Chain Reaction,_original_colors_version).jpg

In 1827, during a tense standoff in the Greek War of Independence, a single musket shot set off a cataclysm:

A British frigate sent its cutter to ask one of the Turkish ships to make space by moving its anchorage [in Navarino Bay]. The boat was unarmed, but a trigger-happy Turkish marine decided it was hostile and fired a single musket shot. His aim was good and he hit the boat’s officer. In return the frigate’s marines gave covering musket fire and, on hearing the fusillade, an overexcited Egyptian cannoneer fired at the French flagship, which replied with a full broadside.

Like Nelson’s engagement at Aboukir Bay, this was a duel between anchored gun batteries, rather than a conventional fleet action. Muzzle-to-muzzle, the two sides blazed away at each other with heavy guns and carronades. When the smoke cleared, the Anglo-Franco-Russian Alliance — with fewer, but larger and more heavily-gunned ships — had sunk or destroyed more than three-quarters of the Turco-Egyptians, inflicting tremendous loss of life, but suffering fewer than 700 casualties themselves.

“In a stationary fight that involved neither tactics nor sailing skill, nominally friendly powers had destroyed, or damaged beyond repair, more than 60 warships.”

(From David Blackmore, Blunders and Disasters at Sea, 2004.)

More Self-Description

From reader Ian Duff:

“It is easy to establish that the self-descriptive phrase ‘this phrase contains thirty-five letters’ is the only such one with a correct count. No equivalent is possible in French or German, but in Italian questa frase contiene XX lettere, where XX is a number in word form, again has only one solution.”

What is it?

Click for Answer

Thinking Ahead

If James cannot decide whether to marry Alice or Jane, he simply travels to the future and learns that he is to choose Alice; he then chooses her for this reason. One wants to object that the decision to marry Alice was never really made at all! But this is not true; the decision was made — as a result of the knowledge that this was the decision … It is not the case that the prospective bridegroom could visit the future and compare the results of marrying Alice with those of marrying Jane in order to decide between the alternatives. For if he visits the future, he will learn only that in fact he chose Alice, for better or for worse!

— Gilbert Fulmer, “Understanding Time Travel,” Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 11:1 (1980), 151-156, via Paul J. Nahin, Time Machine Tales, 2016

The Aberdour Heroine

In 1884 the S.S. William Hope was traversing the northeast coast of Scotland when its engines failed in a ferocious storm and it was driven into Aberdour Bay. In a mill on the shore was Jane Whyte, a mother of nine whose husband, a farm foreman, had already left for work. Despite high winds and hail, she rushed to the shoreline, retrieved the end of a rope thrown by the sailors, wrapped it around her body, and held it as the 15 crewmen disembarked. When they were safely ashore she took them to the mill and gave them dry clothes, hot tea, and a warm meal.

The owners of the ship gave her a sum of money in gratitude, and she received an award from the Shipwrecked Mariners Benevolent Society, a silver medal from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and a bronze medal for gallantry from the Board of Trade.

Hex Wrench

A problem by Russian mathematician Viktor Prasolov: This hexagon has been divided into black and white triangles so that any two triangles either have a common side (in which case they’re painted different colors) or a common vertex or they have no points in common, and each side of the hexagon is a side of one of the black triangles. Prove that no such partition exists for a 10-gon.

Click for Answer

True and False

Since its launch in 1991, arXiv, Cornell’s open-access repository of electronic preprints, has cataloged more than 2 million scientific papers.

In 2010, Caltech physicist David Simmons-Duffin created snarXiv, a random generator that produces titles and abstracts of imaginary articles in theoretical high-energy physics. Then he challenged visitors to distinguish real titles from fake ones.

After 6 months and 750,000 guesses in more than 50,000 games played in 67 countries, “the results are clear,” he concluded. “Science sounds like gobbledygook.” On average, players had guessed right only 59 percent of the time. Real papers most often judged to be fake:

  • “Highlights of the Theory,” by B.Z. Kopeliovich and R. Peschanski
  • “Heterotic on Half-Flat,” by Sebastien Gurrieri, Andre Lukas, and Andrei Micu
  • “Relativistic Confinement of Neutral Fermions With a Trigonometric Tangent Potential,” by Luis B. Castro and Antonio S. de Castro
  • “Toric Kahler Metrics and AdS_5 in Ring-Like Co-ordinates,” by Bobby S. Acharya, Suresh Govindarajan, and Chethan N. Gowdigere
  • “Aspects of U_A(1) Breaking in the Nambu and Jona-Lasinio Model,” by Alexander A. Osipov, Brigitte Hiller, Veronique Bernard, and Alex H. Blin
  • “Energy’s and Amplitudes’ Positivity,” by Alberto Nicolis, Riccardo Rattazzi, and Enrico Trincherini

Try it yourself.

While we’re at it: SCIgen randomly generates research papers in computer science, complete with graphs, figures, and citations; and Mathgen generates professional-looking mathematics papers, with theorems, proofs, equations, discussion, and references.

(Via Andrew May, Fake Physics: Spoofs, Hoaxes and Fictitious Science, 2019.)

In a Word

n. a faculty or facility for forgetting; faulty memory

n. the practice of self-discipline

n. the action, process, or faculty of looking back on things past

adj. liable to vanish

“King Darius, so as not to forget the harm he had received from the Athenians, had a page come every time he sat down to table and sing three times in his ear: ‘Sire, remember the Athenians.'” — Montaigne

Cato the Elder ended each speech with the phrase Carthago delenda est, “Carthage must be destroyed.”

Tertullian observed that a slave was stationed in the chariot of a triumphant Roman general to whisper in his ear, “Remember that you are human.”

A nomenclator was “a slave with a good memory who accompanied a public figure when he went out and whispered in his ear the name of anyone important he was about to meet.” (Anthony Everitt, Cicero)

Much later, Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign manager, James Farley, would keep a file on everyone Roosevelt met so that the candidate might later ask after a spouse or child. Modern politicians maintain “Farley files” for the same purpose.

A Parabolic Calculator

mathematikum calculator

Mathematikum, the science museum in Giessen, Germany, contains this clever device for multiplying pairs of numbers. The parabola presents the curve y = x2. Now suppose we want to multiply 10 by 9. We find the points -10 and 9 on the x axis, follow them up to the curve, and hang a weighted string over the pegs that we find there. The string crosses the y axis at (0, 90), so 10 × 9 = 90.

A simulator, and an explanation of the principle, are here.

North and South,_full-length_studio_portrait.jpg

Ulysses Grant and Jefferson Davis never met, but their widows became good friends. They met at West Point in June 1893, when Varina Davis arrived to watch a cadet parade. Julia Grant presented herself and said, “I am Mrs. Grant.” “I am very glad to meet you,” Davis replied.

They ate dinner together on the piazza as curious guests looked on. “She is a very noble-looking lady,” Grant said afterward. “She looked a little older than I had expected. I have wanted to meet her for a very long time.”

They corresponded and met frequently after that. At Grant’s tomb Davis heard Julia say, “I will soon be laid beside my husband in this solemn place,” and she attended the memorial service in 1902 when these words were fulfilled, among men who had fought on both sides of the war.

In a tribute to her friend published in The World in April 1897, Davis had quoted Ulysses Grant’s motto “Let us have peace.” She added, “I believe every portion of our reunited country heartily joins in the aspiration.”

(From Ishbel Ross, First Lady of the South, 1958.)