“Coal Is Decayed Vegetarians”

Memorable excerpts from student geology examinations, from W.D. Ian Rolfe’s 1980 collection Geological Howlers:

  • The average person does not have to dig a deep hole to remind himself of the past.
  • Dust is mud with the juice squeezed out.
  • Articulate brachiopods have teeth and socks.
  • A skeleton is a man with his inside out and his outside off.
  • There are three kinds of rocks, ingenious, sedentary and metaphoric.
  • The term Caledonian Orogeny is brandished about by many people.
  • Nine-eighths of an iceberg is beneath the sea.
  • It has been found by a gentle man that organic remains can be converted to petroleum by the processes of metabolism.
  • Sedimentation is a rather lengthy affair.

“A dinosaur is an extinct animal still found in Australia,” one student contended. “It was sometimes so large that its feet are found in the Precambrian and its head in the Silurian because it was too big to lie down where it died.”

Wings of Song


In his 1922 book Songs of the Birds, Oxford zoologist Walter Garstang set out to record birdsongs as musical compositions:

The peculiar quality or timbre of each bird’s voice and the resonance of each sound have been imitated as closely as possible by a selection of human consonants; the composition of the song has been represented by the appropriate repetition, modification, or contrast of selected syllables; the syllabic rendering has been cast in a corresponding rhythm; and round this chosen sequence of syllables a song has been woven to capture something, if possible, of the joy or of the attendant circumstances which form the natural setting of his song.

“I fell in love with my models,” he wrote, “and could not content myself with a purely scientific account of their performances.” He was similarly enraptured by amphibians — the 1951 book Larval Forms collects his poems about marine larvae:

Amblystoma’s a giant newt who rears in swampy waters,
As other newts are wont to do, a lot of fishy daughters:
These Axolotls, having gills, pursue a life aquatic,
But, when they should transform to newts, are naughty and erratic.

His colleague Alister Hardy wrote, “I certainly believe that he gets his ideas across with much greater felicity in these sparkling rhymes than he has done in all his more carefully calculated prose.”

See Bird Songs.

Evolved Antennas


NASA’s 2006 Space Technology 5 carried an unusual item — an antenna that had evolved through Darwinian evolution. To meet a challenging set of mission requirements, researchers at New Mexico State University used a computer program to generate simple antenna shapes, altered them in semi-random manner, and evaluated the results. Those that performed worst against design requirements were discarded and the remainder again “mutated” in a process modeled on natural selection. This procedure can produce a complex but highly efficient shape that might not be found using more traditional methods.

“By exploring such a wide range of designs EAs may be able to produce designs of previously unachievable performance,” the team concluded. “The faster design cycles of an evolutionary approach results in less development costs and allows for an iterative ‘what-if’ design and test approach for different scenarios.”

All in the Family

Image: Wikimedia Commons

If you erect equilateral triangles on two adjacent sides of a square and then connect the triangle vertices distant from the square to the square vertex distant from the triangles, you get a third equilateral triangle.

Pleasingly, this works whether the triangles are erected inside or outside the square. It was discovered by French mathematician Victor Thébault.


In 1949 English physician Zachary Cope published The Diagnosis of the Acute Abdomen in Rhyme:

The muscles of the bowel-wall are strong
And by their strength they force the food along;
In rhythmic waves contractions come and go
Making the intestinal contents flow;
So if through any kind of morbid state
A bit of bowell wall invaginate
The muscle-wall may force it on and on
Until far down the lumen it has gone.
The gut below Dilates for its reception
And thus you get what’s called intussusception.

He dedicated the 100-page work to his students. The preface to the fifth edition reads:

I thank those readers who oft write to me
Suggesting things with which I oft agree
But most of all I thank the youth who said
‘I always keep a copy by me bed.’

More Magic


Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I includes this famous magic square: The magic sum of 34 can be reached by adding the numbers in any row, column, diagonal, or quadrant; the four center squares; the four corner squares; the four numbers clockwise from the corners; or the four counterclockwise.

In Power Play (1997), University of Toronto mathematician Ed Barbeau points out that there’s even more magic when we consider squares and cubes. Take the numbers in the first two and the last two rows:

16 + 3 + 2 + 13 + 5 + 10 + 11 + 8 = 9 + 6 + 7 + 12 + 4 + 15 + 14 + 1

162 + 32 + 22 + 132 + 52 + 102 + 112 + 82 = 92 + 62 + 72 + 122 + 42 + 152 + 142 + 12

Or alternate columns:

16 + 5 + 9 + 4 + 2 + 11 + 7 + 14 = 3 + 10 + 6 + 15 + 13 + 8 + 12 + 1

162 + 52 + 92 + 42 + 22 + 112 + 72 + 142 = 32 + 102 + 62 + 152 + 132 + 82 + 122 + 12

Most amazingly, if you compare the numbers on and off the diagonals, this works with both squares and cubes:

16 + 10 + 7 + 1 + 13 + 11 + 6 + 4 = 2 + 3 + 5 + 8 + 9 + 12 + 14 + 15

162 + 102 + 72 + 12 + 132 + 112 + 62 + 42 = 22 + 32 + 52 + 82 + 92 + 122 + 142 + 152

163 + 103 + 73 + 13 + 133 + 113 + 63 + 43 = 23 + 33 + 53 + 83 + 93 + 123 + 143 + 153


In his 2014 book Describing Gods, Graham Oppy presents the “divine liar” paradox, by SUNY philosopher Patrick Grim:

1. X believes that (1) is not true.

If we suppose that (1) is true, then this tells us that X believes that (1) is not true. But if an omniscient being believes that (1) is not true, then it follows that (1) is not true. So the assumption that (1) is true leads to a contradiction.

Suppose instead that (1) is not true. That is, suppose that it’s not the case that X believes that (1) is not true. If an omniscient being fails to believe that (1) is not true, then it’s not true that (1) is not true. So this alternative also leads to a contradiction.

But, on the assumption that there is an omniscient being X, either it’s the case that (1) is true or it’s the case that (1) is not true.

“So, on pain of contradiction,” Oppy explains, “we seem driven to the conclusion that there is no omniscient being X.”

(Also: Patrick Grim, “Some Neglected Problems of Omniscience,” American Philosophical Quarterly 20:3 [July 1983], 265-276.)

Evolution Without Life

Philosopher Mark Bedau points out that, even on a dead planet, the microscopic crystallites that make up clay and mud seem to have the flexibility to adapt and evolve by natural selection:

  • Crystals reproduce in the sense that when they become large enough they cleave and pieces break off, becoming seeds for new crystals. A population of reproducing crystals can become the setting for crystal “evolution.”
  • All crystals have flaws, which are reproduced randomly and can become a source of novel information that gets expressed in “phenotypic” traits such as shape, growth rate, and the conditions that cause cleaving.
  • Each new layer of crystals copies the geometrical arrangement of atoms in the layer below, and defects can be copied in the same way. Grain boundaries and dislocations in one crystal tend to be copied to its “offspring” and subsequent generations. Over time these “mutations” can produce “species” among which nature selects.
  • A crystal’s shape, growth rate, and cleaving conditions all affect the rate at which it proliferates, and crystals with different properties will disperse and diffuse differently, which affects the rate at which they reproduce.

So a population of crystals can exhibit reproduction, variation, heredity, and adaptivity. “What is rather surprising is that, in the process, the planet remains entirely devoid of life. Thus, natural selection can take place in an entirely inorganic setting.”

(Mark Bedau, “Can Biological Teleology Be Naturalized?” Journal of Philosophy 88:11 [November 1991], 647-655. I think A.G. Cairns-Smith originated this idea in Seven Clues to the Origin of Life in 1985, and Richard Dawkins took it up in The Blind Watchmaker the following year.)


One April Fool’s Day, when logician Raymond Smullyan was 10 years old, his brother told him, “Today I am going to trick you like you have never been tricked before.”

“Little Raymond waited, and waited, and waited, and nothing happened,” writes Ron Aharoni in Circularity. “To this very day, he is not sure whether his brother tricked him or not.”