The Martians

In the first half of the 20th century, a considerable number of famous scientists emigrated from Hungary to the United States, including physicists Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Dennis Gabor and mathematicians Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Paul Halmos, George Pólya, and Paul Erdős. Most were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, but they had surprising further similarities — many had been born near Budapest, had shown an early interest in chemistry, and had studied physics at German universities before emigrating to America.

One of their number, Leo Szilard, joked that he knew the reason: They were all descended from a Martian scout force that had landed on Earth in that period. The Martians had left eventually, but not before impregnating some Earth women.

The “Martians” adopted Szilard’s name because in many ways they felt themselves to be outsiders in America: All were brilliant, spoke English with a strong accent, and came from a small little-known country.

When Enrico Fermi posed his famous paradox — if intelligent aliens are as common as we believe, why haven’t we encountered one? — Szilard answered, “They are among us — but they call themselves Hungarians.”

(Thanks, Rini.)

Stage Whiskers

In 1854 Robert Barnabas Brough wrote a one-act farce that centers on mustaches:

LOUISA. (looking at his moustache rapturously) And yours are such loves! (caressing them)

SOSKINS. (putting his hand up nervously) D—don’t pull ’em about.

LOUISA. (passionately) I wouldn’t injure a hair of them for worlds! — For they are the load-star of my existence!

SOSKINS. (aside) Ahem! (seriously, taking her hand, walking her up and down) Louisa, I fear it is the moustache and not the man you love.

LOUISA. Oh! don’t say that, Anthony — though I own it was they first won me, two months ago, when we met at the Eagle …

In the end she tells the audience, “I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to moustaches, to like this play as an advocate for their growing — and I charge you, O men, for the anxiety you have to grow moustaches … that on the hundredth night I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, moustaches that liked me, and whiskers that were dyed not.”


From the notebooks of Samuel Butler:

  • “When I was a boy at school at Shrewsbury, old Mrs. Brown used to keep a tray of spoiled tarts which she sold cheaper. They most of them looked pretty right till you handled them. We are all spoiled tarts.”
  • “Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use.”
  • “They say the test of [literary power] is whether a man can write an inscription. I say ‘Can he name a kitten?’ And by this test I am condemned, for I cannot.”
  • “The extremes of vice and virtue are alike detestable; absolute virtue is as sure to kill a man as absolute vice is, let alone the dullnesses of it and the pomposities of it.”
  • “When fatigued, I find it rests me to write very slowly with attention to the formation of each letter. I am often thus able to go on when I could not otherwise do so.”
  • “Is life worth living? This is a question for an embryo, not for a man.”
  • “When a man is in doubt about this or that in his writing, it will often guide him if he asks himself how it will tell a hundred years hence.”
  • “Life is one long process of getting tired.”
  • “I believe that more unhappiness comes from this source than from any other — I mean from the attempt to prolong family connection unduly and to make people hang together artificially who would never naturally do so. The mischief among the lower classes is not so great, but among the middle and upper classes it is killing a large number daily. And the old people do not really like it much better than the young.”

“The true writer will stop everywhere and anywhere to put down his notes,” he wrote, “as the true painter will stop everywhere and anywhere to sketch.”

Weather Station Kurt,_Labrador.jpg

In July 1977 geomorphologist Peter Johnson stumbled across an old weather station in northern Labrador. It turned out to be an automatic station that had been set up secretly by a German submarine crew in 1943 so that Germany might have notice of impending weather systems. The Allies had never discovered it and it had stood unregarded for 30 years after the war’s end.

“Weather Station Kurt” was probably designed to operate automatically for about six months, transmitting readings on temperature, wind direction, strength, and humidity every three hours until its batteries failed in the cold.

All the witnesses to its installation died when the submarine, U-537, was sunk in the Java Sea. Their work marks the only known armed German military operation on land in North America during World War II.

The station is now on display at the Canadian War Museum.


“Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to be, when our memory shall have perished. The world is a poor affair if it do not contain matter for investigation for the whole world in every age.” — Seneca

Water Music
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1925 naturalist Henry Beston built a cottage on Cape Cod and fell in love with the sea:

Sound of surf in these autumnal dunes — the continuousness of it, sound of endless charging, endless incoming and gathering, endless fulfilment and dissolution, endless fecundity, and endless death. I have been trying to study out the mechanics of that mighty resonance. The dominant note is the great spilling crash made by each arriving wave. It may be hollow and booming, it may be heavy and churning, it may be a tumbling roar. The second fundamental sound is the wild seething cataract roar of the wave’s dissolution and the rush of its foaming waters up the beach — this second sound diminuendo. The third fundamental sound is the endless dissolving hiss of the inmost slides of foam. The first two sounds reach the ear as a unisonance — the booming impact of the tons of water and the wild roar of the up-rush blending — and this mingled sound dissolves into the foam-bubble hissing of the third. Above the tumult, like birds, fly wisps of watery noise, splashes and counter splashes, whispers, seethings, slaps, and chucklings. An overtone sound of other breakers, mingled with a general rumbling, fells earth and sea and air.

He left the cottage two years later, moved back to Quincy, and proposed to Elizabeth Coatsworth. When she learned that he had many notes from his stay on the beach but no manuscript, she said, “No book, no marriage,” and The Outermost House was published in 1928.

The sea itself claimed the cottage in 1978.

(Via The Oxford Book of the Sea, 1992.)

In a Word

adj. liable to raptures

n. rejoicing together

n. buying and selling, trade

adj. intended to be sung

“Selling I. B. M.” to be sung to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain,” from the 1937 corporate hymnal Songs of The IBM:

Selling I. B. M., we’re selling I. B. M.,
What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend,
We’re Watson’s great crew, we’re loyal and true;
We’re proud of our job and we never feel blue.
We sell our whole line, we’re there every time,
To chase away gloom with our products so fine,
We’re always in trim, we work with a vim,
We’re selling, just selling, I. B. M.!

(Via MetaFilter.)

Signing Off

donne letter

In England and France, from the 1500s to the 1700s, the placement of a letter writer’s signature on the page conveyed meaning as to his relationship with the recipient. In his 1568 letter-writing manual Enimie of Idlenesse, William Fulwood writes that the subscription and signature of the letter “must be doone according to the estate of the writer, and the qualitie of the person to whom wee write: For to our superiors wee must write at the right side in the neither end of the paper, saying: By your most humble and obedient sonne, or seruant, &c. Or, yours to commaund, &c. And to our equals we must write towards the middest of the paper, saying: By your faithfull friend for euer, &c. Or, yours assured, &c. To our inferiours wee may write on high at the left hand, saying: By yours, &c.”

In 1601 John Donne married Anne More without the blessing of her father, who was lieutenant of the Tower of London. Donne was incarcerated, and in his letters begging for clemency he crammed his signature into the bottom right-hand corner of the page to signal his self-abasement.

(From Sam Willis and James Daybell, Histories of the Unexpected, 2018.)

“The Artist’s Secret”,_zestiende_eeuw_Tableaux_vivants_opgevoerd_ter_gelegenheid_van_het_25-jarig_bestaan_van_Arti_et_Amicitiae_(serietitel),_RP-P-OB-23.654.jpg

There was an artist once, and he painted a picture. Other artists had colours richer and rare, and painted more notable pictures. He painted his with one colour, there was a wonderful red glow on it; and the people went up and down, saying, ‘We like the picture, we like the glow.’

The other artists came and said, ‘Where does he get his colour from?’ They asked him; and he smiled and said, ‘I cannot tell you’; and worked on with his head bent low.

And one went to the far East and bought costly pigments, and made a rare colour and painted, but after a time the picture faded. Another read in the old books, and made a colour rich and rare, but when he had put it on the picture it was dead.

But the artist painted on. Always the work got redder and redder, and the artist grew whiter and whiter. At last one day they found him dead before his picture, and they took him up to bury him. The other men looked about in all the pots and crucibles, but they found nothing they had not.

And when they undressed him to put his grave-clothes on him, they found above his left breast the mark of a wound — it was an old, old wound, that must have been there all his life, for the edges were old and hardened; but Death, who seals all things, had drawn the edges together, and closed it up.

And they buried him. And still the people went about saying, ‘Where did he find his colour from?’ And it came to pass that after a while the artist was forgotten — but his work lived.

— Olive Schreiner, Dreams, 1891