During an eclipse in 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed Albert Einstein’s prediction of the gravitational bending of light rays, upholding the general theory of relativity. That Christmas, Einstein wrote to his friend Heinrich Zangger in Zurich:

“With fame I become more and more stupid, which, of course, is a very common phenomenon. There is far too great a disproportion between what one is and what others think one is, or at least what they say they think one is. But one has to take it all with good humor.”

(From Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann, eds., Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses From His Archives, 1979.)


Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems had made good his escape from prison in 1569 when a pursuing guard fell through the ice of a frozen pond and called for help.

When Willems turned back to rescue him, he was recaptured, tortured, and executed.


“Wherever there is a phonograph the musical instrument is displaced. The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music. Everyone will have their ready-made or ready-pirated music in their cupboards.”

— John Philip Sousa, New York Morning Telegraph, June 12, 1906

Podcast Episode 342: A Slave Sues for Freedom

In 1844 New Orleans was riveted by a dramatic trial: A slave claimed that she was really a free immigrant who had been pressed into bondage as a young girl. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Sally Miller’s fight for freedom, which challenged notions of race and social hierarchy in antebellum Louisiana.

We’ll also try to pronounce some drug names and puzzle over some cheated tram drivers.

See full show notes …


“To convince any man against his will is hard, but to please him against his will is justly pronounced by Dryden to be above the reach of human abilities.” — Samuel Johnson

“Thou canst not joke an Enemy into a Friend; but thou may’st a Friend into an Enemy.” — Ben Franklin

“The Individual and the World”
Image: Wikimedia Commons

There is an eternal antagonism of interest between the individual and the world at large. The individual will not so much care how much he may suffer in this world provided he can live in men’s good thoughts long after he has left it. The world at large does not so much care how much suffering the individual may either endure or cause in this life, provided he will take himself clean away out of men’s thoughts, whether for good or ill, when he has left it.

— Samuel Butler, Notebooks

Choosing Sides

shekatkar image

Temple University anthropologist Wayne Zachary was studying a local karate club in the early 1970s when a disagreement arose between the club’s instructor and an administrator, dividing the club’s 34 members into two factions. Thanks to his study of communication flow among the members, Zachary was able to predict correctly, with one exception, which side each member would take in the dispute.

The episode has become a popular example in discussions of community structure in networks, so much so that scientists now award a trophy to the first person to use it at a conference. The original example is known as Zachary’s Karate Club; the trophy winners are the Zachary’s Karate Club Club.

(Wayne W. Zachary, “An Information Flow Model for Conflict and Fission in Small Groups,” Journal of Anthropological Research 33:4 [1977], 452-473.) (Thanks to Snehal Shekatkar for the image.)


In the Middle Ages, before the advent of street lighting or organized police forces, fortified cities and towns used to discourage vandals by closing their gates and laying chains across their roads, “as if it were in tyme of warr.” Historian A. Roger Ekirch writes that Nuremberg “maintained more than four hundred sets [of chains]. Unwound each evening from large drums, they were strung at waist height, sometimes in two or three bands, from one side of a street to the other … [and] Paris officials in 1405 set all the city’s farriers to forging chains to cordon off not just streets but also the Seine.”

In some cities, residents who’d returned home for the night were required to give their keys to the authorities. A Paris decree of 1380 reads, “At night all houses … are to be locked and the keyes deposited with a magistrate. Nobody may then enter or leave a house unless he can give the magistrate a good reason for doing so.”

(From Jane Brox, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.)


Either know, or listen to someone who does. You can’t live without understanding, whether your own or someone else’s. There are many, however, who don’t know that they don’t know, and others who think they know, but don’t. Stupidity’s faults are incurable, for since the ignorant don’t know what they are, they don’t search for what they lack. Some individuals would be wise if they didn’t believe that they already were. Given all this, although oracles of good sense are rare, they sit idle, because nobody consults them. Seeking advice will neither diminish your greatness nor refute your ability. In fact, it will enhance your reputation. Engage with reason so misfortune doesn’t contend with you.

— Baltasar Gracián, The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, 1647

Art and Commerce

Before the 19th century, containers did not come in standard sizes, and students in the 1400s were taught to “gauge” their capacity as part of their standard mathematical education:

There is a barrel, each of its ends being 2 bracci in diameter; the diameter at its bung is 2 1/4 bracci and halfway between bung and end it is 2 2/9 bracci. The barrel is 2 bracci long. What is its cubic measure?

This is like a pair of truncated cones. Square the diameter at the ends: 2 × 2 = 4. Then square the median diameter 2 2/9 × 2 2/9 = 4 76/81. Add them together: 8 76/81. Multiply 2 × 2 2/9 = 4 4/9. Add this to 8 76/81 = 13 31/81. Divide by 3 = 4 112/243 … Now square 2 1/4 = 2 1/4 × 2 1/4 = 5 1/16. Add it to the square of the median diameter: 5 5/16 + 4 76/81 = 10 1/129. Multiply 2 2/9 × 2 1/4 = 5. Add this to the previous sum: 15 1/129. Divide by 3: 5 1/3888. Add it to the first result: 4 112/243 + 5 1/3888 = 9 1792/3888. Multiply this by 11 and then divide by 14 [i.e. multiply by π/4]: the final result is 7 23600/54432. This is the cubic measure of the barrel.

Interestingly, this practice informed the art of the time — this exercise is from a mathematical handbook for merchants by Piero della Francesca, the Renaissance painter. Because many artists had attended the same lay schools as business people, they could invoke the same mathematical training in their work, and visual references that recalled these skills became a way to appeal to an educated audience. “The literate public had these same geometrical skills to look at pictures with,” writes art historian Michael Baxandall. “It was a medium in which they were equipped to make discriminations, and the painters knew this.”

(Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, 1988.)

04/10/2021 UPDATE: A reader suggests that there’s a typo in the original reference here. If 9 1792/3888 is changed to 9 1793/3888, the final result is 7 23611/54432, which is exactly the result obtained by integration using the approximation π = 22/7. (Thanks, Mariano.)