A Bit Too Dashing

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In 1794, at Strasbourg, the French Hussar François Fournier-Sarlovèze challenged a young man to a duel and killed him. When his fellow officer Pierre Dupont de l’Étang denied him entrance to a ball on the eve of the funeral, the fiery Fournier challenged him to a duel. The two fought with swords, and Fournier was wounded.

When he had recovered he challenged Dupont to a second duel, and wounded him. In their third meeting each inflicted a slight wound on the other. Finally the two agreed to a private war that would continue until one of them confessed that he was beaten or “satisfied.” They even drew up a contract:

  1. Every time that Dupont and Fournier shall be a hundred miles from each other they will each approach from a distance to meet sword in hand.
  2. Should one of the contracting parties be prevented by service duties, he who is free must travel the entire distance, so as to reconcile the obligations of service with the demands of the present treaty.
  3. No excuse whatever, excepting those resulting from military obligations, will be admitted.
  4. The present being a bona fide treaty, no alteration can be made to the conditions agreed upon by the contracting parties.

Over the ensuing 19 years the two fought at least 30 duels, each eventually rising to the rank of general. Finally, after a particularly savage meeting in Switzerland in 1813, in which Dupont ran his sword through Fournier’s neck, Dupont explained that he would be married soon and wanted to conclude the matter with a pistol duel in a nearby wood. Dupont twice tricked his opponent into firing at empty clothing, then advanced on him with pistols primed and claimed his victory. In The Duel, Robert Baldick writes, “Thus ended after a total period of nineteen years, the longest, friendliest and most mobile duel in history.”

(This story is so absurdly romantic that I doubted whether it happened at all, but every source I can find confirms at least the essentials. Joseph Conrad found an account of the rivalry in a provincial newspaper and turned it into his 1908 short story “The Duel,” and Ridley Scott turned Conrad’s story into the 1977 film The Duellists. I’ll keep digging.)

Scenery Trouble

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Walter Scott’s 1816 novel The Antiquary met with rapturous praise — the Edinburgh Review pronounced the chapter on the escape from the tide to be “the very best description we have ever met, in verse or in prose, in ancient or in modern writing.”

But, critic Andrew Lang quietly noted, “No reviewer seems to have noticed that the sun is made to set in the sea, on the east coast of Scotland.”

Asked for his opinion of Crime and Punishment, Paul Dirac said, “He describes a sunset, and then a little later the same evening the sun sets again. That kind of mistake does jar on me.”

Scoop

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When Glenn Seaborg appeared as a guest scientist on the children’s radio show Quiz Kids in 1945, one of the children asked whether any new elements, other than plutonium and neptunium, had been discovered at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago during the war.

In fact two had — Seaborg announced for the first time anywhere that two new elements, with atomic numbers 95 and 96 (americium and curium), had been discovered. He said, “So now you’ll have to tell your teachers to change the 92 elements in your schoolbook to 96 elements.”

In his 1979 Priestley Medal address, Seaborg recalled that many students apparently did bring this knowledge to school. And “judging from some of the letters I received from such youngsters, they were not entirely successful in convincing their teachers.”

Social Media

social media icons

Okay, Futility Closet finally has accounts on Facebook and Twitter!

A million thanks to Meaghan Walsh Gerard for setting these up. There are other accounts on these platforms using the Futility Closet name, but none of them are ours; this is our first foray into social media.

I hope to add some further social accounts, but first I need to get the hang of these — I’m still finding my way. Thanks for your patience!

Tipu’s Tiger

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When British forces plundered the palace of Indian prince Tipu Sultan in May 1799, they found an infuriating trophy:

In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition.

Tipu had allied himself with France against the encroaching East India Company, and the Fourth Mysore War brought his downfall. The tiger, it appears, had symbolized his defiance of British colonialism. The instrument was removed to London, where it became a centerpiece in the Company’s Leadenhall Street gallery; John Keats saw it there and immortalized it in The Cap and Bells, his satirical verse of 1819:

Replied the Page: “that little buzzing noise,
Whate’er your palmistry may make of it,
Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor’s choice,
From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys.”

“Indeed, the horrific image of a wild beast attacking a helpless fellow Briton must have stirred strong reactions in the British audience so few years after the brutal Mysore campaigns,” write Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell in A History of Visual Culture (2010). “Contained within one wondrous work of art was an illustration of the intensity of resentment toward European imperialism, the ferocious power of the enemy prince, and the moral justification for colonization.”

Triplets

lee sallows triangle theorem

A pretty new theorem by Lee Sallows: Connect each vertex of a triangle to the midpoint of the opposite side, and place a hinge at that point. Now rotate the smaller triangles about these hinges and you’ll produce three congruent triangles.

If the original triangle is isosceles (or equilateral), then the three resulting triangles will be too.

The theorem appears in the December 2014 issue of Mathematics Magazine.

Community Spirit

Louisiana State University law professor Christine Alice Corcos points out that Ghostbusters, apart from being an entertaining comedy, also offers “a thoughtful introduction to environmental law and policy, suitable for discussion in a law school class.” For example, the team has no license for the containment unit in the basement of their firehouse:

The LLRWA sets forth extremely specific terms under which sites must be proposed, evaluated, and chosen. It also mandates environmental impact statements, which the Ghostbusters could not have prepared since they did not notify any agency of their activities. Additionally, the LLRWA guidelines require that the waste being stored, and the disposal site, be structurally stable. Apparently the psychic waste being stored does not meet Class B or C waste guidelines, nor does it seem to have the minimum stability required by any other class. As we see on Peck’s second visit to the facility, it is neither liquid nor solid, and if released will likely ignite or emit toxic vapors. Furthermore, storage is likely to be advisable not for 100 years, as with Class A and B wastes, but forever. However, under RCRA, the government need only show that the waste is hazardous within the statutory definition. The EPA might prefer to exercise this option for this particular case.

On the other hand, it’s EPA lawyer Walter Peck who orders the unit to be shut down, over the team’s protests. “Peck’s unilateral action may leave the EPA liable for suit by New York City residents under the Federal Tort Claims Act,” Corcos writes. “A successful suit would have to fall outside one of two exceptions to the federal government’s waiver of immunity. The discretionary function exception, exempts the acts and omissions of a government employee ‘exercising due care in the execution of a statute or regulation,’ or specific intentional torts, such as assault, battery and false imprisonment. Peck’s behavior in forcing the release of the psychic waste arguably falls within the battery exception, as would Venkman’s claim of malicious prosecution.”

(Christine Alice Corcos, “‘Who Ya Gonna C(S)ite?’: Ghostbusters and the Environmental Regulation Debate,” Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law (1997): 231-272.) (Thanks, Mark.)