Some Enchanted Evening

In Southeast Asia, fireflies synchronize their flashing. Observing them in Siam in the 1920s, naturalist Hugh Smith wrote, “Imagine a tenth of a mile of river front with an unbroken line of [mangrove] trees with fireflies on every leaf flashing in synchronism. … Then, if one’s imagination is sufficiently vivid, he may form some conception of this amazing spectacle.”

The phenomenon was so unexpected that some initially dismissed the reports as an illusion; Phillip Laurent “could hardly believe [his] own eyes, for such a thing to occur among insects is certainly contrary to all natural laws.”

Each male fly’s flashes are initially sporadic, but they adjust their timing according to those around them until they’re synchronized. This helps identify them to females of their own species. Biologist John Buck observed, “Centers of synchrony built up slowly, two individuals often flashing independently for up to half a minute (about fifty cycles) before the flashes coincided. At this point their rhythms locked together and continued in synchrony thereafter.”

In 2015 Robin Meier and Andre Gwerder used LEDs to artificially direct the speed and rhythm of thousands of flashing fireflies (above), using this technique to “explore the idea of free will and transform a machine into a living actor inside a colony of insects.”

(Ying Zhou, Walter Gall, and Karen Nabb, “Synchronizing Fireflies,” College Mathematics Journal 37:3 [May 2006], 187-193.)

More Word Sums

Back in 2012 I mentioned that if A=1, B=2, C=3, etc., then ARM + BEND = ELBOW and KING + CHAIR = THRONE.

Peter Dawyndt of Ghent University challenged his students to come up with more, and they found these:

WHITE (65) + HOUSE (68) = GOVERNMENT (133)
PETER (64) + PAN (31) = NEVERLAND (95)
COMIC (43) + BOOK (43) = FANTASY (86)
ABSENT (61) + MINDED (49) = FORGETFUL (110)
BLOOD (48) + BATH (31) = MASSACRE (79)
DRUG (50) + ADDICT (41) = STONER (91)
MICRO (58) + SOFT (60) = COMPUTING (118)
RED (27) + BULL (47) = COCKTAIL (74)
EGG (19) + PLANT (63) = AUBERGINE (82)
CUSTARD (86) + CREAM (40) = BISCUITRY (126)
VISUAL (84) + BASIC (34) = MICROSOFT (118)
MONA (43) + LISA (41) = LEONARDO (84)
DOWN (56) + LOAD (32) = ITUNES (88)
BLACK (29) + JACK (25) = VEGAS (54)
SUN (54) + RISE (51) = HORIZON (105)
POLICE (60) + CAR (22) = PATROL (82)
CHURCH (61) + MAN (28) = RELIGION (89)
FAMILY (66) + TREE (48) = ANCESTORS (114)
HAND (27) + GUN (42) = MAGNUM (69)
RAIN (42) + BOW (40) = COLORS (82)
ANT (35) + LION (50) = DOODLEBUG (85)
BOTTOM (85) + LINE (40) = CONCLUSION (125)
BACK (17) + SLASH (59) = HYPHEN (76)
BILL (35) + FOLD (37) = MONEY (72)
URBAN (56) + LEGEND (47) = BULLSHIT (103)
CALL (28) + GIRL (46) = HARLOT (74)
STAR (58) + TREK (54) = VOYAGERS (112)

Names of famous people:

JOHN (47) + CLEESE (49) = HUMOUR (96)
TOM (48) + HANKS (53) = FORREST (101)
BOB (19) + MARLEY (74) = RASTAFARI (93)
KURT (70) + COBAIN (44) = NOVOSELIC (114)
EMMA (32) + WATSON (92) = VOLDEMORT (124)
JAMES (48) + BOND (35) = DANIEL (45) + CRAIG (38)
GEORGE (57) + LUCAS (56) = JAR (29) + JAR (29) + BINKS (55)
STEPHEN (87) + HAWKING (73) = TEXT (69) + TO (35) + SPEECH (56)
CLOCKWORK (111) + ORANGE (60) = STANLEY (96) + KUBRICK (75)

(Thanks, Peter.)

Swearing In

Houston attorney Robert Malinak sent this courtroom transcript to the Texas Bar Journal in 1999. He said it had been sent to him by “a credible New York lawyer”:

CLERK: Please repeat after me: “I swear by Almighty God.”

WITNESS: “I swear by Almighty God.”

CLERK: “That the evidence I give …”

WITNESS: That’s right.

CLERK: Repeat it.

WITNESS: “Repeat it.”

CLERK: No! Repeat what I said.

WITNESS: What you said when?

CLERK: “That the evidence that I give …”

WITNESS: “That the evidence that I give.”

CLERK: “Shall be the truth and …”

WITNESS: It will, and nothing but the truth!

CLERK: Please, just repeat after me: “Shall be the truth and …”

WITNESS: “Shall be the truth and.”

CLERK: Say: “Nothing …”

WITNESS: Okay. (remains silent)

CLERK: No! Don’t say nothing. Say: “Nothing but the truth …”


CLERK: Well? Do so.

WITNESS: You’re confusing me.

CLERK: Just say: “Nothing but the truth …”

WITNESS: Okay. I understand.

CLERK: Then say it.


CLERK: “Nothing but the truth …”

WITNESS: But I do! That’s just it.

CLERK: You must say: “Nothing but the truth …”

WITNESS: I WILL say nothing but the truth!

CLERK: Please, just repeat these four words: “Nothing” — “But” — “The” — “Truth.”

WITNESS: What? You mean, like, now?

CLERK: Yes! Now. Please. Just say those four words.

WITNESS: Nothing. But. The. Truth.

CLERK: Thank you.

WITNESS: I’m just not a scholar.

Podcast Episode 174: Cracking the Nazi Code

In 1940, Germany was sending vital telegrams through neutral Sweden using a sophisticated cipher, and it fell to mathematician Arne Beurling to make sense of the secret messages. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the outcome, which has been called “one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cryptography.”

We’ll also learn about mudlarking and puzzle over a chicken-killing Dane.

See full show notes …

Occupational Hazards

laurence olivier, terence morgan

In his foreword to William Hobbs’ Stage Combat, Laurence Olivier listed the injuries he’d received in his acting career:

1 broken ankle
2 torn cartilages (1 perforce yielding to surgery)
2 broken calf muscles
3 ruptured Achilles tendons
Untold slashes including a full thrust razor-edged sword wound in the breast (thrilling)
Landing from considerable height, scrotum first, upon acrobat’s knee
Hanging by hand to piano wire 40 feet up for some minutes (hours?) on account of unmoored rope
Hurled to the stage from 30 feet due to faultily moored rope ladder
Impalement upon jagged ply cut-outs
Broken foot bone by standing preoccupied in camera track
Broken face by horse galloping into camera while looking through finder
Near broken neck diving into net
Several shrewd throws from horses including one over beast’s head into lake
One arrow shot between shinbones
Water on elbow
Water pretty well everywhere
Hands pretty well mis-shapen now through ‘taking’ falls
Quite a few pretended injuries while it was really gout
Near electrocution through scimitar entering studio dimmer while backing away from unwelcome interview
Etc., etc., etc.

He added, “Not to mention injuries inflicted upon my audiences.”

Two-Way Traffic

In 2009 I mentioned that in 1895 Henry Simmons invented ramp-shaped railroad cars that could pass over one another.

At the time I thought this was alarming, but something like it was actually carried out. On Coney Island’s Leap Frog Railway of 1905, one car full of passengers clambered over another:

The passengers in breathless excitement momentarily anticipating disaster, realizing that their lives are in jeopardy, clinging to one another for safety, closing their eyes to the impending danger. … The cars crash into one another, 32 people are hurled over the heads of 32 others. … They are suddenly awakened to a realization of the fact that they have actually collided with another car and yet they find themselves safe and sound … proceeding in the same direction in which they started.

On the return journey the cars changed positions. At the time this was billed as a prototype “to reduce the mortality rate due to collisions on railways.” Now I wonder whether Simmons’ invention was ever realized.

(From Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1994.)

No, Seriously

When Bertrand Russell was invited to China in 1920, he thought it might be a hoax — the letter was signed “Fu Ling-yu.”

When the Russells reached Peking, “the mystery of Mr Fu Ling-yu was solved in the person of Professor Fu, a tall Northern Chinese, young and handsome and of extremely fine presence.”

(From Dora Russell’s memoir The Tamarisk Tree.)


Last year I mentioned that during Scotland’s 1904 Antarctic expedition, piper Gilbert Kerr had serenaded a penguin:

Well, by Ernest Shackleton’s expedition three years later they’d advanced to gramophones:

This doesn’t seem to have gone any better, but it’s increasingly clear that we’re the obtuse ones. Shackleton’s biologist, James Murray, wrote, “They came up to a party of strangers in a straggling procession, some big aldermanic fellow leading. At a respectful distance they halted, and the old male waddled close up and bowed gravely until his head almost touched his breast. With his head still bowed he made a long speech in a muttering manner, and having finished his speech he still kept his head bowed for a few seconds for politeness sake, and then raising it he described with his bill as large a circle as the joints of his neck would allow, and finally looked into our faces to see if we understood. If we had not, as usually was the case, he tried again.

“He was infinitely patient with our stupidity, but his followers were not so patient with him, and presently they would become sure that he was making a mess of it. Then another male would waddle forward and elbow the first Emperor aside as if to say, ‘I’ll show you how it ought to be done,’ and went again through the whole business.”

“They are the civilized nations of the Antarctic regions, and their civilization, if much simpler than ours, is in some respects higher and more worthy of the name.”