Going to Town

A fine tortoiseshell cat was on Friday morning the 27th ult. seen approaching London Bridge, peaceably seated in a large bowl-dish. As she advanced towards the fall, every one present anticipated that she would be overturned, and precipitated into the stream. She kept her seat, however, with great presence of mind, and amidst loud cheers shot the centre arch with as much dexterity as the most experienced waterman. A boy hearing her voice shortly after she had made the hazardous attempt, and fancying she wanted a pilot, rowed towards her, and took her into his wherry, when he found around her neck a parchment scroll, stating that she had come from Richmond Bridge, and directing, if she should reach London in safety, that she should be conveyed to a Mrs. Clarke, in High-street, in the Borough, who would reward the bringer. The boy, in pursuance of these instructions, conveyed poor puss to Mrs. Clarke, who seemed to be apprised of the circumstance, and rewarded the messenger with half a crown. It turned out that the voyage was undertaken for a wager between two Richmond Gentlemen, and that puss embarked at the turn of the tide in the course of the night, and happily reached her destination without sustaining any injury.

Caledonian Mercury, Sept. 2, 1813


Toads are associated with some wonderful myths, and my scepticism was naturally great when my friend Mr. H. Martin Leake assured me, while on a visit to Cawnpore in October of 1915, that toads would eat red-hot charcoal. An after-dinner demonstration, however, soon dispelled my doubts. Small fragments of charcoal heated to a glowing red were thrown on the cement floor in front of several of the small toads (usually Bufo stomaticus) which so commonly invade bungalows at that time of year, and, to my surprise, the glowing fragments were eagerly snapped up and swallowed. The toads appeared to suffer no inconvenience, since not only did they not exhibit any signs of discomfort, but, on the contrary, several toads swallowed two or even three fragments in succession. A probable explanation of the picking-up is that the toads mistook the luminous pieces of charcoal for glow-worms or fireflies, the latter being numerous in the grounds of the Agricultural College at Cawnpore in October; but this does not account for the swallowing of the hot particles–the absence of any attempt to disgorge. I repeated the experiment at Allahabad in August, 1916, with the same results (the toads even attempting to pick up glowing cigarette-ends), though I have never observed glow-worms or fireflies in Allahabad at any time of year.

— W.N.F. Woodland, in Nature, September 1920

Inner Views


Mapmaker James Wyld gave London an enormous gift in 1851 — a 60-foot globe fitted with an internal staircase from which visitors could view the surface of the world, complete with rivers and mountains sculpted in plaster. More than a million guests filed through the exhibit in 1851, which promised “the whole extent, figure, magnitude, and multifarious features of the world we live in, as if it were one vast plain.”

“It has been suggested to us that the interior should be fitted up as lodgings for foreigners,” Punch enthused. “By this arrangement a foreigner would feel himself perfectly at home, though really abroad.”

In the same spirit, in 1831 the skeleton of a 95-foot bowhead whale was displayed in a pavilion at Charing Cross, as part of a tour that had also touched Ostend and Paris. Visitors could ascend a flight of steps to a stage set within the ribcage, where they could sit at a table and write puns in the guest book. (“Why should we be mourned for if killed by the falling of the bones of the whale? We should be be-wailed.”) Jokers called the pavilion “the palace of the Prince of Whales.”


The Linda Problem

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which of the following two alternatives is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.
2. Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.

Rationally, statement 2 cannot be more likely than statement 1, but in a 1983 study by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, fully 85 percent of respondents said that it was.

Why this happens is a matter of some debate. Tversky and Kahneman argued that in making this kind of judgment we seek the closest resemblance between causes and effects (here, between Linda’s personality and her behavior), rather than calculating probability, and that this makes statement 2 seem preferable.

Melting Beauty


Left: a basket of roses made of butter, by Frederick Nicholson, general manager of the Sussex Dairy Company, Brighton. “At one exhibition at which this basket was shown, several ladies and others stooped down to smell the flowers, quite thinking they were looking at a basket of real, yellow roses.”

Right: A dahlia and roses made of lard. “The dahlia … has sixty-two petals, each one of which has to be fashioned separately and then frozen, before the flower can be built up. It seems it is far more difficult to make flowers out of lard than out of butter, on account of the former substance being much softer and more oily. Mr. Nicholson says it takes him three minutes to make a rose-bud; four minutes to make a tuberose; five minutes to make an arum lily; six minutes to make a full-blown rose, and no less than three-quarters of an hour to make a dahlia.”

(From Strand, February 1898)


At Amsterdam, in a street called the Wood Market, recently lived a man who was curious in keeping fowls. One of his hens, though in the midst of summer, had several days stopped yielding her usual produce, and yet made her usual cackling; he searched the nest, but could not find even the shell of an egg, which made him resolve to watch her closely. He accordingly, the next day, placed himself in such a situation as to be able to observe her motions minutely; when, to his great surprise, he saw her discharge her egg; but no sooner was she off the nest, than three rats made their appearance. One of them immediately laid himself on his back, whilst the others rolled the egg upon his belly, which he clasped between his legs, and held it firm; the other two laid hold of his tail, and gently dragged him out of sight. This wonderful sagacity was exhibited for several days to some curious observers.

— London Globe, quoted in The Retrospective Review, 1826

“A Strange Bird”

Yesterday, at about five o’clock in the afternoon, when the daily labours in this mine were over, and all the workmen were together awaiting their supper, we saw coming through the air, from the side of the ternera, a gigantic bird, which at first sight we took for one of the clouds then partially darkening the atmosphere, supposing it to have been separated from the rest by the wind. Its course was from north-west to south-east; its flight rapid and in a straight line. As it was passing a short distance above our heads we could mark the strange formation of its body. Its immense wings were clothed with a grayish plumage, its monstrous head was like that of a locust, its eyes were wide open and shone like burning coals; it seemed to be covered with something resembling the thick and stout bristles of a boar, while on its body, elongated like that of a serpent, we could only see brilliant scales, which clashed together with a metallic sound as the strange animal turned its body in its flight.

— “Copiapo (Chili) paper,” quoted in The Zoologist, July 1868

“Singular Case of Odoriferous Emanations”

In the 34th Volume of the Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Turin (1830) Dr. Speranza of Parma relates the case of an individual whose left fore arm emitted an odor of Amber, or of Benzoin, or Balsam of Peru. The odoriferous emanations were sometimes so strong that they filled the whole of the large room in which the Doctor conducted his experiments upon this personage, whom he suspected at first of some charlatanry, but of whose sincerity he was soon convinced. He was a man of thirty four years of age, of a robust constitution, (having, until that time enjoyed constant health) agreeable eyes, expressive features, dark thick hair, a ruddy countenance, muscles prominent,–a man of ardent feelings and quick penetration; to whom nature had been liberal in her endowments. It did not appear that electricity had any part in the production of this singular phenomenon. An attack of bilious fever, in the course of two months, destroyed the cause, and the effect did not return after his recovery.

American Journal of Science, August 1832

King Bed


Shakespeare, Byron, and Ben Jonson all refer to the Great Bed of Ware, an enormous luxury bed built by Hertfordshire carpenter Jonas Fosbrooke at the end of the 16th century. Measuring 10 feet by 11, it was said to fit 12 comfortably; Sir Henry Chauncy tells how six couples once contrived to sleep in it so that no man lay next to any woman but his wife: “six should lie at one End of the Bed and six at the other, after this Manner, first a Man and his Wife, next a Woman and her Husband, next him a Man and his Wife; then the other three Couple should lie in the same Order at the Feet.”

After centuries as an “inn wonder,” it resides today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


On July 9, 1962, a Western Airlines L-188 was flying over central Nevada when the pilot felt a thud. On landing, the crew found a football-sized dent in one of the horizontal stabilizers. Stuck in the dent was a feather, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified as a mallard’s.

The plane had been flying at 21,000 feet.