Problem Solved

In 1991, botanist John L. Strother was reviewing the classification of North American sunflowers when he identified a new genus. By this time his 100-page monograph was in the final stages of proofing, and adding a new entry in the middle would require troublesome changes in the layout.

The genera were listed alphabetically, and the last one was Zexmenia. So Strother named the new genus Zyzyxia. Since this placed the new entry near the end of the article, it minimized the necessary changes, and the editor accepted the addition.

Image: Peter Benton

A striking symbol of the 1951 Festival of Britain was this cigar-shaped sculpture, which seemed to float impossibly 15 meters above the ground.

Designed by Hidalgo Moya, Philip Powell, and Felix Samuely, the structure relied on the principle of tensegrity: The base rested at the junction of three tensioned cables, and three further cables held the body vertical. Together, these six well-positioned supports were enough to keep the 80-meter sculpture from toppling.

Britons joked that, like the national economy at the time, it had “no visible means of support.”

Podcast Episode 352: A Victorian Hippopotamus,_ca._1855.jpg

In 1850, England received a distinguished guest: A baby hippopotamus arrived at the London Zoo. Obaysch was an instant celebrity, attracting throngs of visitors while confounding his inexperienced keepers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe his long tenure at the zoo, more than 4,000 miles from his Egyptian home.

We’ll also remark on a disappearing signature and puzzle over a hazardous hand sign.

See full show notes …

Making a Point

In another case of press repression which succeeded only in creating a martyr, the editor of the Swedish newspaper Stockholms Posten, Captain Anders Lindeberg, was convicted of treason in 1834 for implying that King Karl Johan should be deposed. He was sentenced to death by decapitation, under a medieval treason law. When the King mitigated the sentence to three years in prison, Lindeberg decided to highlight the King’s repressive press policy by insisting upon his right to be beheaded and refusing to take advantage of the government’s attempts to encourage him to escape. Finally, in desperation, the King issued a general amnesty to ‘all political prisoners awaiting execution’, which applied only to Lindeberg. When the editor stubbornly insisted upon his right to execution, the government solved the problem by locking him out of his cell while he was walking in the prison courtyard and then refusing him re-entry.

— Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Censorship of the Arts and the Press in Nineteenth-Century Europe, 1989

(Thanks, Jason.)


[T]o deprive the meanest insect of life, without a good reason for so doing, is certainly criminal. By such an act, a man destroys, what neither he, nor all the united powers of the world can ever repair; and it may be attended with worse consequences than he can imagine. If superior beings had the same power over us, that we have over brutes, what misery might not one of them occasion to a whole nation, by destroying such an insect as a minister of state may appear to be in his eyes? If a child dismembers a bee, or an ant, he may, for any thing we know to the contrary, distress a whole common-wealth.

— James Granger, An Apology for the Brute Creation, or Abuse of Animals Censured, 1772

A Rare Eagle$20-Saint_Gaudens.jpg

The United States minted nearly half a million copies of this 20-dollar gold coin in 1933, but when gold coins were disallowed as legal tender most of them were melted down. The mint saved two for the U.S. National Numismatic Collection, and 20 more were stolen. Of these, nine have now been destroyed, and 10 are held at Fort Knox. That means that a total of 13 specimens of the 1933 double eagle are known to exist, with only one in private hands. Shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who had paid $7.6 million for that one in 2002, auctioned it last month to an anonymous collector for $18.9 million. That coin is unique: No other 1933 double eagle can be privately owned or legally sold.


“To try to be happy is to try to build a machine with no other specification than that it shall run noiselessly.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer, Letters and Recollections, 1980

Wandering Minds

Here’s a macabre fad from Victorian Britain: headless portraits, in which sitters held their severed heads in their hands, on platters, or by the hair, occasionally even displaying the weapons by which they’d freed them.

Photographer Samuel Kay Balbirnie ran advertisements in the Brighton Daily News offering “HEADLESS PHOTOGRAPHS – Ladies and Gentlemen Taken Showing Their Heads Floating in the Air or in Their Laps.”


On Oct. 24 [1947] two University of Chicago students rattled into Reno., Nev. in a Model-A Ford to try the gambling. Their total resources: $100. Wasting no time, they went to the Palace Club, where they studiously made a chart of the recurrence of numbers on the roulette wheel. Then they went into action. Playing number 9, which their records indicated as the best possibility, they parlayed their $100 into $5,000 in 40 hours. At this point the manager became uneasy, switched the wheel. So the students moved on to Harold’s Club.

There they used the same system. Sure enough, their $5,000 rose to $14,500. But then, unaccountably, their system went sour. They dropped from $14,500 to $10,000 and kept going down. That was when the young theoreticians made the smartest move of all. They pocketed their winnings, packed up the Model-A and went home, ahead by $6,500.

Life, Dec. 8, 1947

(The students were Albert Hibbs and Roy Walford. Accounts vary as to their total takings; Hibbs claimed $12,000 on You Bet Your Life in 1959. They spent a year sailing around the Caribbean and then returned to their studies. Hibbs went on to become a JPL physicist and Walford a UCLA pathologist.)