A Remarkable Injury


This gruesome portrait illustrates an unconfirmed story: It’s said that in the 16th century a Hungarian nobleman named Gregor Baci survived for a year after being impaled through the head during a joust.

Did this really happen? We don’t know, but in 2010 surgeon Martin Missmann and his colleagues showed that it could have.

They had been presented with a craftsman whose head was transfixed by a metal bar that had fallen from a height of 14 meters. After two surgeries and a year of headaches and double vision, they said, the patient was symptom-free.

“This case shows that even severe penetrating traumas of the head and neck can be survived without sequelae of serious physiological dysfunction,” they wrote.



An odd little detail: David Garrick said of Anglican evangelist George Whitefield that he “could make his audience weep or tremble merely by varying his pronunciation of the word ‘Mesopotamia.'”

“Garrick did not say that he had ever seen this feat performed,” noted one biographer. “[H]e surely must have been befooling some too warm admirer of the preacher, to see how much he could believe.”

But Garrick also said, “I would give a hundred guineas if I could only say ‘Oh’ like Mr. Whitefield.”

The Sleeping Cupid


A young Michelangelo once aged a sculpture artificially to bring a higher price. He began working on a sleeping cupid in 1495, at age 20, apparently inspired by a sculpture in the Medici Gardens. At the advice of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco he aged it falsely to resemble an antique and then passed it on to a dealer, who sold it to Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio. Riario erupted when he discovered the artifice, and Michelangelo offered to take back the sculpture, but the dealer wouldn’t hear of it, and Michelangelo ultimately kept his share of the money.

The work has since been lost, but it helped to establish the artist’s reputation and first brought him to the notice of patrons in Rome.

Spuds Illustrated

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I just found this visual explication of the potato paradox — if potatoes are 99 percent water by weight, and you start with 100 pounds of potatoes and let them dehydrate until they’re 98 percent water, what’s their new weight?

The surprising answer is 50 pounds. Blue boxes represent water, orange non-water. So to double the share of the non-water portion we have to halve the amount of water.

(I had thought it was the setting that made this so confusing, but it turns out real potatoes are 80 percent water! So it’s not as outlandish as I’d thought.)



Andrew Carnegie’s rules for speaking:

  1. Make yourself perfectly at home before your audience, and simply talk to them, not at them.
  2. Do not try to be somebody else; be your own self and talk, never “orate” until you can’t help it.

As a boy he’d joined a debating club, and “I know of no better mode of benefiting a youth than joining such a club as this. … The self-possession I afterwards came to have before an audience may very safely be attributed to the experience of the ‘Webster Society.'”

(From his autobiography.)



In The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell calculates that the trenches on the Western Front in World War I totaled about 25,000 miles, “equal to a trench sufficient to circle the earth.”

Stanley Casson wrote in 1935, “I used to wonder how long it would take for me to walk from the beaches of the North Sea to that curious end of all fighting against the Swiss boundary; to try to guess what each end looked like; to imagine what would happen if I passed a verbal message, in the manner of the parlor game, along to the next man on my right to be delivered to the end man of all up against the Alps. Would anything intelligible at all emerge?”

In fact in early June 1916 Alexander Aitken had heard the Germans celebrating some news, and “a tremendous tin-canning and beating of shell-gongs had begun in the north and run south down their lines to end, without doubt, at Belfort and Mulhausen on the Swiss frontier.” Fussell adds, “Impossible to believe, really, but in this mad setting, somehow plausible.”

Turns of Phrase

Erasmus’ 1512 rhetoric textbook Copia lists 195 variations on the sentence “Your letter delighted me greatly”:

Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.
I was in no small measure refreshed in spirit by your grace’s hand.
From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable pleasure.
Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight.
I conceived a wonderful delight from your pages.
Your lines conveyed to me the greatest joy.
The greatest joy was brought to me by your lines.
We derived great delight from your excellency’s letter.
From my dear Faustus’ letter I derived much delight.
In these Faustine letters I found a wonderful kind of delectation.
At your words a delight of no ordinary kind came over me.
I was singularly delighted by your epistle.
To be sure your letter delighted my spirits!
Your brief missive flooded me with inexpressible Joy.
As a result of your letter, I was suffused by an unfamiliar gladness.
Your communication poured vials of joy on my head.
Your epistle afforded me no small delight.
The perusal of your letter charmed my mind with singular delight.

He followed this with 200 variations on the phrase “Always, as long as I live, I shall remember you.”

After You

The Soviet Union established the first regular paratrooper units in the world, forming its first airborne forces in the mid-1930s.

Rather than jumping from the cabin, early troopers slid from the wings of the plane. In this newsreel footage from 1938, troops drop from a Tupolev TB-3.


The poem known as Catullus 16, by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, is so explicit sexually that a full English translation was not published until the late 20th century:

I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,
bottom Aurelius and catamite Furius,
you who think, because my poems
are sensitive, that I have no shame.
For it’s proper for a devoted poet to be moral
himself, [but] in no way is it necessary for his poems.
In point of fact, these have wit and charm,
if they are sensitive and a little shameless,
and can arouse an itch,
and I don’t mean in boys, but in those hairy old men
who can’t get it up.
Because you’ve read my countless kisses,
you think less of me as a man?
I will sodomize you and face-fuck you.

Duke classics professor Micaela Wakil Janan renders this in modern English prose:

Fuck you, boys, up the butt and in the mouth, you queer Aurelius and you fag Furius! You size me up, on the basis of my poems, because they’re a little sexy, as not really decent. A poet has to live clean — but not his poems. They only have spice and charm, if somewhat sexy and really not for children — if, in fact, they cause body talk (I’m not talking in teenagers, but in hairy old men who can barely move their stiff bums). But you, because you happen to read about ‘many thousands of kisses,’ you think I’m not a man? Fuck you, boys, up the butt and in the mouth!

Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messalinus and Marcus Furius Bibaculus had criticized Catullus’ earlier work as effeminate. Writing in the Telegraph in 2009, author Harry Mount called the poet’s response “one of the filthiest expressions ever written in Latin — or in any other language, for that matter.”