First Things First

During World War I, Ernest Rutherford worked tirelessly on a secret project to detect submarines by sonar. But on one occasion he did decline to attend a committee meeting.

“I have been engaged in experiments which suggest that the atom can be artificially disintegrated,” he wrote. “If it is true it is of far greater importance than a war.”

The Blind Leading

I just ran across this absurd sentence in Love in the Lead, Peter Brock Putnam’s 1979 history of the seeing eye dog:

As late as the 1950s, an association for the blind in a southern city used to post sighted monitors at the entrance for its Christmas party, so that the blind guests who could not see each other’s color would be able to segregate racially.

Apparently this is true. In 1945 federal judge J. Skelly Wright was attending a Christmas Eve party at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans. Across Camp Street, at the Lighthouse for the Blind, he could see another party going on. “He watched the blind people climb the steps to the second floor,” writes journalist Jack Bass. “There, someone met them. He watched a blind Negro led to a party for blacks at the rear of the building. A white person was led to a separate party.”

“They couldn’t see to segregate themselves,” Wright said later. “That upset me a great deal.” In 1956 he ordered Louisiana schools to desegregate. He said that the incident of the Christmas party had given him “my mature and great sympathy for Negroes.” As he told this story to journalist W.J. Weatherby, he “was so moved that he could not complete the story for several minutes.”

An Overlooked Death

Late one night in 2001, Polish immigrant Henryk Siwiak set out to find a Pathmark supermarket in Brooklyn in order to start a new job. Around 11:40 p.m., residents in the area heard an argument followed by gunshots. Siwiak was found dead face down in Decatur Street, shot in the lung. A trail of blood showed that he had staggered there from Albany Avenue seeking help.

Unfortunately, this happened on September 11, the day of the terrorist attacks. Siwiak spoke poor English and was wearing camouflage clothing, which may have led his assailant to think he was associated with the attacks. In any case, with the city in chaos, police could not attend as closely to the case as they otherwise would have, and that day’s news coverage was devoted to the attacks, which may have prevented residents with potentially useful information from coming forward.

The case remains unsolved. “I’m afraid this is forever,” Henryk’s widow Ewa told the New York Times in 2011. Because the terror victims were not included in the city’s crime statistics, Siwiak’s death is the only homicide recorded in New York City on that day.

Looking the Part

As he was preparing King Kong for his 1933 screen debut, producer Merian C. Cooper was continually dissatisfied with sculptor Marcel Delgado’s sensitive models of the giant ape. “I want Kong to be the fiercest, most brutal, monstrous damned thing that has ever been seen,” he insisted. Animator Willis O’Brien objected that the audience wouldn’t sympathize with a monster that lacked human qualities, but Cooper was adamant: “I’ll have women crying over him before I’m through, and the more brutal he is the more they’ll cry at the end.”

He called the American Museum of Natural History and asked for the exact dimensions of a large male gorilla. On the afternoon of December 22, 1931, he gave O’Brien a telegram from the curator of zoology:


“Now that’s what I want,” he said. O’Brien quit on the spot and walked out of the studio, but after a few drinks together the two returned to work. Eventually they agreed on a compromise. In The Making of King Kong, Orville Goldner writes, “The scene would be repeated several times during the year to come.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1997 researchers rediscovered a 16th-century variant of Japanese chess called taikyoku shōgi, perhaps the largest and most challenging chesslike game ever devised. Played with 804 pieces of 209 types on a board of 1,296 squares, a single game might require a thousand moves played over several long sessions.

“The first difficulty lies in deciphering the minuscule characters identifying a nearly endless crowd of pieces,” write Jean-Louis Cazaux and Rick Knowlton in A World of Chess. “The players must have long arms, tiny fingers, microscopic vision and a huge memory.”

Only two sets of pieces have been restored, and the known rules sets disagree and have yet to be reconciled, but even Wikipedia’s summary of the rules reflects the jaw-dropping complexity of the game.

Sweet Mystery of Life,_Seattle_(2014).JPG
Image: Wikimedia Commons

For 20 years, someone stocked a Coke machine on Seattle’s Capitol Hill with obscure, sometimes discontinued drinks such as Grape Fanta, Mountain Dew White Out, Hawaiian Punch, and raspberry Nestea Brisk. The price was 75 cents, and each button read simply “? MYSTERY ?”

The machine stood in front of Broadway Locksmith on John Street, but the locksmith claimed to know nothing about its operator. When the city passed a tax on sugary drinks in January 2018, the machine raised its price to $1.00. Six months later, it disappeared, leaving only a message on its Facebook page: “Going for a walk, need to find myself. Maybe take a shower even.”

It hasn’t been seen since. Do machines take walks?

The “Dicta Boelcke”

Principles of aerial combat devised by World War I German flying ace Oswald Boelcke, the “father of air fighting tactics”:

  1. Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.
  2. Always carry through an attack when you have started it.
  3. Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.
  4. Always keep your eyes on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
  5. In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
  6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to avoid his onslaught, but fly to meet it.
  7. When over the enemy’s lines, never forget your own line of retreat.
  8. For the Staffel [fighter squadrons]: Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for one opponent.

“He certainly didn’t love war and he personally disliked killing,” writes Dan Hampton in Lords of the Sky, his history of fighter pilots and air combat. “It was not a sport to him, as it was with others, nor was it a game. It was something he had to do, so he did it well.” When he died in a crash, his British enemies dropped a wreath behind German lines with the message “To the memory of Captain Boelcke, our brave and chivalrous opponent. From the English Royal Flying Corps.” French, Italian, and British pilots sent wreaths and messages from prisoner-of-war camps, and Manfred von Richthofen said of his mentor, “I am only a fighting airman, but Boelcke was a hero.”

Better Days

In 1959 chemist William J. Buehler of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory was trying to devise a missile nose cone that could withstand extraordinary heat and fatigue. He found a promising alloy of nickel and titanium and passed around a sample at a 1961 laboratory management meeting. The sample had been folded like an accordion, but in examining it Buehler’s colleagues flexed and twisted it out of shape. When of them idly held it over his pipe lighter, they got a surprise: The sample sorted itself back into its accordion shape.

Buehler’s alloy is now known as nitinol (for “nickel titanium Naval Ordnance Laboratory”), and this property is known as “shape memory.” In Nature’s Building Blocks, John Emsley notes, “Spectacle frames made from nitinol can be bent and twisted into remarkable shapes and, when released, will jump back to their original shape.”

To the Life

Perhaps inspired by his interest in natural science, American painter Charles Willson Peale set out to make his 1795 Staircase Group as realistic as possible. Not only did he paint his two sons in perfect detail on a full-length canvas, but he installed the finished painting in a door frame in his studio, with a real step at the bottom that seemed to merge into the staircase he’d painted.

Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that George Washington tipped his hat to the young men as he walked by.

The Wobbler

Here’s an odd little animal: Get two rigid disks, cut a notch in each one, fit them together as shown, and try to send them rolling across a table. If the notches are too deep, marrying the discs too closely together, then the object will pretty quickly slow to a stop with each disc standing at a 45° angle to the table. If the notches are too shallow, it will stop with one disc standing up at right angles to the table. But if the notches are about the right length, ideally 29.2893 percent of the radius, then the contraption will roll along quite happily for a surprisingly long distance.

The reason is that in that configuration the object’s center of mass remains level as it rolls along. (It does move from side to side, which is why it’s called the wobbler.)

Apparently this was originally discovered by A.T. Stewart, who dubbed his creation the “two-circle roller” in a 1966 note in the American Journal of Physics. I found it described in Matt Parker’s 2014 book Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension, which includes a simple proof of the principle involved. There’s a more rigorous discussion here.