Shot Locks

A bizarre item from Gaillard’s Medical Journal, November 1884: Henry Matthews, a Pennsylvania soldier, was struck down by a bullet to the head at Cold Harbor in 1864. When he survived, his astonished doctors gave him the ball, with some of his brain and scalp still adhering to it. He “suffered no mental inconvenience” and went on to work as a clerk for the Reading Railroad.

When the bullet was presented to him 20 years ago at the hospital door the brain matter and the little patch of scalp had dried up, but a few short hairs could be seen sticking out from the latter. The bullet had been considerably flattened, and somewhat resembled in shape a miniature clam shell. As time elapsed Mr. Matthews, who greatly prized this relic, noticed an astonishing fact. The hairs, which at first were scarcely prominent enough to be noticed, were growing. Other hairs grew out also until a thick black bunch appeared at the back end of the bullet. At first his friends refused to credit the story, although he showed the precious relic in proof. Once or twice he cut off the ends of the growing hair. It continued to grow. About a year ago Mr. Matthews came to Philadelphia and sought out [the original surgeon, W.R.D] Blackwood, to whom he exhibited the bullet with its bunch of apparently healthy hair. The surgeon, in the presence of professional witnesses, cut off an inch of the hair, measured that which remained, boxed and sealed up the bullet, and placed it in trusty hands for safe keeping. Recently the package was opened. A careful measurement showed that the hair had grown over an inch since the ball had been last seen.

“At one time the hair had attained a growth of fully one inch,” reported the Miners’ Journal in the same year. “The relic was exhibited at the Philadelphia and Reading Depot by George Rahn, a clerk in Mr. Smith’s office. Mr. Matthews, who is employed by the Reading Company at Pottsville, was offered $100 for the ball but refused to accept it.”

Master Class

In 1884 Robert Louis Stevenson began to give writing lessons to his 26-year-old neighbor Adelaide Boodle. One of his first assignments was to describe a place. When he read her attempt, he said, “Oh, but this work is disgracefully bad! It could hardly be worse. What induced you to bring me stuff like this?” When she asked him what was wrong with it, he said:

‘As a first step in the right direction we will do a sum together. Count the adjectives in that exercise.’

I did so.

‘Now then, see how many times that will go into the number of words allowed for the whole description.’

The result proved that my modest percentage of adjectives was 17 1/2.

‘And mostly weak ones at that!’ remarked the Master with a queer little grimace at the culprit.

‘But how ought it to have been done?’

The voice that made this appeal for light and leading was no longer in the least lachrymose: it was now, I flattered myself, that of a vigorous and determined student.

‘You should have used fewer adjectives and many more descriptive verbs,’ came the swift reply. ‘If you want me to see your garden, don’t, for pity’s sake, talk about “climbing roses” or “green, mossy lawns”. Tell me, if you like, that roses twined themselves round the apple trees and fell in showers from the branches. Never dare to tell me again anything about “green grass”. Tell me how the lawn was flecked with shadows. I know perfectly well that grass is green. So does everybody else in England. What you have to learn is something different from that. Make me see what it was that made your garden distinct from a thousand others. And, by the way, while we are about it, remember once for all that green is a word I flatly forbid you to utter in a description more than, perhaps, once in a lifetime.’

She judged that the lesson was “well worth suffering for,” and the two became good friends. “After all, R.L.S. ‘was going to teach me to write’. What on earth did anything else matter?”

(From Boodle’s R.L.S. and His Sine Qua Non, 1926.)

Missing a Train
Image: Wikimedia Commons

New York playwright Augustin Daly was walking home one night in 1867, ruminating about a play he had begun to write, when he stubbed his toe on a misplaced flagstone. “I was near my door,” he said, “and I rushed into the house, threw myself into a chair, grasping my injured foot with both hands, for the pain was great, and exclaiming, over and over again, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! And it beats hot-irons all to pieces!’ I wasn’t even thinking of the hurt. I had the thought of having my hero tied on a railroad track and rescued by his sweetheart, just in the nick of time, before the swift passage of an express train across a dark stage.”

Here it is, the first appearance of that memorable device, from Daly’s play Under the Gaslight. Laura is locked inside a station when Byke, “a villain,” catches Snorkey, a messenger:

Snorkey: Byke, what are you going to do?

Byke: Put you to bed. (Lays him across the railroad tracks.)

Snorkey: Byke, you don’t mean to — My God, you are a villain!

Byke (fastening him to the rails): I’m going to put you to bed. You won’t toss much. In less than ten minutes you’ll be sound asleep. There, how do you like it? You’ll get down to the Branch before me, will you? You dog me and play the eavesdropper, eh! Now do it, if you can. When you hear the thunder under your head and see the lights dancing in your eyes, and feel the iron wheel a foot from your neck, remember Byke. (Exit L.)

Laura: O, Heavens! he will be murdered before my eyes! How can I aid him?

Snorkey: Who’s that?

Laura: It is I. Do you not know my voice?

Snorkey: That I do, but I almost thought I was dead and it was an angel’s. Where are you?

Laura: In the station.

Snorkey: I can’t see you, but I can hear you. Listen to me, miss, for I’ve only got a few minutes to live.

Laura (shaking door): And I cannot aid you.

Snorkey: Never mind me, miss; I might as well die now, and here, as at any other time. I’m not afraid. I’ve seen death in almost every shape, and none of them scare me; but, for the sake of those you love, I would live. Do you hear me?

Laura: Yes! Yes!

Snorkey: They are on the way to your cottage — Byke and Judas — to rob and murder.

Laura (in agony): O, I must get out! (Shakes window-bars). What shall I do?

Snorkey: Can’t you burst the door?

Laura: It is locked fast.

Snorkey: Is there nothing in there? No hammer? no crowbar?

Laura: Nothing. (Faint steam whistle heard in distance.) Oh, Heavens! The train! (Paralysed for an instant.) The axe!!

Snorkey: Cut the woodwork! Don’t mind the lock, cut round it. How my neck tingles! (A blow at door is heard.) Courage! (Another.) Courage! (The steam whistle heard again — nearer, and rumble of train on track — another blow.) That’s a true woman. Courage! (Noise of locomotive heard, with whistle. A last blow — the door swings open, mutilated, the lock hanging — and Laura appears, axe in hand.)

Snorkey: Here — quick! (She runs and unfastens him. The locomotive lights glare on scene). Victory! Saved! Hooray! (Laura leans exhausted against switch). And these are the women who ain’t to have a vote!

(As Laura takes his head from the track, the train of cars rushes past with roar and whistle from L. to R.)

(From Gordon Snell, The Book of Theatre Quotes, 1982.)

Noted in Passing

In Visual Thinking in Mathematics, M. Giaquinto writes, “Calculus grew out of attempts to deal with quantitative physical problems which could not be solved by means of geometry and arithmetic alone. Many of these problems concern situations which are easy to visualize. In fact visual representations are so useful that most books on calculus are peppered with diagrams.” But there’s an intriguing footnote: “Moshé Machover brought to my attention a notable exception: Landau (1934). It has no diagram, and no geometrical application.”

That’s Differential and Integral Calculus, by Edmund Landau, a professor of mathematics at Gottingen University. Machover is right — the 366-page volume contains not a single diagram. Landau writes, “I have not included any geometric applications in this text. The reason therefor is not that I am not a geometer; I am familiar, to be sure, with the geometry involved. But the exposition of the axioms and of the elements of geometry — I know them well and like to give courses on them — requires a separate volume which would have to precede the present one. In my lecture courses on the calculus, the geometric applications do, of course, make up a considerable portion of the material that is covered. But I do not wish to wait any longer to make generally available an account, rigorous and complete in every particular, of that which I have considered in my courses to be the most suitable method of treating the differential and integral calculus.”

The book was quite successful — the first English edition appeared in 1950, and subsequent editions have continued right up through 2001.

His and Hers

russell illusion

Which of these faces is male, and which female? In fact both photos show the same androgynous face; the only difference is the amount of contrast in the image. But most people see the face on the left as female and the one on the right as male.

Gettysburg College psychologist Richard Russell says, “Though people are not consciously aware of the sex difference in contrast, they unconsciously use contrast as a cue to tell what sex a face is. We also use the amount of contrast in a face to judge how masculine or feminine the face is, which is related to how attractive we think it is.”

Cosmetics may serve to make a female face more attractive by heightening this contrast. “Cosmetics are typically used in precisely the correct way to exaggerate this difference,” Russell says. “Making the eyes and lips darker without changing the surrounding skin increases the facial contrast. Femininity and attractiveness are highly correlated, so making a face more feminine also makes it more attractive.”

(Richard Russell, “A Sex Difference in Facial Pigmentation and Its Exaggeration by Cosmetics,” Perception 38:8 [August 2009], 1211-1219.)


Artist Devorah Sperber plays with pixels. She renders an image at a low resolution and then replaces each element with a mass-produced object such as a spool of thread or a pipe cleaner. The results demonstrate how adeptly our brains recognize familiar images, even when given very little information.

She says, “As a visual artist, I cannot think of a topic more stimulating and yet so basic than the act of seeing — how the human brain makes sense of the visual world.”

There’s a gallery at her website.

Podcast Episode 160: The Birmingham Sewer Lion

Birmingham, England, faced a surprising crisis in 1889: A lion escaped a traveling menagerie and took up residence in the city’s sewers, terrifying the local population. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll descend into the tunnels with Frank Bostock, the 21-year-old manager who set out to capture the desperate beast.

We’ll also revisit a cosmic mystery and puzzle over an incomprehensible language.

See full show notes …

To Whom It May Concern

When Westinghouse buried a time capsule at the 1939 World’s Fair, the planners hoped that it wouldn’t be opened until 6939. That created a problem: How could they leave writings for a future civilization when language itself was sure to change immeasurably in the ensuing 5,000 years?

Westinghouse tried to solve the problem by enlisting Smithsonian ethnologist John P. Harrington, who wrote a “mouth map” (“Mauth Maep”) showing the pronunciation of “33 sounds of 1938 English” and a list of “the thousand words most essential to our daily speech and thought.” He also presented Aesop’s fable “The North Wind and the Sun” in “neo-phonetic spelling” and in 1938 English:

Dhj Northwind aend dhj Sjn wjr dispyucting whitsh woz dhj stronggjr, hwen j traevjljr kecm jlong raepd in j worm klock. Dhec jgricd dhaet dhj wjn huc fjrst mecd dhj traevjljr teck of hiz klock shud bic konsidjrd stronggjr dhaen dhj jdhjr. Dhen dhj Northwind bluc widh aol hiz mait, bjt dhj mocr hie bluc, dhj mocr klocsli did dhj traevjljr focld hiz klock jraund him, aend aet laest dhj Northwind gecv jp dhj jtempt. Dhen dhj Sjn shocn aut wormli, aend imicdijtli dhj traevjljr tuk of hiz klock; aend soc dhj Northwind woz jblaidzhd tj konfes dhaet dhj Sjn woz dhj stronggjr jv dhj tuc.

The Northwind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first made the traveler take off his cloak should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North wind blew with all his might, but the more he blew, the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the Northwind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shone out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak; and so the Northwind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.

But even if the book manages to convey 20th-century vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation to future scholars, will the world that these describe be too remote for them to imagine? The Westinghouse authors begged intermediate librarians to retranslate the book continually to keep alive its meaning. Will that be enough? I guess they’ll find out.