In a Nutshell

“The difference between the amoeba and Einstein is that, although both make use of the method of trial and error elimination, the amoeba dislikes erring while Einstein is intrigued by it.” — Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, 1972

Podcast Episode 289: The Johnstown Flood
Image: Ron Shawley

In 1889, a dam failed in southwestern Pennsylvania, sending 20 million tons of water down an industrialized valley toward the unsuspecting city of Johnstown. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe some of the dramatic and harrowing personal stories that unfolded on that historic day.

We’ll also celebrate Christmas with Snoopy and puzzle over a deadly traffic light.

See full show notes …

In a Word

n. a wayfarer; traveler

adj. likely to cause harm or damage

adj. exploding or detonating

adj. in heaps

British director Cecil Hepworth made “How It Feels To Be Run Over” in 1900. The car is on the wrong side of the road. (The intertitle at the end, “Oh! Mother will be pleased,” may have been scratched directly into the celluloid.)

Hepworth followed it up with “Explosion of a Motor Car,” below, later the same year.

Neuberg’s Theorem
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Construct squares outwardly on the sides of triangle ABC, and make a triangle of their centers. Now the centers of squares constructed inwardly on the sides of that triangle will fall on the midpoints of the sides of ABC.

(Due to Luxembourger mathematician Joseph Neuberg, 1840-1926.)


Playing a trivia game, George S. Kaufman was asked, “What’s the longest river in South America?”

After a lot of stalling, he asked, “Are you sure it’s in South America?”

The Last Banana

A thought experiment in probability by Leonardo Barichello: Two people are stranded on an island with only one banana to eat. To decide who gets it, they agree to play a game. Each of them will roll a fair 6-sided die. If the largest number rolled is a 1, 2, 3, or 4, then Player 1 gets the banana. If the largest number rolled is a 5 or 6, then Player 2 gets it. Which player has the better chance?

Click for Answer

For What It’s Worth

In a 2009 survey, readers of Stuttgarter Nachrichten, the largest newspaper in Stuttgart, chose Muggeseggele as the most beautiful word in Swabian German.

Muggeseggele means “the scrotum of a housefly.” It’s used ironically to describe a very small length.

Counting Sheep
Image: Flickr

Shepherds in Northern England used to tally their flocks using a base-20 numbering system. They’d count a score of sheep using the words:

Yan, tan, tether, mether, pip,
Azer, sayzer, acka, konta, dick,
Yanna-dick, tanna-dick, tethera-dick, methera-dick, bumfit,
Yanna-bum, tanna-bum, tethera-bum, methera-bum, jigget

… and then denote the completion of a group by taking up a stone or marking the ground before commencing the next count.

These systems vary by region — Wikipedia has them laid out in pleasing tables.

(Thanks, Brieuc.)

Underground Dining

Early visitors to Kenya’s Kitum Cave found the walls curiously scratched and furrowed: They discovered that elephants frequent the cave each night to scratch rocks from the walls, which they eat for their salt content.

They have done this for centuries, enlarging the cave significantly in the process and effectively converting it into a salt mine, which they now share with other species.