Podcast Episode 214: The Poison Squad

wiley and the poison squad

In 1902, chemist Harvey Wiley launched a unique experiment to test the safety of food additives. He recruited a group of young men and fed them meals laced with chemicals to see what the effects might be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Wiley’s “poison squad” and his lifelong crusade for food safety.

We’ll also follow some garden paths and puzzle over some unwelcome weight-loss news.

See full show notes …

Feet Foremost

“Beheaded limericks” by Arthur Shaw:

A nice pot of gold that was mari,
Belonged to a dan that was harri,
When some cals who were ras
Filled their kets which were bas
She put up a cade which was barri.

A certain young pate who was addle
Rode a horse he alleged to be saddle,
But his gust which was dis,
For his haps, which were mis,
Sent him back to his lac which was Cadil.

In gonia once which was Pata,
A clysm occurred which was cata.
A gineer that was en
Lost his ture that was den,
In a torium there that was nata.

A chap was so pose that was adi
And the butt of such nage that was badi,
He solved that was re
Not to lay that was de
In taking steps cal that were radi.



In 1659, when Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain met to sign the Treaty of the Pyrenees following the Thirty Years’ War, they did so on Pheasant Island, an uninhabited island in the Bidasoa river between their two nations.

Ever since, the island has remained under joint sovereignty — it’s governed alternately by Spain and France, changing hands every six months.


A Wrong Turn


In February 1978, five young men disappeared after attending a college basketball game in Chico, California. Several days later their car was discovered high on a mountain road in Plumas National Forest, far from their route home to Yuba City. It was stuck in a snowdrift but could easily have been pushed free by five men; the gas tank was a quarter full.

In June, the bones of three of the men were found 20 miles deep in the forest. Inside a nearby trailer were the remains of a fourth, Ted Weiher, wrapped in eight sheets. He had died of starvation and hypothermia. His feet were badly frostbitten, his face bore 13 weeks’ beard, he’d lost half his 200 pounds. The trailer was stocked with food and fuel, but he’d used none of it. Still missing was the fifth man, Gary Mathias (right), whose shoes were found in the trailer.

As it happened, a Sacramento man had been lying in his car on the same mountain road that night, suffering a mild heart attack. He told police he saw a car parked behind him during the night, surrounded by a group of people, but when he called for help they went silent and turned off their headlights. Later he saw flashlights, but these too went out when he called for aid.

Gary Mathias remains missing to this day. “We don’t know what happened to them — we’ve a real mystery on our hands,” Yuba County Undersheriff Jack Beecham said that March. “The prevalent theory is it could be anything.”



Doctor [John] Gillies, the historian of Greece, and Mr. [Richard] Porson used now and then to meet. The consequence was certain to be a literary contest. Porson was much the deeper scholar of the two. Dr. Gillies was one day speaking to him of the Greek tragedies, and of Pindar’s odes. ‘We know nothing,’ said Dr. Gillies, emphatically, ‘of the Greek metres.’ Porson answered, ‘If, Doctor, you will put your observation in the singular number, I believe it will be very accurate.’

The Flowers of Anecdote, Wit, Humour, Gaiety and Genius, 1829

Shannon’s Mouse

This is fantastic — in 1950 Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, designed a mechanical mouse that could explore an arbitrary maze, reliably find a path to the goal, remember it, and then recognize and adapt to changes. He called it Theseus. The mouse itself is only a copper-whiskered bar magnet on three wheels; it’s motivated by an electromagnet under the maze floor, driven by a pair of motors. The thinking is done by telephone relays following a topology theorem.

In 1977, when the editors of IEEE Spectrum challenged their readers to design a self-contained micromouse that could solve a maze through trial and error, Shannon took Theseus down from his attic and put him on display beside his descendants, which could now accomplish the same task using their own onboard processors. Computers were “not up to the human level yet,” he said, but “it is certainly plausible to me that in a few decades machines will be beyond humans.”



His father also relates another amusing little incident: ‘When he was about ten years old, a distinguished phrenologist came along and stayed several days in the place. He was frequently asked to examine heads, blindfolded. The phrenologist, among others, examined the boy Grant. He felt his head for several minutes without saying anything. Then he was asked if the boy had a capacity for mathematics. The phrenologist, after some further examinations, said: “You need not be surprised if you see this boy fill the Presidential chair some time.”‘

— William Ralston Balch, Life and Public Services of General Grant, 1885


In a short clip among the DVD extras included with Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus, a woman walks past the camera appearing to talk on a cell phone. The best explanation seems to be that she’s using a portable hearing aid, introduced by Siemens in 1924.

In 2013 the clip below appeared on YouTube, allegedly shot in 1938 and again seeming to show a woman using a cell phone. One popular explanation, that Dupont was experimenting with wireless telephones in Leominster, Massachusetts, is apparently not true, but I can’t find any plausible theories beyond that. Draw your own conclusions.

The Hypercubical Dance

Inspired by Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, in which a three-dimensional sphere tries to explain its world to a two-dimensional square, Worcester Polytechnic Institute physicist P.K. Aravind has devised a ballet that describes a tesseract, or four-dimensional hypercube, to a three-dimensional audience.

“The spirit of my demonstration is very similar to Abbott’s, only it is pitched at Spacelanders who are encouraged to make the leap from three dimensions to four, just as Abbott’s demonstration was pitched at a Flatlander who was encouraged to make the leap from two dimensions to three.”

He describes the project here.

(P.K. Aravind, “The Hypercubical Dance — A Solution to Abbott’s Problem in Flatland?,” Mathematical Gazette 91:521 [July 2007]: 193-197.)