The Value of Research

In 1970, shortly after the first lunar landing, rocket scientist Ernst Stuhlinger received a letter from missionary Sister Mary Jucunda in Zambia asking how the government could justify spending billions of dollars on space exploration when so many children on Earth were starving to death. He responded with a story:

About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently. One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory. He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. ‘We are suffering from this plague,’ they said, ‘while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!’ But the count remained firm. ‘I give you as much as I can afford,’ he said, ‘but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!’

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

Stuhlinger’s whole letter is here (PDF). “Although our space program seems to lead us away from our earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets and the stars,” he wrote, “I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our earth.”

In a Word

n. swiftness, quickness, agility

n. the state of not having a husband

adj. leaping upon

adj. married

The Fenway Millionaires also have a ‘sleeper’ in Norm Zauchin, a massive fellow just out of the Army. Don’t underestimate him. When he was at Birmingham he pursued a twisting foul ball into a front row box. He clutched frantically. He missed grabbing the ball but he did grab a girl, Janet Mooney. This might not be considered a proper introduction by Emily Post but it worked for Zauchin. He married the gal. Nope. Don’t underestimate an opportunist like that.

— Arthur Daley, “Life Among the Millionaires,” New York Times, March 11, 1954

Small Claims

In 1895, when a Chicago landowner failed to pay his taxes, a bidder acquired a claim to the east one-vigintillionth part of the lot. The insurance company tried to foreclose, arguing that the owner had allowed a cloud to come on the title by the loss of this small fraction. But the county court held that a vigintillionth (1/1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000) was practically nothing, as “its width would be so fine that the most powerful magnifying glass ever made could not discover it: it would be utterly incapable of physical possession.” In a little rhapsody, the Northwestern Law Review agreed:

If the surface of the earth were rolled out flat and a vigintillionth sold off the east side and sold to pay the taxes of the owner thereof, the purchaser at the tax sale would get a strip about 500 quin-decillionths of an inch wide. Hardly large enough for even a Pingree potato patch.

If the holder of the fee simple title to the section of space between the earth and the sun, (taken at 93,000,000 miles), should be unfortunate enough to be sold out to the tax buyer, he would, if he failed to redeem, lose title to a strip along one side of his holding, (say next the sun), some 140 qual decillionths of an inch in width.

Or, if the ‘unknown owner’ of the space between here and the nearest fixed star, (Alpha Centauri), something like twenty million millions of miles from the Northeast corner of Randolph and State Sts. should be unfortunate in his real estate venture and fall into the greedy hands of the tax buyer, he would have to yield up dominion over a strip on the East side of his subdivision some 645 dio decellionths of an inch across.

So did the Economist. But a higher court reversed the ruling, arguing that although a vigintillionth of the property “could not be appreciated by the senses, it is recognizable by the mind,” and that its existence left the rest of the property inaccessible by the street on the east side.

This must be some odd trend of American law in the 1890s — in his Strangest Cases on Record (1940), John Allison Duncan mentions another such case in Arapahoe County, Colorado. He includes a photograph of the certificate of purchase.


A letter from William Pomeroy Barnett of Whitesboro, Texas, to Ollie Hughes, 1891:

Deer gurl

I hav bin thinin fur a gude while thet I wood rite you a leter an tel you thet I wus luvin beter eny uther gurl in texas an ef you will mary me I wil be jist the bestest feller you ever seed in the wurld i will fede the hoss an mirk the cow an slop the pig an chern the buter an eny theng else in the wurld you tel me to. if you knode how much i luv you you wood say yes when yuve thunk the mater overall tu your sef i hope you will eny way. if you can luv me jist a little tenty bit i wood fele awful gude if you wood tel me so the first time you see me an ef you cante luv me donte luv thet uther feller fur if you du it wood kill me deder an a dor nale to no hit. fur i do kere fur you a ho lot, if not a lot, more. you are the apple uf my eye.

I wunder if it makes all the boys fele as funny as hit dus me to be in luv if hit dus they all fele mity gude all the samey. but i think i wude fele a heep beter if i node you luved me jist as hard as id you. but if you cante think nuthen uv me brake the nuze sorter eazy like or else you mite coze me to have the harte dezeze us sum uther killin theng. I am a cumin over thare sum uv theze times a purpus to ask you to be my wife an id do hope yure ansar will be in the offurmative if hit ante i donte no What I will do but i spect i will go as crasy as a lunytick, well ole gal i will cloze fur this hopin to here frum you sune if not suner Purhaps. When you rite you must be shore an rite to the one thet sent you this if you donte I wonte git hit shore, rite sune to your luvin Jular Ky. resp. yorse.

They were married that November.

(From George U. Hubbard, The Humor and Drama of Early Texas, 2003.)

The Coxcomb

Florence Nightingale created this innovative diagram to track the causes of mortality in the Crimean War. Her description:

The Areas of the blue, red, & black wedges are each measured from the centre as the common vertex.

The blue wedges measured from the centre of the circle represent area for area the deaths from Preventable or Mitigable Zymotic diseases, the red wedges measured from the centre the deaths from wounds, & the black wedges measured from the centre the deaths from all other causes.

The black line across the red triangle in Nov. 1854 marks the boundary of the deaths from all other causes during the month.

In October 1854, & April 1855, the black area coincides with the red, in January & February 1856, the blue coincides with the black.

The entire areas may be compared by following the blue, the red, & the black lines enclosing them.

The diagram on the right corresponds to the first 12 months of the war; the one on the left shows the second 12 months. The difference reflects the dramatic effectiveness of a sanitary commission in reducing disease.

Nightingale found that presenting information graphically made it more accessible to Members of Parliament and civil servants, who might not otherwise read statistical reports. In 1859 she was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society.

“A Very Descript Man”

I am such a dolent man,
I eptly work each day;
My acts are all becilic,
I’ve just ane things to say.

My nerves are strung, my hair is kempt,
I’m gusting and I’m span:
I look with dain on everyone
And am a pudent man.

I travel cognito and make
A delible impression:
I overcome a slight chalance,
With gruntled self-possession.

My dignation would be great
If I should digent be:
I trust my vagance will bring
An astrous life for me.

— J.H. Parker

From Schott’s Vocab. (Thanks, Jacob.)

Podcast Episode 143: The Conscience Fund
Image: Wikimedia Commons

For 200 years the U.S. Treasury has maintained a “conscience fund” that accepts repayments from people who have defrauded or stolen from the government. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the history of the fund and some of the more memorable and puzzling contributions it’s received over the years.

We’ll also ponder Audrey Hepburn’s role in World War II and puzzle over an illness cured by climbing poles.


Wisconsin banker John Krubsack grafted 32 box elders into a living chair.

According to his colleagues, Wolfgang Pauli’s mere presence would cause accidents.

Sources for our feature on the conscience fund:

Warren Weaver Jr., “‘Conscience Fund’ at New High,” New York Times, March 18, 1987.

“$10,000 to Conscience Fund,” New York Times, July 21, 1915.

“$6,100 to Conscience Fund,” New York Times, Feb. 4, 1925.

“Swell Conscience Fund; Two Remittances, Small and Large, Bring In $4,876.70,” New York Times, Feb. 6, 1916.

“Sends $50 to War Department for Equipment Stolen in 1918,” New York Times, March 2, 1930.

“Depression Swells Total of Federal Conscience Fund,” New York Times, April 21, 1932.

“Federal Treasury Gets $300 to Add to Conscience Fund,” New York Times, March 25, 1932.

“9,896 Two-Cent Stamps Sent to City’s Conscience Fund,” New York Times, May 15, 1930.

“$30,000 to Conscience Fund; Contributor Says He Has Sent Four Times Amount He Stole,” New York Times, March 10, 1916.

“Guilt: Settling With Uncle Sam,” Time, March 30, 1987.

“The Conscience Fund: Many Thousands Contributed — Some Peculiar Cases,” New York Times, Aug. 5, 1884.

“Pays Government Fourfold; Conscience Bothered Man Who Took $8,000 from Treasury,” New York Times, June 13, 1908.

Rick Van Sant, “Guilt-Stricken Pay Up to IRS ‘Conscience Fund’ Gets Cash, Quilts,” Cincinnati Post, Jan. 26, 1996.

John Fairhall, “The Checks Just Keep Coming to the ‘Conscience Fund,'” Baltimore Sun, Dec. 10, 1991.

Donna Fox, “People Who Rip Off Uncle Sam Pay the ‘Conscience Fund,'” Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 24, 1987.

Associated Press, “Ten Thousand Dollars in Currency Is Sent to U.S. ‘Conscience Fund,'” Harrisburg [Pa.] Telegraph, July 20, 1915.

“Washington Letter,” Quebec Daily Telegraph, July 3, 1889.

“Figures of the Passing Show,” Evening Independent, Sept. 16, 1909.

James F. Clarity and Warren Weaver Jr., “Briefing: The Conscience Fund,” New York Times, Dec. 24, 1985.

Warren Weaver Jr., “‘Conscience Fund’ at New High,” New York Times, March 18, 1987.

“Conscience Fund Too Small,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16, 1925.

“Laborer Swells Conscience Fund,” New York Times, June 28, 1912.

“A Conscience Fund Contribution,” New York Times, Feb. 14, 1895.

“The Conscience Fund,” New York Times, March 27, 1932.

“Swells Conscience Fund: Californian, Formerly in the Navy, Gets Religion and Pays for Stationery on His Ship,” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1915.

“2 Cents, Conscience Fund: Sent to Pay for Twice-Used Stamp — Costs Post Office a Dollar,” New York Times, June 2, 1910.

“$30,000 to Conscience Fund: Contributor Says He Has Sent Four Times Amount He Stole,” New York Times, March 10, 1916.

“‘Conscience Fund’ Rises: New Yorker’s $8 Is Item in $896.49 Sent Treasury,” New York Times, Nov. 28, 1937.

“The Conscience Fund: Many Thousands Contributed — Some Peculiar Cases,” New York Times, Aug. 5 1884.

“The Conscience Fund: Young Woman Seeks a Loan From It From a Belief It Was Created for Benefit of Honest People,” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1914.

“Gives to Conscience Fund: Contributor of $36 ‘Forgot Tax Item’ — Another Sends $32,” New York Times, April 3, 1936.

“Conscience-Fund Flurries: Due to Religious Revivals,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28, 1903.

“$100 for Conscience Fund: Customs Officials Think Same Person Sent $10c a Few Days Ago,” New York Times, March 10, 1928.

“Swell Conscience Fund: Two Remittances, Small and Large, Bring In $4,876.70,” New York Times, Feb. 6, 1916.

“Conscience Fund for President: Pasadena Writer Sends Dollar to Harding to Make Good for 20-Year-Old Theft,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1921.

“$33 for Conscience Fund: Smuggler Sent Taft the Money After Selling His Goods,” New York Times, May 21, 1911.

“$1 to Conscience Fund: Remorseful Laborer Pays Off Debt to Government by Installments,” New York Times, Nov. 10, 1912.

“The Nation’s Conscience Fund,” Scrap Book, May 1906.

“Uncle Sam’s Conscience Fund,” Book of the Royal Blue, November 1904.

“The Conscience Fund,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, July 1894.

“Gives $18,669 to Conscience Fund,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 26, 1901.

“Large and Small Sums Swell Conscience Fund,” Virginia Chronicle, March 6, 1925.

“Miscellaneous Revenue Collections, or Conscience Fund,” Internal Revenue Manual (01-01-2011), U.S. Internal Revenue Service (accessed Feb. 12, 2017).

Listener mail:

“Myth Debunked: Audrey Hepburn Did Not Work for the Resistance” [in Dutch], Dutch Broadcast Foundation, Nov. 17, 2016.

The official Audrey Hepburn site.

To see the mentioned image of Hepburn and her mother in a musical benefit concert in 1940, Samantha gives these steps:

  1. From the homepage, go to the “life & career” section.
  2. On the left side of the page, choose “1929-1940,” then “Audrey’s childhood.”
  3. Click the down arrow below the image 15 times.

A screen test of Hepburn in 1953, in which she says she gave secret ballet performances to raise money for “the underground”:

Airborne Museum’s exhibition on Audrey Hepburn and her mother, Ella van Heemstra.

Two obituaries of Michael Burn:

William Grimessept, “Michael Burn, Writer and Adventurer, Dies at 97,” New York Times, Sept. 14, 2010.

“Michael Burn,” Telegraph, Sept. 6, 2010.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Alexander Loew. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil 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

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

Crab Computing
Image: Flickr

In 1982, computer scientists Edward Fredkin and Tommaso Toffoli suggested that it might be possible to construct a computer out of bouncing billiard balls rather than electronic signals. Spherical balls bouncing frictionlessly between buffers and other balls could create circuits that execute logic, at least in principle.

In 2011, Yukio-Pegio Gunji and his colleagues at Kobe University extended this idea in an unexpected direction: They found that “swarms of soldier crabs can implement logical gates when placed in a geometrically constrained environment.” These crabs normally live in lagoons, but at low tide they emerge in swarms that behave in predictable ways. When placed in a corridor and menaced with a shadow representing a crab-eating bird, a swarm will travel forward, and if it encounters another swarm the two will merge and continue in a direction that’s the sum of their respective velocities.

Gunji et al. created a set of corridors that would act as logic gates, first in a simulation and then with groups of 40 real crabs. The OR gate, where two groups of crabs merge, worked well, but the AND gate, which requires the merged swarm to choose one of three paths, was less reliable. Still, the researchers think they can improve this result by making the environment more crab-friendly — which means that someday a working crab-powered computer may be possible.

(Yukio-Pegio Gunji, Yuta Nishiyama, and Andrew Adamatzky, “Robust Soldier Crab Ball Gate,” Complex Systems 20:2 [2011], 93–104.)

The Candy Thief

A problem by Wayne M. Delia and Bernadette D. Barnes:

Five children — Ivan, Sylvia, Ernie, Dennis, and Linda — entered a candy store, and one of them stole a box of candy from the shelf. Afterward each child made three statements:


1. I didn’t take the box of candy.
2. I have never stolen anything.
3. Dennis did it.


4. I didn’t take the box of candy.
5. I’m rich and I can buy my own candy.
6. Linda knows who the crook is.


7. I didn’t take the box of candy.
8. I didn’t know Linda until this year.
9. Dennis did it.


10. I didn’t take the box of candy.
11. Linda did it.
12. Ivan is lying when he says I stole the candy.


13. I didn’t take the box of candy.
14. Sylvia is guilty.
15. Ernie can vouch for me, because he has known me since I was a baby eight years ago.

If each child made two true and one false statement, who stole the candy?

Click for Answer