A 17th-Century Hiccup Cure

In his 1607 Rich Storehouse, or Treasurie for the Diseased, Matthew Blower offers “a present medicine for the hickop”:

Take thy finger ends, and stop both thine ears very hard, and the hickop will surcease immediately.

I found this in Julian Walker’s How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies (2013), a collection of historical cures for various maladies. He says, “I tried it, and it worked.”

Second Thoughts

Image: Wikimedia Commons

We’re told that we can’t change the past, but what about the case of retroactive pronouncements? On July 23, 2000, Lance Armstrong was declared the winner of the Tour de France — he completed the race with the lowest overall time, and his win was certified by the Union du Cyclisme Internationale. If on Christmas Day 2002 a friend of ours said, “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 2000,” we would feel that this statement was true.

On Oct. 22, 2012, after determining that Armstrong had used banned substances, the UCI withdrew all of his wins at the Tour de France. If on Christmas Day 2012 our friend said, “Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 2000,” we’d feel that this statement was false.

“This means that, in moving from Context A to Context B, the past (of the actual world) has changed,” write Luca Barlassina and Fabio Del Prete in the January issue of Analysis. “The year 2000 had a certain property on Christmas 2002, but did not have that property on Christmas 2012 any longer.”

“One should then stop asking whether the past can change and start to inquire on how to make sense of this. We leave this task to a future paper — unless the future changes.”

(Luca Barlassina and Fabio Del Prete, “The Puzzle of the Changing Past,” Analysis, January 2015.)

The Seventh Art Cinema


In the late 1990s, Frenchman Diynn Eadel set out to build an immense open-air movie theater in the desert near Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. He arranged financing in Paris and installed projection equipment, 700 cinema seats, and a generator in the desert.

Unfortunately, the theater was shut down by Egyptian authorities before its planned opening in October 1997. The reasons aren’t clear. It was largely forgotten until Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas rediscovered it in 2014.

“Dynn Eadel with Seventh Art attempts to prove that tourism is not necessarily a destructive element and that The Great Theatre of Nature can reconcile us with the elements,” reads an old flyer for the project. “When will be the first Sinai International Film Festival?”

Two in One


Look at this image closely and you’ll see the features of Albert Einstein.

But look at it from across a room and you’ll see Marilyn Monroe.

It’s a “hybrid image,” created using a technique developed by Aude Oliva of MIT and Philippe Schyns of the University of Glasgow. The image combines the low spatial frequencies of one picture with the high spatial frequencies of another, so that it’s processed differently at different viewing distances.

See their paper for the details, and this gallery for more examples.

Podcast Episode 55: The Dyatlov Pass Incident


On February 1, 1959, something terrifying overtook nine student ski-hikers in the northern Ural Mountains. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount what is known about the incident at Dyatlov Pass and try to make sense of the hikers’ harrowing final night.

We’ll also hear how Dwight Eisenhower might have delivered the Gettysburg Address and puzzle over why signing her name might entitle a woman to a lavish new home.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 53: The Lost Colony


It’s been called America’s oldest mystery: A group of 100 English colonists vanished from North Carolina’s Roanoke Island shortly after settling there in 1587. But was their disappearance really so mysterious? In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the history of the “lost colony” and consider what might have happened to the settlers.

We’ll also visit an early steam locomotive in 1830 and puzzle over why writing a letter might prove to be fatal.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 52: Moving Day in New York


For centuries, May 1 brought chaos to New York, as most tenants had to move on the same day, clogging the streets with harried people and all their belongings. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the colorful history of “Moving Day” and wonder how it lasted through two centuries.

We’ll also recount some surprising escapes from sinking ships and puzzle over a burglar’s ingenuity.

See full show notes …

Boom Town


In the summer of 1903, the United States Cartridge Company of Tewksbury, Mass., noticed a stain on the floor of its gunpowder magazine. Apparently the dynamite magazine next door had been leaking nitroglycerine. The company asked the dynamite’s owner, American Powder Mills, to attend to the matter, and on July 29 Cartridge’s powder was loaded onto three wagons and moved a few hundred feet away, and an unlucky foreman named Goodwin entered the building, poured a solution on the stain, and began to sweep it with a broom. The spot began to smoke.

The ensuing blast killed 20 people and flattened a score of houses. “Buildings were shaken and windows broken in hundreds of places within a radius of fifteen miles,” reported New England Magazine. “People as far away as Dedham on the south and the mid-New Hampshire towns on the north, felt the shock and guessed at reckless blasts or earthquakes.”

It appears that the fire had caused the dynamite magazine to explode, which set off the three wagons of gunpowder, which set off a third magazine, leased by the Dupont Powder Company. “The ruin caused by the accident was appalling in its perfection,” notes the report. “Three acres of ground were entirely laid waste, the trees and bushes in a considerable radius being torn and blasted as by a breath from a huge furnace.”

The magazines had been built 30 years earlier, when the area had been remote, and the town had grown up around them. “The only safe assumption is that sooner or later every magazine is bound to explode, and must therefore be kept a safe distance from dwelling houses and other buildings.”

(Thanks, Meredith.)

Podcast Episode 51: Poet Doppelgängers


In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll look at the strange phenomenon of poet doppelgängers — at least five notable poets have been seen by witnesses when their physical bodies were elsewhere.

We’ll also share our readers’ research on Cervino, the Matterhorn-climbing pussycat, and puzzle over why a man traveling internationally would not be asked for his passport.

See full show notes …