Round Plenty

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ex-JPL conceptual artist Kurt Wenner created this anamorphic drawing in 2010 for Greenpeace, to commemorate a million-signature petition opposing genetically modified crops in Europe.

Seen from this angle the illusion is so compelling that it’s hard to tell what’s what. Within the circle Wenner (addressing reporters) is real, as are the five people behind him bearing signs, and the bales immediately surrounding them. But I believe everything else within the ring is drawn. For comparison here’s an image by Pyramid Visuals, which produced the substrate on which the image was printed.

At 22 meters square, the image set a world record at the time as the largest of its kind drawn by a single person.

Footwork

Simon Beck creates large-scale artworks by walking through fields of snow. Working primarily in the Alps, he creates about 30 drawings each winter, shuffling through pristine snowfalls guided by a compass. A single image can require 10 hours’ time and 30 miles of of walking.

“Making these drawings is map-making in reverse,” he told the Guardian. “You start with the map, and you need to make the ground agree with the map.”

Not Guilty

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The Swedish courts took up a perplexing case in 1656: Småland maid Karin Svensdotter claimed to have had a sexual relationship with the King of the Fairies. She said she’d met a beautiful man in golden clothes who called himself Älvakungen and courted her with gifts. She’d borne him seven children, which he’d taken away to the land of the fairies. She said she’d given birth during recurring fits, from which she was known to suffer, and her employer testified that he’d heard her searching for her children in the forest.

In the 17th century the church acknowledged the existence of mythical creatures, and consorting with nature spirits such as Älvakungen would have constituted bestiality, for which a human might face a death sentence. After some consideration, though, it was determined that Svensdotter had been driven mad by Satan’s magic. The congregation was ordered to pray for her, relatives gave her a silver cross, and Älvakungen never troubled her again.

“A Man of Principle”

During a shower of rain the Keeper of a Zoölogical garden observed a Man of Principle crouching beneath the belly of the ostrich, which had drawn itself up to its full height to sleep.

‘Why, my dear sir,’ said the Keeper, ‘if you fear to get wet you’d better creep into the pouch of yonder female kangaroo — the Saltatrix mackintosha — for if that ostrich wakes he will kick you to death in a moment!’

‘I can’t help that,’ the Man of Principle replied, with that lofty scorn of practical considerations distinguishing his species. ‘He may kick me to death if he wish, but until he does he shall give me shelter from the storm. He has swallowed my umbrella.’

— Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1899

Hand Talk

In the 19th century, Native Americans from central Canada to northern Mexico could communicate using Plains Indian Sign Language, a lingua franca that facilitated trading, hunting, storytelling, and warfare between speakers of different languages. It’s estimated that in 1885 more than 110,000 indigenous people were familiar with the signs. Today only a few dozen fluent signers remain, though efforts are afoot to preserve the language.

Above: In September 1930, U.S. Army general Hugh L. Scott attended the Indian Sign Language Grand Council, an intertribal gathering of indigenous leaders convened to document and preserve PISL.

Circumstance

Excerpt from a letter by Lt. James Simmen, 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry (Mechanized), in Vietnam, to his brother Vern, a parish priest:

You’d be surprised how similar killing is to hunting. I know I’m after souls, but I get all excited when I see a VC, just like when I see a deer. I go ape firing at him. It isn’t that I’m so crazy. I think a man who freezes killing a man would freeze killing a deer. I’m not perverted, crazy, or anything else. Civilians think such thinking is crazy, but it’s no big deal. He runs, you fire. You hunt so I think you’d feel the same way. It isn’t all that horrifying.

When you see a man laughing about it, remember he talks the same about killing a deer. Of course, revenge has a part in wanting him just like you want a deer for a trophy and meat. I know I’m not nuts. If I killed a man in the U.S., everyone would stare. Last night I killed and everyone has been patting me on the back, including the battalion commander. What do you think?

That’s from Bernard Edelman’s Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (2002). In The Fate of a Nation (1975), Hugh Rankin quotes Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin describing an experience at the Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778:

When within about five rods of the rear of the retreating foe, I could distinguish everything about them, they were retreating in line, though in some disorder; I singled out a man and took my aim directly between his shoulders (they were divested of their packs,) he was a good mark, being a broad shouldered fellow; what became of him I know not, the fire and smoke hid him from my sight; one thing I know, that is, I took as deliberate aim at him as ever I did in my life. But after all, I hope I did not kill him, although I intended to at the time.

A few months after his Vietnam experience, Simmen wrote, “[I] feel kind of ashamed of the way I’ve thought and acted over here. I realize that I’ve actually enjoyed some of the things I’ve done which would be repulsive to a healthy mind. … When one starts to enjoy the sickness of war, he is sick.”

Higher Things

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Winston Churchill published a surprising essay in March 1942: “Are There Men on the Moon?”:

I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets and, therefore, that our little earth is unique. Once we admit that the other stars probably also have planets, at any rate a goodly proportion of them, it is more than likely that a large fraction of these will be the right size to keep on their surface water and, possibly, an atmosphere of some sort; and, furthermore, at the proper distance from their parent sun, to maintain a suitable temperature. Do they house living creatures, or even plants? The answer to this question may never be known.

“[T]he odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible,” he concluded. “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

(Winston Churchill, “Are There Men on the Moon?”, Sunday Dispatch, March 8, 1942.)

Man of the Hour

Abbreviating litre with a lowercase L can be confusing, as the character can be mistaken for the digit 1. But usually the International System of Units permits a capital letter only when a unit is named after a person.

So, in 1978, University of Waterloo chemist Kenneth Woolner announced in a schoolteachers’ newsletter that the litre had been named for Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre, a fictional French scientist who had proposed a unit of volume measurement before his death in 1778.

Woolner had intended the claim only as an April Fools’ hoax, but the point was made. Today the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology recommends abbreviating litre with an uppercase L.

The Machine

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The first life-size obstetrical mannequin was invented by French midwife Angélique du Coudray, who was using it to demonstrate the process of childbirth as early as 1756:

I announced that I would gladly give my advice to poor women who needed it. … I took the tack of making my lessons palpable by having them maneuver in front of me on a machine I constructed for this purpose, and which represented the pelvis of a woman, the womb, its opening, its ligaments, the conduit called the vagina, the bladder and rectum intestine.

The upholstered model included a womb and an extractable baby doll with which her students could practice. The skin and soft organs were made of flesh-colored linen and leather stuffed with padding, and some of the bones were assembled from real skeletons, though wood and wicker later took their place.

“The model is meant mostly for maneuvers that, as others confirm, allow her students to gain confidence, be ‘encouraged, and succeed perfectly,'” writes Nina Rattner Gelbart in The King’s Midwife (1998). “Delivering babies from every conceivable position and presentation will prepare her students for all eventualities. … This machine, as the midwife’s followers will continue to testify, makes an ‘impression that can never be erased,’ ‘an advantage all the more essential because this class of surgeons and these women [of the countryside] do not have the resource of reading … [so] these daily continual maneuvers … [must be] vividly impressed on their senses.'”

Squaring Words

In his 1864 autobiography Passages From the Life of a Philosopher, Charles Babbage describes an “amusing puzzle.” The task is to write a given word in the first rank and file of a square and then fill the remaining blanks with letters so that the same four words appear in order both horizontally and vertically. He gives this example with the word DEAN:

D E A N
E A S E
A S K S
N E S T

“The various ranks of the church are easily squared,” he writes, “but it is stated, I know not on what authority, that no one has yet succeeded in squaring the word bishop.”

By an unlikely coincidence I’ve just found that Eureka put this problem to its readers in 1961, and they found three solutions:

B I S H O P    B I S H O P    B I S H O P
I L L U M E    I N H E R E    I M P A L E
S L I D E S    S H A R P S    S P I N E T
H U D D L E    H E R M I T    H A N G A R
O M E L E T    O R P I N E    O L E A T E
P E S E T A    P E S T E R    P E T R E L

The first was found by A.L. Cooil and J.M. Dagnese; the second by A.R.B. Thomas; and the third by R.W. Payne, J.D.E. Konhauser, and M. Rumney.

12/10/2023 UPDATE: Reader Giorgos Kalogeropoulos has enlisted a database of 235,000 words to produce more than 100 bishop squares (click to enlarge):

Kalogeropoulos bishop squares

This is pleasing, because it’s a road that Babbage himself was trying to follow in the 19th century, laboriously cataloging the contents of physical dictionaries after an algorithm of his own devising — see page 238 in the book linked above. (Thanks, Giorgos.)