Podcast Episode 245: Jeanne Baret


The first woman to circumnavigate the world did so dressed as a man. In 1766, 26-year-old Jeanne Baret joined a French expedition hoping to conceal her identity for three years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of her historic journey around the globe.

We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s shark story and puzzle over a foiled con artist.


In 1856 Samuel Hoshour wrote an imaginary correspondence full of polysyllabic words.

In 1974 Dennis Upper published a study of his intractable writer’s block.

Sources for our feature on Jeanne Baret:

Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, 2010.

Sandra Knapp, “History: The Plantswoman Who Dressed as a Boy,” Nature 470 (Feb. 3, 2011), 36–37.

Eric J. Tepe, Glynis Ridley, and Lynn Bohs, “A New Species of Solanum Named for Jeanne Baret, an Overlooked Contributor to the History of Botany,” PhytoKeys 8 (2012), 37.

H. Walter Lack, “The Discovery, Naming and Typification of Bougainvillea spectabilis (Nyctaginaceae),” Willdenowia 42:1 (2012), 117-127.

Genevieve K. Walden and Robert Patterson, “Nomenclature of Subdivisions Within Phacelia (Boraginaceae: Hydrophylloideae),” Madroño 59:4 (2012), 211-223.

Beth N. Orcutt and Ivona Cetinic, “Women in Oceanography: Continuing Challenges,” Oceanography 27:4 (2014), 5-13.

Londa Schiebinger, “Exotic Abortifacients and Lost Knowledge,” Lancet 371:9614 (2008), 718-719.

Frank N. Egerton, “History of Ecological Sciences, Part 61C: Marine Biogeography, 1690s–1940s,” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 100:1 (January 2019), 1-55.

Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen, “Moody Wallpaper,” Protein Spotlight 33 (2003).

Richard H. Grove, “Origins of Western Environmentalism,” Scientific American 267:1 (July 1992), 42-47.

Allison Bohac and Susan Milius, “Science Notebook,” Science News 181:5 (March 10, 2012), 4.

Londa Schiebinger, “Jeanne Baret: The First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe,” Endeavour 27:1 (2003), 22-25.

Raquel González Rivas, “Gulf ‘Alter-Latinas’: Cross-Dressing Women Travel Beyond the Gulfs of Transnationality and Transexuality,” Southern Literary Journal 46:2 (Spring 2014), 128-139.

Andy Martin, “The Enlightenment in Paradise: Bougainville, Tahiti, and the Duty of Desire,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 41:2 (Winter 2008), 203-216.

Françoise Lionnet, “Shipwrecks, Slavery, and the Challenge of Global Comparison: From Fiction to Archive in the Colonial Indian Ocean,” Comparative Literature 64:4 (2012), 446-461.

Marie-Hélène Ghabut, “Female as Other: The Subversion of the Canon Through Female Figures in Diderot’s Work,” Diderot Studies 27 (1998), 57-66.

Londa Schiebinger, “Feminist History of Colonial Science,” Hypatia 19:1 (Winter 2004), 233-254.

Kai Mikkonen, “Narrative Interruptions and the Civilized Woman: The Figures of Veiling and Unveiling in Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville,” Diderot Studies 27 (1998), 129-147.

Londa Schiebinger, “Agnotology and Exotic Abortifacients: The Cultural Production of Ignorance in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149:3 (2005), 316-343.

“5 Underrated Pioneers in Circumnavigation,” New York Times, Oct. 14, 2016.

Brian Maffly, “Botanical Explorer Jeanne Baret Finally Gets Her Due,” Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 18, 2012.

“Incredible Voyage,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24, 2011.

“A Female Explorer Discovered on the High Seas,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, Dec. 26, 2010.

“Briefing: Jeanne Baret,” [Glasgow] Herald, March 8, 2005, 13.

Christine Hamelin, “An Ace Adventurer, a Brilliant Botanist,” Kingston Whig, March 5, 2005, 2.

Elizabeth Kiernan, “The Amazing Feat of Jeanne Baret,” New York Botanical Garden, March 12, 2014.

Listener mail:

“This Is Your Story,” The Ernie Kovacs Show, 1957:

David Margolick, “Sid Caesar’s Finest Sketch,” New Yorker, Feb. 14, 2014.

Wikipedia, “Sid Caesar” (accessed March 15, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Following the Equator” (accessed April 13, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Cecil Rhodes” (accessed April 13, 2019).

“Following the Equator, 1895-1896,” UC Berkeley Library (accessed April 13, 2019).

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David White.

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!

A First


On Aug. 17, 1896, 44-year-old Bridget Driscoll was crossing Dolphin Terrace on the grounds of London’s Crystal Palace when she was struck and killed by a car belonging to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company.

The car had been traveling at 4 mph, “a reckless pace, in fact, like a fire engine,” according to one witness.

After a six-hour inquest, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Coroner Percy Morrison said he hoped such a thing “would never happen again.”


From a collection in Frank Mittler’s Little Book of Word Tricks (1958):

1. Pray tell me, listener, if you can,
Who is that highly-favored man
Who, though he marries many a wife,
May still stay single all his life?

2. I sit in fire, but not in the flame;
I follow the master, but not the dame;
I’m found in the church, but not in the steeple;
I belong to the monarch, but not the people.

3. Its light was mellow, soft and lazy;
One foot broke off — and it went crazy!

4. What is found in the very center of both America and Australia?

5. What divides by uniting and unites by dividing?

6. Why is a popular crooner like a doctor in an asylum?

Click for Answer



When electricity first became widely available, it was hailed as marvel, more valuable even than a human servant. In a 1914 manual on using electricity in the home, Maud Lancaster wrote:

[I]t is always at hand; always willing to do its allotted task and do it perfectly silently, swiftly and without mess; never wants a day off, never answers back, is never laid up, never asks for a rise; in fact it is often willing to work for less money; never gives notice and does not mind working overtime; it has no prejudices and is prepared to undertake any duties for which it is adapted; it costs nothing when it is not actually doing useful work.

First, though, people had to learn to use it. In 1884, electrical engineer Rookes Crompton wrote, “At the recent Crystal Palace Electrical Exhibition, a couple from the country asked the price of an incandescent lamp at one of the stalls, and being supplied with it for 5s., expended a box of matches in trying to light it, and then declared the whole thing was a swindle.”

No Comment

In 1958, momentarily exasperated at the jargon that afflicted behavioral science, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell typed up an impenetrable paper titled “The Parameters of Social Movements: A Formal Paradigm”:

The purpose of this scheme is to present a taxonomic dichotomization which would allow for unilinear comparisons. In this fashion we could hope to distinguish the relevant variables which determine the functional specificities of social movements. Any classificatory scheme is, essentially, an answer to some implicit other scheme. In this instance, it is an attempt to answer the various hylozoic theories which deny that social categories can be separable.

He divided social movements into two types, the homologous and the metonymous. Homologous movements are distinguished by structural variables (monocotyledonous and dicotyledonous), matrix variables (ultramontane and anti-nomian), and process variables (syncretistic and diastrophic). Metonymous movements, by contrast, are marked by goal definitions (transcendental or eschatological), a matrix of change that’s quietistic or chiliastic (the latter either sectarian or lacrimatarian), and a mode of change that’s immanent or informed by kairos (diastasis).

“I sent it off to two sociological friends, who I thought would appreciate it, and one sent me back a serious letter about some of the categories, while the other, not knowing whether it was a spoof or not, wrote: ‘You are too good a sociologist not to have created something which itself is quite useful.'”

(From Dwight Macdonald, Parodies, 1960.)


Alexandra Kehayoglou makes carpets that evoke the topography of her native Argentina: grasslands, waterways, and glaciers. Her family opened a conventional carpet company there in 1956, and she discovered she could use scraps from their work to create “tactile canvases.” Each piece is composed by hand from discarded or surplus wool on a vertical frame, using a tufting gun and carpet scissors.

Her work often draws attention to natural areas altered by human activity in Argentina, such as the Raggio Creek north of Buenos Aires, destroyed for a shopping mall, or the Santa Cruz River, the last free-flowing wild river in the country, proposed site of two major hydroelectricity dams.

“It’s hard for people to understand that a rug can be art,” she told the New York Times. “But maybe that’s changing.”

More on her website, Facebook, and Instagram pages.


keith chessametic

Mike Keith published this remarkable invention in the Journal of Recreational Mathematics in 1975. Suppose a chess game goes:

P-K4   P-K4 
B-B4   P-R4 
Q-B3   P-R4 

This is checkmate, so White says “I win!” Now if the game score is written out in one column, including White’s exclamation:


… we get a solvable alphametic — replace each letter (and the symbols x and -) with a unique digit and you get a valid sum. (The digits already shown count as numbers, and those numbers also remain available to replace letters.)

This example isn’t quite perfect — the two moves P-R4 are ambiguous, as is the final pawn capture. Keith’s Alphametics Page has an even better specimen, a pretty variation from a real 1912 game by Siegbert Tarrasch. It’s 13 moves long and forms a perfect alphametic with a unique solution.