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British inventor William Cantelo had just developed an early machine gun when he disappeared from his Southampton home in the 1880s. A private investigator traced him to the United States but could learn nothing more of his whereabouts.

Shortly afterward, Cantelo’s sons came across a photograph of Hiram Maxim, an American inventor who’d moved to London and completed a similar-sounding machine gun of his own. The sons, struck at the similarity of the photographs, tried to accost Maxim at London’s Waterloo Station, but he departed on a train.

The similarity of the photographs may have been a coincidence — the two men were the same age, and both wore large Victorian beards. Maxim had complained in his autobiography of a “double” who had been impersonating him in the United States, but Maxim had a long history of successful patents, the first in 1866, long before Cantelo’s disappearance.

On the other hand, the disappearance has never been explained. Maxim eventually sold his gun to the British government. He died in 1916.

Words and Motion

In a 1778 letter, English naturalist Gilbert White captured the characteristic movement of almost 50 birds:

Owls move in a buoyant manner, as if lighter than air … herons seem incumbered with too much sail for their light bodies … the green-finch … exhibits such languishing and faltering gestures as to appear like a wounded and dying bird … fernowls, or goat-suckers, glance in the dusk over the tops of trees like a meteor; starlings as it were swim along.

Biographer Richard Mabey writes, “What is striking is the way Gilbert often arranges his sentence structure to echo the physical style of a bird’s flight. So, ‘The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes’; and ‘woodpeckers fly volatu undosu [in an undulating flight], opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising or falling in curves.”

(From Mabey’s Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of The Natural History of Selborne, 2007.)

Fixing a Point

A problem proposed by Richard Hoshino and Sarah McCurdy for Crux Mathematicorum, September 2008:

Five points lie on a line. Here are the 10 distances between pairs of points, listed from smallest to largest:

2, 4, 5, 7, 8, k, 13, 15, 17, 19

What’s k?

Click for Answer

Black and White

carney chess problem

By E. Carney Jr. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

The Vesper
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the first James Bond novel, 1953’s Casino Royale, Bond orders a drink of his own invention:

‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’

‘Oui, monsieur.’

‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?’

‘Certainly monsieur.’ The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

‘Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,’ said Leiter.

Bond laughed. ‘When I’m … er … concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I think of a good name.’

The name he thinks of is the Vesper, ostensibly inspired by the character Vesper Lynd. But in fact the recipe wasn’t original to Bond — Fleming had first received the drink from the butler of an elderly couple in Jamaica — it was named after vespers, a service of evening prayer. Bond says, “It sounds perfect and it’s very appropriate to the violet hour when my cocktail will now be drunk all over the world.” He’d have trouble getting one today — Kina Lillet was discontinued in 1986, and the strength of Gordon’s Gin was reduced in 1992.


On September 19, 1968, as the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 spacecraft was circling the moon, Jodrell Bank Observatory and the CIA were shocked to intercept the voices of cosmonauts Valery Bykovsky, Vitaly Sevastyanov and Pavel Popovich reading out telemetry and computer data and even discussing the prospect of a landing. The Zond mission had been thought to be uncrewed; now it sounded as though the Soviets might beat the United States to a moon landing. Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan said that the incident “shocked the hell out of us.”

It was a hoax. Popovich recalled later, “When we realized we would never make it to the moon, we decided to engage in a little bit of hooliganism. We asked our engineers to link the on-the-probe receiver to the transmitter with a jumper wire. Moon flight missions were then controlled from a command centre in Yevpatoria, in the Crimea. When the probe was on its path round the Moon, I was at the center. So I took the mike and said: ‘The flight is proceeding according to normal; we’re approaching the surface …’ Seconds later my report — as if from outer space — was received on Earth, including [by] the Americans. The U.S. space advisor Frank Borman got a phone call from President [Johnson], who asked: ‘Why is Popovich reporting from the moon?’ My joke caused real turmoil.

“In about a month’s time. Frank came to the USSR, and I was instructed to meet him at the airport. Hardly had he walked out of his plane when he shook his fist at me and said: ‘Hey, you, space hooligan!'”


The location of Alexander the Great’s tomb is a mystery. After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 B.C., his body was taken first to Memphis and then to Alexandria, where Pompey, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus, and Caligula all visited his tomb. But by the 4th century A.D. the tomb’s location was no longer known. Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities has now recognized more than 140 search attempts, but none has succeeded conclusively.