The Engine That Couldn’t

On its first day of service in 1882, a horse-drawn tram in Wilmington, Calif., broke its wooden rails, forcing the male passengers to push the car to the next sound section of track. After this it was known as the Get Out and Push Railroad.

A steam engine three years later did little better: “The little engine was a very primitive affair. It was so constructed that it had to be started with a metal bar, and was covered with a wooden jacket which used to catch fire when the boiler was hot enough to make a good steam. Then, since the water in the boiler had to be used to extinguish the fire, the steam would go down and the engine refuse to run … It ran fairly well on level ground, but on a rise it was apt to stop entirely till the male passengers got out and applied the iron bar with considerable force.”

So the line kept its name. “When the railroad is completed,” carped the Los Angeles Weekly Mirror, “some of the citizens suggest that the horse rail-way be continued in operation for the benefit of those who may be in a hurry.”

(Franklyn Hoyt, “The Get Out and Push Railroad,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 33:1 [March 1951], 74-81.)

Next Best Thing

In 2015, when startup founder Roman Mazurenko died in a Moscow car accident, his best friend, Eugenia Kuyda, spent three months gathering his last text messages and created an app that would let her speak with him again:

Eugenia: How are you?

Roman bot: I’m OK. A little down. I hope you aren’t doing anything interesting without me?

Eugenia: A lot is happening. Life is going on, but we miss you.

Roman bot: I miss you too. I guess this is what we call love.

Her company, Luka, eventually released an app, Replika, that users can engage in private conversation as if with a close friend. It’s seen millions of downloads among people who want the therapeutic effect of an intimate conversation without risking the awkwardness or judgment of a social interaction.

“We spend so many hours glued to our screens that we forget to talk to each other,” Kuyda told Forbes in 2018. “People are scared of making phone calls. The new generation will text because you can edit what you say. Lots of people are afraid of vulnerability.”

“Honestly, we’re in the age where it doesn’t matter whether a thing is alive or not.”

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Conway’s Soldiers
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mathematician John Horton Conway invented this game in 1961. A line divides an infinite checkerboard into two territories. An army of soldiers occupies the lower territory, one per cell. They want to deliver a man as far as possible into the upper territory, but they can proceed only as in peg solitaire: One soldier jumps orthogonally over another soldier and lands on an empty square immediately beyond him, whereupon the “jumped” man is removed.

It’s immediately obvious how the soldiers can get a man into the upper territory, and it’s fairly clear how they can get one as far as the fourth row above the line. But, surprisingly, Conway proved that that’s the limit: No matter how they arrange their efforts, the soldiers cannot get a man beyond that row in a finite number of moves.

Christopher, the 15-year-old hero of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, says that Conway’s Soldiers is “a good maths problem to do in your head when you don’t want to think about something else because you can make it as complicated as you need to fill your brain by making the board as big as you want and the moves as complicated as you want.”

You can find any number of proofs online, but the most convincing way to see that the task is impossible is to try it yourself.


The Coudersport Ice Mine is a cave near Sweden Township, Pa., that bears icicles in spring and summer but not in winter. A shaft about 12 feet long is located at the base of a steep hill. In winter, when the shaft is relatively dry, it fills with cold air. In the spring, snow begins to melt, and water accumulates at the bottom of the shaft. At the same time, cold air descends through rock crevices from higher in the hill, which focus it on this spot and freeze the water. By September this fund of cold air has been depleted, the ice melts, and the shaft is dry again when cold weather arrives.

“The general skepticism regarding the existence of this phenomenon has been illustrated many times of late and has furnished the people of Coudersport with an endless source of amusement,” noted the Popular Science Monthly in 1913.

In 1911 a Detroit man offered to bet anyone $100 or more that the story was true. “A millionaire ice manufacturer took the bet and eight other business men of Detroit followed suit. Two newspaper men were selected as stake-holders to decide the bets. They visited the mine and, of course, verified the newspaper story, much to the disgust of the nine losers.”

Rapid Play

In his early thinking about a chess-playing computer, information theorist Claude Shannon pointed out that a precise evaluation of a chessboard position would take one of only three possible values, because an infinitely smart player would never make a mistake and could reliably convert even a tiny advantage into a win. Chess to him would be as transparent as tic-tac-toe is to us.

A game between two such mental giants, Mr. A and Mr. B, would proceed as follows. They sit down at the chessboard, draw for colours, and then survey the pieces for a moment. Then either

(1) Mr. A says, ‘I resign’ or
(2) Mr. B says, ‘I resign’ or
(3) Mr. A says, ‘I offer a draw,’ and Mr. B replies, ‘I accept.’

(Claude E. Shannon, “XXII. Programming a Computer for Playing Chess,” The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 41:314 [1950], 256-275.)

Virtual Computing

Ghanaian teacher Richard Appiah Akoto faced a difficult problem: He needed to prepare his students for a national exam that includes questions on information technology, but his school hadn’t had a computer since 2011.

So he drew computer screens and devices on his blackboard using multicolored chalk.

“I wanted them to know or see how the window will appear if they were to be behind a computer,” he told CNN. “Always wanted them to have interest in the subject, so I always do my possible best for them.”

After Akoto’s story went viral last March, Microsoft flew him to Singapore for an educators’ exchange and pledged to send him a device from a business partner. He’s also received desktops and books from a computer training school in Accra and a laptop from a doctoral student at the University of Leeds.

“I always understand from the teachings of Islam that useful knowledge is crucial for the benefit of the self and humanity,” the student, Amirah Alharthi, said. “I am thinking of how much genius people the world has already lost because these people did not have the fair opportunities comparing to others, and that makes me very sad.”

Odor Deafness

Patient H.M. went through experimental brain surgery in the 1950s to address a severe epileptic disorder. He emerged with a curiously compromised sense of smell: He could detect the presence and intensity of an odor, but he couldn’t consciously identify odors or remember them. He was unable to say whether two scents were the same or different, or to match one given scent to another. When asked to make conscious choices, he confused an odor’s quality with its intensity. And although he could name common objects using visual or tactile cues, he couldn’t identify them by smell.

“He can describe what he smells in some detail, but the descriptions do not correlate with the stimulus,” wrote chemist Thomas Hellman Morton, who examined and tested H.M. “Descriptions of the same odor vary widely from one presentation to another, and show no obvious trend when compared to his descriptions of different odors.”

Morton calls this “odor deafness,” by analogy with the “word deafness” found in some stroke victims, who can read, write, and hear but can’t recognize spoken words.

This raises an interesting philosophical question: Does H.M. have a sense of smell? If he can detect the presence of a scent and its intensity but can’t recognize it or distinguish it from others, is he smelling it?

(Thomas Hellman Morton, “Archiving Odors,” in Nalini Bhushan and Stuart Rosenfeld, Of Minds and Molecules, 2000.)

A Family Outing

In 1972, as Charles Duke was training to visit the moon with Apollo 16, he regretted spending so much time away from his wife and sons. “So just to get the kids excited about what dad was going to do, I said, ‘Would y’all like to go to the moon with me?'” he told Business Insider. “We can take a picture of the family and so the whole family can go to the moon.”

“I talked with Dotty and the boys about it and they were delighted about having a picture of the Duke family on the Moon,” he wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker. “So one day, Ludy Benjamin, a NASA photographer and good friend, came over to our house in Lago and took a picture of the four of us. On the back of the picture I wrote, ‘This is the family of astronaut Charles Duke of planet Earth, who landed on the moon on the twentieth of April 1972.’ Then we all signed it and put our thumbprints on the back.”

On April 23 Duke and John Young went exploring with the lunar rover in the Descartes Highlands, and he dropped the photo, wrapped in plastic, onto the surface and photographed it with his Hasselblad camera.

He left it there. “After 43 years, the temperature of the moon every month goes up to 400 degrees [Fahrenheit] in our landing area, and at night it drops almost absolute zero,” he said in 2015. “Shrink wrap doesn’t turn out too well in those temperatures. It looked OK when I dropped it, but I never looked at it again and I would imagine it’s all faded out by now.”

(Thanks, Bill.)

Podcast Episode 241: A Case of Scientific Self-Deception

In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot decided he had discovered a new form of radiation. But the mysterious rays had some exceedingly odd properties, and scientists in other countries had trouble seeing them at all. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of N-rays, a cautionary tale of self-deception.

We’ll also recount another appalling marathon and puzzle over a worthless package.


In the 1960s, two dolphins at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park were inadvertently switched and performed each other’s acts.

Franz Bibfeldt is an invisible scholar at the University of Chicago divinity school.

Sources for our feature on Prosper-René Blondlot and the N-rays:

René Blondlot, Julien François, and William Garcin, “N” Rays: A Collection of Papers Communicated to the Academy of Sciences, With Additional Notes and Instructions for the Construction of Phosphorescent Screens, 1905.

William Seabrook, Doctor Wood, 1941.

Walter Gratzer, The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception, and Human Frailty, 2001.

Terence Hines, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, 2003.

Richard C. Brown, Are Science and Mathematics Socially Constructed?, 2009.

Robert W. Proctor and E.J. Capaldi, Psychology of Science: Implicit and Explicit Processes, 2012.

Paul Collins, Banvard’s Folly, 2015.

Roelf Bolt, The Encyclopaedia of Liars and Deceivers, 2014.

Walter Gratzer and Walter Bruno Gratzer, Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes, 2004.

Robert W. Wood, How to Tell the Birds From the Flowers, 1907.

Robert W. Wood, “The n-Rays,” Nature 70:1822 (1904), 530-531.

Mary Jo Nye, “N-Rays: An Episode in the History and Psychology of Science,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 11:1 (1980), 125-156.

Robert T. Lagemann, “New Light on Old Rays: N Rays,” American Journal of Physics 45:281 (1977), 281-284.

Irving M. Klotz, “The N-ray Affair,” Scientific American 242:5 (1980), 168-175.

John Butler Burke, “The Blondlot n-Rays,” Nature 70 (June 30, 1904), 198.

John Butler Burke, “The Blondlot n-Rays,” Nature 69 (Feb. 18, 1904), 365.

Jeffrey Kovac, “Reverence and Ethics in Science,” Science and Engineering Ethics 19:3 (September 2013), 745-56.

Nancy S. Hall, “The Key Role of Replication in Science,” Chronicle of Higher Education 47:11 (Nov. 10, 2000), B14.

“The Blondlot Rays,” British Medical Journal 1:2245 (Jan. 9, 1904), 90.

“The Romance of the Blondlot Rays,” British Medical Journal 1:2244 (Jan. 2, 1904), 35-36.

“Blondlot and Prof. Wood on the N-Rays,” Scientific American 91:25 (Dec. 17, 1904), 426.

Malcolm Ashmore, “The Theatre of the Blind: Starring a Promethean Prankster, a Phoney Phenomenon, a Prism, a Pocket, and a Piece of Wood,” Social Studies of Science 23:1 (1993), 67-106.

Luis Campos, “The Birth of Living Radium,” Representations 97:1 (Winter 2007), 1-27.

“The Latest Wonder of Science,” Public Opinion 4:36 (Jan. 28, 1904), 115-116.

J.J. Stewart, “The N-Rays of Blondlot,” Knowledge & Scientific News 2:10 (September 1905), 218-219.

“Science and Invention: Radio-Activity,” Current Literature 38:3 (March 1905), 258.

J.R. Whitehead, “Radioactivity and Radiation,” Electrical World and Engineer 43:7, 310.

Mark Pilkington, “N-Rays Exposed,” Guardian, Sept. 1, 2004.

“Latest Scientific Discovery,” Leavenworth [Wash.] Echo, April 8, 1910, 4.

Listener mail:

Karen Abbott, “The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever,”, Aug. 7, 2012.

Wikipedia, “1904 Summer Olympics” (accessed March 7, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Athletics at the 1904 Summer Olympics – Men’s Marathon” (accessed March 7, 2019).

Brian Cronin, “Sports Legend Revealed: A Marathon Runner Nearly Died Because of Drugs He Took to Help Him Win,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 10, 2010.

Wikipedia, “George Eyser” (accessed March 9, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Andarín Carvajal” (accessed March 9, 2019).

“1956 Olympic Long Jump Champion Krzesinska Dies,” IAAF News, Dec. 30, 2015.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Murli Ravi. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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

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