The University of Oxford has a bell that’s been ringing almost continuously since 1840. A little 4-millimeter clapper oscillates between two bells, each of which is positioned beneath a dry pile, an early battery. Due to the electrostatic force, the clapper is first attracted to and then repelled by each bell in turn, so it’s been ringing them alternately for 179 years. The operation conveys only a tiny amount of charge between the bells, which explains why it’s managed to run so long. The whole apparatus is kept under two layers of glass, but the ringing is so faint that it would be inaudible in any case.
It’s estimated that the bell has produced 10 billion rings so far — it holds the Guinness World Record as “the world’s most durable battery [delivering] ceaseless tintinnabulation.”
The briefest interview I’ve ever conducted was with Renato Dulbecco, who has since shared in a Nobel Prize for work in animal-cell culture and tumor viruses. Through his secretary, we had made an appointment. When I reached his office, he ushered me in, closed the door, sat down at his desk — and said that he was not going to talk to me. Startled, but respecting him at least for not having imposed on his secretary the task of rejection, I said something about the importance of getting scientific work across to the general public. Dulbecco replied, ‘We don’t do science for the general public. We do it for each other. Good day.’
— Horace Freeland Judson, “Reweaving the Web of Discovery,” The Sciences, November/December 1983
(“I thanked him for the interview and left, promising myself to use it someday. He was correct, of course, though unusually candid.”)
Letter from Albert Einstein to J.E. Switzer, April 23, 1953:
Development of Western Science is based on two great achievements; the invention of the formal logical system (in Euclidean geometry) by the Greek philosophers, and the discovery of the possibility to find out causal relationship by systematic experiment (Renaissance). In my opinion one has not to be astonished that the Chinese sages have not made these steps. The astonishing thing is that these discoveries were made at all.
The “Lo Shu square” is the 3 × 3 square enclosed in dashed lines at the center of the diagram above. It’s “magic”: Each row, column, and long diagonal (marked in red) sums to 15. William Walkington has discovered a new magic property — imagine rolling the square into a tube (in either direction), and then bending the tube into a torus. And now imagine hopping from cell to cell around the torus with a “knight’s move” — two cells over and one up. (The extended diagram above helps with visualizing this — follow the blue lines.) It turns out that each such path touches three cells, and these cells always sum to 15. So the square is even more magic than we thought.
In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who’d been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell’s valet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.
We’ll also marvel at Ireland’s greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.
Paul Bergman, “Rumpole’s Ethics,”Berkeley Journal of Entertainment and Sports Law 1:2 (April 2012), 117-124.
Abigail Droge, “‘Always Called Jack’: A Brief History of the Transferable Skill,” Victorian Periodicals Review 50:1 (Spring 2017) 39-65, 266.
Albert D. Pionke, “Navigating ‘Those Terrible Meshes of the Law’: Legal Realism in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm and The Eustace Diamonds,” ELH: Journal of English Literary History 77:1 (2010), 129-157.
Matthew S. Buckley, “Sensations of Celebrity: Jack Sheppard and the Mass Audience,” Victorian Studies 44:3 (2002), 423-463.
Elizabeth Stearns, “A ‘Darling of the Mob’: The Antidisciplinarity of the Jack Sheppard Texts,” Victorian Literature and Culture 41:3 (2013), 435-461.
Ellen L. O’Brien, “‘Every Man Who Is Hanged Leaves a Poem’: Criminal Poets in Victorian Street Ballads,” Victorian Poetry 39:2 (Summer 2001), 319-342.
Matthew Buckley, “Sensations of Celebrity: Jack Sheppard and the Mass Audience,” Victorian Studies 44:3 (Spring 2002), 423-463.
Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
To celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act, Paul Revere designed an obelisk that was erected on Boston Common on the evening of May 22, 1776. Its four panels, painted on translucent waxed paper borne on a wooden frame, described the phases of the struggle against the act:
1. America in distress apprehending the total loss of Liberty.
2d. She implores the aid of her Patrons.
3d. She endures the Conflict for a short Season.
4. And has her Liberty restord by the Royal hand of George the Third.
At the bottom is the legend “To every Lover of Liberty, this Plate is humbly dedicated, by her true born Sons, in Boston New England.”
It was illuminated by 280 candles, and fireworks and Catherine wheels were launched from its sides. Unfortunately it “took Fire … and was consumed” a few hours a later. This is the only surviving copy of the engraving.
A flea sits on one vertex of a regular tetrahedron. He hops continually from one vertex to another, resting for a minute between hops and choosing vertices without bias. Prove that, counting the first hop, we’d expect him to return to his starting point after four hops.
This appeared originally in the Journal of Recreational Mathematics in July 1969, posed by David L. Silverman. Benjamin L. Schwartz of McLean, Va., sent in three different arguments, the simplest of which is purely heuristic. Imagine that the flea is on a dodecahedron (20 vertices), and that he hops around it for a long period of time, say 10,000 hops. He’ll occupy each vertex for approximately the same time, in this case 500 visits. “Then obviously, his average time between calls at that vertex is 20, the number of vertices.”
More formal proofs are possible; see R. Robinson Rowe, “Random Hops on Polyhedral Edges and Other Networks,” Journal of Recreational Mathematics 4:2 [April 1971], 124-130, as well as “Solutions to Problems” in that issue.
A notable detail from Alexander Morrison Stewart’s Camp, March and Battle-Field (1865): During the Battle of Malvern Hill, a terrified rabbit darted about the battlefield looking for safety until it came upon a Union regiment lying prone:
Ere the rabbit seemed aware, it had jumped into the midst of these men. It could go no farther, but presently nestled down beside a soldier, and tried to hide itself under his arm. As the man spread the skirt of his coat over the trembling fugitive, in order to insure it of all the protection in his power to bestow, he no doubt feelingly remembered how much himself then needed some higher protection, under the shadow of whose arm might be hidden his own defenceless head, from the fast-multiplying missiles of death, scattered in all directions.
It was not long, however, before the regiment was ordered up and forward. From the protection and safety granted, the timid creature had evidently acquired confidence in man — as the boys are wont to say, ‘Had been tamed.’ As the regiment moved forward to the front of the battle, it hopped along, tame, seemingly, as a kitten, close at the feet of the soldier who had bestowed the needed protection. Wherever the regiment afterwards went, during all the remaining part of that bloody day and terrible battle, the rabbit kept close beside its new friend.
“When night came on, and the rage of battle had ceased, it finally, unmolested and quietly, hopped away, in order to find some one of its old and familiar haunts.”