Where is a sound? If I play a note at the piano, you and I both seem to locate it at the instrument. But we both also know that we perceive the note because the piano sends waves through the air that strike our ears. That would mean that most of our auditory perception is illusion. Is that what we want to say?
Philosopher George Berkeley wrote, “When I hear a coach drive along the streets, immediately I perceive only the sound, but from experience I have had that such a sound is connected with a coach, I am said to hear the coach.” Perhaps the sound lies at our ears, or at our sensation of it, and it’s only our experience of the world that leads us to attribute it to some remote source. But that raises problems of its own. If sound is sensation, then can a sound occur if no one is present to hear it?
Perhaps the answer lies in between: Acoustics tells us that sounds are vibrations transmitted by the air. But vibrations of very high or low pitch aren’t perceptible to human ears. Are these still sounds?
Just an oddity — in Nature, June 5, 1919, Cambridge zoologist John Stanley Gardiner notes that a Fiji harbormaster had informed him of a saltwater crocodile that had landed alive on Rotuma, 260 miles to the north and 600 miles east of the New Hebrides.
“It certainly did not come from Fiji or any lands to the east, as crocodiles do not now exist on them,” Gardiner wrote. “It must indeed have crossed from the west, and covered at least 600 miles of open, landless sea.
“This occurrence is sufficiently remarkable to be placed on permanent record.”
When William Harrison disappeared from Campden, England, in 1660, his servant offered an incredible explanation: that he and his family had murdered him. The events that followed only proved the situation to be even more bizarre. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe “the Campden wonder,” an enigma that has eluded explanation for more than 300 years.
We’ll also consider Vladimir Putin’s dog and puzzle over a little girl’s benefactor.
Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
About 150,000 years ago, a Neanderthal man was exploring the Lamalunga Cave in southern Italy when he fell into a sinkhole. Too badly injured to climb out again, he died of dehydration or starvation. Over the ensuing centuries, water running down the cave walls gradually incorporated the man’s bones into concretions of calcium carbonate. Undisturbed by predators or weather, they lay in an immaculate state of preservation until cave researchers finally discovered them in 1993.
This is a great boon for paleoanthropologists — “Altamura Man” is one of the most complete Paleolithic skeletons ever discovered in Europe — but there’s a downside: The bones have become so deeply involved in their matrix of limestone that no one has found a way to remove them without destroying them. So, for now, all research must be carried out in the cave.
Stranded in Java after the Japanese invasion of 1941, the Dutch minesweeper Abraham Crijnssen found a unique way to sneak out: The crew covered the decks with jungle foliage and painted the hull to resemble cliffs, giving the ship the appearance of a small island.
Traveling only at night and anchoring near shore, the minesweeper gradually made her way to West Australia, becoming the last Allied vessel to escape Java and the only one of her class in the region to survive.
Germany’s Heidelberg Castle is home to a famously enormous wine barrel, capable of holding 57,853 U.S. gallons. This is actually the most recent of four enormous wine barrels that the castle has housed, the first built in 1591. Unfortunately it’s empty — today it serves mostly as a tourist attraction and a foundation for the fanciful dance floor above it.
“Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun,” wrote Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad, “and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me.”
This is the so-called Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare, engraved by Martin Droeshout as the frontispiece for the First Folio, published in 1623. In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-Speare, Edwin Durning-Lawrence draws attention to the fit of the coat on the figure’s right arm. “Every tailor will admit that this is not and cannot be the front of the right arm, but is, without possibility of doubt, the back of the left arm.” Compare this with the figure’s left arm, where “you at once perceive that you are no longer looking at the back of the coat but at the front of the coat.”
If that’s not enough, note the line beneath Shakespeare’s jaw, suggesting that he’s wearing a false face. The engraving is in fact “a cunningly drawn cryptographic picture, shewing two left arms and a mask” and proving that Shakespeare is a fraud and not the author of the plays attributed to him.
I’ll admit that I don’t quite see the problem with the coat, but apparently I’m just not discerning enough: In 1911 Durning-Lawrence reported that the trade journal Tailor and Cutter had agreed that Droeshout’s figure “was undoubtedly clothed in an impossible coat composed of the back and front of the same left arm.” Indeed, the Gentleman’s Tailor Magazine printed “the two halves of the coat put tailor fashion, shoulder to shoulder” and observed that “it is passing strange that something like three centuries should have been allowed to elapse before the tailor’s handiwork should have been appealed to in this particular manner.”