The Inner World

In 1948 the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi entered a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, where he began to pass the time by repeatedly striking a single piano key and listening intently to its sound. He said later:

Reiterating a note for a long time, it grows large, so large that you even hear harmony growing inside it. … When you enter into a sound, the sound envelops you and you become part of the sound. Gradually, you are consumed by it and you need no other sound. … All possible sounds are contained in it.

The result, eventually, was his 1959 composition Quattro pezzi (ciascuno su una nota sola) (“Four Pieces, Each on a Single Note”) for chamber orchestra, in which each movement concentrates on a single pitch, with varying timbre and dynamics.

He wrote, “I will say only that in general, western classical music has devoted practically all of its attention to the musical framework, which it calls the musical form. It has neglected to study the laws of sonorous energy, to think of music in terms of energy, which is life. … The inner space is empty.”

While we’re at it: Here’s how Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” would sound if all the notes were C:

(Gregory N. Reish, “Una Nota Sola: Giacinto Scelsi and the Genesis of Music on a Single Note,” Journal of Musicological Research 25 [2006] 149–189.)


This French alexandrine encodes π to 126 decimal places:

Que j’aime à faire apprendre un nombre utile aux sages!
Immortel Archimède, artiste ingénieur,
Qui de ton jugement peut priser la valeur?
Pour moi, ton problème eut de pareils avantages.
Jadis, mystérieux, un problème bloquait
Tout l’admirable procédé, l’œuvre grandiose
Que Pythagore découvrit aux anciens Grecs.
Ô quadrature! vieux tourment du philosophe!
Insoluble rondeur, trop longtemps vous avez
Défié Pythagore et ses imitateurs.
Comment intégrer l’espace plan circulaire?
Former un triangle auquel il équivaudra?
Nouvelle invention: Archimède inscrira
Dedans un hexagone; appréciera son aire,
Fonction du rayon. Pas trop ne s’y tiendra:
Dédoublera chaque élément antérieur;
Toujours de l’orbe calculée approchera;
Définira limite; enfin, l’arc, le limiteur
De cet inquiétant cercle, ennemi trop rebelle!
Professeur, enseignez son problème avec zèle!


How I like to teach this number useful to the wise.
Immortal Archimedes, artist, engineer,
In your opinion who could estimate its value?
For me, your problem had equal advantages.
Long ago, mysterious, a problem blocked
All the honorable process, the great work
That Pythagoras revealed to the Ancient Greeks.
Oh quadrature! Old philosopher’s torment
Unsolvable roundness, for too long you have
Defied Pythagoras and his imitators.
How to integrate the plain circular space?
Form a triangle to which it is equivalent?
New invention: Archimedes will inscribe
Inside a hexagon; will appreciate its area
Function of a ray. Not too much to hold onto there:
Will split each previous element;
Always the calculated orb will approach
Will define the limit; finally, the arc, the limiter
Of this disturbing circle, an enemy too rebellious
Teacher, teach its problem with zeal.

I don’t know who came up with it — Alfred Posamentier traces it as far back as the Nouvelle Correspondence Mathematique of Brussels, 1879.


A puzzle by David L. Silverman:

On the back of an envelope you find an interrupted game of tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses). You know that each player was an expert, which means that she never puts herself into a potentially losing position and that she always wins if her opponent gives her the opportunity. There are two Xs and two Os in the diagram, and it is impossible to tell whose move it is. Neglecting symmetry, what is the position?

Click for Answer

In a Word

n. a bookseller

adj. slow; tardy; dilatory; causing delay

n. an inquisitive person

adv. from elsewhere; from another source

[Edmund Law] had a book printed at Carlisle; they were a long time about it: he sent several times to hasten them; at last he called himself to know the reason of the delay. ‘Why does not my book make its appearance?’ said he to the printer. ‘My Lord, I am extremely sorry; but we have been obliged to send to Glasgow for a pound of parentheses.’

— Henry Colburn, Personal and Literary Memorials, 1829


king kong

Edgar Wallace died after completing a rough draft of King Kong, and James Ashmore Creelman’s script was slow and dialogue-heavy. So Merian C. Cooper gave the job to Ruth Rose, the wife of his co-producer. Rose had never composed a script before, but she knew how to write tightly — the opening line of dialogue, “Hey! Is this the moving picture ship?”, replaces several pages of exposition with seven words. After Kong is subdued on Skull Island, she accomplishes his transfer to New York with a simple speech by filmmaker Carl Denham:

Send to the ship for anchor chains and tools. Build a raft and float him to the ship. We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been king of his world, but we’ll teach him fear. Why, the whole world will pay to see this! We’re millionaires, boys — I’ll share it with all of you! In a few months it’ll be up in lights: ‘Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!’

Ernest B. Schoedsack said his wife’s script was easy to shoot because “the characters are believable — I didn’t have to ask them to do anything impossible or ridiculous.” And Cooper added, “Ruth used just the kind of romantic dialogue I wanted. It was perfect.”

Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist

In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston’s Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We’ll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.

See full show notes …

Stairs of Knowledge

balamand stairs of knowledge

This staircase near the library at Lebanon’s University of Balamand is painted to resemble a stack of classic texts:

The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Republic of Plato
Diwān Abū al-Tayyib al-Mutanbbī
Risālat al-ghufrān / Abī al-Alā al-Ma’arrī
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Muqaddimah-i ibn Khaldūn
The Prince and the Discourses by Niccolò Machiavelli
Discourse on Method by René Descartes
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
Faust by Goethe
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
The Meaning of Relativity by Albert Einstein
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
al-Ayyām / Tāhā Husayn
A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee
Cosmos by Carl Sagan
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Les Désorientés by Amin Maalouf
The Road Ahead by Bill Gates

This puts them (almost) in chronological order.


In the afternoon I went upon the river to look after some tarr I am sending down and some coles, and so home again; it raining hard upon the water, I put ashore and sheltered myself, while the King came by in his barge, going down towards the Downs to meet the Queen; the Duke being gone yesterday. But methought it lessened my esteem of a king, that he should not be able to command the rain.

— Samuel Pepys, diary, July 19, 1662

Leaps and Bounds

English cricketer C.B. Fry had a curious party trick: He would stand on the floor facing a mantelpiece, crouch, and leap upward, turning in midair and landing with his feet planted on the shelf, from which he would bow to onlookers. He claimed to be able to do this into his 70s.

On July 17, 1933, John Dillinger walked into the Daleville Commercial Bank in Indiana and told the teller, “Well, honey, this is a holdup. Get me the money.” Told there was no key to the teller’s cage, Dillinger vaulted over the counter himself to investigate. “This would become another of his well-known trademarks,” writes John Beineke in Hoosier Public Enemy, “the quick and graceful vaults over counters that were often several feet high. The feat earned him the nickname ‘Jackrabbit’ in some newspapers.”

In a letter to the Times on March 16, 1944, G.M. Trevelyan, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, remarks on the tradition of trying to leap up the eight semicircular steps of the college hall at one bound. “The only person to succeed of whom I know was the gigantic [William] Whewell, when he was Master of the college; he clapped his mortar-board firmly on his head, picked up his gown with one hand, and leapt.”

Trevelyan had recently learned that Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, later a bishop, had made the jump during his undergraduate career at Trinity, between 1866 and 1870, and “I have heard that the feat was accomplished once or twice in this century; once, I was told, an American succeeded, but I have not the facts or names. It has certainly been done very seldom.”

(Thanks, Chris.)