Podcast Episode 161: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1971 high school student Juliane Koepcke fell two miles into the Peruvian rain forest when her airliner broke up in a thunderstorm. Miraculously, she survived the fall, but her ordeal was just beginning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Juliane’s arduous trek through the jungle in search of civilization and help.

We’ll also consider whether goats are unlucky and puzzle over the shape of doorknobs.


Before writing about time machines, H.G. Wells calculated that he’d earned a single pound in his writing endeavors.

In 1868, as an engineering trainee, Robert Louis Stevenson explored the foundation of a breakwater at Wick.

Sources for our feature on Juliane Koepcke:

Juliane Diller, When I Fell From the Sky, 2011.

“She Lived and 91 Others Died,” Life 72:3 (Jan. 28, 1972), 38.

“Jungle Trek: Survivor of Crash Tells of Struggle,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 6, 1972, A11.

“Didn’t Want to Steal: Survivor of Crash Passed Up Canoe,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 9, 1972, A7.

Jennings Parrott, “The Newsmakers: It’s Back to School for Peru Survivor,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1972, A2.

Werner Herzog, Wings of Hope, 2000:

Dan Koeppel, “Taking a Fall,” Popular Mechanics, February 2010.

Jason Daley, “I Will Survive,” Outside 29:9 (Sept. 1, 2004), 64.

Stephan Wilkinson, “Amazing But True Stories,” Aviation History, May 2014.

Tom Littlewood, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” Vice, Sept. 2, 2010.

“Juliane Koepcke: How I Survived a Plane Crash,” BBC News, March 24, 2012.

Frederik Pleitgen, “Survivor Still Haunted by 1971 Air Crash,” CNN, July 2, 2009.

Sally Williams, “Sole Survivor: The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” Telegraph, March 22, 2012.

Katherine MacDonald, “Survival Stories: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” Reader’s Digest (accessed July 2, 2017).

Listener mail:

“America’s First Serial Killer – H.H. Holmes,” geocaching.com (accessed July 7, 2017).

Colin Ainsworth, “Mystery in Yeadon: Who Is Buried in Serial Killer’s Grave?” Delaware County [Pa.] Daily Times, May 21, 2017.

Robert McCoppin and Tony Briscoe, “Is ‘Devil in White City’ Buried in Tomb? Remains to Be Unearthed to Find Out,” Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2017.

ShaoLan Hsueh, “The Chinese Zodiac, Explained,” TED2016, February 2016.

Wikipedia, “Erdős–Bacon Number” (accessed July 7, 2017).

Erdős, Bacon, Sabbath.

Natalie Portman (Erdős-Bacon number 7) co-authored this paper under her birth name, Natalie Hershlag:

Abigail A.Baird, Jerome Kagan, Thomas Gaudette, Kathryn A. Walz, Natalie Hershlag, and David A.Boas, “Frontal Lobe Activation During Object Permanence: Data From Near-Infrared Spectroscopy,” NeuroImage 16:4 (August 2002), 1120–1126.

Colin Firth (Erdős-Bacon number 7) was credited as a co-author of this paper after suggesting on a radio program that such a study could be done:

Ryota Kanai, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, and Geraint Rees, “Political Orientations Are Correlated With Brain Structure in Young Adults,” Current Biology 21:8 (April 2011), 677–680.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alon Shaham, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!


Using a body painting technique he developed in 1990, Calabrian illustrator Guido Daniele has created a curious zoo of animal images painted on human hands.

“Each painting takes from two to ten hours to complete,” reports Brad Honeycutt in The Art of Deception, “which means the hand models lending their exremities to the project must be very patient.”

Animal Behavior


Guidelines for wearers of a Smokey Bear costume, from the U.S. Forest Service’s Smokey Bear FAQ:

  1. The person wearing the costume must exhibit appropriate animation to be effective. Express sincerity and interest in the appearance by moving paws, head, and legs.
  2. There shall be at least one uniformed escort to accompany the Bear. The escort shall guide the Bear at the elbow.
  3. After donning the costume, the escort shall inspect the suit. Check for the following:
  4. Is the drawstring tucked in?
    Is the zipper out of sight?
    Are the buttons fastened?
    Is the belt firmly fastened to the pants?
    Are the pant cuffs neat?
    Is the hat crown up?
    Is the head straight on the shoulders?
    Is the fur brushed generously?

  5. A private dressing room is necessary for putting on and taking off the costume.
  6. The costumed bear should not force itself on anyone. Do not walk rapidly toward small children.
  7. A round-point shovel is part of the Smokey Bear image. It shall be used for appearances, when appropriate.
  8. The costume becomes hot to the wearer after a very short period. Success has been noted with the use of compartmentalized “ice vests” and the addition of a battery-operated fan in the hat. Several cooling options are available from the costume manufacturers. Limit appearances to 15-20 minute segments to minimize personal discomfort.
  9. After each appearance, check the costume for needed repairs or cleaning. Note this on the outside of the storage box for immediate follow-up by the owner/manager of the costume.

Costumed users must not speak during appearances, must never appear in less than full costume, and must appear dignified and friendly. “Do not use alcohol or illicit drugs prior to and during the Smokey Bear appearance. This condition applies to uniformed escorts as well.”

Shot Locks

A bizarre item from Gaillard’s Medical Journal, November 1884: Henry Matthews, a Pennsylvania soldier, was struck down by a bullet to the head at Cold Harbor in 1864. When he survived, his astonished doctors gave him the ball, with some of his brain and scalp still adhering to it. He “suffered no mental inconvenience” and went on to work as a clerk for the Reading Railroad.

When the bullet was presented to him 20 years ago at the hospital door the brain matter and the little patch of scalp had dried up, but a few short hairs could be seen sticking out from the latter. The bullet had been considerably flattened, and somewhat resembled in shape a miniature clam shell. As time elapsed Mr. Matthews, who greatly prized this relic, noticed an astonishing fact. The hairs, which at first were scarcely prominent enough to be noticed, were growing. Other hairs grew out also until a thick black bunch appeared at the back end of the bullet. At first his friends refused to credit the story, although he showed the precious relic in proof. Once or twice he cut off the ends of the growing hair. It continued to grow. About a year ago Mr. Matthews came to Philadelphia and sought out [the original surgeon, W.R.D] Blackwood, to whom he exhibited the bullet with its bunch of apparently healthy hair. The surgeon, in the presence of professional witnesses, cut off an inch of the hair, measured that which remained, boxed and sealed up the bullet, and placed it in trusty hands for safe keeping. Recently the package was opened. A careful measurement showed that the hair had grown over an inch since the ball had been last seen.

“At one time the hair had attained a growth of fully one inch,” reported the Miners’ Journal in the same year. “The relic was exhibited at the Philadelphia and Reading Depot by George Rahn, a clerk in Mr. Smith’s office. Mr. Matthews, who is employed by the Reading Company at Pottsville, was offered $100 for the ball but refused to accept it.”

Master Class


In 1884 Robert Louis Stevenson began to give writing lessons to his 26-year-old neighbor Adelaide Boodle. One of his first assignments was to describe a place. When he read her attempt, he said, “Oh, but this work is disgracefully bad! It could hardly be worse. What induced you to bring me stuff like this?” When she asked him what was wrong with it, he said:

‘As a first step in the right direction we will do a sum together. Count the adjectives in that exercise.’

I did so.

‘Now then, see how many times that will go into the number of words allowed for the whole description.’

The result proved that my modest percentage of adjectives was 17 1/2.

‘And mostly weak ones at that!’ remarked the Master with a queer little grimace at the culprit.

‘But how ought it to have been done?’

The voice that made this appeal for light and leading was no longer in the least lachrymose: it was now, I flattered myself, that of a vigorous and determined student.

‘You should have used fewer adjectives and many more descriptive verbs,’ came the swift reply. ‘If you want me to see your garden, don’t, for pity’s sake, talk about “climbing roses” or “green, mossy lawns”. Tell me, if you like, that roses twined themselves round the apple trees and fell in showers from the branches. Never dare to tell me again anything about “green grass”. Tell me how the lawn was flecked with shadows. I know perfectly well that grass is green. So does everybody else in England. What you have to learn is something different from that. Make me see what it was that made your garden distinct from a thousand others. And, by the way, while we are about it, remember once for all that green is a word I flatly forbid you to utter in a description more than, perhaps, once in a lifetime.’

She judged that the lesson was “well worth suffering for,” and the two became good friends. “After all, R.L.S. ‘was going to teach me to write’. What on earth did anything else matter?”

(From Boodle’s R.L.S. and His Sine Qua Non, 1926.)

Missing a Train

Image: Wikimedia Commons

New York playwright Augustin Daly was walking home one night in 1867, ruminating about a play he had begun to write, when he stubbed his toe on a misplaced flagstone. “I was near my door,” he said, “and I rushed into the house, threw myself into a chair, grasping my injured foot with both hands, for the pain was great, and exclaiming, over and over again, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! And it beats hot-irons all to pieces!’ I wasn’t even thinking of the hurt. I had the thought of having my hero tied on a railroad track and rescued by his sweetheart, just in the nick of time, before the swift passage of an express train across a dark stage.”

Here it is, the first appearance of that memorable device, from Daly’s play Under the Gaslight. Laura is locked inside a station when Byke, “a villain,” catches Snorkey, a messenger:

Snorkey: Byke, what are you going to do?

Byke: Put you to bed. (Lays him across the railroad tracks.)

Snorkey: Byke, you don’t mean to — My God, you are a villain!

Byke (fastening him to the rails): I’m going to put you to bed. You won’t toss much. In less than ten minutes you’ll be sound asleep. There, how do you like it? You’ll get down to the Branch before me, will you? You dog me and play the eavesdropper, eh! Now do it, if you can. When you hear the thunder under your head and see the lights dancing in your eyes, and feel the iron wheel a foot from your neck, remember Byke. (Exit L.)

Laura: O, Heavens! he will be murdered before my eyes! How can I aid him?

Snorkey: Who’s that?

Laura: It is I. Do you not know my voice?

Snorkey: That I do, but I almost thought I was dead and it was an angel’s. Where are you?

Laura: In the station.

Snorkey: I can’t see you, but I can hear you. Listen to me, miss, for I’ve only got a few minutes to live.

Laura (shaking door): And I cannot aid you.

Snorkey: Never mind me, miss; I might as well die now, and here, as at any other time. I’m not afraid. I’ve seen death in almost every shape, and none of them scare me; but, for the sake of those you love, I would live. Do you hear me?

Laura: Yes! Yes!

Snorkey: They are on the way to your cottage — Byke and Judas — to rob and murder.

Laura (in agony): O, I must get out! (Shakes window-bars). What shall I do?

Snorkey: Can’t you burst the door?

Laura: It is locked fast.

Snorkey: Is there nothing in there? No hammer? no crowbar?

Laura: Nothing. (Faint steam whistle heard in distance.) Oh, Heavens! The train! (Paralysed for an instant.) The axe!!

Snorkey: Cut the woodwork! Don’t mind the lock, cut round it. How my neck tingles! (A blow at door is heard.) Courage! (Another.) Courage! (The steam whistle heard again — nearer, and rumble of train on track — another blow.) That’s a true woman. Courage! (Noise of locomotive heard, with whistle. A last blow — the door swings open, mutilated, the lock hanging — and Laura appears, axe in hand.)

Snorkey: Here — quick! (She runs and unfastens him. The locomotive lights glare on scene). Victory! Saved! Hooray! (Laura leans exhausted against switch). And these are the women who ain’t to have a vote!

(As Laura takes his head from the track, the train of cars rushes past with roar and whistle from L. to R.)

(From Gordon Snell, The Book of Theatre Quotes, 1982.)

Noted in Passing


In Visual Thinking in Mathematics, M. Giaquinto writes, “Calculus grew out of attempts to deal with quantitative physical problems which could not be solved by means of geometry and arithmetic alone. Many of these problems concern situations which are easy to visualize. In fact visual representations are so useful that most books on calculus are peppered with diagrams.” But there’s an intriguing footnote: “Moshé Machover brought to my attention a notable exception: Landau (1934). It has no diagram, and no geometrical application.”

That’s Differential and Integral Calculus, by Edmund Landau, a professor of mathematics at Gottingen University. Machover is right — the 366-page volume contains not a single diagram. Landau writes, “I have not included any geometric applications in this text. The reason therefor is not that I am not a geometer; I am familiar, to be sure, with the geometry involved. But the exposition of the axioms and of the elements of geometry — I know them well and like to give courses on them — requires a separate volume which would have to precede the present one. In my lecture courses on the calculus, the geometric applications do, of course, make up a considerable portion of the material that is covered. But I do not wish to wait any longer to make generally available an account, rigorous and complete in every particular, of that which I have considered in my courses to be the most suitable method of treating the differential and integral calculus.”

The book was quite successful — the first English edition appeared in 1950, and subsequent editions have continued right up through 2001.