Time and Chance

A bit more on philosophy and time travel: It seems consistent to suppose that a time traveler can affect the past but not change it. Perhaps I will invent a time machine tomorrow and race heroically back to 1865 to save Lincoln from John Wilkes Booth. I might arrive at Ford’s Theater and race up to Lincoln’s box; I might even wrestle dramatically with Booth in the hallway. But we know in advance that I won’t be successful, because history tells us that Booth did shoot Lincoln that night.

This way of looking at it entails no paradoxes, but it does create a problem. If time travel is possible then presumably hundreds of well-intentioned time travelers converged on Lincoln’s box that night, all determined to save the president and all somehow slipping on banana peels at the wrong moment. This is not impossible, but it seems terrifically unlikely — so much so that the very fact of Lincoln’s death seems to imply that time travel is not possible.

But University of Sydney philosopher Nicholas J.J. Smith points out that we don’t quite know this: A time machine may be invented a century from now with a backward range of only 50 years. In that case we have no experience from which to judge these matters. “One cannot conclude from the supposition that local backward time travel would bring with it what we ordinarily regard as improbable coincidences, that such time travel will occur only rarely: for the only reason we regard the events in question as improbable coincidences is that within our experience, they have not occurred very often — and our experience does not (apparently) encompass backward time travel.”

(Nicholas J.J. Smith, “Bananas Enough for Time Travel?”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, September 1997.)

Truth in Fiction

In the 1970 Scientific American article “How Snakes Move,” Carl Gans points out an oddity in a Sherlock Holmes story:

In ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ Sherlock Holmes solves a murder mystery by showing that the victim has been killed by a Russell’s viper that has climbed up a bell rope. What Holmes did not realize was that Russell’s viper is not a constrictor. The snake is therefore incapable of concertina movement and could not have climbed the rope. Either the snake reached its victim some other way or the case remains open.

This is indeed perplexing. If it’s not a fact that vipers can climb ropes, then how did Holmes solve the case? If vipers can climb ropes in Holmes’ world but not in ours, then how can we follow his reasoning in other matters? What other features of Holmes’ world differ from ours?

One way out: “The story never quite says that Holmes was right that the snake climbed the rope,” notes philosopher David Lewis. So perhaps the snake did reach its victim in some other way and Holmes was simply wrong.

(David Lewis, “Truth in Fiction,” American Philosophical Quarterly, January 1978.)


On Feb. 19, 1916, as workers were digging a new subway line under the East River toward Brooklyn Heights, a burst of compressed air blew 28-year-old Marshall Mabey up through 12 feet of river bed, through the river, and 25 feet into the air atop a geyser of water. Impossibly, he was not seriously injured. From the New York Times:

‘The first thing that told me something was wrong,’ he related yesterday, ‘was when I saw an opening in the earth ahead of the shield which was used to protect the tunnel as we went along. The hole was then about eighteen inches in size. Frank Driver, my partner, and I grabbed hold of a big plank and threw it at the hole to stop it up. I found that the air pressure was pushing me toward the hole, and I tried to save myself by grabbing the air pipes. I missed them, and then I felt myself being pushed into the hole.

‘As I struck the mud it felt as if something was squeezing me tighter than I had ever been squeezed. I was smothered and I guess I lost consciousness. They tell me I was thrown about twenty-five feet above the water when I came out, but I don’t remember that.

‘I am a good swimmer and I kept my mouth shut and came up to the surface. I had on my big rubber boots and they bothered me but I managed somehow to keep my head above the surface. My left leg was numb but I could move it. Finally men on a pier threw me a rope and I held on until I was taken out of the water.’

He said he hoped to return to work within a day or two. “Of course I know that Marshall is in danger every time he goes to work,” said his wife, “but all work is dangerous and my husband is as careful as he can be. His job is a good one and I am glad he has it.”

Podcast Episode 37: Edgar Allan Poe’s Graveyard Visitor


For most of the 20th century, a man in black appeared each year at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. In the predawn hours of January 19, he would drink a toast with French cognac and leave behind three roses in a distinctive arrangement. No one knows who he was or why he did this. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we review the history of the “Poe Toaster” and his long association with the great poet’s memorial.

We’ll also consider whether Winnie-the-Pooh should be placed on Ritalin and puzzle over why a man would shoot an unoffending monk.

See full show notes …

Invertible Minuets

schobert puzzle minuets

In A Thing or Two About Music (1972), Nicolas Slonimsky describes a series of “puzzle minuets” composed by 18th-century harpsichordist Johann Schobert:

Schobert is not a misprint for Schubert. He was an estimable Silesian-born musician who settled in Paris in 1760 and wrote many compositions in the elegant style of the time. Mozart knew his music well and was even influenced by his easy grace in writing piano pieces. Schobert was something of a musical scientist. Among his compositions is a page entitled, ‘A Curious Musical Piece Which Can Be Played on the Piano, on the Violin, and on the Bass, and at that in Different Ways.’ This page contained five minuets, one of which could be played upside down without any change, one which would result in a new piece when turned upside down, and one which would furnish a continuation upside down. Two could be played on the violin and on the bass by assigning the treble clef right side up and the bass clef upside down.

The full page is here. I haven’t tried playing it.

Désert de Retz

French aristocrat François Racine de Monville added a striking summer house to his estate in 1785 — it was designed to resemble the ruined column of an imaginary gigantic temple:


The “colonne brisée” contained four stories of oval rooms connected by a spiral staircase hung with rare plants under a skylight. It was admired by Benjamin Franklin, and it inspired Thomas Jefferson in his own architectural work. (“How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column!” he wrote to Maria Cosway.) It had fallen into disrepair by the 1950s, but it was renovated and reopened to the public in 2009.

Fleet Cuts

In 1968, American Hugo Vihlen sailed from Casablanca to Florida in a boat 5 feet 11 inches long.

In 1992, Englishman Tom McNally sailed from Portugal to Fort Lauderdale in a boat 5 feet 4.5 inches long.

In 1993 Vihlen reclaimed the record by sailing from Newfoundland to Falmouth in a boat 5 feet 4 inches long.

“Tom McNally made plans to fight back with a minuscule three-foot, eleven-inch boat, and when Vihlen later heard about that he announced his intention to build a three-foot, eight-inch aluminum boat,” writes William Longyard in A Speck on the Sea (2003). “The battle would continue between these two friends and rivals.”

(Thanks, Dave.)

Light Reading

French writer Paul Fournel’s 1990 novel Suburbia begins conventionally enough:

Table of Contents

A Word from the Publisher vi
Foreword by Marguerite Duras vii
An Introductory Note by the Author viii
Suburbia 9
Afterword by François Caradec 215
Supplement for Use in Schools 217
Index 219

And the “Word from the Publisher” promises that “the quality of this little novel, now that passions have subsided, has emerged ever more forcefully.” But the first page is blank except for four footnotes:

1. In French in the original.
2. Concerning the definition of suburb, see the epigraph et seq.
3. What intention on the author’s part does this brutal opening suggest?
4. Local judge.

The same thing happens on the second page:

1. Notice how Norbert comes crashing onto the scene.
2. This passage is a mixture of backslang and immigrant jargon. Transpose into normal English.
3. Motorcycle.
4. Obscene gesture.

And so on — except for footnotes, all the pages in Suburbia are blank. “In Suburbia Fournel was not attempting to give some postmodernist exploration of the nature of literature,” explains Robert Tubbs in Mathematics in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (2014). “Suburbia, instead, was written according to the lipogrammatic constraint that it contain no letters or symbols. This constraint force Fournel to write a textless narrative. Because of the footnotes on each page, it has content — it is not an empty text; it is simply a textless text, a text that just happens not to contain any words.”

Maillardet’s Automaton


Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo was inspired by a real event. In 1928 Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute received the remains of an 18th-century brass automaton that had been damaged in a fire. It had been donated by the descendants of wealthy manufacturer John Penn Brock; they knew it had been acquired in France and supposed it to be the work of the German inventor Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, famed for his metronome.

The institute’s machinist set about restoring the machine and discovered that its mechanism used an ingenious system of cams to store almost 300 kilobits of information. When he had finished his work, he placed a pen in its hand and watched it draw four strikingly elaborate illustrations and write three poems (click to enlarge):

The final poem contained a surprise — in its border the machine wrote Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet, “written by the automaton of Maillardet.” The automaton’s creator was not Johann Maelzel but the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet — and this fact had been remembered only because he had taught the machine to write his name.

Subsequent research showed that Maillardet had created the automaton in the 1700s and exhibited it throughout Europe and Russia. How it came to America is not known. It’s on display today at the Franklin Institute, which demonstrates its talents publicly several times a year.


The epilogue of The Time Machine contains this strange passage:

One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now — if I may use the phrase — be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age.

What indeed can “now” mean in this context? If the Time Traveller’s life ended on a prehistoric beach, argues philosopher Donald C. Williams, then surely this became an established fact on the day that it happened. If the concept of time is to have any coherence, then history is a tapestry that is eternal and unchanging; to say that it can be changed “at” some future moment seems to be a flat contradiction. “At” where?

“Time travel,” Williams writes, “is analyzable either as the banality that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one we occupied before, or the contradiction that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one which we are then occupying — that five minutes from now, for example, I may be a hundred years from now.”

(Donald C. Williams, “The Myth of Passage,” Journal of Philosophy, July 1951.)