Gentle Giant

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Size was no impediment to Martin Van Buren Bates, a quiet schoolteacher who found that his enormous size (7’9″) served him better on the battlefields of the Civil War. The “Kentucky Giant” rose quickly from private to captain in the Fifth Kentucky Infantry; Union soldiers told of a “Confederate giant who’s as big as five men and fights like 50.”

After the war, Bates was touring Canada with a circus when he met Anna Haining Swan, another enormously tall person (7’5″), and they married in London, where Queen Victoria gave them two extra-large diamond-studded gold watches as wedding presents.

Their 18-pound child was stillborn, and they ordered an oversize house custom-built in Ohio, with 14-foot ceilings and giant furniture. “To see our guests make use of it,” wrote Bates, “recalls most forcibly the good Dean Swift’s traveler in the land of Brobdingnag.”

The pair toured again, and lost another son, this one 28 inches tall and weighing 22 pounds. “He looked at birth like an ordinary child of six months,” Bates wrote. But “with this exception our lot has been one of almost uninterrupted joy.”

When Anna died in 1886, Martin sold the house and married a woman of normal stature, with whom he lived peacefully until he died of nephritis in Seville in 1919.

Tunguska Redux

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Somebody up there hates Siberia.

On June 30, 1908, something huge exploded over the Tunguska River near modern Evenkia. The blast felled 60 million trees over 2,150 square kilometers; it’s been estimated at between 10 and 15 megatons. Witnesses described a huge fireball moving across the sky, a flash, and a shockwave that knocked people off their feet and broke windows up to 400 miles away. Afterward, the night sky glowed for weeks.

But, strangely, there was no crater. In fact, a few trees near ground zero were still standing, their branches and bark stripped off. Stranger still, some reports said the skyglow had begun the night before the explosion, and that there had been strange weather and increased seismic activity for days beforehand. And carbon-14 dating of the soil gave a date in the future — meaning the soil had somehow become enriched with radioactive carbon-14.

What caused the explosion? A meteor? A comet? An asteroid? There’s been no conclusive explanation. But, disturbingly, a similar thing happened just three years ago. An explosion in Siberia in September 2002 that measured up to 5 kilotons was accompanied by northern lights, increased radioactivity, and an outbreak of unknown diseases nearby. An expedition the following year concluded that it was a comet, but no one knows for sure.

Society of Mind

http://www.urville.com/

Urville is a city of 14 million inhabitants that exists entirely in the mind of Gilles Trehin, a French autistic savant.

Trehin began creating plans at the age of 12, using Lego blocks and model airplanes. Today, at 33, he has drawn extensive maps and landscapes of his creation, as well as inventing a culture and a detailed history going back to the 12th century B.C., when he imagines the city was founded by the Phoenicians.

Today, in Trehin’s mind, Urville is the third largest city in the developed world, behind Tokyo and New York, and boasts 87 cinemas, 42 cabarets, 174 public swimming pools and European offices of I.B.M., Sony, Citybank, Olivetti, and Siemens.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” wrote Albert Einstein. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

What’s in a Name?

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“Liver-Eating Johnson” had the coolest nickname in the Old West — cooler, perhaps, than the truth warranted.

The “mountain man” was actually born in New Jersey around 1824. He deserted the Navy after the Mexican-American War and lit out for Wyoming, where he trapped, hunted and supplied cordwood to steamboats.

The legend starts in 1847, when the Crow tribe killed his Indian wife and he launched a personal war that lasted 20 years, in which, supposedly, he would cut out and eat the liver of each man he killed.

Did he really? Who knows? But it made a good story, and Johnson’s stature began to grow — literally and figuratively. His Civil War records put him at less than 6 feet tall, but local yarns soon said he was 6 foot 6.

After serving the Union Army as a sharpshooter, he spent the 1880s as a deputy sheriff in Leadville, Colo., and a town marshal in Red Lodge, Mont. He died in 1900.

But a century later the nickname was still working. The 1972 Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson was based in part on his life — and Redford even served as one of the pallbearers when Johnson’s body was reburied in Cody, Wyo., in 1974.

Arf!

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Yes, that’s a real dog, and no, the photo isn’t doctored. During World War II the Soviets experimented with “anti-tank dogs,” dogs that were trained to run under enemy tanks with explosives strapped to their backs.

Unfortunately, the Soviets trained the dogs by putting food under their own tanks, which led to some Three-Stooges-style hijinks on the battlefield. In 1942, an entire Soviet tank division was chased into retreat by its own dogs. Serves ’em right.

Here, Boy!

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The French Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval had a pet lobster, which he would walk through Paris on a blue ribbon.

He said he regarded lobsters as “peaceful, serious creatures who know the secrets of the sea and don’t bark.”

Floor?

American building designers often skip the number 13 when numbering their floors, because 13 is considered an unlucky number.

The Chinese are similarly superstitious — they omit the fourth floor, because the word “four” sounds like “death” in Mandarin.

Clean Your Room

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If you think you’re a packrat — cheer up.

In 1929, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer holed up in a Harlem townhouse and basically set the all-time record for reclusive hoarding. They kept to the house during the day, and at night Langley fetched their water from a park four blocks away, dragging home abandoned junk.

In 1942, when they missed a mortgage payment, the police investigated but couldn’t get past a solid wall of junk behind the front door. In 1947, when rumors surfaced that Homer had died, a team of seven men finally began excavating the foyer, which was choked with old newspapers, folding beds and chairs, half a sewing machine, boxes and parts of a wine press. A patrolman broke into the second floor and spent two hours crawling through packages and newspaper bundles before he discovered Homer, dead in a bathrobe, his head on his knees. The recluse had been dead only 10 hours, so the smell was coming from somewhere else.

Authorities began unpacking the house. Among other things, they found baby carriages, rusted bicycles, a collection of guns, gas chandeliers, the folding top of a horsedrawn carriage, three dressmaking dummies, a kerosene stove, thousands of books about medicine and engineering, human organs pickled in jars, a clavichord, two organs, the chassis of an old Model T, a horse’s jawbone, an early X-ray machine, and more than six tons of newspapers, magazines, and wood. After several weeks of searching, they found Langley 10 feet from his brother. He had been crushed in one of his own booby traps.

In total, police and workmen took 136 tons of garbage out of the house, including 14 pianos and more than 25,000 books. It was eventually torn down as a fire hazard.

Shut Up, Bruce

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The Cadillac Ranch is a public art installation in Amarillo, Texas: Ten junker Cadillacs are buried nose-first in the ground, at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

What will future archaeologists make of this?