Podcast Episode 183: An Everest Mystery

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1924 two British mountaineers set out to be the first to conquer Mount Everest. But they never returned to camp, and to this day no one knows whether they reached the top. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the case of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, which has been called “one of the greatest unsolved adventure mysteries of the 20th century.”

We’ll also learn what to do if attacked by a bear and puzzle over the benefits of a water shortage.

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Farewell

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Politicians and public figures may well care to ponder the story of the death of Franco. Surrounded on his deathbed by his faithful generals, he heard outside, beyond the heavily drawn curtains, a strange subdued noise like the sea, and asked someone to investigate. An aide did. He looked down from the palace balcony and returned with a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes and reported: ‘Caudillo, it is the people. Thousands of them. They have come to say goodbye.’ And Franco raised himself on one elbow and barked: ‘Why? Where are they going?’

— British Airways parliamentary affairs officer Norman Lornie to Jack Aspinwall, MP, for his 2004 collection Tell Me Another!

Plain Sailing

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In 1670, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, ordered the planting of the Forest of Tronçais to provide masts for the French navy 200 years hence. His order established one of the principal stands of oaks in Europe, carefully interplanted with beeches and larches to encourage them to grow straight, tall, and free of knots.

By the time they matured, in the 19th century, they were no longer necessary. Historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “Colbert had thought of everything except the steamship.”

A Discovery

Crossing the woodlands of upstate New York in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville came to an island at the center of a lake, “one of those delicious solitudes of the New World.” As he explored it, “the deep silence which is common to the wilds of North America was only broken by the hoarse cooing of the wood-pigeon, and the tapping of the woodpecker upon the bark of trees.”

I was far from supposing that this spot had ever been inhabited, so completely did Nature seem to be left to her own caprices; but when I reached the centre of the isle I thought that I discovered some traces of man. I then proceeded to examine the surrounding objects with care, and I soon perceived that a European had undoubtedly been led to seek a refuge in this retreat. Yet what changes had taken place in the scene of his labors! The logs which he had hastily hewn to build himself a shed had sprouted afresh; the very props were intertwined with living verdure, and his cabin was transformed into a bower. In the midst of these shrubs a few stones were to be seen, blackened with fire and sprinkled with thin ashes; here the hearth had no doubt been, and the chimney in falling had covered it with rubbish.

“I stood for some time in silent admiration of the exuberance of Nature and the littleness of man,” he wrote, “and when I was obliged to leave that enchanting solitude, I exclaimed with melancholy, ‘Are ruins, then, already here?'”

(From Democracy in America, 1835.)

Peace and Quiet

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Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Podcast Episode 181: Operation Gunnerside

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During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll remember Operation Gunnerside, “one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II.”

We’ll also learn what to say when you’re invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle of cicadas.

See full show notes …

Eh

Tenth-century merchant captain Bjarni Herjólfsson spent his summers trading in Scandinavia but returned to his native Iceland each winter to visit his parents. In 986 he was told that his father had sailed to Greenland with Erik the Red, so he followed them west. Lacking a map or a compass, he was blown off course by a storm, and when the weather cleared he sighted a wooded country with low hills. This couldn’t be Greenland, so he sailed north, and after two days he came upon a second land, level and wooded. Despite his crew’s protestations, Bjarni didn’t stop here either, but sailed north three days more, when he sighted a land of mountains and glaciers. This couldn’t be Greenland either, so he sailed away from it, and after four days by a lucky chance he landed at his father’s estate.

Today, writes University of Manitoba historian T.J. Oleson, “There are strong arguments for the view that the three lands seen by Bjarni were Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island” — he was probably the first European to sight the east coast of North America, but he’d been too incurious to investigate.

Podcast Episode 179: Two Vanished Young Writers

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Everett Ruess and Barbara Newhall Follett were born in March 1914 at opposite ends of the U.S. Both followed distinctly unusual lives as they pursued a love of writing. And both disappeared in their 20s, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the brief lives of two promising young authors and the mystery that lingers behind them.

We’ll also patrol 10 Downing Street and puzzle over when a pigeon isn’t a pigeon.

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That Settles That

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The famous mathematician Stanislaw Ulam thought of the following paradox, which is now known as the Ulam Paradox: When President Richard Nixon was appointed to office, on the first day he met his cabinet he said to them: ‘None of you are yes-men, are you?’ And they all said, ‘NO!’

— Raymond Smullyan, A Mixed Bag, 2016

Podcast Episode 177: Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan

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Image: Flickr

New York’s Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan.

We’ll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper.

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