In a Word
Image: Wikimedia Commons

adj. made out of a single trunk or piece of timber

For this 2011 work, Italian artist Giuseppe Penone carved away the successive growth rings of a fir tree, revealing the sapling of its early days.

“My artwork shows, with the language of sculpture, the essence of matter and tries to reveal with the work, the hidden life within.”


[Wittgenstein] once greeted me with the question: ‘Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?’ I replied: ‘I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.’ ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?’

— G.E.M. Anscombe, An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, 1959

A Hand for All Seasons

Signatures of Charles Dickens from 1825 to 1870, gathered by J. Holt Schooling for a feature in the Strand, January 1894:

At the height of his fame he seems to have been everything to everyone. In her 2011 biography, Claire Tomalin notes that contemporary observers described his eyes as dark brown, dark glittering black, clear blue, “not blue,” distinct clear hazel, “large effeminate eyes,” clear grey, green-grey, dark slaty blue, “and even, by a cautious observer, as ‘nondescript.'”

A Fuss Budget

Francis Galton quantified boredom. At a tedious meeting in 1885, he observed that the distance between neighboring heads in the listless crowd began to vary:

When the audience is intent each person forgets his muscular weariness and skin discomfort, and he holds himself rigidly in the best position for seeing and hearing. As this is practically identical for persons who sit side by side, their bodies are parallel, and again, as they sit at much the same distances apart, their heads are correspondingly equidistant. But when the audience is bored the several individuals cease to forget themselves and they begin to pay much attention to the discomforts attendant on sitting long in the same position. They sway from side to side, each in his own way, and the intervals between their faces, which lie at the free end of the radius formed by their bodies, with their seat as the centre of rotation varies greatly.

He wasn’t able to estimate this numerically, but he did find another measure: He counted about 50 fidgets per minute in each section of 50 people. “The audience was mostly elderly; the young would have been more mobile.” He urged “observant philosophers” at dull meetings to estimate “the frequency, amplitude, and duration of the fidgets of their fellow-sufferers” in hopes that “they may acquire the new art of giving numerical expression to the amount of boredom expressed by the audience generally during the reading of any particular memoir.”

(Francis Galton, “The Measure of Fidget,” Nature 32:817 [June 25, 1885], 174–175.)

Strähle’s Construction

In 1743, Swedish organ maker Daniel Stråhle published this method to calculate the sounding lengths of strings in a musical tuning with 12 pitches per octave that’s close to equal temperament. Draw segment QR 12 units long and establish it as the base of an isosceles triangle with sides of length 24. Find point P on OQ seven units above Q and draw a line through it from R to M such that PM = RP. Now MR is the string length of the lowest sounding pitch, MP is the pitch one octave higher, and the points labeled 2 through 12 give the endpoints for successive semitones within the octave.

Stråhle, who had no mathematical training, said he’d established the method after “some thought and a great number of attempts.” Exactly how he came up with it is not known.

The Center

i met a toad
the other day by the name
of warty bliggens
he was sitting under
a toadstool
feeling contented
he explained that when the cosmos
was created
that toadstool was especially
planned for his personal
shelter from sun and rain
thought out and prepared
for him

do not tell me
said warty bliggens
that there is not a purpose
in the universe
the thought is blasphemy

a little more
conversation revealed
that warty bliggens
considers himself to be
the center of the said
the earth exists
to grow toadstools for him
to sit under
the sun to give him light
by day and the moon
and wheeling constellations
to make beautiful
the night for the sake of
warty bliggens

to what act of yours
do you impute
this interest on the part
of the creator
of the universe
i asked him
why is it that you
are so greatly favored

ask rather
said warty bliggens
what the universe
has done to deserve me
if i were a
human being i would
not laugh
too complacently
at poor warty bliggens
for similar
have only too often
lodged in the crinkles
of the human cerebrum

— Don Marquis

Getting There

English mapmaker John Ogilby completed a startling project in 1675: a road atlas of 17th-century Britain, offering strip maps of most of the major routes in England and Wales. He wrote to Charles II:

I have Attempted to Improve Our Commerce and Correspondency at Home, by Registring and Illustrating Your Majesty’s High-Ways, Directly and Transversely, as from Shoare to Shoare, so to the Prescrib’d Limts of the Circumambient Ocean, from the Great Emporium and Prime Center of the Kingdom, Your Royal Metropolis.

It used a consistent scale of one inch per mile, with each mile comprising 1760 yards, a standard that later mapmakers would follow. You can see the whole atlas here.

Vast and Furious

What’s the fastest shed in the world? One would think it’s a very broad tie, but in fact the record is held by Oxfordshire mechanic Kevin Nicks, who in 2015 mounted a steel frame and wooden bodywork on a broken-down Volkswagen Passat, hoping it might be used in marketing schemes. When the vehicle surpassed 80 mph in a speed trial, Nicks invested in a new suspension system and an Audi RS4 engine in a bid for greater speed, and he’s now broken his own record twice — most recently he reached 114.7 mph in 2018.

Hot Air

My all-time favourite in the literature of exaggerated claims on behalf of the digital computer is from John McCarthy, the inventor of the term ‘artificial intelligence.’ McCarthy says even ‘machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs.’ And indeed, according to him, almost any machine capable of problem-solving can be said to have beliefs. I admire McCarthy’s courage. I once asked him: ‘What beliefs does your thermostat have?’ And he said: ‘My thermostat has three beliefs — it’s too hot in here, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here.’

— John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science, 1983

(Searle responded with the “Chinese room argument” — a computer program that formulates convincing answers written in Chinese to questions posed in Chinese doesn’t “understand” Chinese any more than would an English-speaking human who followed the same instructions. “There is more to having a mind than having formal or syntactical processes. … Minds are semantical, in the sense that they have more than a formal structure, they have a content.”)