Twice-Told Tale

In 1986 the Los Angeles Times received a peculiar 167-page novel from Lawrence Levine of St. Augustine, Fla. Titled Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo, it began “Tacit, I hate gas (aroma of evil), masonry …” It ended “No, Sam — live foam or a sage Tahiti CAT!” And the very middle read “I deplore media, rats, gals, a tar bag and a maniac Dr. Awkward ‘Cain,’ a mad nag, a brat, a slag star. Ai! Demerol, pedicular addenda, Edgar!”

Working four hours a day for five months, Levine had composed a novel that was one long palindrome, 31,594 words.

“There were lessons in trial and error, in logic, in vocabulary, in syntactics, and a wide-ranging lexical development that I never thought possible,” Levine revealed elsewhere. “I wrote the novel because to my knowledge no other person had ever composed an equal nonesuch. I decided, as it were, to be the first.”

The Times responded, “The world needs more Levines — playful eccentrics determined to scale the heights where no one has gone before, even if getting there isn’t much of an accomplishment. Or, as the metaphysicians say, ‘No lemons, no melon.'”

A New Perspective

I find myself more than half convinced by the oddly repellent hypothesis that the peculiarity of the time dimension is not … primitive but is wholly a resultant of those differences in the mere de facto run and order of the world’s filling. It is then conceivable, though doubtless physically impossible, that one four-dimensional area of the time part of the manifold be slewed around at right angles to the rest, so that the time order of that area, as composed by its interior lines of strain and structure, run parallel with a spatial order in its environment. It is conceivable, indeed, that a single whole human life should lie thwartwise of the manifold, with its belly plump in time, its birth at the east and its death in the west, and its conscious stream running alongside somebody’s garden path.

— Donald C. Williams, “The Myth of Passage,” Journal of Philosophy 48:15 (1951), 457-472

Command Performance

This mechanism, recently restored by Michael Start of the House of Automata, was probably fashioned by Blaise Bontems in Paris around 1890.

It’s an example of a lost art, the “singing bird box,” an early variety of automaton introduced by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in Geneva in 1784. The song is produced by a bellows, a whistle, and a system of cams; many of these devices added a mechanical bird that would flap its wings and open and shut its beak while the sound was produced.

Jaquet-Droz also created a stunning mechanical boy who writes custom texts with a quill pen; that unit, which still works, is made up of some 6,000 pieces.

A Near Miss

For a moment in the 1998 Simpsons episode “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,” it appears that Homer has found a solution to Fermat’s last theorem:

398712 + 436512 = 447212

If you check this on a calculator with a 10-digit display, it seems to work: Raise 3987 and 4365 each to the 12th power, take the 12th root of the sum, and you get 4472.

But that’s the fault of the display. The actual value for the third term is closer to 4472.000000007057617187512.

Simpsons writer David S. Cohen, who had studied physics at Harvard and contrived the ruse, told Simon Singh he was pleased at the consternation it caused online. “I feel great about it. It’s very easy working in television to not feel good about what you do on the grounds that you’re causing the collapse of society. So, when we get the opportunity to raise the level of discussion — particularly to glorify mathematics — it cancels out those days when I’ve been writing those bodily function jokes.”

(From Simon Singh, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, 2013.)

Podcast Episode 327: The Misplaced Tourist,_Bangor,_Maine_(67541).jpg

In 1977, West German tourist Erwin Kreuz spent three days enjoying the sights, sounds, and hospitality of Bangor, Maine. Unfortunately, he thought he was in San Francisco, on the other side of the continent. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll describe Kreuz’s unlikely adventure, which made him a local hero in his adopted city.

We’ll also consider an invisible killer and puzzle over a momentous measurement.

See full show notes …

“Problem for Poultry Farmers”

Eureka, the esteemed journal of recreational mathematics published at Cambridge University, has placed its archives online under a Creative Commons license. Here’s a problem from May 1940:

The chicken was twice as old when when the day before yesterday was to-morrow to-day was as far from Sunday as to-day will be when the day after to-morrow is yesterday as it was when when to-morrow will be to-day when the day before yesterday is to-morrow yesterday will be as far from Thursday as yesterday was when to-morrow was to-day when the day after to-morrow was yesterday. On what day was the chicken hatched out?

Click for Answer

Child’s Play

In 2002 a 7-year-old boy, Steven Olson, patented a “method of swinging on a swing”:

The method comprises the steps of: a) positioning a user on the seat; and b) having the user pull alternately on one chain to induce movement of the user and the swing toward one side, and then on the other chain to induce movement of the user and the swing toward the other side, to create side-to-side motion.

Steven’s father, Peter, a patent attorney, wanted to show him how the system works. Steven’s submission was approved at first (the patent office said that its technical definition of obviousness “is not necessarily the conventional definition”) but later reconsidered and invalidated, perhaps due to criticism.

A year earlier, to test the workability of a new national patent system, an Australian man had patented the wheel.