Missive

In May 1936 a publisher invited Albert Einstein to contribute a message to be sealed in a metal box in the cornerstone of a new library wing in his country home, to be opened a thousand years hence. He sent this:

Dear Posterity,

If you have not become more just, more peaceful, and generally more rational than we are (or were) — why then, the Devil take you.

(From Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann, eds., Albert Einstein, the Human Side, 1979.)

Self-Regard

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Aristotle referred to humans as the “state-building animal.” Other names our species has proposed for itself, in various writings:

Homo absconditus: “man the inscrutable”
Homo adorans: “worshipping man”
Homo aestheticus: “aesthetic man”
Homo amans: “loving man”
Homo animalis: “man with a soul”
Homo avarus: “man the greedy”
Homo creator: “creator man”
Homo demens: “mad man” (the only creature with irrational delusions)
Homo discens: “learning man”
Homo domesticus: “domestic man” (because he builds his environment)
Homo duplex: “double man” (because of his animal and social tendencies)
Homo economicus: “economic man”
Homo educandus: “to be educated” (we require education to reach maturity)
Homo ethicus: “ethical man”
Homo excentricus: “not self-centered” (we’re capable of objectivity and self-reflection)
Homo faber: “toolmaker man”
Homo ferox: “ferocious man” (T.H. White)
Homo grammaticus: “grammatical man”
Homo humanus: “human man” (as opposed to Homo biologicus)
Homo hypocritus: “hypocritical man” (Robin Hanson, who also called us “man the sly rule bender”)
Homo imitans: “imitating man” (capable of learning by imitation)
Homo inermis: “helpless man” (devoid of animal instincts)
Homo investigans: “investigating man” (curious and capable of learning by deduction)
Homo laborans: “working man” (capable of dividing labor and specializing)
Homo logicus: “the man who wants to understand”
Homo loquens: “talking man”
Homo loquax: “chattering man” (Henri Bergson)
Homo ludens: “playing man” (Schiller)
Homo mendax: “lying man” (able to tell lies)
Homo metaphysicus: “metaphysical man” (Schopenhauer)
Pan narrans: “storytelling ape” (Terry Pratchett)
Homo necans: “killing man”
Homo patiens: “suffering man” (Viktor Frankl)
Homo pictor: “depicting man”
Homo poetica: “man the poet”
Homo religiosus: “religious man”
Homo ridens: “laughing man”
Homo reciprocans: “reciprocal man” (a cooperative actor)
Homo sanguinis: “bloody man”
Homo sciens: “knowing man”
Homo sentimentalis: “sentimental man” (empathizing and idealizing emotions)
Homo socius: “social man”
Homo sociologicus: “sociological man” (prone to sociology)
Homo technologicus: “technological man”
Homo viator: “man the pilgrim” (on his way toward finding God)

Wikipedia lists 72 of these. Douglas Adams wrote, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

Sea Rules

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Articles observed by the crew of Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722):

  1. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
  2. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment.
  3. No person to game at cards or dice for money.
  4. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.
  5. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.
  6. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.
  7. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.
  8. No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.
  9. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared £1,000. If in order to do this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have 800 dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.
  10. The captain and quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and a quarter.
  11. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.

That’s from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates (1724), via naval historian David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag (1995). In the early years of the 18th century, Cordingly writes, a pirate captain “had absolute power in battle and when ‘fighting, chasing, or being chased,’ but in all other matters he was governed by the majority wishes of the crew.”

Bullseye

During World War I, British physicist G.I. Taylor was asked to design a dart to be dropped onto enemy troops from the air. He and a colleague dropped a bundle of darts as a trial and then “went over the field and pushed a square of paper over every dart we could find sticking out of the ground.”

When we had gone over the field in this way and were looking at the distribution, a cavalry officer came up and asked us what we were doing. When we explained that the darts had been dropped from an airplane, he looked at them and, seeing a dart piercing every sheet remarked: ‘If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it possible to make such good shooting from the air.’

(The darts were never used — “we were told they were regarded as inhuman weapons and could not be used by gentlemen.”)

(From T.W. Körner, The Pleasures of Counting, 1996.)

The Martians

In the first half of the 20th century, a considerable number of famous scientists emigrated from Hungary to the United States, including physicists Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Dennis Gabor and mathematicians Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Paul Halmos, George Pólya, and Paul Erdős. Most were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, but they had surprising further similarities — many had been born near Budapest, had shown an early interest in chemistry, and had studied physics at German universities before emigrating to America.

One of their number, Leo Szilard, joked that he knew the reason: They were all descended from a Martian scout force that had landed on Earth in that period. The Martians had left eventually, but not before impregnating some Earth women.

The “Martians” adopted Szilard’s name because in many ways they felt themselves to be outsiders in America: All were brilliant, spoke English with a strong accent, and came from a small little-known country.

When Enrico Fermi posed his famous paradox — if intelligent aliens are as common as we believe, why haven’t we encountered one? — Szilard answered, “They are among us — but they call themselves Hungarians.”

(Thanks, Rini.)

Weather Station Kurt

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In July 1977 geomorphologist Peter Johnson stumbled across an old weather station in northern Labrador. It turned out to be an automatic station that had been set up secretly by a German submarine crew in 1943 so that Germany might have notice of impending weather systems. The Allies had never discovered it and it had stood unregarded for 30 years after the war’s end.

“Weather Station Kurt” was probably designed to operate automatically for about six months, transmitting readings on temperature, wind direction, strength, and humidity every three hours until its batteries failed in the cold.

All the witnesses to its installation died when the submarine, U-537, was sunk in the Java Sea. Their work marks the only known armed German military operation on land in North America during World War II.

The station is now on display at the Canadian War Museum.

Signing Off

donne letter

In England and France, from the 1500s to the 1700s, the placement of a letter writer’s signature on the page conveyed meaning as to his relationship with the recipient. In his 1568 letter-writing manual Enimie of Idlenesse, William Fulwood writes that the subscription and signature of the letter “must be doone according to the estate of the writer, and the qualitie of the person to whom wee write: For to our superiors wee must write at the right side in the neither end of the paper, saying: By your most humble and obedient sonne, or seruant, &c. Or, yours to commaund, &c. And to our equals we must write towards the middest of the paper, saying: By your faithfull friend for euer, &c. Or, yours assured, &c. To our inferiours wee may write on high at the left hand, saying: By yours, &c.”

In 1601 John Donne married Anne More without the blessing of her father, who was lieutenant of the Tower of London. Donne was incarcerated, and in his letters begging for clemency he crammed his signature into the bottom right-hand corner of the page to signal his self-abasement.

(From Sam Willis and James Daybell, Histories of the Unexpected, 2018.)

Never Mind

After making an appeal for recruits in 1914, Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener received this letter from 9-year-old Alfie Knight of Dublin:

Dear Lord Kitchner,

I am an Irish boy 9 years of age and I want to go to the front. I can ride jolley quick on my bicycle and would go as despatch ridder. I wouldint let the germans get it. I am a good shot with a revolver and would kill a good vue of the germans. I am very strong and often win a fight with lads twice as big as mysels. I want a uneform and a revolver and will give a good acount of myself. Pleese send an anencer.

Yours affectionately

Alfie Knight

The War Office sent him this reply:

Lord Kitchener asks me to thank you for your letter, but he is afraid that you are not yet quite old enough to go to the front as a dispatch rider.

(From the Imperial War Museum.)

Loss

Our servants were devoted to us and took their duties very much to heart. At a time when houses were still lighted by candles and lamps, a considerable staff was needed to attend to the lighting. The manservant who was in charge of the staff was so grieved when electric lighting was introduced that he drowned his sorrows in drink and died from its effects shortly after.

— A childhood memory of Russian aristocrat Felix Yusupov (1887-1967), of the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg, from his 1952 memoir Lost Splendor

The Gettysburg Gun

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

During the Battle of Gettysburg, Battery B of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery were loading a Napoleon cannon when a Confederate shell scored a direct hit on the muzzle, killing two men. Corporal James Dye and Sergeant Albert Straight tried to force another round into the tube with a rammer and an ax, but the ball remained lodged in the dented muzzle until a second Confederate shell struck the cannon’s wheel, putting it out of commission. The spiked gun now stands in the Rhode Island statehouse in Providence.

Even more impressive, in the same battle Captain Hubert Dilger, commander of the 1st Ohio’s guns, personally sighted a shot that seemed to have no effect on its target, an enemy cannon. Only when he sighted it through field glasses did he realize what he’d done: “I have spiked a gun for them, plugging it at the muzzle.”

“It would be hard to calculate the odds of such an occurrence happening,” writes Michael Sanders in More Strange Tales of the Civil War. “Just hitting a gun with a ball would be considered a great shot. This would be equivalent to Robin Hood splitting an arrow with another arrow. Captain Dilger could truly say that he could never do that again even if he tried.”