Podcast Episode 181: Operation Gunnerside


During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll remember Operation Gunnerside, “one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II.”

We’ll also learn what to say when you’re invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle of cicadas.


Hundreds of students overlooked an error in a Brahms capriccio; a novice found it.

Hesiod’s Theogony gives a clue to the distance between earth and heaven.

Sources for our feature on Operation Gunnerside:

Ray Mears, The Real Heroes of Telemark, 2003.

Knut Haukelid, Skis Against the Atom, 1954.

John D. Drummond, But for These Men, 1962.

Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress, 2016.

Thomas B. Allen, “Saboteurs at Work,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 26:2 (Winter 2014), 64-71.

Ian Herrington, “The SIS and SOE in Norway 1940-1945: Conflict or Co-operation?” War in History 9:1 (January 2002), 82-110.

Neal Bascomb, “Saboteurs on Skis,” World War II 31:2 (July/August 2016), 58-67,6.

Hans Børresen, “Flawed Nuclear Physics and Atomic Intelligence in the Campaign to Deny Norwegian Heavy Water to Germany, 1942-1944,” Physics in Perspective 14:4 (December 2012), 471-497.

“Operation Gunnerside,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, July 28, 2017.

Ray Mears, “Norwegian Resistance Coup,” NOVA (accessed Nov. 19, 2017).

Simon Worrall, “Inside the Daring Mission That Thwarted a Nazi Atomic Bomb,” National Geographic, June 5, 2016.

Andrew Han, “The Heavy Water War and the WWII Hero You Don’t Know,” Popular Mechanics, June 16, 2016.

Gordon Corera, “Last Hero of Telemark: The Man Who Helped Stop Hitler’s A-Bomb,” BBC News, April 25, 2013.

Tim Bross, “Sabotage Slowed Nazi’s Pursuit of Atomic Power, Author Writes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 2016, D.7.

Andrew Higgins, “WWII Hero Credits Luck and Chance in Foiling Hitler’s Nuclear Ambitions,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2015.

“Colonel Jens-Anton Poulsson,” Times, Feb. 17, 2010, 65.

Richard Bernstein, “Keeping the Atom Bomb From Hitler,” New York Times, Feb. 12, 1997, 17.

Howard Schneider, “Defusing the Nazi Bomb,” Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2016.

“Norwegian Resistance Hero Helped Halt Nazi Bomb Plans,” Ottawa Citizen, Feb. 13, 2003, A6.

E.W. Fowler, “Obituary: Heroic Saboteur Knut Anders Haukelid,” Guardian, March 15, 1994.

“War Hero Was Last Kon-Tiki Survivor,” Edmonton Journal, Jan. 10, 2010, E.7.

Listener mail:

Modern mudlarkers, from listener Tom Mchugh:

thames mudlarkers 1

thames mudlarkers 2

Wikipedia, “Petroleum Warfare Department” (accessed Dec. 9, 2017).

Sir Donald Banks, Flame Over Britain: A Personal Narrative of Petroleum Warfare, 1946.

Wikipedia, “KRACK” (accessed Dec. 9, 2017).

James Sanders, “KRACK WPA2 Protocol Wi-Fi Attack: How It Works and Who’s at Risk,” TechRepublic, Oct. 16, 2017.

Brad Chacos and Michael Simon, “KRACK Wi-Fi Attack Threatens All Networks: How to Stay Safe and What You Need to Know,” PCWorld, Nov. 8, 2017.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Sam Long.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 180: An Academic Impostor

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marvin Hewitt never finished high school, but he taught advanced physics, engineering, and mathematics under assumed names at seven different schools and universities between 1945 and 1953. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the curious career of an academic impostor, whose story has been called “one of the strangest academic hoaxes in history.”

We’ll also try on a flashproof scarf and puzzle over why a healthy man would check into a hospital.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 179: Two Vanished Young Writers

ruess and follett

Everett Ruess and Barbara Newhall Follett were born in March 1914 at opposite ends of the U.S. Both followed distinctly unusual lives as they pursued a love of writing. And both disappeared in their 20s, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the brief lives of two promising young authors and the mystery that lingers behind them.

We’ll also patrol 10 Downing Street and puzzle over when a pigeon isn’t a pigeon.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 177: Averting a Catastrophe in Manhattan

Image: Flickr

New York’s Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan.

We’ll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 176: The Bear That Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh

harry colebourn and winnie

In 1914, Canadian Army veterinarian Harry Colebourn was traveling to the Western Front when he met an orphaned bear cub in an Ontario railway station. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the adventures of Winnie the bear, including her fateful meeting with A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin.

We’ll also marvel at some impressive finger counting and puzzle over an impassable bridge.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 175: The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island


In 1835, a Native American woman was somehow left behind when her dwindling island tribe was transferred to the California mainland. She would spend the next 18 years living alone in a world of 22 square miles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the poignant story of the lone woman of San Nicolas Island.

We’ll also learn about an inebriated elephant and puzzle over an unattainable test score.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 174: Cracking the Nazi Code


In 1940, Germany was sending vital telegrams through neutral Sweden using a sophisticated cipher, and it fell to mathematician Arne Beurling to make sense of the secret messages. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the outcome, which has been called “one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cryptography.”

We’ll also learn about mudlarking and puzzle over a chicken-killing Dane.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 173: The Worst Journey in the World


In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called “the worst journey in the world.”

We’ll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 172: An American in Feudal Japan


In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country’s northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country.

We’ll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors.

See full show notes …