A Silver Lining

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The opening of England’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 took a direful turn when William Huskisson, a member of Parliament for Liverpool, approached the Duke of Wellington’s railway carriage. Huskisson became so engrossed in their conversation that he failed to notice an oncoming train, and when he realized his danger and tried to climb into Wellington’s carriage, the door swung outward and deposited him in its path. His leg was badly mangled.

“Immediately after the accident, he was placed on the ‘Northumbrian’ — another of Stephenson’s engines — and raced to Liverpool at the then unprecedented speed of 36 m.p.h., with Stephenson himself as driver,” writes Ernest Frank Carter in Unusual Locomotives. “It was the news of this accident, and the speed of the engine, which was one of the causes of the immediate adoption and rapid spread of railways over the world. Thus was the death of the first person to be involved in a railway accident turned to some good account.”

Closer

The young specialist in English Lit … lectured me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the Universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern ‘knowledge’ is that it is wrong.

… My answer to him was, ‘… when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.’

— Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong, 1989

(J.R. Deller Jr. wrote, “Education is the process of telling smaller and smaller lies.”)

Perspective

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“It was hard for me to believe. I would look down and say, ‘This is the moon, this is the moon,’ and I would look up and say, ‘That’s the Earth, that’s the Earth,’ in my head. So it was science fiction to us even as we were doing it.” — Alan Bean, Apollo 12

Podcast Episode 358: The Radium Girls

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In 1917, a New Jersey company began hiring young women to paint luminous marks on the faces of watches and clocks. As time went on, they began to exhibit alarming symptoms, and a struggle ensued to establish the cause. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Radium Girls, a landmark case in labor safety.

We’ll also consider some resurrected yeast and puzzle over a posthumous journey.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 357: Scenes From an Earthquake

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The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is remembered for its destructive intensity and terrible death toll. But the scale of the disaster can mask some remarkable personal stories. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the experiences of some of the survivors, which ranged from the horrific to the surreal.

We’ll also consider a multilingual pun and puzzle over a deadly reptile.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 356: A Strawberry’s Journey

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The modern strawberry has a surprisingly dramatic story, involving a French spy in Chile, a perilous ocean voyage, and the unlikely meeting of two botanical expatriates. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the improbable origin of one of the world’s most popular fruits.

We’ll also discuss the answers to some of our queries and puzzle over a radioactive engineer.

See full show notes …

Dark Days

During a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in 2016, University of Michigan music theory professor Patricia Hall discovered handwritten manuscripts of popular songs of the day. This one, “The Most Beautiful Time of Life,” is a light foxtrot based on a song by Franz Grothe, a popular German film composer. The prisoners had arranged it for the available instruments and musicians and probably performed it before the commandant’s villa in Sunday concerts for the Auschwitz garrison in 1942 or 1943.

“This was for the SS personnel,” she explained. “It was about a three-hour concert that was broken up into stages, and at one point, they had a dance band so that soldiers could dance. Given the instrumentation of this foxtrot, I think that’s probably what it was used for.”

Two of the arrangers had signed their prison numbers to the manuscript, so Hall was able to identify them: Antoni Gargul, a Polish soldier and a violinist, and Maksymilian Piłat, a professional bassoonist. Both of them survived the war, and Hall believes the unidentified third author may have as well.

Podcast Episode 355: The Auckland Islands Castaways

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In 1864, two ships’ crews were cast away at the same time on the same remote island in the Southern Ocean. But the two groups would undergo strikingly different experiences. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Auckland Islands castaways and reflect on its implications for the wider world.

We’ll also consider some fateful illnesses and puzzle over a street fighter’s clothing.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 354: Falling Through a Thunderstorm

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In 1959, Marine pilot William Rankin parachuted from a malfunctioning jet into a violent thunderstorm. The ordeal that followed is almost unique in human experience. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Rankin’s harrowing adventure, which has been called “the most prolonged and fantastic parachute descent in history.”

We’ll also hear your thoughts on pronunciation and puzzle over mice and rice.

See full show notes …

Battlefield ID

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The Norman Conquest unfolded before the advent of modern heraldry, so warriors couldn’t be identified reliably by the designs on their shields, and their hoods and helmets tended to obscure their faces. As a result they were often unrecognizable. At the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror had to raise his helmet to show that he was not dead, as recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry (Eustace II, Count of Boulogne, points to him to rally the troops). Combatants began to carry armorial shields early in the 12th century.