“The Trembling Giant”


The heaviest known organism is a clonal stand of quaking aspen in the Fishlake National Forest of south-central Utah. Connected by an enormous underground root system, it occupies 43 hectares and is estimated to weigh 6,000 metric tons.

The root system is also among the oldest living organisms, with an estimated age of 80,000 years.

A New Worry

In 1984 University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Jordan Smoller called attention to an alarming syndrome that hadn’t received much clinical attention: childhood. Features:

  1. Congenital onset
  2. Dwarfism
  3. Emotional lability and immaturity
  4. Knowledge deficits
  5. Legume anorexia

Billy J., age 8, was brought to treatment by his parents. Billy’s affliction was painfully obvious. He stood only 4’3″ high and weighed a scant 70 pounds, despite the fact that he ate voraciously. Billy presented a variety of troubling symptoms. His voice was noticeably high for a man. He displayed legume anorexia and, according to his parents, often refused to bathe. His intellectual functioning was also below normal — he had little general knowledge and could barely write a structured sentence. Social skills were also deficient. He often spoke inappropriately and exhibited ‘whining behavior.’ His sexual experience was non-existent. Indeed, Billy considered women ‘icky.’

Most children are unemployed and poorly educated, and the condition appears to run in families. Public schools don’t seem to reduce the number of victims, but a longitudinal study suggests that it tends to abate with time. “Clearly, much more research is needed before we can give any real hope to the millions of victims wracked by this insidious disorder.”

(Jordan W. Smoller, “The Etiology and Treatment of Childhood,” Journal of Polymorphous Perversity, 1984, 3-7.)

An Eternal Triangle

penrose triangle

Similarly, in a waking dream, the greater world is somehow represented in the mind. Part of the wonder here is the wonder of consciousness itself, which William James expressed so clearly when he asked, ‘How can the [world] I am in be simultaneously out there and, as it were, inside my head, my experience?’ Many people think there is still no good answer to this question that I know of — although I recently heard the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose identify a striking corollary of it. It is as if, he said, there are three distinct worlds, equally real, and yet each somehow encompassing the others. There is, first, the world of mathematics — unbounded and infinite, and something that Penrose, following Plato, believes really exists. Then, within the world of mathematics there is the relatively small set of equations that, Penrose says, can explain all of physical reality. And finally, within and made possible by that physical reality there is the world of conscious beings and what they can experience. And yet somehow these conscious beings (or at least the ones who are good enough mathematicians) are capable of comprehending the mathematical world. Each world is therefore somehow nested in turn within another in an eternal loop, like the triangle devised by Penrose that has been called ‘impossibility in its purest form.’

— Caspar Henderson, A New Map of Wonders, 2017

And That Meant Comfort

Image: Flickr

At a 1994 conference on indoor air temperature standards, participant M.A. Humphreys considered the thermal environments of hobbits. If we wanted to prepare a hole for some visiting halflings, we could study the physics and physiology of their current living arrangements, hoping to find a scientifically optimal solution, but it might be wiser simply to give them the means to adjust the conditions themselves, according to their own changing preferences. In that case:

  1. We did not need to know anything at all about the thermal physiology of Hobbits, such as the diurnal cycle of their body-temperature, the metabolic heat production of their various activities, whether they could sweat or shiver or pant, or whether the Dubois relation between height, weight and skin surface-area held good for Hobbits;
  2. we did not need to know anything about the heat exchange between Hobbit-skin and the hole, such as the surface heat-transfer coefficients by convection or by radiation, the mean skin temperature and at what sites it is best measured, the thermal insulation of their colorful clothing-ensembles, or the vapour permeability of their clothing materials.

“It would be fascinating to know about these things, and thermal comfort researchers whose original education was, like mine, in the physical sciences would only with great difficulty be able to restrain their curiosity. Such knowledge would help to explain quantitatively the thermal balance of Hobbits, and would give us a theoretical explanation of their comfort conditions, and might be useful in identifying potentially dangerous environments, but it would not be needed to enable us to provide comfortable apartments for our Hobbits. This is not surprising if we recall that achieving thermal comfort pre-dates by thousands of years the development of the theory of heat exchange.”

(M.A. Humphreys, “Thermal Comfort Temperatures and the Habits of Hobbits,” in Standards for Thermal Comfort: Indoor Air Temperature Standards for the 21st Century, 1995, 3-13.)

Black and White

abdurahmanovic puzzle

This puzzle, by F. Abdurahmanovic, won first prize in a 1959 Yugoslav tourney. It’s a helpmate — how can Black, moving first, cooperate with White to get himself checkmated in two moves?

Click for Answer

Podcast Episode 272: The Cannibal Convict


In 1822, Irish thief Alexander Pearce joined seven convicts fleeing a penal colony in western Tasmania. As they struggled eastward through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, starvation pressed the party into a series of grim sacrifices. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the prisoners on their nightmarish bid for freedom.

We’ll also unearth another giant and puzzle over an eagle’s itinerary.

See full show notes …

A Good Eye

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Australian minister Robert Evans holds an unusual record: He’s discovered 42 supernovae by eye. Using a staggeringly retentive memory, he’s memorized the appearance of more than a thousand galaxies and can spot changes in them simply by looking at them through a telescope.

This preternatural ability has made him a sort of John Henry: He began hunting supernovae in 1955, and it was only in the 1990s that automated telescopes began to scan the sky with comparable quickness and accuracy. He kept up with them for a time, but they’ve now outpaced any single person.

“There’s something satisfying, I think, about the idea of light travelling for millions of years through space and just at the right moment as it reaches Earth someone looks at the right bit of sky and sees it,” he’s said. “It just seems right that an event of that magnitude should be witnessed.”

(Thanks, Jon.)

Unusual Books

Image: Flickr

Adam Thirlwell’s 2012 novel Kapow! and Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 House of Leaves (above) are typeset unconventionally, with some text appearing in separate blocks, aslant, and even upside down.

To create his 2010 book Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer took Bruno Schulz’s 1934 short story collection The Street of Crocodiles and physically cut out most of the words to produce a new story.

Marc Saporta’s 1962 novel Composition No. 1 consists of 150 unbound pages that can be read in any order.

Anne Carson’s 2010 Nox is an accordion-folded facsimile of a handmade book of memories of her brother, including old letters, family photos, and sketches.

Holes have been cut in several of the pages in B.S. Johnson’s 1964 novel Albert Angelo, allowing the reader to glimpse events further ahead in the story.

The plot of Serbian novelist Milorad Pavić’s 1988 Landscape Painted With Tea is constructed like a crossword puzzle, with chapters that can be read “across” or “down.” “The solution of the puzzle is supposed to lead to the solution of life.”