”

About 10,000 Southerners made the trip to Brazil, where most settled in the state of São Paulo. Today their descendants form an ethic subgroup. In the city of Americana, the 300-member Fraternity of American Descendants holds an annual festival with Confederate flags, uniforms, and music, and a local cemetery holds the remains of W.S. Wise, the great-uncle of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

Alison’s Triangle

alison's triangle

I’m not sure who came up with this — this simple diagram reflects all possible true trigonometric identities of the form x ÷ y = z or x × y = z, where x, y, and z are the basic trigonometric functions of the same angle t.

For any three neighboring functions on the perimeter of the star, the product of the ends always equals the middle (e.g., tan t × cos t = sin t) and the middle function divided by one of the end functions is equal to the other end function (e.g., sin t ÷ tan t = cos t and sin t ÷ cos t = tan t). If you memorize the diagram you can reel off a list of 18 simple relations.

I found it in Michael Stueben’s Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998.

“Socrates Among the Athenians”

socrates among the athenians

— Louis Phillips, Academe, February 1979

One on One

Thomas Jefferson looks on nervously while Lyndon Johnson “confers” with Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.). At 6’4″, Johnson tied Abraham Lincoln as the tallest U.S. president, and he used his physical presence to advance his agenda, cornering his targets in out-of-the-way places and leaning “so close to you,” one staffer recalled, “that your eyeglasses bumped.” In their 1966 book The Exercise of Power, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak dubbed this The Treatment:

The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.

LBJ denied this. “I’d have to be some sort of acrobatic genius to carry it off,” he told an interviewer, “and the senator in question, well, he’d have to be pretty weak and pretty meek to be simply standing there like a paralyzed idiot.”