What’s in a Name?

The fastest man on earth is named Bolt. Is that a coincidence, or did his name influence his choice of career?

In 2015, four curious researchers combed the British medical register looking for practitioners whose surnames seemed apt for their specialties (e.g., a neurologist named Brain). Then they compared the frequency of apt names listed under hospital specialties against their frequency in the register in general. They found that “[t]he frequency of names relevant to medicine and to subspecialties was much greater than that expected by chance.” Some examples:

General surgery: Gore, Butcher, Boyle, Blunt
Urology: Ball, Burns, Cox, Dick, Waterfall
Psychiatry: Downs, Lowe, Bhatti, Moodie, Nutt
Cardiology: Hart, Pump, Payne
Dermatology: Boyle, Hickey
Neurology: Counsell, Panicker
Paediatric medicine: Boys, Gal, Child, Kinder

Also: “Paediatric medicine was much more likely to be Wong than White (10:2), whereas anaesthetists were far more likely to be White than Wong (22:4).” And “One wonders if the comforting words of Dr Lie carry less impact because of the name, or whether consultations with Dr Dark in oncology are made any more ominous.”

(C. Limb et al., “Nominative Determinism in Hospital Medicine,” Bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 97:1 [2015], 24-26.) (See Doctor Doctor and the Doctor’s Names List.)

Black and White

Smyth-Helms 1915

In 1915 James Ferguson Smyth invited Hermann Helms to play a practice game at the Manhattan Chess Club. They had reached the position above when Helms, as Black, found a brilliant two-move mate. What is it?

Click for Answer


Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1997 a series of eruptions by the nearby Soufrière Hills volcano buried most of Plymouth, Montserrat, making it uninhabitable.

The government was moved to the town of Brades, but nominally Plymouth remains the capital, making it the only ghost town that serves as the capital of a political territory.



On May 14, 2008, 19-year-old Brandon Swanson of Marshall, Minnesota, called his parents around 2 a.m. to say he’d driven his car into a ditch and asked them to pick him up. He said he wasn’t hurt and gave them his best estimate of his location.

His parents drove to meet him, keeping in touch by phone, but couldn’t find him. Each party flashed its headlights, but neither could see the other.

Finally Brandon told them he was going to walk toward some lights that he took to be the town of Lynd, 7 miles from Marshall. He named a bar there and asked his father to meet him in the parking lot, and his father began to drive there, talking to Brandon as he did.

Shortly after 2:30 a.m., 47 minutes into the call, Brandon suddenly interrupted himself with the words “Oh, shit!”, and the connection was lost. He has not been seen or heard from since.

Cell phone records showed that he’d been near Porter, 25 miles from the location he’d estimated. His car was found nearby, but years of searching have not found a body. The case remains unsolved.

Podcast Episode 312: The Last of the Yahi


In 1911 an exhausted man emerged from the wilderness north of Oroville, California. He was discovered to be the last of the Yahi, a people who had once flourished in the area but had been decimated by white settlers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Ishi’s sad history and his new life in San Francisco.

We’ll also consider the surprising dangers of baseball and puzzle over a forceful blackout.

See full show notes …

Red Square

A problem from the 1999 Russian Mathematical Olympiad:

Each cell of a 50×50 square is colored in one of four colors. Show that there exists a square which has cells of the same color as it directly above, directly below, directly to the left, and directly to the right of it (though not necessarily adjacent to it).

Click for Answer

Elephants and Locomotives


The elephant is no more wonderful than his biographers usually make him. It was to his lordly self that a railway accident was due on the Perak State Railway [Malaya] in September. The last train for the day was about three miles distant from its destination (Teluk Anson), and was running at about twenty miles an hour, when the fireman noticed something on the line. He called to the driver, who immediately shut off steam. Too late, however, for the train collided violently with a huge object, which proved to be a wild elephant that had strayed on to and was crossing the line at the time. The elephant had one of its legs broken, and half cut off; a part of the trunk was also cut off. The monster itself was thrown down the bank, where it soon died from loss of blood. The engine was also derailed.

The Sketch, Jan. 16, 1895

I can find two stories of subsequent “duels” between elephants and locomotives on the same line. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1926) describes one that took place in 1897, and Forest and Stream has an account of one in 1900. Neither mentions the other, though, so I think perhaps they’re describing the same encounter.

The Incentive Trap


Suppose you build a ship that can take you to Barnard’s Star. Should you depart today? Perhaps not: Our civilization might create a faster ship tomorrow that will overtake you on the journey. But clearly if you wait too long then you’ll simply lose out to an earlier ship. There must be some optimal waiting time that will deliver you to the star before any other pilot.

What is that time? “It has been shown that taking reasonable estimates for growth, an interstellar journey of 6 light years can best be made in about 635 years from now if growth continues at about 1.4% per annum,” writes researcher Andrew Kennedy. “At this point, the journey could be made in 145 years.”

(Andrew Kennedy, “Interstellar Travel: The Wait Calculation and the Incentive Trap of Progress,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 59:7 [2006], 239-246.)


Image: Wikimedia Commons

I had written about this back in 2006, but it’s worth mentioning again because someone has created this pellucid diagram: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo is a grammatical English sentence. It means something like “Bison residing in Buffalo, New York, feeling themselves intimidated by their fellows, visit a similar fate upon yet others of their local ilk.”

I’d attributed it to linguist William J. Rapaport, but apparently it’s arisen independently at least three times, first (it is believed) by wordplay maven Dmitri Borgmann, in 1965.