Unquote

“My view of life is, that it’s next to impossible to convince anybody of anything.” — Lewis Carroll

Chladni Figures

In 1680 Robert Hooke sprinkled a plate with flour, drew a violin bow across its edge, and saw the flour spring into surprising geometric shapes. The plate was resonating, driving the flour into invisible nodal lines on its surface that were not vibrating.

German physicist Ernst Chladni pursued these experiments in the 18th century and published his results in Discoveries in the Theory of Sound in 1787. Today they’re known as Chladni figures.

“The universe is full of magical things,” wrote Eden Phillpotts, “patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Higher Math

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During the hyperinflation that followed World War I in the Weimar Republic, a 5,000-mark cup of coffee could cost 8,000 marks by the time it was drunk. Newspapers published the stupefying multipliers by which prices had risen each day:

Tramway fare: 50,000
Tramway monthly season ticket:
— For one line: 4 million
— For all lines: 12 million
Taxi-autos: multiply ordinary fare by: 600,000
Horse cabs: multiply ordinary fare by: 400,000
Bookshops: multiply ordinary price by: 300,000
Public baths: multiply ordinary price by: 115,000
Medical attendance: multiply ordinary price by: 80,000

By the end of 1923 there were 92,844,720,742,927,000,000 marks circulating in the German economy, nearly 93 quintillion (note the logarithmic scale in the chart above).

This had a curious psychological effect. In December Time reported, “With the price of bread running into billions a loaf the German people have had to get used to counting in thousands of billions. This, according to some German physicians, brought on a new nervous disease known as ‘zero stroke,’ or ‘cipher stroke,'” a “desire to write endless rows of [zeros] and engage in computations more involved than the most difficult problems in logarithms.”

Human minds are not made to comprehend such large numbers. Foreign minister Walther Rathenau called it the “delirium of milliards”: “What is a milliard? Does a wood contain a milliard leaves? Are there a milliard blades of grass in a meadow? Who knows? If the Tiergarten were to be cleared and wheat sown upon its surface, how many stalks would grow?”

Fortunately the madness was stemmed with the introduction of a new currency — in 1924 one could exchange a trillion of the old marks for a single new Rentenmark, and the economy was finally stabilized.

Leonard Trask

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Maine farmhand Leonard Trask was 28 years old when he was thrown by a horse and began to develop a curious stiffness in his back and neck. The following spring his neck and spine began to curve, forcing him to “bow forward,” but he was able to continue working.

He suffered another fall in 1840, though, and the condition grew worse. He went to 22 physicians seeking advice but was finally told that “no benefit would be likely to result therefrom.” According to an 1857 account, “his neck and back have continued to curve, more and more, every year, drawing his head downwards upon his breasts so there appears but little room to press it further without stopping entirely the movement of the jaws.”

In time he had difficulty even in sitting and reading, and he felt unsafe in riding a horse because he could not see where he was going. In his prime he had stood 6 foot 1, but by 1857 his stature had shrunk to 4 feet 10.5 inches, as his head had bowed entirely below his shoulders. He wrote:

In that celestial, bright and happy land,
Beyond this vale of sorrow, pain and tears,
Where I, erect in glory, hope to stand,
In faith and hope, the future bright appears.

Trask’s condition was unknown at the time of his death in 1861, but it was diagnosed afterward as ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease of the skeleton in which vertebrae can fuse together. His was the first published clinical account of the disease in the United States.

Paper Chase

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Image: Flickr

Neil Dawson’s Horizons invites a double-take — what appears to be a discarded piece of paper is actually a sculpture of welded steel 10 meters high.

Commissioned in 1994, it occupies the highest hilltop in businessman Alan Gibbs’ private art park in New Zealand.

Dubious Punishments

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In the fifth century B.C., a storm upset the pontoon bridges by which Xerxes’ armies were crossing from Persia into Greece. Xerxes punished the strait with three hundred lashes. (Herodotus called this a “highly presumptuous way to address the Hellespont.”)

In the ancient Athenian summer festival known as Buphonia, an ox was slain with an ax, which was then charged with murder and thrown into the sea.

In 1428 Pope Martin V ordered English theologian John Wycliffe’s 44-years-dead body to be dug up and burned for heresy.

In 1519 a group of field mice in Stelvio, Italy, were charged with damaging crops by burrowing. The prosecutor argued that the loss of income prevented local tenants from paying their rents. The mice were assigned a defense attorney, Hans Grinebner, who claimed that his clients aided society by eating insects and enriching the soil. The judge banished the mice but promised them safe conduct and “an additional respite of fourteen days … to all those which are with young and to such as are yet in their infancy.”

In 1685, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Protestant chapel at La Rochelle, France, was condemned to be demolished. Its bell was spared, with a condition:

To expiate the crime of having rung heretics to prayers, it was sentenced to be first whipped, and then buried and disinterred, by way symbolizing its new birth at passing into Catholic hands. Thereafter it was catechized, and obliged to recant and promise that it would never again relapse into sin. Having made this ample and honourable amends, the bell was reconciled, baptized, and given, or rather sold, to the parish of St. Bartholomew.

— James George Frazer, Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, 1918

(Thanks, Brody.)

Benjaman Kyle

On Aug. 31, 2004, this man was discovered, naked and unconscious, behind a Burger King restaurant in Richmond Hill, Ga. When he regained consciousness in the local hospital, he was unable to remember who he was or how he’d came there.

That was nine years ago, and he still can’t remember. Benjaman Kyle — a name he adopted simply because it shares initials with Burger King — has been diagnosed with dissociative amnesia. He believes his birthday is Aug. 29, 1948, and he has some fragmentary memories of Denver and Indianapolis. But beyond that his life is largely a blank. He has been the subject of numerous newspaper stories and has appeared on national television, but no one has recognized him. He is the only American citizen whose whereabouts are known and yet is officially listed as missing.

The lack of a name or a Social Security number makes the search uniquely difficult. Benjaman has snapshots of memory: buying a grilled cheese sandwich at the Indiana state fair in the 1950s, and public debates over mass transit in Denver in the 1980s. But these lead nowhere. The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles tried and failed to match his face with anyone in its records, and the FBI has been unable to match his DNA or fingerprints.

In 2010 he told told the Guardian that he often refrains from telling his story to new acquaintances because “you get two reactions. They want to tell you their theories or they think you’re mad. Neither is much fun for me.”

He acknowledges that many stories such as his turn out to be hoaxes. “It sounds crazy, I know that,” he says. “All I can say is I’m telling the truth.”

Black and White

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By Francis Healey. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Scoop

Cleveland Press reporter John Raper took a vacation in New Mexico in 1944 and came back with a sensational story — he had discovered a “mystery city” there, a closely policed community at work on some top-secret project northwest of Santa Fe.

Uncle Sam has placed this in charge of two men. The man who commands the soldiers, who sees that the garbage and rubbish are collected, the streets kept up, the electric light plan and the waterworks functioning and all other metropolitan work operating smoothly is a Col. Somebody. I don’t know his name, but it isn’t so important because the Mr. Big of the city is a college professor, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, called ‘the Second Einstein’ by the newspapers of the west coast. …

It is the work of Prof. Oppenheimer and the hundreds of men and women in his laboratories and shops that makes Los Alamos such a carefully guarded city. All the residents will be obliged to remain there for the duration and for six months thereafter and it seems quite probable that many of them don’t know much more about what is being done than you do.

Apparently Raper had driven into the compound to investigate but was escorted closely and allowed to see nothing. He told curious New Mexicans, “I don’t know a bit more about it than I did before I went.” Santa Fe residents whispered that Oppenheimer was building some sort of chemical weapon, an explosive, or “a beam that will cause the motors to stop so that German planes will drop from the skies as though they were paving blocks.” But all of this appeared to be rumor.

Raper published his story in the newspaper on March 13. It provoked an immediate stir among the Manhattan Project authorities, who quashed a followup story in TIME and briefly considered having Raper drafted into the Pacific Theater. But ultimately nothing came of it, and no Axis spy seems to have pursued it. American Institute of Physics science historian Alex Wellerstein discusses the story, and provides the full text with its lurid illustrations, on his Restricted Data blog.

(Thanks, Larry.)

A Lake Jaunt

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In 1972 Canadian scientists R.W. Sheldon and S.R. Kerr set out to reason out the number of monsters that occupy Loch Ness. Because the creatures are reportedly large and rarely seen, it follows that their numbers must be small. (“It has been suggested from time to time that as the monsters are never caught it must therefore follow that they do not exist. This is both irresponsible and illogical.”)

By estimating the fish stock available in the loch, they determined that the total mass of monsters is between 3,135 and 15,675 kg. Taking the minimum monster size as 100 kg (“anything smaller is not suitably monstrous”), they estimate that the loch contains between 1 and 156 monsters. The high end of this range seems unlikely; and since monsters have been reported for centuries they’re probably breeding, which would require a population of at least 10.

Given the available quantity of fish and assuming a stable population, monsters weighing 100 kg would have to die at a rate of at least 3 per year. Larger animals would die less frequently, and this seems likely since dead monsters are never found (and since the juveniles that must replace them are never seen). So it seems the lake probably contains a small number of large monsters, perhaps 10-20 monsters weighing up to 1,500 kg each and measuring about 8 meters, “a size that agrees well with observational data.”

“We would like to thank Kate Kranck for drawing our attention to this problem, because until she mentioned it we were unaware that monsters were a problem.”

(“The Population Density of Monsters in Loch Ness,” Limnology and Oceanography 17:5, 796–798)