By Theophilus A. Thompson. White to mate in two moves.
By Theophilus A. Thompson. White to mate in two moves.
For more than 40 years in the early 20th century, Martin Couney ran a sideshow in which premature babies were displayed in incubators. With this odd practice he offered a valuable service in an era when many hospitals couldn’t. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Couney’s unusual enterprise, which earned both criticism and praise.
We’ll also marvel over an Amazonian survival and puzzle over a pleasing refusal.
Express 1,000,000 as the product of two numbers, neither of which contains any zeroes.
In May 1901, the attorney general of Paris received an anonymous letter. It read, “I have the honor to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half-starved and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years — in a word, in her own filth.”
When police investigated, they found in Monnier’s attic a 52-year-old woman who weighed barely 25 kilograms. One policeman described the scene: “The unfortunate woman was lying completely naked on a rotten straw mattress. All around her was formed a sort of crust made from excrement, fragments of meat, vegetables, fish, and rotten bread. … We also saw oyster shells, and bugs running across Mademoiselle Monnier’s bed. The air was so unbreathable, the odor given off by the room was so rank, that it was impossible for us to stay any longer to proceed with our investigation.”
In 1874, when Blanche was 25, her mother Louise had locked her away to prevent her marrying a “penniless lawyer,” and for 25 years she and Blanche’s brother had pretended that she had disappeared. Louise was arrested but died shortly afterward; the brother was convicted but acquitted on appeal. Blanche was admitted to a psychiatric hospital but died in 1913. The identity of the letter writer who revealed all this was never discovered.
In his 1986 book Narration in Light, philosopher George Wilson points out an odd moment in Orson Welles’ 1947 film The Lady From Shanghai. Two men are driving hurriedly toward an important destination when a woman elsewhere learns of their journey and reacts angrily (50:55 above):
The following three-shot progression concludes the intercut series: (1) a shot from within the men’s car reveals that a truck has abruptly pulled out onto the road ahead of them; (2) the woman’s hand is shown reaching out and pressing [a] button; and (3) the men’s car collides violently with the truck.
“Viewing these shots, it appears as if the pressing of the button has mysteriously caused the accident, but, at the same time, this impression of causality is difficult to reconcile with common sense and difficult also to integrate into our immediate sense of the film’s narrative development at that juncture.” Most films settle these questions for us, but in every film our knowledge of the events is limited; “the potentiality for considerable epistemic complication always remains, and it is actually realized in some of the most interesting films ever made.”
How does an outfielder know where to run in order to catch a fly ball? Previously it had been thought that the fielder estimates the ball’s arc, acceleration, and distance; predicts where it will land; and runs straight to that spot.
“That was a really elegant solution,” Kent State psychologist Michael McBeath told the New York Times in 1995. “The only problem is that keeping track of acceleration like that is something that people are very bad at.”
McBeath and his colleagues analyzed fly balls and catches visually, mathematically, and subjectively from the players’ perspective, using a video camera. They found that fielders learn to run so that the ball follows a straight line in their visual field. “If you are faster than the critter you are trying to catch, if you can keep the prey on a simple path in your vision — hold it as if it’s moving in a straight line in your eye — then you’ll catch it.”
Among other things, this explains why fielders sometimes collide with walls when chasing uncatchable home runs. They haven’t calculated in advance where the ball will come down; instead they’re following an algorithm that’s directing them, accurately, to a landing point that’s not on the field.
(Michael K. McBeath, Dennis M. Shaffer, and Mary K. Kaiser, “How Baseball Outfielders Determine Where to Run to Catch Fly Balls,” Science 268:5210 , 569-573.) (See Shortcuts.)
Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors famously contains the distorted image of a skull — it resolves into its proper shape when viewed from the correct angle.
South African artist Jonty Hurwitz created the three-dimensional homage below. “Hans Holbein the Younger is thought to be one of the fathers of Anamorphic Art. This sculpture is my tribute to his genius and inventiveness. It is an expression of gratitude for the influence he has had on my life.”
Jakob von Uexküll used to say: ‘When a dog runs, the dog moves its legs; when a sea urchin runs, the legs move the sea urchin.’ This assertion was based on the following experiment reported by von Uexküll. A sea urchin was broken in half and the inner sides of both halves of the shell were scraped using sandpaper. The whole of the ambulacral system as well as the nervous system was thus completely removed. Then the two halves were joined together again by means of a spring clasp. The spines of the sea urchin still worked in coordination with one another. In this special case, the riderless horse of von Holst’s parable does indeed exist; the sea urchin’s reaction of fleeing from a star fish still functioned. And in this sense, von Uexkull’s description of a sea urchin being a ‘reflex republic’ is justified, provided one keeps in mind that the ‘reflex’ no longer plays the all-important role ascribed to it during von Uexküll’s time.
— Konrad Lorenz, The Foundations of Ethology, 1982
(Lorenz described this direct mutual influence among the peripheral organs as “a panic spreading among the spines.”)
English artist Richard Dadd had established himself as a painter of fairies and other supernatural subjects when in August 1843 he became convinced that his father was the devil in disguise and killed him with a knife. In the Bethlem psychiatric hospital he was encouraged to continue painting, and when the head steward requested a fairy painting Dadd spent nine years investing The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke with minute detail, using a layering technique to create a three-dimensional effect.
He wrote a long poem in which he names and gives a purpose to each character. The painting is now in the Tate Britain collection.
Dadd painted many striking images — the portrait below of one of his doctors, Alexander Morison, hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
ONE + TWO – THREE – FOUR + FIVE = 1
That’s true if we replace each word either with the number it denotes or with the quantity of its letters: Either way we’re left with 1. Another:
ONE + TWO – THREE – FOUR + FIVE – SIX + SEVEN + EIGHT + NINE – TEN + ELEVEN + TWELVE – THIRTEEN – FOURTEEN = 5
These are the only two such sequences using 20 or fewer consecutive number names, found Leonard Gordon, although other sequences of plus and minus signs are possible.
In a separate but related project, Gordon assigned the number names ONE through FIFTEEN, ONE through NINETEEN, and ONE through TWENTY to either side of an equals sign so that the denoted equation is mathematically correct and each equation “balances,” with the same number of letters on each side:
ONE + FOUR + SEVEN + TEN + ELEVEN + THIRTEEN + FOURTEEN = TWO + THREE + FIVE + SIX + EIGHT + NINE + TWELVE + FIFTEEN
ONE + THREE + FIVE + SEVEN + NINE + SIXTEEN + SEVENTEEN + EIGHTEEN + NINETEEN = TWO + FOUR + SIX + EIGHT + TEN + ELEVEN + TWELVE + THIRTEEN + FOURTEEN + FIFTEEN
ONE + THREE + SIX + NINE + TEN + TWELVE + THIRTEEN + FIFTEEN + SEVENTEEN + NINETEEN = TWO + FOUR + FIVE + SEVEN + EIGHT + ELEVEN + FOURTEEN + SIXTEEN + EIGHTEEN + TWENTY