In the 1930s Colgate University psychologist Harvey Fitz-Gerald interviewed 254 “men and women of eminence,” asking them to describe memories that had been evoked by scent. One recalled:

On the train once, in the midst of happy conditions, I suddenly felt discouraged, awkward, unhappy. As soon as I recognized the perfume used by a fellow traveler, I saw very vividly a large dancing class, a French dancing master, and felt again my girlish dismay at his attitude toward my poor attempts to learn the steps he was trying to teach me. As soon as the memory picture came I knew why I had suddenly felt unhappy, and, of course, came back to normal. This experience occurred some fifteen or twenty years after the last time I had seen the dancing master.

Another recalled a strange feeling of loneliness that had come over her while reading a book at the age of 25. She found that it had been printed in England, whence all of her childhood books had come. Laird wrote, “It will be found interesting, the next time an unexpected memory or thought ‘pops into your head,’ … to think back over the air-borne fragrances and odors which may have given these changes their start.”

(Donald A. Laird, “What Can You Do With Your Nose?”, The Scientific Monthly 41:2 [1935], 126-130.)


Irish physician Henry Marsh addressed an odd phenomenon in 1842: patients who glow in the dark. Shortly after one of his patients had died of tuberculosis, he’d received a letter from her sister:

‘About an hour and a half before my dear sister’s death, we were struck by a luminous appearance proceeding from her head in a diagonal direction. … The light was pale as the moon; but quite evident to mamma, myself, and sister, who were watching over her at the time. One of us at first thought it was lightning, till shortly after we fancied we perceived a sort of tremulous glimmer playing round the head of the bed; and then recollecting we had read something of a similar nature having been observed previous to dissolution, we had candles brought into the room, fearing our dear sister would perceive it, and that it might disturb the tranquillity of her last moments.’

A colleague, Dublin heart specialist William Stokes, described a breast cancer from which “a quantity of luminous fluid was constantly poured out”:

‘Upon being asked whether she suffered much pain, [the patient] answered, “Not now, Sir, but I cannot sleep watching this sore which is on fire every night.” I directed that she should send for me whenever she perceived the luminous appearance, and on that night I was summoned between ten and eleven o’clock. The lights in the ward having been then extinguished, she was sitting leaning forward, the left hand supporting the tumour, while with the right she every now and then lifted up the covering of the ulcer to gaze on this, to her, supernatural appearance. The whole of the base and the edges of the cavity phosphoresced in the strongest manner.’

Sir Henry speculated that the luminescence might have been caused by phosphorous, but “elemental phosophorous is far too reactive to be produced naturally by the human body,” writes Thomas Morris in The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth, his 2018 exploration of medical curiosities. He speculates that luminous bacteria, while also unlikely, might offer one explanation.

(Henry Marsh, “On the Evolution of Light From the Living Human Subject,” Provincial Medical Journal and Retrospect of the Medical Sciences 4:88 [1842], 163.)

Time Traveler

Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals hit his first major league home run five days before he played his first major league game.

On June 18, 2018, he hit a two-run homer that was logged as occurring on May 15. That’s because the June 18 game was a continuation of a May 15 game that had been suspended due to rain. When such a game is resumed, all the statistics are recorded with the date of the original game.

So Soto is credited with his first major league hit and his first major league home run on May 15, five days before he made his major league debut.

(Thanks, Larry.)

Nobody Home
Image: Wikimedia Commons

For centuries, the town of Plymouth was the only port of entry to the island of Montserrat, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom in the Lesser Antilles.

The town was evacuated in 1995 when the nearby Soufrière Hills volcano began erupting, and the burned and buried remainder was abandoned permanently in 1997.

But the town is still the de jure capital city of Montserrat … which makes Plymouth the only ghost town in the world that serves as the capital of a political territory.

Lightning Rod Fashion

In 1778, shortly after Benjamin Franklin introduced the lightning rod, Paris saw a fad for umbrellas and hats that made use of the new technology. A chain ran from the accessory down to the ground and would (in principle) carry the electricity from a lightning strike harmlessly into the ground.

I can’t find any record that such a strike ever happened. Lightning rods didn’t become popular in the United States, even to protect structures, until the 19th century.

(Thanks, Jon.)

Public Health

According to local folklore, the village of Nigg, Scotland, vanquished cholera in a singularly direct way:

In a central part of the churchyard of Nigg there is a rude undressed stone, near which the sexton never ventures to open a grave. A wild apocryphal tradition connects the erection of this stone with the times of the quarantine fleet. The plague, as the story goes, was brought to the place by one of the vessels, and was slowly flying along the ground, disengaged from every vehicle of infection, in the shape of a little yellow cloud. The whole country was alarmed, and groups of people were to be seen on every eminence, watching with anxious horror the progress of the little cloud. They were relieved, however, from their fears and the plague by an ingenious man of Nigg, who, having provided himself with an immense bag of linen, fashioned somewhat in the manner of a fowler’s net, cautiously approached the yellow cloud, and, with a skill which could have owed nothing to previous practice, succeeded in enclosing the whole of it in the bag. He then secured it by wrapping it up carefully, fold after fold, and fastening it down with pin after pin; and as the linen was gradually changing, as if under the hands of the dyer, from white to yellow, he consigned it to the churchyard, where it has slept ever since.

From Hugh Miller, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, 1835.

Westward Ho

In 2018, “GeoWizard” Tom Davies set out to cross the width of Wales, 33 miles, in a straight line. Part 1 is above, and the rest followed in four parts (2, 3, 4, 5).

It looks incredibly difficult.

(Via MetaFilter.)

A Closer Look

Michael Snow’s 1967 experimental film Wavelength consists essentially of an extraordinarily slow 45-minute zoom on a photograph on the wall of a room. William C. Wees of McGill University points out that this raises a philosophical question: What visual event does this zoom create? In a tracking shot, the camera moves physically forward, and its viewpoint changes as a person’s would as she advanced toward the photo. In Wavelength (or any zoom) the camera doesn’t move, and yet something is taking place, something with no analogue in ordinary experience.

“If I actually walk toward a photograph pinned on a wall, I find that the photograph does, indeed, get larger in my visual field, and that things around it slip out of view at the peripheries of my vision. The zoom produces equivalent effects, hence the tendency to describe it as ‘moving forward.’ But I am really imitating a tracking shot, not a zoom. … I think it is safe to say that no perceptual experience in the every-day world can prepare us for the kind of vision produced by the zoom.”

“What, in a word, happens during a viewing of that forty-five minute zoom? And what does it mean?”

(From Nick Hall, The Zoom: Drama at the Touch of a Lever, 2018.)

“The Oldest Written Will”

William Matthew Flinders Petrie, the famous English Egyptologist, unearthed not many years ago at Kahun a will which was forty-five hundred years old. There seems no reason to question either the authenticity or antiquity of the document. The will therefore antedates all other known written wills by nearly two thousand years. That excellent authority, the Irish Law Times, speaks of the will so entertainingly that its comments are here reproduced:

‘The document is so curiously modern in form that it might almost be granted probate today. But, in any case, it may be assumed that it marks one of the earliest epochs of legal history, and curiously illustrates the continuity of legal methods. The value, socially, legally and historically, of a will that dates back to patriarchal times is evident.

‘It consists of a settlement made by one Sekhenren in the year 44, second month of Pert, day 19 — that is, it is estimated, the 44th of Amenemhat III, or 2550 B. C. — in favor of his brother, a priest of Osiris, of all his property and goods; and of another document, which bears date from the time of Amenemhat IV, or 2548 B. C. This latter instrument is, in form, nothing more nor less than a will, by which, in phraseology that might well be used today, the testator settles upon his wife, Teta, all the property given him by his brother, for life, but forbids in categorical terms to pull down the houses “which my brother built for me,” although it empowers her to give them to any of her children that she pleases. A “lieutenant” Siou is to act as guardian of the infant children.

‘This remarkable instrument is Witnessed by two scribes, with an attestation clause that might almost have been drafted yesterday. The papyrus is a valuable contribution to the study of ancient law, and shows, with a graphic realism, what a pitch of civilization the ancient Egyptians had reached — at least from a lawyer’s point of view. It has hitherto been believed that, in the infancy of the human race, wills were practically unknown.’

Ohio Law Reporter, Nov. 13, 1911

Bonus Flinders Petrie oddity:

Mr. Flinders Petrie, a contributor of interesting experiments on kindred subjects to Nature, informs me that he habitually works out sums by aid of an imaginary sliding rule, which he sets in the desired way and reads off mentally.

He does not usually visualise the whole rule, but only that part of it with which he is at the moment concerned.

I think this is one of the most striking cases of accurate visualising power it is possible to imagine.

— Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, 1883