Podcast Episode 354: Falling Through a Thunderstorm


In 1959, Marine pilot William Rankin parachuted from a malfunctioning jet into a violent thunderstorm. The ordeal that followed is almost unique in human experience. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Rankin’s harrowing adventure, which has been called “the most prolonged and fantastic parachute descent in history.”

We’ll also hear your thoughts on pronunciation and puzzle over mice and rice.

See full show notes …

The Queens Giant

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The oldest living thing in the New York metropolitan area is this 40-meter tulip poplar in Alley Pond Park in Queens.

With an estimated age of 350 to 450 years, it may already have been growing when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Bay in 1609.

The Picnic

We’re giving out apples to a group of boys. If we distribute the entire supply, then every boy will get three, except for one, who will get two. If instead we give each boy two apples, then we’ll have eight apples left over. How many apples are there altogether?

Click for Answer

Battlefield ID


The Norman Conquest unfolded before the advent of modern heraldry, so warriors couldn’t be identified reliably by the designs on their shields, and their hoods and helmets tended to obscure their faces. As a result they were often unrecognizable. At the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror had to raise his helmet to show that he was not dead, as recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry (Eustace II, Count of Boulogne, points to him to rally the troops). Combatants began to carry armorial shields early in the 12th century.

Digit Work

In Mathematics in Fun and in Earnest (2006), Nathan Altshiller-Court describes an ancient method of finger arithmetic to compute the product of two numbers in the range 6-10. Each number is assigned to a finger (on both hands):

6: little finger
7: ring finger
8: middle finger
9: index finger
10: thumb

Now, to multiply 7 by 9, hold your hands before you with the thumbs up and touch the ring finger of one hand to the index finger of the other. These two fingers and all the others physically below them number six and count for 60 toward the final result. Above the joined fingers are three fingers on one hand and one on the other — multiply those two values, add the result (3) to the existing 60, and you get the final answer: 7 × 9 = (6 × 10) + (3 × 1) = 63.

“Besides its arithmetical uses, this clever trick may also serve, with telling effect, to enhance the prestige of an ambitious grandfather in the eyes of a bright fourth-grade grandson,” Altshiller-Court observes. “Competent observers report that it is still resorted to by the Wallachian peasants of southern Rumania.”

The Emaciated Child


We now and then hear of some interesting discovery, but seldom of one more affecting to the sense of humanity than that which was made three weeks ago. In one of the narrow streets [of Pompeii] were found signs of human remains in the dried mud lying on the top of the strata of lapilli reaching to the second floor of the houses; and when the usual process of pouring plaster of Paris into the hollow left by the impression of a body had been accomplished, there came to light the form of a little boy, seemingly about twelve years old. Within the house, opposite to the second floor window of which this infantile form lay, were found a gold bracelet and the skeleton of a woman, the arms stretched towards the child. The plaster form of this woman could not be obtained, the impression being too much destroyed. It is evident that the mother, when the fiery mass descended, had put her little boy out of the window in the hope of saving him, and he must, no doubt have been overwhelmed. The position of the left leg, indeed, seems to show that the child had lost one foot, or that it had been hurt of lamed, which may have been done by the burning substance that quickly overspread the floors of the house and the pavement on the street. Some think the boy was actually being raised and carried in his mother’s arms, at the moment when both finally perished. His left arm is close to the chest, as though wrapped in his toga or mantle, while the right arm (which has been broken off above the wrist, in digging out the figure) was somewhat uplifted. There is a protuberance on the face, which seems to have been caused by his putting a finger to his mouth, to clear off the suffocating matter that pressed upon him in his last moments of life.

Illustrated London News, March 11, 1882, via Eugene J. Dwyer, Pompeii’s Living Statues, 2010