J.R.R. Tolkien received this letter in March 1956:
I hope you do not mind my writing to you, but with reference to your story ‘Lord of the Rings’ running as a serial on the radio under the item on the programme ‘for the schools’ Home Service once a week in the afternoons I was rather interested in how you arrived at the name of one of the characters named Sam Gamgee because that happens to be my name. I haven’t heard the story myself not having a wireless but I know some who have, one being my nephew, bearing the same surname, who is a school teacher and it caused a laugh among his class when it came on. Another, my great neice and the latter’s daughter 9 yrs of age a pupil at a different school, also heard it and caused some surprise among the class when it came on at her school. I know it’s fiction, but it is rather a coincidence as the name is very uncommon, but well known in the medical profession.
The above address is my brothers as I have no permanent address.
Tolkien wrote back, “It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment, when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort I hope, that the ‘Sam Gamgee’ of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic. So that perhaps you will not be displeased by the coincidence of the name of this imaginary character (of supposedly many centuries ago) being the same as yours.”
He later said, “For some time I lived in fear of receiving a letter signed ‘S. Gollum’. That would have been more difficult to deal with.”
In 1951 Clement Attlee received this message from 15-year-old Ann Glossop, who had completed her final exams at Penrhos College only to discover that under recent reforms she was considered too young to graduate and must wait a year and go through them again:
Would you please explain, dear Clement
Just why it has to be
That Certificates of Education
Are barred to such as me?
I’ve worked through thirteen papers
But my swot is all in vain
Because at this time next year
I must do them all again.
Please have pity, Clement,
And tell the others too.
Remove the silly age-limit
It wasn’t there for you.
I received with real pleasure
Your verses, my dear Ann.
Although I’ve not much leisure
I’ll reply as best I can.
I’ve not the least idea why
They have this curious rule
Condemning you to sit and sigh
Another year at school.
You’ll understand that my excuse
For lack of detailed knowledge
Is that school certs were not in use
When I attended college.
George Tomlinson is ill, but I
Have asked him to explain
And when I get the reason why
I’ll write to you again.
He lost office shortly thereafter, so Ann’s problem was never solved.
A gracious moment between Samuel Johnson and the actress Sarah Siddons:
When Mrs. Siddons came into the room, there happened to be no chair ready for her, which he observing, said with a smile, ‘Madam, you who so often occasion a want of seats to other people, will the more easily excuse the want of one yourself.’
This flat, polished sandstone pebble was found in a 2,000-year-old burial mound in West Virginia in 1838. Though it seemed to bear 25 pseudo-alphabetic characters, no one could agree on their meaning. In 1845 ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft consulted “noted antiquarians” and concluded that the inscription contains “four characters corresponding to the Ancient Greek; four Etruscan; five Runic; six ancient Gallic; seven old Erse; ten Phoenician; fourteen old British; sixteen Celtiberic, with some resemblance to the Hebrew.” In the 1870s physician R.J. Farquharson compiled wildly varying translations of the inscription from three different scholars:
“Thy orders are laws, thou shines in thy impetuous clan, and rapid as the chamois.”
“The chief of emigration who reached these places (or island), has fixed these decrees forever.”
“The grave of one who was murdered here; to revenge him may God strike his murderer, suddenly taking away his existence.”
Also in the 1870s, antiquarian M.C. Reid asked a law student, a schoolgirl, a pharmacist, and a college professor to create “twenty or more arbitrary characters not resembling any figures or alphabetical characters known to them.” Their characters resembled those in Old World alphabets, just as did those on the Grave Creek stone. Reid was “compelled to conclude that there is nothing in the form of the characters of the Grave Creek Stone which require us to decide that they are old, that they are alphabetical, or if alphabetical that they are derived from any known alphabet.”
Today it seems most likely that the stone was forged by James W. Clemens, a local physician who had financed the original excavation and wanted to sell rights to exploit the mound. In 2008 anthropologist David Oestreicher discovered the same sequences of markings in a 1752 book by a Spanish historian, An Essay on the Alphabets of the Unknown Letters That Are Found in the Most Ancient Coins and Monuments of Spain. It appears that Clemens simply copied these characters onto the stone and planted it in the mound.
Solving this directly would require finding all the arrangements in which Sally and John are not side by side — 10 different cases, as it turns out.
But another way is to consider the opposite problem: What if Sally and John are required to stand side by side? That amounts to treating them as one child, though we must remember that there are two ways to “attach” them, Sally & John or John & Sally. Five children can be arranged in 5 × 4 × 3 × 2 × 1 = 5! = 120 ways, so there are 2 × 120 = 240 ways to arrange the six children so that Sally and John will be side by side.
Going back to the original problem, there would be 6 × 5 × 4 × 3 × 2 × 1 = 720 ways to arrange the six children if there were no constraints at all, so there must be 720 – 240 = 480 ways to line them up if Sally and John are to be kept apart.
In 1999, ex-Pogues banjoist Jem Finer composed a piece of music that will take 1,000 years to perform. It’s been playing continuously at Bow Creek Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf on the north bank of the Thames since midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, and will continue until Dec. 31, 2999. (Shown here is an excerpt of 1,000 minutes performed live in 2009 at the Roundhouse in London.)
The piece is essentially a computer-administered series of variations on a core composition that’s 20 minutes and 20 seconds long; the current rendition is played on Tibetan singing bowls and gongs, but in principle it might be played on any instrument and indeed by any means; the conclusion of the piece might be mediated by technologies, and certainly will be by people, that don’t exist today.
It can be heard at various listening stations around the United Kingdom, and a mobile app is available that plays a version synchronized with the Trinity Buoy Wharf performance.
When dredging began off the south Devon village of Hallsands in the 1890s, it destabilized the beach, permitting storms to reach the town. A strong storm in 1917 washed away 37 homes, but a single cottage on a hill was left standing, and a single resident, Elizabeth Prettejohn, lived alone in the ruined village for 47 years, until her death in 1964 at age 80.
“I have all my memories here, but it’s no good sitting down moping,” she said shortly before she died. “It was the dockyard that took all our beach. It blew for four days and four nights. The sea was like mountains. I prayed god that the wind would stop. … Once I thought of moving to Dartmouth, but this is where I belong with my memories.”
In the 1930s the world’s best-known conservationist was an ex-trapper named Grey Owl who wrote and lectured ardently for the preservation of the Canadian wilderness. At his death, though, it was discovered that he wasn’t who he’d claimed to be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of his curious history and complicated legacy.
We’ll also learn how your father can be your uncle and puzzle over a duplicate record.
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.
Eunoia is a dictionary of more than 500 untranslatable (or obscurely useful) words:
tsundoku: acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them (Japanese) sankocha: the feeling of embarrassment due to receiving an inordinate or extravagant gift, making you feel as though you need to return a favor that you can’t (Kannada) mudita: the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being or happiness (Sanskrit) Erbsenzähler: literally “pea counter”: a nitpicker (German) jayus: a joke so unfunny that one has to laugh (Indonesian) házisárkány: “indoor dragon”: a nagging, restless spouse (Hungarian) tretår: a third cup of coffee (Swedish) xiao xiao: the whistling and pattering of rain or wind (Chinese)