A Sleeping Cat

Here’s a surprise: A new geoglyph has been found in the soil of the Nazca Desert in southern Peru.

This one, evidently a cat, appears to be the oldest yet — it may have been engraved in the earth as early as 200 B.C. and has been waiting all this time to be discovered.

“The figure was barely visible and was about to disappear because it is situated on quite a steep slope that’s prone to the effects of natural erosion,” the culture ministry wrote.

“It’s quite striking that we’re still finding new figures,” said chief archaeologist Johny Isla, “but we also know that there are more to be found.”

Resource Management


Back in 2009 I worried that, if vampires are constantly converting humans, eventually we must all succumb.

Apparently this fear is not unfounded. In 2006 physicists Costas Efthimiou and Sohang Gandhi worked out that if the first vampires had turned up in 1600, if they’d needed to feed only once a month, and if the world population at that time had been 536,870,911 (as estimated), then the vampire population would have increased geometrically and the last human would have succumbed in June 1602, after a bloodbath of only two and half years.

Worse, in 1982 a team of Austrian mathematicians led by R. Haiti and A. Mehlmann found that intelligent vampires could calculate a bloodsucking frequency that would maximize total utility per vampire and keep the human race alive indefinitely — and solutions exist no matter whether they’re “asymptotically satiated vampires,” “blood-maximizing vampires,” or “unsatiable vampires.”

Later they expanded on this to show that cyclical bloodsucking patterns are optimal. That’s not very comforting.

(Dino Sejdinovic, “Mathematics of the Human-Vampire Conflict,” Math Horizons 16:2 [November 2008], 14-15.)

The Third Card


Shuffle a deck and deal three cards face down. A friend looks at the cards and turns up two that are the same color. What’s the probability that the remaining card is also of this color?

The answer is not 1/2 but 1/4. Three randomly selected cards might have any of eight equally possible arrangements of color. In only two of these (RRR and BBB) are all the colors the same. So the chance of this happening is 2/8 = 1/4.

(Martin Gardner, “Modeling Mathematics With Playing Cards,” College Mathematics Journal 31:3 [May 2000], 173-177.)

10/18/2020 UPDATE: A number of readers have pointed out that the probabilities here aren’t quite accurate. Gardner was trying to show how various mathematical problems can be illustrated using a deck of cards and contrived this example within that constraint, focusing on the “seeming paradox” of 1/4 versus 1/2. But because the cards are dealt from a finite deck without replacement, if the first card is red then the second card is more likely to be black, and so on. So the final answer here is actually slightly less than 1/4 — which, if anything, is even more surprising, I suppose! Thanks to everyone who wrote in about this.

The Tunnel of Eupalinos


When the Greek engineer Eupalinos contrived a tunnel in the 6th century B.C. to carry water through Mount Kastro to Samos, he started digging simultaneously from the north and south, hoping that the two tunnels would meet in the heart of the mountain. He arranged this through some timely doglegs: When the two teams could hear one another (meaning they were about 12 meters apart), each deviated from its course in both the horizontal (left) and vertical (right) planes:

Images: Wikimedia Commons

This ensured that they wouldn’t tunnel on hopelessly past one another on parallel courses.

This worked amazingly well: In fact the vertical alignment, established using levels at the start, had been maintained so faithfully that the two tunnels differed by only a few millimeters, though they’d traversed a combined distance of more than a thousand meters.

This is only the second known tunnel to be excavated successfully simultaneously from both ends, and the first to accomplish this feat using geometric principles, which Euclid would codify only centuries later.

Throwing a Curve

In 2009, mathematician Jeff Chyatte and his colleagues at Maryland’s Montgomery College built a mathematical sculpture: An inclined rod is connected at its center to a horizontal arm, which is connected to a rotating vertical axis. As the axis rotates, the rod passes through a vertical plane.

What shape does the rod cut in the plane? Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a hyperbola. See the video above for an explanation. Chyatte’s sculpture was displayed at Washington’s Touchstone Gallery with the title “Theorem.”

(“Just Passing Through,” Math Horizons 16:4 [April 2009], 16.)

Local Rules

A footnote from T.W. Körner’s The Pleasures of Counting:

It may help to recall the bon mot I heard from a Russian physicist: ‘Proofs in physics follow the standards of British justice and hold the accused innocent until proved guilty. Proofs in mathematics follow the standards of Stalinist justice and hold the accused guilty until proved innocent.’



From Enrico Fermi’s eyewitness report on the first detonation of a nuclear device, July 16, 1945:

About 40 seconds after the explosion, the air blast reached me. I tried to estimate its strength by dropping from about six feet small pieces of paper before, during, and after the passage of the blast wave. Since, at the time, there was no wind I could observe very distinctly and actually measure the displacement of the pieces of paper that were in the process of falling while the blast was passing. The shift was about 2½ meters, which, at the time, I estimated to correspond to the blast that would be produced by ten thousand tons of T.N.T.

Radiochemical analysis of soil samples later indicated that the total yield had been around 18.6 kilotons of TNT.

10/09/2020 UPDATE: Here’s Fermi’s report. (Thanks, Sivaraam.)

The Burned House Phenomenon

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of Neolithic Europe left behind a curious puzzle for archaeologists: It appears that, for more than a thousand years, the houses in every settlement were burned. It’s not clear why. Possibly the fires arose accidentally or through warfare, or possibly they were set deliberately. The extent of each fire must have been considerable, because the raw clay in the walls has been vitrified by intense heat, an effect that has not appeared in modern experiments with individual houses. But the reason for the phenomenon, and for its longevity, remains unknown.



In the early 20th century, medical students often posed for photographs with the cadavers they were learning to dissect — in some cases even trading places with them for a tableau called “The Student’s Dream.”

John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson have published a book of these photos, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930. “What we know with certainty about any particular photograph often is frustratingly meager,” they write. “A dissection room photograph discovered tucked between the pages of an old anatomy textbook or up for auction on eBay is likely to have no indication of where or when it was taken, who took it, or who is in it. The photographs suggest stories that cannot easily be recovered.”

But they say that the images generally were intended not to be entertaining or flippant, but to mark a professional rite of passage for the students. “Privileged access to the body marked a social, moral, and emotional boundary crossing. ‘Know thy Self’ inscribed on the dissecting table, the Delphic injunction nosce te ipsum, could refer to the shared corporeality of dissector and dissected. But it most certainly referred to knowing the new sense of self acquired through these rites. As visual memoirs of a transformative experience, the photographs are autobiographical narrative devices by which the students placed themselves into a larger, shared story of becoming a doctor.”


Bird Brains

Crows are smart. In 2014, University of Auckland psychologist Sarah Jelbert and her colleagues assessed the causal understanding of water displacement in New Caledonian crows by presenting them with a narrow tube in which a reward floated out of reach. To get the reward, a bird had to drop objects into the tube to raise the water level.

“We found that crows preferentially dropped stones into a water-filled tube instead of a sand-filled tube; they dropped sinking objects rather than floating objects; solid objects rather than hollow objects, and they dropped objects into a tube with a high water level rather than a low one.”

Apparently crows read Aesop. And Aesop was right.

(Sarah A. Jelbert et al., “Using the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm to Investigate Causal Understanding of Water Displacement by New Caledonian Crows,” PloS One 9:3 [2014], e92895.)