New York Times, Dec. 1, 1913:

“In a lecture on ‘Beauty and Morality,’ at the University of London, one Kane S. Smith called the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Leonardo da Vinci ‘one of the most actively evil pictures ever painted, the embodiment of all evil the painter could imagine put into the most attractive form he could devise.'”

Literary Digest, Jan. 3, 1914:

“The lecturer admitted that it was an exquisite piece of painting, but said, ‘if you look at it long enough to get into its atmosphere, I think you will be glad to escape from its influence. It has an atmosphere of indefinable evil.'”

“The audience is stated to have applauded enthusiastically, but it is probable they would have applauded equally as heartily if the lecturer had found the influences of the picture good.”

Asked and Answered

In 1865, while conducting the “Answers to Correspondents” column in The Californian, Mark Twain received this inquiry:

If it would take a cannon ball 3 1/3 seconds to travel four miles, and 3 3/8 seconds to travel the next four, and 3 5/8 to travel the next four, and if its rate of progress continued to diminish in the same ratio, how long would it take it to go fifteen hundred millions of miles?

He responded:

I don’t know.

In a 1906 address to the New York Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind, he said, “I never could do anything with figures, never had any talent for mathematics, never accomplished anything in my efforts at that rugged study, and today the only mathematics I know is multiplication, and the minute I get away up in that, as soon as I reach nine times seven … [Mr. Clemens lapsed into deep thought for a moment.] I’ve got it now. It’s eighty-four.”

Podcast Episode 333: Stranded in the Kimberley

Crossing the world in 1932, two German airmen ran out of fuel in a remote region of northwestern Australia. With no food and little water, they struggled to find their way to safety while rescuers fought to locate them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the airmen’s ordeal, a dramatic story of perseverance and chance.

We’ll also survey some escalators and puzzle over a consequential crash.


Winston Churchill had a confusing namesake in the United States.

Shelley’s friend Horace Smith wrote a competing version of “Ozymandias.”

Sources for our feature on the 1932 Kimberley rescue:

Barbara Winter, Atlantis Is Missing: A Gripping True Story of Survival in the Australian Wilderness, 1979.

Brian H. Hernan, Forgotten Flyer, 2007.

Anthony Redmond, “Tracks and Shadows: Some Social Effects of the 1938 Frobenius Expedition to the North-West Kimberley,” in Nicolas Peterson and Anna Kenny, eds., German Ethnography in Australia, 2017, 413-434.

Frank Koehler, “Descriptions of New Species of the Diverse and Endemic Land Snail Amplirhagada Iredale, 1933 From Rainforest Patches Across the Kimberley, Western Australia (Pulmonata, Camaenidae),” Records of the Australian Museum 63:2 (2011), 163-202.

Bridget Judd, “The Unexpected Rescue Mission That Inspired ABC Mini-Series Flight Into Hell — And Other Survivalists,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Jan. 16, 2021.

Peter de Kruijff, “Survivalist Retraces Lost Aviators’ Trek,” Kimberley Echo, Jan. 29, 2018.

Michael Atkinson, “Surviving the Kimberley,” Australian Geographic, June 28, 2018.

Erin Parke, “No Food, No Water, No Wi-Fi: Adventurer Tests Skills in One of Australia’s Most Remote Places,” ABC Premium News, Jan. 29, 2018.

“Forgotten Territory,” [Darwin, N.T.] Northern Territory News, Feb. 28, 2016.

Graeme Westlake, “They Accepted Their Saviour’s Fish and Ate It Raw,” Canberra Times, May 15, 1982.

“German Fliers Got Lost in Our Nor-West,” [Perth] Mirror, June 2, 1956.

“37 Days in a Torture Chamber,” [Adelaide] News, April 21, 1954.

“Air Passenger,” [Grafton, N.S.W.] Examiner, July 18, 1938.

“Hans Bertram,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 16, 1938.

“Aviation: Pilot Bertram,” [Charters Towers, Qld.] Northern Miner, April 20, 1933.

“Bertram Lands at Crawley,” [Perth] Daily News, Sept. 24, 1932.

“Bertram’s Marooned ‘Plane,” Singleton [N.S.W.] Argus, Sept. 21, 1932.

“Captain Bertram,” Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 20, 1932.

“Fully Recovered,” Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 6, 1932.

“The Search for the German Airmen,” [Perth] Western Mail, July 21, 1932.

“The German Airmen,” Albany [W.A.] Advertiser, July 7, 1932.

“Death Cheated,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 5, 1932.

“Lost German Fliers,” [Adelaide] Chronicle, June 30, 1932.

“Search for Hans Bertram,” [Carnarvon, W.A.] Northern Times, June 16, 1932.

“Strangers on the Shore: Shipwreck Survivors and Their Contact With Aboriginal Groups in Western Australia 1628-1956,” Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Maritime Museum, 1998.

Listener mail:

“Escalator Etiquette,” Wikipedia (accessed Feb. 8, 2021).

Brian Ashcraft, “It’s Hard For Japan to Change Its Escalator Manners,” Kotaku, June 20, 2019.

Jack Malvern, “Mystery Over Tube Escalator Etiquette Cleared Up by Restored Film,” Times, Oct. 21, 2009.

Laura Reynolds, “11 Secrets of Harrods,” Londonist (accessed Feb. 14, 2021).

Adam Taylor, “A Japanese Campaign Wants to Rewrite the Global Rules of Escalator Etiquette,” Washington Post, Aug. 26, 2015.

Linda Poon, “Tokyo Wants People to Stand on Both Sides of the Escalator,” Bloomberg City Lab, Dec. 20, 2018.

Johan Gaume and Alexander M. Puzrin, “Mechanisms of Slab Avalanche Release and Impact in the Dyatlov Pass Incident in 1959,” Communications Earth & Environment 2:10 (Jan. 28, 2021), 1-11.

Robin George Andrews, “Has Science Solved One of History’s Greatest Adventure Mysteries?”, National Geographic, Jan. 28, 2021.

Nature Video, “Explaining the Icy Mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Deaths” (video), Jan. 28, 2021.

New Scientist, “The Dyatlov Pass incident, which saw nine Russian mountaineers die in mysterious circumstances in 1959, has been the subject of many conspiracy theories. Now researchers say an unusual avalanche was to blame,” Twitter, Jan. 28, 2021.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alex Baumans. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Back and Forth

In the autumn of 1947, Oxford mathematician John Henry Whitehead became fascinated with palindromes. He came up with STEP ON NO PETS but felt this could be surpassed. He put the problem to research student Peter Hilton, who suggested SEX AT NOON TAXES. Whitehead liked this but still felt that a longer sensible palindrome must be possible.

So Hilton spent an entire night working on the problem, writing nothing down, just lying in the dark. By morning he had:


“Henry was delighted, and spread the word about my palindrome far and wide,” Hilton wrote later. Among those who heard about it were their former colleagues at Bletchley Park, where Whitehead and Hilton had helped to decrypt German ciphers during the war, and from there Hilton’s composition found its way into The Codebreakers, F.H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp’s account of that effort.

Robert Harris quoted the palindrome in his review of that book, “to indicate what sort of people the codebreakers were,” Hilton wrote. “But he also quoted the remark, attributed to Churchill, on the priority to be given to recruiting suitable people for this work: ‘When I told them to leave no stone unturned, I did not intend to be taken so literally.'”

(“Miscellanea,” College Mathematics Journal 30:5 [November 1999], 422-424.)


In his 1886 book The Present Age and Inner Life, “Poughkeepsie Seer” Andrew Jackson Davis gives a surprisingly concrete explanation of table-turning at a seance:

We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us; and the whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical. The spirits (improperly so called) sustaining a positive relation to us, are enabled through mediums, as electric conductors, to attract and move articles of furniture, vibrate the wires of a musical instrument, and, by discharging, through the potencies of their wills, currents of magnetism, they can and do produce rappings, on principles strictly analogous to the magnetic telegraph, and may move tables or tip them, to signify certain letters of the alphabet.

In her 1972 study of the spiritualist movement, Georgess McHargue writes that Davis’ scientific passages are so packed with “gobbledegook as to put it in the class with the most imaginative vintage science fantasy.”

The Stranger’s Room

bell rock strangers' room

Immediately below the light room of Scotland’s Bell Rock lighthouse was a library. Writer R.M. Ballantyne spent two weeks there in 1865:

[I]t is a most comfortable and elegant apartment. The other rooms of the lighthouse, although thoroughly substantial in their furniture and fittings, are quite plain and devoid of ornament, but the library, or ‘stranger’s room’, as it is sometimes called, being the guest-chamber, is fitted up in a style worthy of a lady’s boudoir, with a Turkey carpet, handsome chairs, and an elaborately carved oak table, supported appropriately by a centre stem of three twining dolphins. The dome of the ceiling is painted to represent stucco panelling, and the partition which cuts off the small segment of this circular room that is devoted to passage and staircase, is of panelled oak. The thickness of this partition is just sufficient to contain the bookcase; also a cleverly contrived bedstead, which can be folded up during the day out of sight. There is also a small cupboard of oak, which serves the double purpose of affording shelf accommodation and concealing the iron smoke-pipe which rises from the kitchen, and, passing through the several storeys, projects a few feet above the lantern. The centre window is ornamented with marble sides and top, and above it stands a marble bust of Robert Stevenson, the engineer of the building, with a marble slab below bearing testimony to the skill and energy with which he had planned and executed the work.

Stevenson, perhaps fittingly, was the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson.

(From R.M. Ballantyne, The Lighthouse, 1865.)

Life and Art

An April 1832 letter of Heinrich Heine strangely prefigures “The Masque of the Red Death”:

On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, ‘violet-blue’ in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville.

He was witnessing the advent of cholera in Paris; Poe had seen similar scenes in Baltimore the year before. The story appeared 10 years later.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
  • Trains are older than bicycles.
  • 87 percent of the human population lives in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • This sentence no verb.
  • “God pity a one-dream man.” — Robert H. Goddard

Roald Dahl wrote the film adaptations for two of Ian Fleming’s novels, You Only Live Twice and Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

(Thanks, Ben and Fred.)