A Sad Mystery

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1903 Robert Falcon Scott made an odd discovery in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica:

[W]e have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a lichen; all that we did find, far inland amongst the moraine heaps, was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing. It is certainly a valley of the dead; even the great glacier which once pushed through it has withered away.

It appears that periodically a crabeater, Weddell, or leopard seal finds its way inland from McMurdo Sound and the Ross Sea and perishes in the punishing environment of the dry valleys, an extreme desert. There the dry conditions mummify its corpse, preserving it in some cases for thousands of years.

Some mummies have been found as much as 41 miles inland and as high as 5,900 feet above sea level, reflecting a heroic effort to find the sea. Mercifully the phenomenon is relatively rare, with a seal becoming lost only once every 4 to 8 years.

Podcast Episode 321: The Calculating Boy

https://books.google.com/books?id=7bcVAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false

George Parker Bidder was born with a surprising gift: He could do complex arithmetic in his head. His feats of calculation would earn for him a university education, a distinguished career in engineering, and fame throughout 19th-century England. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll describe his remarkable ability and the stunning displays he made with it.

We’ll also try to dodge some foul balls and puzzle over a leaky ship.

Intro:

John Clem joined the Union Army at age 10.

Actress Tippi Hedren kept an African lion as a house pet in the 1970s.

Sources for our feature on George Bidder:

E.F. Clark, George Parker Bidder: The Calculating Boy, 1983.

Steven Bradley Smith, The Great Mental Calculators: The Psychology, Methods, and Lives of Calculating Prodigies, Past and Present, 1983.

Frank D. Mitchell, Mathematical Prodigies, 1907.

Henry Budd Howell, A Foundational Study in the Pedagogy of Arithmetic, 1914.

A.W. Skempton and Mike Chrimes, A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland: 1500-1830, 2002.

George Eyre Evans, Midland Churches: A History of the Congregations on the Roll of the Midland Christian Union, 1899.

David Singmaster, “George Parker Bidder: The Calculating Boy by E.F. Clark,” Mathematical Gazette 71:457 (October 1987), 252-254.

Antony Anderson, “Fairgrounds to Railways With Numbers,” New Scientist 100:1385 (Nov. 24, 1983), 581.

Frank D. Mitchell, “Mathematical Prodigies,” American Journal of Psychology 18:1 (January 1907), 61-143.

Richard A. Proctor, “Calculating Boys,” Belgravia Magazine 38:152 (June 1879), 450-470.

Martin Gardner, “Mathematical Games,” Scientific American 216:4 (April 1967), 116-123.

“A Short Account of George Bidder, the Celebrated Mental Calculator: With a Variety of the Most Difficult Questions, Proposed to Him at the Principal Towns in the Kingdom, and His Surprising Rapid Answers, Etc.,” pamphlet, 1821.

Louis McCreery, “Mathematical Prodigies,” Mathematics News Letter 7:7/8 (April-May 1933), 4-12.

“Memoirs of Deceased Members,” Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 57 (1878-1879), Part III, 294.

“George Parker Bidder,” Devon Notes and Queries, Vol. 2, 1903.

“Calculating Boys,” Strand 10 (1895), 277-280.

“Bidder, George Parker,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911.

H.T. Wood, “Bidder, George Parker,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

Listener mail:

Todd S. Purdum, “His Best Years Past, Veteran in Debt Sells Oscar He Won,” New York Times, Aug. 7, 1992.

“In Financial Straits, Actor Sells ’46 Oscar,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 7, 1992.

“Harold Russell Selling ‘Best Years of Our Lives’ Oscar,” Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1992.

Heathcliff Rothman, “I’d Really Like to Thank My Pal at the Auction House,” New York Times, Feb. 12, 2006.

Stephen Ceasar, “You Can’t Put a Price on Oscar: Even Heirs of Winners Are Bound by Rules Against Selling the Statue,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 25, 2016.

“Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane Oscar Auctioned in US,” BBC News, Dec. 21, 2011.

Allen St. John, “Does Japanese Baseball Have the Answer for MLB’s Dangerous Foul Ball Problem?”, Forbes, Sept. 30, 2017.

“Foul Balls in Japanese Baseball,” Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, HBO, April 20, 2016.

“A Look at Some Extended Protective Nettings in the KBO and NPB,” Fan Interference, Feb, 2, 2016.

Andrew W. Lehren and Michelle Tak, “Every Major League Baseball Team Will Expand Netting to Protect Fans From Foul Balls,” NBC News, Dec. 11, 2019.

Bill Shaikin, “A Lawsuit Could Make Baseball Teams Liable for Foul Balls That Injure Fans,” Los Angeles Times, Feb 20, 2020.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jon Jerome.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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.

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

Knowledge and Belief

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V12_D306_Logic_of_science_test.jpg

Imaginary distinctions are often drawn between beliefs which differ only in their mode of expression;– the wrangling which ensues is real enough, however. To believe that any objects are arranged as in Fig. 1, and to believe that they are arranged as in Fig. 2, are one and the same belief; yet it is conceivable that a man should assert one proposition and deny the other. Such false distinctions do as much harm as the confusion of beliefs really different, and are among the pitfalls of which we ought constantly to beware, especially when we are upon metaphysical ground. One singular deception of this sort, which often occurs, is to mistake the sensation produced by our own unclearness of thought for a character of the object we are thinking. Instead of perceiving that the obscurity is purely subjective, we fancy that we contemplate a quality of the object which is essentially mysterious; and if our conception be afterward presented to us in a clear form we do not recognize it as the same, owing to the absence of the feeling of unintelligibility. So long as this deception lasts, it obviously puts an impassable barrier in the way of perspicuous thinking; so that it equally interests the opponents of rational thought to perpetuate it, and its adherents to guard against it.

— Charles Sanders Peirce, “Illustrations of the Logic of Science: How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly, January 1878

Art and Commerce

Founded in 1957, catalog showroom Best Products distinguished itself with highly unorthodox facades, designed by architect James Wines for nine retail facilities across the United States. This one, the “Indeterminate Facade” in Houston, Texas, was said to have appeared in more books on 20th-century architecture than photographs of any other modern structure. The company eventually went bankrupt, and most of the buildings have been redesigned or demolished, but one in Richmond, Va., with a forest in its entryway, is now home to a Presbyterian church.

See more at Archilaces.

Foursquare

A puzzle proposed by David L. Silverman in the Fall 1963 issue of Pi Mu Epsilon Journal:

The points of the plane are divided into two sets. Prove that at least one set contains the vertices of a rectangle.

Click for Answer

The Boekenkast

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the Kinkerbuurt, Amsterdam, the streets are named after Dutch poets and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Correspondingly, Yugoslavian artist Sanja Medic transformed the façade of a local building into a case holding 250 ceramic “books” by these authors.

It’s a substantial library — each volume weighs more than 25 kg, so the frontage had to be reinforced to support them.

In a Word

unyore
adv. not long ago, recently, lately

obliviality
n. liability to be forgotten

nutual
adj. expressed merely by a gesture

illation
n. an inference; conclusion

Norbert Wiener of MIT was well known as an extreme example of someone who could get lost in thought. Once while walking on campus, Wiener met an acquaintance, and after a while he asked his companion: ‘Which way was I walking when we met?’ The man pointed, and Wiener said, ‘Good. Then I’ve had my lunch.’

— Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner, Loving and Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life, 2010