Podcast Episode 180: An Academic Impostor

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marvin Hewitt never finished high school, but he taught advanced physics, engineering, and mathematics under assumed names at seven different schools and universities between 1945 and 1953. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the curious career of an academic impostor, whose story has been called “one of the strangest academic hoaxes in history.”

We’ll also try on a flashproof scarf and puzzle over why a healthy man would check into a hospital.


Between 1950 and 1995, mathematician Marion Tinsley took first place in every checkers tournament he played in.

The Hoover Dam contains a map of our sky so that future historians can date its creation.

Sources for our feature on Marvin Harold Hewitt:

Herbert Brean, “Marvin Hewitt, Ph(ony) D.,” Life 36:15 (April 12, 1954), 144.

“Honest Career for a Ph(ony) D.,” Life 42:3 (Jan. 21, 1957), 57.

“A Bogus Professor Is Unmasked,” New York Times, March 6, 1954, 1.

Michael L. James, “Bogus Professor Expects Job Bids,” New York Times, March 7, 1954.

“Ousted ‘Professor’ Gets Offer of a Job,” Associated Press, April 11, 1954, 63.

Helene Deutsch, “The Impostor: Contribution to Ego Psychology of a Type of Psychopath,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 80:4 (October 2011), 1005-1024.

Ian Graham, Ultimate Book of Impostors, 2013.

Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game, 2017.

Listener mail:

One of the hard-won 1911 penguin eggs, now at London’s Natural History Museum (thanks to listener Dave Lawrence).

An anti-paparazzi scarf (thanks to Kevin Cedrone).

Natural History Museum, “Treasures in the Cadogan Gallery” (accessed Nov. 30, 2017).

Audio guide to the Cadogan Gallery (the penguin egg is at 26:14).

Tiana Attride, “Celebrities Are Obsessed With This ‘Paparazzi-Proof’ Clothing Brand That Makes Them Impossible to Photograph,” Business Insider, March 17, 2017 (contains video of anti-flash photography clothing).

Mark Molloy, “This Genius ‘Paparazzi-Proof’ Scarf Can Make You ‘Invisible’ in Photos,” Telegraph, June 30, 2016.

Timothy Revell, “Glasses Make Face Recognition Tech Think You’re Milla Jovovich,” New Scientist, Nov. 1, 2016.

Mahmood Sharif et al., “Accessorize to a Crime: Real and Stealthy Attacks on State-of-the-Art Face Recognition,” Proceedings of the 2016 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security, 2016.

“Snow Prints Spark ‘Devil’ Mystery,” BBC News, March 13, 2009.

“Ancient Legend of Satan’s Visit Reawakened by Footprints in the Snow,” Telegraph, March 13, 2009.

Centre for Fortean Zoology: “Mysterious Footprints in Woolsery.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was devised by Sharon. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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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!