Double Duty
Image: Gallica

In 840 the Frankish Benedictine monk Rabanus Maurus composed 28 poems in which each line comprises the same number of letters. That’s impressive enough, but he also added painted images behind each poem that identify subsets of its letters that can be read on their own.

The final poem of the volume shows Rabanus Maurus himself kneeling in prayer at the foot of a cross whose text forms a palindrome: OROTE RAMUS ARAM ARA SUMAR ET ORO (I, Ramus, pray to you at the altar so that at the altar I may be taken up, I also pray). This text appears on both arms of the cross, so it can be read in any of four directions.

The form of the monk’s own body defines a second message: “Rabanum memet clemens rogo Christe tuere o pie judicio” (Christ, o pious and merciful in your judgment, keep me, Rabanus, I pray, safe).

And the letters in both of these painted sections also participate in the larger poem that fills the body of the page.

(From Laurence de Looze, The Letter and the Cosmos, 2016.)


On July 19, 1695, this notice appeared on page 3 of a weekly London pamphlet:

A Gentleman about 30 Years of Age, that says he had a Very Good Estate, would willingly Match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman that has a Fortune of 3000l. or thereabouts, and he will make Settlement to Content.

It’s believed to be the world’s first lonely hearts ad. The pamphlet’s publisher, John Houghton, wrote, “‘Tis probable such Advertisements may prove useful.”

(Francesca Beauman, Shapely Ankle Preferr’d, 2011.)

The Robben Island Notebooks

Sentenced in 1964 to life in prison, anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada got permission during his confinement to pursue a history degree through the University of South Africa. He used his access to books and writing materials to compile a series of secret notebooks in which he recorded quotations that inspired him. Together they form what used to be called a commonplace book — a series of personal memoranda that, taken together, illuminate the spirit of the compiler:

Ofttimes the test of courage becomes rather to live than to die. — Vittorio Alfieri

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. — Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University Defined (1873)

One owes respect to the living; but to the dead one owes nothing but the truth. — Voltaire

The triumph of wicked men is always short-lived. — Honore de Balzac, The Black Sheep

(Form of oath-taking among Shoshone Indians is:) The earth hears me. The sun hears me. Shall I lie?

Conrad wrote that life sometimes made him feel like a cornered rat waiting to be clubbed.

Nobody knows what kind of government it is who has never been in prison. — Leo Tolstoy

Leve fit, quod bene fertur onus. (A burden becomes lightest when it is well borne.)

To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. — Sun Tzu

Verba volant, scripta manent. (The spoken word flees; the written word remains.) — Ancient Roman adage

(Peter Ustinov explains why he reads so much:) “If you’re going to be the prisoner of your own mind, the least you can do is to make sure it’s well furnished.”

To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness. — Bertrand Russell

Altogether “Kathy” compiled seven notebooks over 26 years, drawing not just on his study materials and smuggled newspapers but on 5,000 books donated to the prison library by a Cape Town bookstore. Finally released in 1989, he went on to become a member of Parliament after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 and served as President Nelson Mandela’s parliamentary counsellor until 1999.

One of his former warders, Christo Brand, told him, “I was supposed to be your master, but instead you became my mentor.”

(Sahm Venter, ed., Ahmed Kathrada’s Notebook From Robben Island, 2005.)


  • Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe all died on July 4.
  • Australia is wider than the moon.
  • NoNRePReSeNTaTiONaLiSm can be assembled from chemical symbols.
  • 1 × 56 – 1 – 7 = 15617
  • “‘Needless to say’ is, needless to say, needless to say.” — Enoch Haga


In a quarry at Aswan lies an unfinished obelisk, the largest the ancient Egyptians ever attempted. It’s 137 feet long and weighs more than 1,000 tons, more than two jumbo jets or 200 African elephants. If it had been completed it would have weighed more than twice as much as any other obelisk that the Egyptians ever erected. Cracks appeared in the granite before workers could carve it from the bedrock, so the project was abandoned.

“The obelisk is so large that it makes a cameo appearance in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments,” writes Egyptologist Bob Brier in Cleopatra’s Needles (2021). “In one scene we see Israelites toiling under the whip of a cruel taskmaster, pulling a large block of stone up an inclined ramp. That incline is the unfinished obelisk!”


Deposition of Elizabeth Brett, a Hertfordshire farmer’s servant, regarding an alarming experience on Sept. 15, 1784:

This deponent, on her oath, saith, that on Wednesday the 15th day of September instant, between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, she, this deponent, being then at work in her master’s brewhouse, heard an uncommon and loud noise, which, on attending to it, she conceived to be the sound of men singing as they returned from harvest-home. That upon going to the door of the house she perceived a strange large body in the air, and, on approaching it in a meadow-field near the house, called Long Mead, she perceived a man in it; that the person in the machine, which she knew not what to make of, but which the person in it called an air-balloon, called to her to take hold of the rope, which she did accordingly; that John Mills and George Philips, labourers with said Mr. Thomas Read, came up soon after, and, being likewise requested to assist in holding the rope, both made their excuses, one of them, George Philips, saying he was too short, and John Mills saying that he did not like it; that this deponent continued to hold the rope till some other harvest-men of Mr. Benjamin Robinson, of High Cross, came up, by whose assistance the machine was held down till the person got out of the machine. And this deponent further, on her oath, saith, that the person now present and shown to her by William Baker, Esq., the justice of peace before whom this deposition is taken, as Mr. Vincent Lunardi, and in her presence declares himself to be Mr. Vincent Lunardi, was the person who called to me from the machine, as above stated, and who descended therefrom in the said field called Long Meadow.

Other witnesses acknowledged that Lunardi had told them “that he had set out from the Artillery Ground in London, a little before two o’clock in the afternoon of the said day, in the machine, and had travelled through the air to the place where they found him.” He later described his view of the city from this new perspective.

From Christopher H. Turnor’s Astra Castra, 1865, via Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, 1985.

The Mindset List

In 1998, Tom McBride and Ron Nief of Wisconsin’s Beloit College began compiling lists of what had “always” or “never” been true in the lives of each incoming class of students, to remind faculty to be mindful of the references they made in class.

For example, that first class, born in 1980, had been 11 years old when the Soviet Union broke up and did not remember the Cold War. They had never had a polio shot and never owned a record player. Their popcorn had always been cooked in a microwave, and they’d always had cable television. Here are some details of the worldview of the class of 2022:

  • Outer space has never been without human habitation.
  • They will never fly TWA, Swissair, or Sabena airlines.
  • The Prius has always been on the road in the U.S.
  • They never used a spit bowl in a dentist’s office.
  • “You’ve got mail” would sound as ancient to them as “number, please” would have sounded to their parents.
  • Mass market books have always been available exclusively as Ebooks.
  • There have always been more than a billion people in India.
  • Films have always been distributed on the Internet.
  • The detachable computer mouse is almost extinct.
  • The Mir space station has always been at the bottom of the South Pacific.

Other recent lists are here.

Gödel’s Loophole

At Princeton in the 1940s, Albert Einstein became a close friend of logician Kurt Gödel, whose incompleteness theorems lie at the heart of modern mathematics. Toward the end of his life Einstein said that his “own work no longer meant much, that he came to the Institute merely … to have the privilege of walking home with Gödel.”

In 1947 Einstein and economist Oskar Morgenstern accompanied Gödel to his U.S. citizenship exam because they were concerned about his unpredictable behavior: During his voluminous preparation for the exam, Gödel said, he had uncovered a flaw in the U.S. constitution that could lead to a dictatorship. Einstein and Morgenstern told him that the exam would really be quite simple and urged him not to prepare so extensively.

At the hearing, judge Phillip Forman asked Gödel:

“Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?”

“Where I come from? Austria.”

“What kind of government did you have in Austria?”

“It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.”

“Oh! That is very bad. This could not happen in this country.”

“Oh, yes,” Gödel said. “I can prove it.”

“So of all the possible questions, just that critical one was asked by the Examinor,” Morgenstern wrote later. “Einstein and I were horrified during this exchange; the Examinor was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and say, ‘Oh, God, let’s not go into this.'”

The logician got his citizenship and the friends returned to Princeton. What was the flaw that Gödel had found? There’s no record of it in Morgenstern’s account, so we don’t know. Stephen Hawking suggests that it involved the president’s power to fill vacancies during Senate recesses, and Barry University law professor F.E. Guerra-Pujol conjectures that it might involve the constitution’s power to amend itself. Maybe it’s best if we never discover it.

(Thanks, Louis.)

Deep Thinking
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Natural philosopher John Wilkins’ Mathematical Magick of 1648 contains a startling passage in which he foretells the advantages of a long-range submarine, or “ship, wherein men may safely swim underwater”:

  1. ‘Tis private; a man may thus go to any coast of the world invisibly, without being discovered or prevented in his journey;
  2. ‘Tis safe; from the uncertainty of Tides, and the violence of Tempests, which do never move the sea above five or six paces deep. From Pirates and Robbers which do so infest other voyages; from ice and great frosts, which do so much endanger the passages toward the Poles.
  3. It may be of very great advantage against a Navy of enemies, who by this means may be undermined in the water, and blown up.
  4. It may be of a special use for the relief of any place that is besieged by water, to convey unto them invisible supplies: and so likewise for the surprisal of any place that is accessible by water.
  5. It may be of unspeakable benefit from submarine experiments and discoveries.

Wilkins was aware of Cornelius Drebbel’s primitive sub of 1620, but he looks much farther ahead, seeming to foresee combat submarines and deep-sea exploration vessels.

“I am not able to judge what other advantages there may be suggested, or whether experiment would fully answer to these notional conjectures,” he concluded. “But however, because the invention did unto me seem ingenious and new, being not impertinent to the present enquiry, therefore I thought it might be worth the mentioning.”

(From Joseph J. Thorndike Jr., ed., Mysteries of the Deep, 1980.)

Face to Face

Japanese pilot Kaname Harada recalls air combat in World War II:

The initial feeling after shooting down someone was relief, because it was not me who was shot down. My next thought was that I was a better pilot, so I felt superior to the enemy aviator who was shot down. These feelings lasted only for a short time. When we shot at each other, we were at very close range, and during this time I could see my opponent’s face very well. When I saw the enemy’s face, it looked terrible because he was going down. Soon after this I felt very bad, because I could imagine that my opponent had a family of his own, and I killed him. Therefore, to this day I feel very bad about shooting down pilots during the war.

Afterward, when these faces haunted his dreams, Harada became an antiwar activist and even traveled to the United States and Britain to meet some of the pilots he’d fought against. “In general, I have a bad feeling about being involved in the war, and I feel guilty about killing other people in combat,” he said. “I also feel that the war should not have happened in the first place. This is because the governments of countries around the world don’t make an effort to resolve their differences. Instead, they order their armed forces to kill each other. I believe World War II veterans know this best, because we were used as ‘pawns’ by our government to fight a war.”

(From Ron Werneth, Beyond Pearl Harbor, 2008.)