• Seattle is closer to Finland than to England.
  • Is a candle flame alive?
  • ABANDON is an anagram of A AND NO B.
  • tan-1(1) + tan-1(2) + tan-1(3) = π
  • “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.” — Carl Andre

Detractors of Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody said that three of the state’s towns had been named for him: Peabody, Marblehead, and Athol.


Founded in the 1880s by Manhattan rationalists, the 13 Club held a regular dinner on the 13th of each month, seating 13 members at each table deliberately to laugh at superstition.

“I have given some attention to popular superstitions, and let me tell you that argument is powerless against them,” founding member Daniel Wolff told journalist Philip Hubert in 1890. “They have a grip upon the imagination that nothing but ridicule will lessen.” As an example he cited the tradition that the mirrors must be removed from a room in which a corpse is lying. “Make the experiment yourself, and the next time you are called upon to sit up with a corpse, notice how uncomfortable a mirror will make you feel,” he said. “Of course it is a matter of the imagination, but you can’t reason against it. All the ingrained terrors of six thousand years are in your bones. You walk across the floor and catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass. You start; was there not a spectral something behind you? So you cover it up.”

As honorary members the club recruited 16 U.S. senators, 12 governors, and six Army generals. Robert Green Ingersoll ended one 1886 toast by declaring, “We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: ‘Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the Nineteenth Century.'”

But Oscar Wilde, for one, turned them down. “I love superstitions,” he wrote. “They are the colour element of thought and imagination. They are the opponents of common sense. Common sense is the enemy of romance. The aim of your society seems to be dreadful. Leave us some unreality. Don’t make us too offensively sane.”

(Thanks, David.)

Podcast Episode 42: The Balmis Expedition: Using Orphans to Combat Smallpox

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how Spanish authorities found an ingenious way to use orphans to bring the smallpox vaccine to the American colonies in 1803. The Balmis Expedition overcame the problems of transporting a fragile vaccine over a long voyage and is credited with saving at least 100,000 lives in the New World.

We’ll also get some listener updates to the Lady Be Good story and puzzle over why a man would find it more convenient to drive two cars than one.

Sources for our segment on the Balmis expedition:

J. Antonio Aldrete, “Smallpox Vaccination in the Early 19th Century Using Live Carriers: The Travels of Francisco Xavier de Balmis,” Southern Medical Journal, April 2004.

Carlos Franco-Paredes, Lorena Lammoglia and José Ignacio Santos-Preciado, “The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to Bring Smallpox Vaccination to the New World and Asia in the 19th Century,” Clinical Infectious Diseases, Nov. 1, 2005.

Catherine Mark and José G. Rigau-Pérez, “The World’s First Immunization Campaign: The Spanish Smallpox Vaccine Expedition, 1803-1813,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Spring 2009.

John W.R. McIntyre, “Smallpox and Its Control in Canada,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 14, 1999.

Pan-American Health Organization: The Balmis-Salvany Smallpox Expedition: The First Public Health Vaccination Campaign in South America (accessed Jan. 18, 2015).

Listener Roger Beck sent these images of the memorial and propeller from the Lady Be Good in Houghton, Mich.:

Lady Be Good memorial

Lady Be Good propeller

And listener Dan Patterson alerted us to ladybegood.net, an impressive and growing repository of information about the “ghost bomber,” including the recovered diaries of co-pilot Robert Toner and flight engineer Harold Ripslinger and some ingenious reconstructions of the lost plane’s flight path after the nine crewmen bailed out.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes 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 all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar 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!

“The All-Purpose Calculus Problem”

kennedy calculus problem

A “calculus problem to end all calculus problems,” by Dan Kennedy, chairman of the math department at the Baylor School, Chattanooga, Tenn., and chair of the AP Calculus Committee:

A particle starts at rest and moves with velocity kennedy integral along a 10-foot ladder, which leans against a trough with a triangular cross-section two feet wide and one foot high. Sand is flowing out of the trough at a constant rate of two cubic feet per hour, forming a conical pile in the middle of a sandbox which has been formed by cutting a square of side x from each corner of an 8″ by 15″ piece of cardboard and folding up the sides. An observer watches the particle from a lighthouse one mile off shore, peering through a window shaped like a rectangle surmounted by a semicircle.

(a) How fast is the tip of the shadow moving?
(b) Find the volume of the solid generated when the trough is rotated about the y-axis.
(c) Justify your answer.
(d) Using the information found in parts (a), (b), and (c) sketch the curve on a pair of coordinate axes.

From Math Horizons, Spring 1994.

Fun With Refraction


To show that one can focus sounds waves as well as light waves, Lord Rayleigh would place a ticking pocket watch beyond the earshot of a listener, then introduce a balloon filled with carbon dioxide between them. The balloon acted as a “sound lens” to concentrate the sound, and the listener could hear the watch ticking. Rayleigh would sometimes set the balloon swaying to make the effect intermittent.

Related: Pyrex and Wesson oil have the same index of refraction — so immersing Pyrex in oil makes it disappear:

Curve Stitching

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mary Everest Boole, the wife of logician George Boole, was an accomplished mathematician in her own right. In order to convey mathematical ideas to young people she invented “curve stitching,” the practice of constructing straight-line envelopes by stitching colored thread through a pattern of holes pricked in cardboard. In each of the examples above, two straight lines are punctuated with holes at equal intervals, defining a quadratic Bézier curve. When the holes are connected with thread as shown, their envelope traces a segment of a parabola.

“Once the fundamental idea of the method has been mastered, anyone interested can construct his own designs,” writes Martyn Cundy in Mathematical Models (1952). “Exact algebraic curves will usually need unequal spacing of the holes and therefore more calculation will be required to produce them; it is surprising, however, what a variety of beautiful figures can be executed which are based on the simple principle of equal spacing.”

The American Mathematical Society has some patterns and resources.

Math and Poetry

In 1972 the Belgian mathematician Edouard Zeckendorf established Zeckendorf’s theorem: that every positive integer can be represented as the sum of non-consecutive Fibonacci numbers in one and only one way.

In 1979 French poet Paul Braffort celebrated this with a series of 20 poems, My Hypertropes. Each of the 20 poems in the series is informed by the foregoing poems that make up its Zeckendorff sum. For example, the Zeckendorff representation of 12 is 8 + 3 + 1, so poem 12 in Braffort’s sequence shares some characters or images with each of these poems. This forced Braffort to build scenarios that would permit these relations as he wrote the poems.

Each of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 13 is its own Zeckendorff representation, so Braffort related each of these to its two foregoing Fibonacci numbers (e.g., 8 = 3 + 5). This means that only the first poem, “The Preallable Explanation (or The Rhyme’s Reason),” is not influenced by any of the others. Here is that first poem, as translated by Amaranth Borsuk and Gabriela Jaurequi:

This is my work, this is my study,
like Jarry, Cyrano puffy,

to split hairs on Rimbaud
and on willies find booboos.

If it was fair or if it snowed
in Lhassa Emma Sophie Bo-

vary widow of slow carnac
gave herself to the god of wack.

Leibnitz, saying: “Verse …” What an ac-
tor for this superb “Vers …”. Oh “nach”!

He aims, Emma, the apoplexy
of those drunk on galaxy.

At the club of “spinach” kings (nay,
Bach never went there, Banach yea!)

Leibnitz — his graph ibo: not six
mus, three nus, one phi, bona xi —

haunts without profit Bonn: “Ach! Gee
if I were great Fibonacci!!! …”

Now, for example, Poem 12, “MODELS (for Petrovich’s Band),” is an alexandrine with two six-line stanzas. The Zeckendorff representation of 12 is 1 + 3 + 8, so in each stanza of Poem 12 the first line is influenced by Poem 1, the third by Poem 3, and the sixth by Poem 8, each drawing on specific lines in the source poem. The first line in the sixth couplet of Poem 1, “He aims, Emma, the apoplexy,” informs the first line of Poem 12, “For a sweet word from Emma: a word for model”; the second line of the sixth couplet from Poem 1, “of those drunk on galaxy,” informs the first line of the second stanza in Poem 12, “Our galaxies have already packed their valise”; the phrase “when I saw you / weave a letter to Elise” in Poem 3 becomes “they say from this time forth five letters to Elise” in Poem 12; and the couplet “And Muses who compose / They’re a troop they’re tropes” in Poem 8 becomes “Tragic tropes: Leonardo is Fibonacci.”

“Thus, Braffort’s collection of poems, My Hypertropes, has an internal structure provided by a mathematical theorem,” writes Robert Tubbs in Mathematics in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (2014). “The structure does not entirely determine these poems, but it does provide connections between the poems that might not be there otherwise.”

Cutting Up

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Choose any number of points on a circle and connect them to form a polygon.

This polygon can be carved into triangles in any number of ways by connecting its vertices.

No matter how this is done, the sum of the radii of the triangles’ inscribed circles is constant.

This is an example of a Sangaku (literally, “mathematical tablet”), a class of geometry theorems that were originally written on wooden tablets and hung as offerings on Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867). This one dates from about 1800.

Chebyshev’s Paradoxical Mechanism

Russian mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev devised this puzzling mechanisms in 1888. Turning the crank handle once will send the flywheel through two revolutions in the same direction, or four revolutions in the opposite direction. (A better video is here.)

“What is so unusual in this mechanism is the ability of the linkages to flip from one configuration to the other,” write John Bryant and Chris Sangwin in How Round Is Your Circle? (2011). “In most linkage mechanisms such ambiguity is implicitly, or explicitly, designed out so that only one choice for the mathematical solution can give a physical configuration. … This mechanism is really worth constructing, if only to confound your friends and colleagues.”

(Thanks, Dre.)


1927 solvay conference

At the Fifth Solvay International Conference, held in Brussels in October 1927, 29 physicists gathered for a group photograph. Back row: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Léon Brillouin. Middle: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr. Front: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, Owen Willans Richardson.

Seventeen of the 29 were or became Nobel Prize winners. Marie Curie, the only woman, is also the only person who has won the prize in two scientific disciplines.

Below: On Aug. 12, 1958, 57 notable jazz musicians assembled for a group portrait at 17 East 126th Street in Harlem. They included Red Allen, Buster Bailey, Count Basie, Emmett Berry, Art Blakey, Lawrence Brown, Scoville Browne, Buck Clayton, Bill Crump, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Art Farmer, Bud Freeman, Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn, Benny Golson, Sonny Greer, Johnny Griffin, Gigi Gryce, Coleman Hawkins, J.C. Heard, Jay C. Higginbotham, Milt Hinton, Chubby Jackson, Hilton Jefferson, Osie Johnson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Jimmy Jones, Taft Jordan, Max Kaminsky, Gene Krupa, Eddie Locke, Marian McPartland, Charles Mingus, Miff Mole, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Pettiford, Rudy Powell, Luckey Roberts, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Russell, Sahib Shihab, Horace Silver, Zutty Singleton, Stuff Smith, Rex Stewart, Maxine Sullivan, Joe Thomas, Wilbur Ware, Dickie Wells, George Wettling, Ernie Wilkins, Mary Lou Williams, and Lester Young. Photographer Art Kane called it “the greatest picture of that era of musicians ever taken.”