# 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:

DOC, NOTE, I DISSENT. A FAST NEVER PREVENTS A FATNESS. I DIET ON COD.

“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.)

# Black and White

A chess problem from the Jamaica Gleaner. There’s no black king on this board. Find a place for him such that White can mate him in two moves.

# Oh

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

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.

# Misc

• POSSESSIONLESSNESSES has nine Ss.
• 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.)

# Unquote

“Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue.” — Robert King Merton

# Getting There

Designed by architects in Amsterdam and Beijing, the Lucky Knot Bridge in Changsha, China, combines three bridges in one. Inspired by both the Möbius strip and the Chinese knotting art, the 185-meter pedestrian bridge spans Dragon King Harbor River, connecting multiple levels at varying heights (the river banks, the road, and a park at a higher level) while permitting pedestrians to pass from one route to another using “moon gates.”

“Bridges … have a highly metaphorical quality,” Michel Schreinemachers, a partner at Next Architects, told Wired. “They connect not only in a physical sense, but also people, places, needs, and experiences.”

# Moderation

“At one time [Beau] Brummell ate no vegetables, and being asked by a lady if he had ever eaten any in his life said, ‘Yes, madam, I once ate a pea.'”

— William Hardcastle Browne, Witty Sayings by Witty People, 1878

# Decision Time

When you’re driving and see an upcoming traffic light turn yellow, you face an urgent choice: stop quickly or try to run through the intersection before the light turns red. In 1962, Stanford aeronautics professor Howard Seifert worked out that you can choose either alternative if

$\displaystyle \left ( v_{0}T + \frac{1}{2}a^{+}T^{2} - s \right ) > d_{0} > \frac{1}{2}\left (v_{0}^{2} / a^{-} \right ),$

where your car’s initial speed is v0 ft/sec, its maximum acceleration is a+ ft/sec2, its maximum deceleration is a ft/sec2, the duration of the yellow light is T seconds, and the intersection is s feet wide and d0 feet away.

“[I]f the left or right inequality is reversed, you will not be able to run through or to stop, respectively,” he concluded. “It can be shown that there are situations where neither alternative will work and hazard and law violation are inevitable, as some palpitating drivers will testify.”

(Howard S. Seifert, “The Stop-Light Dilemma,” American Journal of Physics 30:3 [1962], 216-218.)