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Miscellany

Miscellany Magic Shows

In 1936 Sotheby’s auctioned many of Isaac Newton’s nonscientific papers, containing much writing about his alchemical interests. A large batch was bought by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in a lecture published posthumously as “Newton, the Man,” that the physicist and mathematician “was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”

Miscellany States of Mind

John Florio’s 1603 translation of Michel de Montaigne’s essays contains an early instance of the word emotion being used to refer to feelings distinct from reasoning. Unsure of the word’s merits, Florio included it on a list of “uncouth termes” he apologized to readers for introducing into English from the French.

Miscellany Discovery

In the 1860s, toward the end of his life, “father of computing” Charles Babbage “never abstained from the publication of his sentiments when he thought that his silence might imply his approbation,” wrote his friend Harry Buxton, “nor did he ever take refuge in silence when he believed it might be interpreted as cowardice.”

Miscellany Night

Neo-Confucian philosopher Fujiwara Seika visited a friend on the night of the Han mid-autumn festival in 1606. As the moon appeared, the men climbed onto the roof. “The guest felt in his heart the endlessness of space,” wrote Seika’s student Hayashi Razan, “but the host seemed not to notice this, so the guest also acted as if he had not either.” Drunk on wine just before dawn, the pair began asking questions of the moon. No answers came, Razan wrote: “What could the moon say?”

Miscellany Fear

Fear of witches among the Kaguru of Tanzania is extreme: some prefer to defecate inside their huts rather than be alone in the dark at night.

Miscellany Discovery

“A peaceable person,” wrote Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado in The Discovery of America by the Turks, intended for publication in 1992 for the five-hundredth anniversary of 1492, “can’t take the smallest step or blow the slightest fart without the fifth centenary landing on his head.”

Miscellany Trade

Economist Frédéric Bastiat published a parodic open letter to French parliament in 1845 that imagined the national lighting industry lobbying for a law to black out all windows in response to the “ruinous competition” of the sun, which was “flooding the domestic market.” “Be logical,” the letter concludes, “for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!”

Miscellany Luck

“The contempt of risk and the presumptuous hope of success are in no period of life more active than at the age at which young people choose their professions,” wrote Adam Smith in 1776. “How little the fear of misfortune is then capable of balancing the hope of good luck.”

Miscellany Memory

According to film director Joe Swanberg, a significant number of people believe that an obscure 1985 film about mind control was not in fact real, and that they had dreamed the particulars of the Quebecois film. “The Peanut Butter Solution,” wrote Swanberg, “successfully convinced young viewers that they dreamed it rather than watched it.”

Miscellany Animals

Before their journey westward in America in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were advised by Thomas Jefferson to “observe the animals” and especially “the remains and accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct.” One of the animal fossils that the expedition sent back is believed to have been of a dinosaur, dating from the Cretaceous Period.

Miscellany States of Mind

To cure madness in “men fond of literature,” medical encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus suggests reading aloud to them “incorrectly, if that’s what gets them going; for by correcting you they begin to divert their mind.”

Miscellany Migration

According to one theory, the association between storks and human infants in northern European folklore arose from an ancient Germanic custom of holding weddings on the summer solstice, before storks began their annual migration to Africa. Nine months later, when the babies conceived the previous summer were being born, the storks would return north to breed.

Miscellany Fear

During the Middle Ages, wild animals were often believed to be devil-possessed. Wolves, moles, and caterpillars were tried in courts and executed. A story is told of Saint Dominic catching a sparrow, plucking it alive, and rejoicing in his triumph over the powers of darkness. By 1531 a legist argued that “rural pests would simply laugh” at civil-court censure but “have greater fear” of the Church’s power of anathema and should be excommunicated.

Miscellany Discovery

Thirteenth-century professor Thaddeus of Bologna once claimed anyone who ate eggplant for nine days would go insane. A student decided to test the theory and after nine days returned to report he was not mad. Thaddeus asked him to turn around; on observing the student’s behind he announced, “All this about the eggplant has been proved.” It is said the student subsequently wrote a learned treatise on the subject.

Miscellany Rule of Law

A copy of crew rules kept by eighteenth-century pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts was found after his death in 1722. These granted each man equal title to “strong liquors at any time seized,” threatened with death anyone found seducing a woman “and carrying her to sea in disguise,” and prohibited discussion of “breaking up their way of living” until each pirate had earned £1,000.