Maybe this is symbolic — the U.S. Capitol contains a pair of “doors to nowhere” that serve no purpose.

In 1901 sculptor Louis Amateis designed a set of bronze doors to grace the reconstructed façade of the building’s West Front. But when the doors were cast in 1910, legislation for the improvement still had not been authorized, so they couldn’t be installed.

The “Amateis Doors” were displayed in various museums until 1967 and then placed in storage. They were finally hung in the Capitol in 1972, just downstairs from the Rotunda … where they seem to promise great things but ultimately lead nowhere.

The Inner World

In 1948 the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi entered a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, where he began to pass the time by repeatedly striking a single piano key and listening intently to its sound. He said later:

Reiterating a note for a long time, it grows large, so large that you even hear harmony growing inside it. … When you enter into a sound, the sound envelops you and you become part of the sound. Gradually, you are consumed by it and you need no other sound. … All possible sounds are contained in it.

The result, eventually, was his 1959 composition Quattro pezzi (ciascuno su una nota sola) (“Four Pieces, Each on a Single Note”) for chamber orchestra, in which each movement concentrates on a single pitch, with varying timbre and dynamics.

He wrote, “I will say only that in general, western classical music has devoted practically all of its attention to the musical framework, which it calls the musical form. It has neglected to study the laws of sonorous energy, to think of music in terms of energy, which is life. … The inner space is empty.”

While we’re at it: Here’s how Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” would sound if all the notes were C:

(Gregory N. Reish, “Una Nota Sola: Giacinto Scelsi and the Genesis of Music on a Single Note,” Journal of Musicological Research 25 [2006] 149–189.)

Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist

In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston’s Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We’ll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.


In 1938, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana vanished without a trace.

Many of the foremost intellectuals of the early 20th century frequented the same café in Vienna.

Sources for our feature on the Gardner heist:

Ulrich Boser, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, 2008.

Stephen Kurkjian, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, 2015.

Michael Brenson, “Robbers Seem to Know Just What They Want,” New York Times, March 19, 1990.

Peter S. Canellos, Andy Dabilis, and Kevin Cullen, “Art Stolen From Gardner Museum Was Uninsured, Cost of Theft Coverage Described as Prohibitive,” Boston Globe, March 20, 1990, 1.

Robert Hughes, “A Boston Theft Reflects the Art World’s Turmoil,” Time 135:14 (April 2, 1990), 54.

Peter Plagens, Mark Starr, and Kate Robins, “To Catch an Art Thief,” Newsweek 115:14 (April 2, 1990), 52.

Scott Baldauf, “Museum Asks: Does It Take a Thief to Catch a Degas?,” Christian Science Monitor 89:193 (Aug. 29, 1997), 3.

Steve Lopez and Charlotte Faltermayer, “The Great Art Caper,” Time 150:21 (Nov. 17, 1997), 74.

“Missing Masterpieces,” Security 37:6 (June 2000), 14-18.

Robert M. Poole, “Ripped From the Walls (And the Headlines),” Smithsonian 36:4 (July 2005), 92-103.

Paige Williams, “The Art of the Story,” Boston Magazine, March 2010.

Randy Kennedy, “20th Anniversary of a Boston Art Heist,” New York Times, March 17, 2010.

Mark Durney and Blythe Proulx, “Art Crime: A Brief Introduction,” Crime, Law and Social Change 56:115 (September 2011).

Katharine Q. Seelye and Tom Mashberg, “A New Effort in Boston to Catch 1990 Art Thieves,” New York Times, March 18, 2013.

Tom Mashberg, “Isabella Stewart Gardner: 25 Years of Theories,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2015.

Shelley Murphy, “Search for Artworks From Gardner Heist Continues 25 Years Later,” Boston Globe, March 17, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “Arrest by F.B.I. Is Tied to $500 Million Art Theft From Boston Museum, Lawyer Says,” New York Times, April 17, 2015.

Serge F. Kovaleski and Tom Mashberg, “Reputed Mobster May Be Last Link to Gardner Museum Art Heist,” New York Times, April 24, 2015.

“New Video in 25-Year-Old Art Heist at Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum,” New York Daily News, Aug. 6, 2015.

Tom Mashberg, “25 Years After Gardner Museum Heist, Video Raises Questions,” New York Times, Aug. 6, 2015.

Rodrigue Ngowi and William J. Kole, “2 Suspects in Boston Art Theft Worth $500 Million Are Dead, FBI Says,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Sarah Kaplan, “Surveillance Video Raises Questions — and Possible Clues — in 25-Year-Old Museum Mystery,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2015.

Justin Peters, “Why Is Stolen Art So Hard to Find?,” Slate, Aug. 14, 2015.

Erick Trickey, “The Gardner Museum Heist: Who’s Got the Art?,” Boston Magazine, March 13, 2016.

Shelley Murphy and Stephen Kurkjian, “Six Theories Behind The Stolen Gardner Museum Paintings,” Boston Globe, March 18, 2017.

Graham Bowley, “Gardner Museum Doubles Reward for Recovery of Stolen Masterpieces,” New York Times, May 23, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Stubborn Stand-Off Over Stolen Gardner Museum Art Could End With Sentencing of Hartford Gangster,” Hartford Courant, Sept. 5, 2017.

Katharine Q. Seelye, “Clock Is Ticking on $10 Million Reward in Gardner Art Heist,” New York Times, Dec. 26, 2017.

Camila Domonoske, “Got the Scoop on the Gardner Museum Art Heist? You Have 4 Days to Earn $10 Million,” The Two-Way, National Public Radio, Dec. 27, 2017.

Edmund H. Mahony, “Museum Extends $10 Million Reward in Notorious Boston Gardner Museum Art Heist,” Hartford Courant, Jan. 11, 2018.

Colin Moynihan, “Gardner Museum Extends $10 Million Reward for Information in Art Heist,” New York Times, Jan. 11, 2018.

Nadja Sayej, “Will Boston’s $500m Art Heist Ever Be Solved?,” Guardian, Jan. 19, 2018.

Leah Silverman, “Suspect in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist Sentenced to Four Years in Prison,” Town & Country, Feb. 28, 2018.

Sarah Cascone, “Paintings Stolen in America’s Biggest Art Heist Have Returned to Their Frames — Thanks to Augmented Reality,” Artnet, March 26, 2018.

“Learn About the Theft,” Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (accessed April 29, 2018).

Listener mail:

Derek Lowe, “Understanding Antidepressants — or Not,” Science Translational Medicine, Feb. 12, 2018.

Johnathan Frunzi, “From Weapon to Wonder Drug,” Hospitalist, February 2007.

“Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy,” American Cancer Society (accessed May 17, 2018).

Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes Reprinted, With the Author’s Additions, From the Athenaeum, 1872.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, “Medicinal Notes: Honey Works Better Than Cow-Dung,” Independent, May 4, 1999.

Ole Peter Grell, Paracelsus, 1998.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at

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 Thanks for listening!

Microbial Art
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Biochemist Roger Tsien won the 2008 Nobel prize in chemistry for his contributions to knowledge of green fluorescent protein, a complex of amino acid residues that glow vividly when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Inspired, Nathan Shaner, a researcher in Tsien’s lab, painted this San Diego beach scene using an eight-color palette of bacterial colonies expressing fluorescent proteins.

Alexander Fleming was drawing “germ paintings” in the 1930s.

In a Word

adj. emitting a particularly harsh or shrill sound

adj. restless; agitated; unquiet

n. a fit of passion; anger, fury

n. masterful violence

Of the numerous war scenes in operas of all ages, it is worth noting one in particular for its extraordinary tempo marking. The opera Sofonisba (1762) by Tommaso Traetta (or Trajetta) opens with a battle scene in which two oboes, two horns (pitched in C and D respectively), and a string band are instructed to play ‘Allegrissimo e strepitosissimo,’ literally, ‘very joyfully and with much animation and gaiety and extremely noisily and boisterously.’

— Robert Dearling, The Guinness Book of Music Facts & Feats, 1976


In 1927, Ukrainian conductor Nikolai Malko played Vincent Youmans’ song “Tea for Two” for Dmitri Shostakovich and bet 100 roubles that the composer couldn’t reorchestrate it from memory in less than an hour.

Shostakovich did it in 45 minutes.

He later incorporated the arrangement into Tahiti Trot and used it as an entr’acte in his 1930 ballet The Golden Age.

(Thanks, Allen.)

An Oldie

In the 1950s, archaeologists unearthed a cuneiform tablet from an ancient palace in northern Syria. Dating to 1400 BC, it contained lyrics for a hymn to Nikkal, a Semitic goddess of orchards, as well as instructions for a singer accompanied by a nine-stringed lyre.

That makes the “Hurrian hymn” the oldest surviving example of a written song.


French composer Charles Koechlin rarely watched films until he saw The Blue Angel in 1933 and became captivated by “the formidable realm of the cinema.” He set to work and in a few weeks produced a Seven Stars Symphony, with a movement dedicated to each of seven actors of the day: Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin.

Interestingly, Robert Orledge writes in his biography of the composer, “The fifth, sixth and seventh movements, depicting Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin, are based on a cipher system of Koechlin’s own devising, in which the themes spell out the stars’ names, and in the case of the Emil Jannings movement virtually tell a film story in music.” I’ll try to find out more about that.

Something Different

Between 1769 and 1771, Austrian composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger wrote at least seven concerti for Jew’s harp and strings.

He went on to teach Beethoven.