# Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Today it’s possible to describe a color quantitatively, but how did people make such fine distinctions in the 18th century? German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner proposed a solution in 1774: His Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Foßilien included a “color dictionary” that located each hue in the natural world. Updated by Scottish painter Patrick Syme, it describes 110 colors, telling where each might be found in animal, vegetable, and mineral form: Number 35, for example, “bluish lilac purple,” is the shade of the male of the dragonfly Libellula depressa, the blue lilac, and the mineral lepidolite. Number 82, “tile red,” may be found in the breast of the cock bullfinch, in the shrubby pimpernel, and in porcelain jasper.

This common language gave naturalists an objective way to communicate what they were seeing. Off Brazil aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1832, Charles Darwin wrote, “I had been struck by the beautiful color of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat. It was according to Werner nomenclature ‘Indigo with a little azure blue’. The sky at the time was ‘Berlin [blue] with little Ultra marine’.”

The Internet Archive has Syme’s full text.

# Noted

The angle cos-1(-1/3) = 109.47°, familiar from soap films and tetrahedral molecular geometry, can be produced with an ordinary piece of A4 paper: Because it has a width:length ratio of $1:\sqrt{2}$, folding it corner to corner as shown yields a shape with precisely that angle.

(Nick Lord, “A ‘Maths Bite’: How to Impress a Chemist,” Mathematical Gazette 80:489 [1996], 584-584.)

# Never Mind

In 1995, NASA astronomer Scott Sandford became troubled by the phrase “You’re comparing apples and oranges.” “First,” he wrote, “the statement that something is like comparing apples and oranges is a kind of analogy itself. That is, denigrating an analogy by accusing it of comparing apples and oranges is, in and of itself, comparing apples and oranges. More importantly, it is not difficult to demonstrate that apples and oranges can, in fact, be compared.”

He desiccated an apple and an orange and ran samples through a spectrometer. “Not only was this comparison easy to make, but it is apparent from the figure that apples and oranges are very similar,” he concluded. “Thus, it would appear that the comparing apples and oranges defense should no longer be considered valid. This is a somewhat startling revelation. It can be anticipated to have a dramatic effect on the strategies used in arguments and discussions in the future.”

Sure enough, five years later surgeon James E. Barone confirmed this result in the British Medical Journal. He found that apples and oranges are both edible, juiceable fruits grown in orchards on flowering trees and subject to damage by disease and insects, and they have comparable color, sweetness, size, shape, and weight. “In only one category, that of ‘involvement of Johnny Appleseed,’ was a statistically significant difference between the two fruits found.”

“This article, certain to become the classic in the field, clearly demonstrates that apples and oranges are not only comparable; indeed they are quite similar,” he concluded. “The admonition ‘Let’s not compare apples with oranges’ should be replaced immediately with a more appropriate expression such as ‘Let’s not compare walnuts with elephants’ or ‘Let’s not compare tumour necrosis factor with linguini.'”

# Crime Control

How many watchmen are needed to guard the art gallery at left, so that every part of it is under surveillance? The answer in this case is 4; four guards stationed as shown will be able to watch every part of the gallery.

In 1973 University of Montreal mathematician Václav Chvátal showed that, in a gallery with n vertices, n/3 guards will always be enough to do the job. (If n/3 is not an integer, you can dispense with the fractional guard.) And Bowdoin College mathematician Steve Fisk found a beautifully simple proof of Chvátal’s result.

The figure at right shows another art gallery. Cut its floor plan into triangles, and color the vertices of each triangle with the same three colors. The full area of any triangle is visible from any of its vertices, and that means that the whole gallery can be guarded by stationing watchmen at the points indicated by any of the three colors. Choosing the color with the fewest vertices will give us n/3 guards (again discarding fractional guards).

The Chvátal and Fisk proofs both give an answer that’s sufficient but sometimes not necessary. In this case, the gallery has 12 vertices, and 12/3 guards (say, the four green ones) will certainly do the job, but here as few as two will be enough.

(Steve Fisk, “A Short Proof of Chvátal’s Watchman Theorem,” Journal of Combinatorial Theory, Series B 24:3 [1978], 374.)

# Conway’s Soldiers

Mathematician John Horton Conway invented this game in 1961. A line divides an infinite checkerboard into two territories. An army of soldiers occupies the lower territory, one per cell. They want to deliver a man as far as possible into the upper territory, but they can proceed only as in peg solitaire: One soldier jumps orthogonally over another soldier and lands on an empty square immediately beyond him, whereupon the “jumped” man is removed.

It’s immediately obvious how the soldiers can get a man into the upper territory, and it’s fairly clear how they can get one as far as the fourth row above the line. But, surprisingly, Conway proved that that’s the limit: No matter how they arrange their efforts, the soldiers cannot get a man beyond that row in a finite number of moves.

Christopher, the 15-year-old hero of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, says that Conway’s Soldiers is “a good maths problem to do in your head when you don’t want to think about something else because you can make it as complicated as you need to fill your brain by making the board as big as you want and the moves as complicated as you want.”

You can find any number of proofs online, but the most convincing way to see that the task is impossible is to try it yourself.

# Unseasonable

The Coudersport Ice Mine is a cave near Sweden Township, Pa., that bears icicles in spring and summer but not in winter. A shaft about 12 feet long is located at the base of a steep hill. In winter, when the shaft is relatively dry, it fills with cold air. In the spring, snow begins to melt, and water accumulates at the bottom of the shaft. At the same time, cold air descends through rock crevices from higher in the hill, which focus it on this spot and freeze the water. By September this fund of cold air has been depleted, the ice melts, and the shaft is dry again when cold weather arrives.

“The general skepticism regarding the existence of this phenomenon has been illustrated many times of late and has furnished the people of Coudersport with an endless source of amusement,” noted the Popular Science Monthly in 1913.

In 1911 a Detroit man offered to bet anyone \$100 or more that the story was true. “A millionaire ice manufacturer took the bet and eight other business men of Detroit followed suit. Two newspaper men were selected as stake-holders to decide the bets. They visited the mine and, of course, verified the newspaper story, much to the disgust of the nine losers.”

# Rapid Play

In his early thinking about a chess-playing computer, information theorist Claude Shannon pointed out that a precise evaluation of a chessboard position would take one of only three possible values, because an infinitely smart player would never make a mistake and could reliably convert even a tiny advantage into a win. Chess to him would be as transparent as tic-tac-toe is to us.

A game between two such mental giants, Mr. A and Mr. B, would proceed as follows. They sit down at the chessboard, draw for colours, and then survey the pieces for a moment. Then either

(1) Mr. A says, ‘I resign’ or
(2) Mr. B says, ‘I resign’ or
(3) Mr. A says, ‘I offer a draw,’ and Mr. B replies, ‘I accept.’

(Claude E. Shannon, “XXII. Programming a Computer for Playing Chess,” The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 41:314 [1950], 256-275.)

# Odor Deafness

Patient H.M. went through experimental brain surgery in the 1950s to address a severe epileptic disorder. He emerged with a curiously compromised sense of smell: He could detect the presence and intensity of an odor, but he couldn’t consciously identify odors or remember them. He was unable to say whether two scents were the same or different, or to match one given scent to another. When asked to make conscious choices, he confused an odor’s quality with its intensity. And although he could name common objects using visual or tactile cues, he couldn’t identify them by smell.

“He can describe what he smells in some detail, but the descriptions do not correlate with the stimulus,” wrote chemist Thomas Hellman Morton, who examined and tested H.M. “Descriptions of the same odor vary widely from one presentation to another, and show no obvious trend when compared to his descriptions of different odors.”

Morton calls this “odor deafness,” by analogy with the “word deafness” found in some stroke victims, who can read, write, and hear but can’t recognize spoken words.

This raises an interesting philosophical question: Does H.M. have a sense of smell? If he can detect the presence of a scent and its intensity but can’t recognize it or distinguish it from others, is he smelling it?

(Thomas Hellman Morton, “Archiving Odors,” in Nalini Bhushan and Stuart Rosenfeld, Of Minds and Molecules, 2000.)

# A Family Outing

In 1972, as Charles Duke was training to visit the moon with Apollo 16, he regretted spending so much time away from his wife and sons. “So just to get the kids excited about what dad was going to do, I said, ‘Would y’all like to go to the moon with me?'” he told Business Insider. “We can take a picture of the family and so the whole family can go to the moon.”

“I talked with Dotty and the boys about it and they were delighted about having a picture of the Duke family on the Moon,” he wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker. “So one day, Ludy Benjamin, a NASA photographer and good friend, came over to our house in Lago and took a picture of the four of us. On the back of the picture I wrote, ‘This is the family of astronaut Charles Duke of planet Earth, who landed on the moon on the twentieth of April 1972.’ Then we all signed it and put our thumbprints on the back.”

On April 23 Duke and John Young went exploring with the lunar rover in the Descartes Highlands, and he dropped the photo, wrapped in plastic, onto the surface and photographed it with his Hasselblad camera.

He left it there. “After 43 years, the temperature of the moon every month goes up to 400 degrees [Fahrenheit] in our landing area, and at night it drops almost absolute zero,” he said in 2015. “Shrink wrap doesn’t turn out too well in those temperatures. It looked OK when I dropped it, but I never looked at it again and I would imagine it’s all faded out by now.”

(Thanks, Bill.)

# Podcast Episode 241: A Case of Scientific Self-Deception

In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot decided he had discovered a new form of radiation. But the mysterious rays had some exceedingly odd properties, and scientists in other countries had trouble seeing them at all. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of N-rays, a cautionary tale of self-deception.

We’ll also recount another appalling marathon and puzzle over a worthless package.

See full show notes …