In the Dark

In 1963, French geologist Michel Siffre descended into a glaciated cavern under the French-Italian Maritime Alps and spent more than two months without sun to “investigate time, that most inapprehensible and irreversible thing.” He could telephone scientists on the surface, who recorded the time of each call, but they never told him the time or date. From his diary:

Forty-second awakening. … I really seem to have no least idea of the passage of time. This morning, as an example, after telephoning to the surface and talking for a while, I wondered afterward how long the telephone conversation had lasted, and could not even hazard a guess. … Fifty-second awakening. … I am losing all notion of time. … When, for instance, I telephone the surface and indicate what time I think it is, thinking that only an hour has elapsed between my waking up and eating breakfast, it may well be that four or five hours have elapsed. And here is something hard to explain: the main thing, I believe, is the idea of time that I have at the very moment of telephoning. If I called an hour earlier, I would still have stated the same figure. … I am having great difficulty to recall what I have done today. It costs me a real intellectual effort to recall such things.

The outsiders could see that his waking and sleeping remained near a cycle of 24.5 hours, but Siffre’s conscious understanding of time was greatly affected. Misunderstanding the length of his day, he began to husband his rations, thinking he had weeks more to endure. At his 57th awakening, the final day of the experiment, he thought it was August 20; in fact it was September 14. “I underestimated by almost half the length of my working or waking hours; a ‘day’ that I estimated at seven hours actually lasted on the average fourteen hours and forty minutes.” NASA has pursued these inquiries to consider the implications for space travelers.

(From Jane Brox, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.)

“Imitative Chess”

dudeney imitative chess

A puzzle by Henry Dudeney:

A chessboard was on the table with the pieces all set up for a game. So I asked Dr. Bates to play a game with the Major on these conditions: Whatever move Bates made throughout, with the white pieces, the Major must exactly imitate with the black, and Bates must give checkmate on the fourth move. As an experiment, Bates started off with 1. e4, and Rackford replied with 1. e5. Then Bates played 2. Qh5, and the Major had to reply with 2. Qh4. This gave me a good opportunity to explain that White cannot now play 3. QxQ, because it would be impossible for Black then to imitate the move. Neither could he play 3. Qxf7+, because Black cannot do the same thing, as he would have to get out of check. White must always make a move that Black can copy, until the checkmate is actually given on the fourth move.

“This puzzle caused great interest, and it was some time before somebody (I think it was Strangways) hit on a solution.”

Click for Answer

The Hidden Element

The name of one chemical element appears as an unbroken string in the names of four other elements. What is the element, and what are the four?

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Podcast Episode 345: Climbing Mont Blanc,_18_Wellcome_V0025176EL.jpg

In 1838, Frenchwoman Henriette d’Angeville set out to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, against the advice of nearly everyone she knew. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow d’Angeville up the mountain to fulfill what she called “a monomania of the heart.”

We’ll also escape Australia in a box and puzzle over a fixed game.

See full show notes …

Streets and Order

This is interesting: USC urban planning professor Geoff Boeing examined the street networks of 100 world cities as a measure of their spatial logic and order.

The cities with the most ordered streets are Chicago, Miami, and Minneapolis; most disordered are Charlotte, São Paulo, and Rome.

“On average, US/Canadian study sites are far more grid-like than those elsewhere, exhibiting less entropy and circuity.”

(Geoff Boeing, “Urban Spatial Order: Street Network Orientation, Configuration, and Entropy,” Applied Network Science 4:1 [2019], 1-19.) (Via Ethan Mollick.)

Obstacle Course

In Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos, a Christmas party game from 1824, players had to take turns reading tongue-twisting passages as quickly as possible from a prepared list. Each passage represents a letter of the alphabet, and each builds on its forerunners. The worst is this:

TOBY PHILPOT sat tippling with UMPO, VUMPO, and WILLY WIDEMOUTH of Wolverhampton, when X and Y, two officers, brought in the culprit, while Saccharum Sweet Tooth said nothing, while Ramo Samee really swollowed a sword, while Sly Kia cried Quack! quack! quack! And turned into a duck, to escape from Poniatowsky, who said, To jail with the Juggler and Jade, as Mother Bunch on her broomstick cried, here’s a to-do! as Nicholas Hotch-potch said, Never were such times, as Muley Hassan, Mufti of Moldavia, put on his Barnacles, to see little Tweedle gobble them up, when Kia Khan Kreuse transmogrofied them into Pippins, because Snip’s wife cried, Illikipilliky! lass a-day! ’tis too bad to titter at a body, when Hamet el Mammet, the bottlenosed Barber of Balasora, laughed ha! ha! ha! on beholding the elephant spout mud over the ‘Prentice, who pricked his trunk with a needle, as Dicky Snip, the tailor, read the proclamation of Chrononhotonthologos, offering a thousand sequins for taking Bombardinian, Bashaw of three tails, who killed Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos.

A player who couldn’t pronounce a passage perfectly had to pay a penalty for each mistake. Here’s the whole list.


A problem from the Leningrad Mathematical Olympiad: You have 32 stones, each of a different weight. How can you find the two heaviest in 35 weighings with an equal-arm balance?

Click for Answer


“Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.” — William Gladstone

“The knowledge of the theory of logic has no tendency whatever to make men good reasoners.” — Thomas Macaulay

Abstract Art

Italian artist Salvatore Garau has auctioned an invisible sculpture titled Io Sono (“I am”) for 15,000 euros. The buyer receives a certificate of authentication and agrees to display the nonexistent artwork in a private home in an unobstructed area 5 feet square.

Last month the artist displayed another immaterial sculpture, Buddha in Contemplation, near the entrance to the Gallerie d’Italia in Milan. The area of its location was marked off with tape.

Garau said that the titles of his works “activate” viewers’ imagination. “When I decide to ‘exhibit’ an immaterial sculpture in a given space, that space will concentrate a certain amount and density of thoughts at a precise point, creating a sculpture that, from my title, will only take the most varied forms. After all, don’t we shape a God we’ve never seen?”

(Thanks, Sharon.)


I was in a house I did not know, which had two storeys. It was ‘my house.’ I found myself in the upper storey, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in Rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house and thought ‘not bad.’ But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older. I realised that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were mediaeval, the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another thinking ‘now I really must explore the whole house.’ I came upon a heavy door and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into a cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this, I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down to the depths. These, too, I descended and entered a low cave cut into rock. Thick dust lay on the floor and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old, and half disintegrated. Then I awoke.

Carl Jung had this dream in 1909, during a voyage to America with Freud. He took it to be an image of his psyche … but it also bears a striking resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s 1924 short story “The Rats in the Walls.”