Posts filed under “Science & Nature”


Our guessing game yesterday provoked some intelligent guesses, and even some correct guesses. Moreover, the incorrect guesses were, as we predicted, more interesting, and arguably more useful, than the actual purposes for which these appliances were designed.

A common assumption may be discerned in many of these inventions: if some part of you is too fat, it can be corrected by squishing. A program of aggressive squishing maintained long enough will cause the affected part to stay squished.

Our correspondents improved upon the original inventors’ ideas in all cases but one. No. 5 was not improved upon, because No. 5 cannot be improved upon.

No. 1 eliminates double chins, as “Mrs. Bat” correctly guessed.

Nos. 2 and 3 both correct misshapen noses, as more than one correspondent guessed. No. 2 appears to have minute adjustments, perhaps so you can specify the shape of your nose to match your favorite movie star’s; No. 3 involves quite a bit more of the head in the operation.

No. 4 is a rubber appliance for reducing and shaping the ankles. Fat ankles were a constant source of worry in the 1920s.

No. 5 is indescribably effective for pretty much everything, so any answer may be counted as correct. It is possible, however, that we are meant to infer more than the text actually states from the words that the advertiser set in bold. “The Natural Body Brace overcomes WEAKNESS and ORGANIC AILMENTS of WOMEN and MEN. Develops an erect, and graceful figure. Brings restful relief, comfort, energy and pep, ability to do things, health and strength. Does away with the strain and pain of standing and walking; replaces and supports misplaced internal organs; reduces enlarged abdomen; straightens and strengthens the back; corrects stooping shoulders; develops lungs, chest and bust; relieves backache, curvatures, nervousness, ruptures, constipation, after effects of Flu. Comfortable and easy to wear.” A brace that provides the ability to do things seems like a boon to humankind, and especially to women and men, who might like to do things together. How they work around the brace is not explained in the advertisement, but perhaps a diagram is provided with your order.

No. 6 shows both the Bust Reducing Bandeau in cream colored rubber (remember that this was the jazz age, when a flat chest was a desirable attribute for a woman) and the Neck and Chin Reducer. If the Neck Reducer is tight enough, it will probably lead to a rapid reduction in all other fatty parts of the body as well, solving multiple problems at once.


You are defective. No matter how well you are formed, no matter how pleasing your countenance or artistic your shape, there is something wrong with you. We can be sure of that because it has been the first premise of advertisements in the backs of magazines since there have been advertisements in the backs of magazines.

The second premise of advertisements in the backs of magazines is that your embarrassing deformities can be corrected, easily and painlessly, by the expenditure of a very reasonable sum of money. These days the money is likely to bring you a pill of some sort, perhaps a homeopathic cure for ugliness made from a 13C dilution of toad. But in the 1920s, the treatments might be much more aggressive, taking their inspiration from the Spanish Inquisition, with the cleverly American twist of making the victims specify and pay for their own tortures.

As he was harvesting illustrations from a 1924 magazine, it occurred to Dr. Boli that these advertisements might make an amusing guessing game. Here is the game: Can you guess what hideous deformity each of these appliances is intended to correct? The answers given by the advertisements themselves will be published in this space tomorrow, but Dr. Boli is certain some of his readers can give better answers than the original advertisers themselves came up with.

No. 1.
No. 2.
No. 3.
No. 4.
No. 5.
No. 6.


Sir Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus, discoverer of the laws of gravitation, and world-class alchemy crank.

Our frequent correspondent Mary asks a very interesting question:

I’ve been enjoying learning about different types of cranks! Is there a word for this study?

It is a very interesting question because there does not seem to be a good answer. If you ask the Internet at large for a word for “the study of cranks,” nothing obvious comes up.

When there is no obvious term, we make one up ourselves. What would we call a “crank” in Greek? Perhaps “false prophet” would be the best equivalent in meaning. A false prophet is a ψευδόμαντις, so we might call the study of cranks pseudomantology—a word that seems to be available, since a Google search finds not a single instance of it on the Internet. It is distinctive and memorable, and it will—thanks to our correspondent—be Dr. Boli’s term for this discipline from now on.


Although bees have been manufacturing honey for millions of years, they have never developed an instinct for marketing it.

Every month, on the third Thursday, at precisely midnight, a 1948-vintage PCC car arrives at the Drake loop, though the Drake line has been out of service since 1999. It discharges one passenger and returns whence it came. The passenger then drives away in a 1948 Nash coupe, which no one can remember having seen parked there before. It is possible that the mystery might be solved if someone interrogated the passenger before he got into his Nash, but no one in Upper St. Clair wants to be that rude.

In spite of highly paid programmers and nearly four decades of refinement, every iteration of the Microsoft Windows operating system is less efficient than the previous one.

Measured as the crow flies, the distance from Akron to Cleveland is detectably longer than the distance from Cleveland to Akron. Ornithologists have not been able to explain why crows fly this way, unless they are drunk.

During the late twentieth century, thousands of previously sedentary nouns were turned into verbs by unaccountable social forces.


Ingredients: Sorbitol, silica, water (aqua), PEG-32, sodium lauryl sulfate, flavor, xanthan gum, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, benzyl alcohol, charcoal powder, sodium saccharin, sodium benzoate, trisodium phosphate, tetrapotassium pyrophosphate.

Now the guessing game: Guess how this product is described on the front label.

The answer:



…and can answer your natural-language questions! For example, yesterday’s Google Doodle celebrated Émilie du Châtelet, the renowned French thinker who translated Newton and made her own contributions to physical science. Do you have questions about her discoveries in the field of physics? Google can answer them!


About two years ago, we published an article on the marvelous Voynich Manuscript, which Dr. Boli has always regarded as one of the great works of imaginative art from the Renaissance. Yesterday a kind commenter named “Diane” took issue with some of Dr. Boli’s interpretation in that article.

Dear Editor,

You say, “… imaginative botanical treatise whose author, not content with drawing imaginary plants, used imaginary language to describe them”.

First, the idea of the content as created by a single author is the result of Wilfrid Voynich’s imagination and the internal evidence strongly suggests that his imagination erred. Secondly, that it is a ‘treatise’ of any sort is another bit of kite-flying, and the fact that the plant-pictures aren’t amenable to presuming their origin European doesn’t prove they are products of anyone’ invention, only that the drawings are not like European ‘specimen’drawings in the Dioscoridan tradition. Nor is is true to say that the language is ‘imaginary’ although it is possible that the script – like all scripts – is the result of human ingenuity. The old ideas you repeat mostly stem from deeply conservative people maintaining guesswork presented without a shred of evidence in 1921.

Pity you cut off the previous comment, I should like to have read it, and seen the commentator’s name.

The previous comment to which our current writer refers is this one:

“completely readable. If one backs up from trying to crack its language you can see that its in three different languages.. one is picture language, 2nd is plant language and third is most important, it is star constellations language.. Its actually telling you a story you are not ready to here..its repeating the same message on every page too..”

It makes Dr. Boli happy when people take the trouble to write a substantial reply to an article they have just discovered among the back numbers of the Magazine, and he believes their effort should be rewarded with a considered reply to the reply. Here is what Dr. Boli wrote in reply to Diane, which is published here to bring her comment before the current readership, and to offer other readers the chance to join in the discussion.

Thank you for the comment, which seems to show that you have studied the manuscript in some detail. Dr. Boli hopes you will forgive him for asking you to share some of the results of your study, since this strangely beautiful work has fascinated him for many years. Note, by the way, that all the comments quoted above can be read in full at the page linked in the article, so if you want to read all of that last comment, it’s waiting for you.

Now, you seem to believe that Dr. Boli was mistaken in some assumptions about the Voynich Manuscript. Here is what would convince him that you are correct—and the same conditions apply to anyone with a theory about the wonderful manuscript:

First, you must make clear assertions of what you believe to be the truth.

a. Do you believe that the writing in the manuscript is a decipherable script? The Wikipedia article on the Voynich Manuscript mentions several good statistical reasons for believing that it is, but when it comes to what might be encoded in that script, the theories multiply; furthermore, many of the theories contradict the supposed statistical evidence. If you believe there is real information encoded here, what is your reason for believing it?

b. Do you believe that the plants represented come from other continents than Europe? You must produce at least some evidence that there is a pattern here—not just a few isolated and dubious resemblances—of recognizable plants from other continents appearing in the pages of the manuscript. Now, it happens that botany is a bit of a hobby with Dr. Boli; and many of the illustrations show plants that are botanically impossible, at least in earth botany. They could, however, have been drawn from much-diluted rumors of plants on other continents, the way European illustrators drew the cotton plant as a tree bearing lambs at the ends of its branches. In that case, of course, it is easy to see how the illustrations represent the rumors that had reached Europe, and if the same could be said for plants in the Voynich Manuscript, that would be a good explanation of the drawings.

Second, you must identify “the old ideas you repeat” specifically so that we can have a discussion about them. Merely being old does not invalidate an idea. “While the earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest, and cold, and heat, and summer, and winter, and day and night, shall not cease” is in a very old book (Genesis 8:22), but it’s still a pretty safe bet.

Third, whenever you accuse “deeply conservative people” of making statements since 1921 “without a shred of evidence,” you should (a) identify those statements (so that we can see whether you are right), (b) provide the evidence that your opponents have not provided evidence, and (c) provide your evidence for belief in contrary statements. Dr. Boli himself has made statements without a shred of evidence, but that was before anyone had bothered to argue with him; if you wish to refute him you can demand to see his evidence (he will either produce it or confess that he has none, in which case you win) and show him yours. But the argument cannot continue at all unless we know which statements you are refuting.

Fourth, when you do refute specific statements, it is not enough simply to say that they are wrong. For example, Dr. Boli said that the language was imaginary; you say that it is not. Why not? How do we know that it is not imaginary? It seems to Dr. Boli that the only decisive proof that the language was not imaginary would be a complete decipherment, one where the method was repeatable and reliable.

Finally, if you do have a theory that explains what the Voynich Manuscript really is, you will need to show with evidence why yours is more likely to be true than any of the others. Otherwise your theory becomes just another almost inaudible note in the cacophony of theories that explain it as an astrological treatise, a list of Finno-Uralic names, the first five books of the Old Testament in the King James version, a writing in obscure languages of rural Pakistan, or a description of transspecies migration.

Since Dr. Boli insisted on clarity, he will be clear about his own beliefs. To him the most plausible explanation of the manuscript is that it is a deliberately concocted mystery. At a time when noblemen were paying large sums of money for esoteric manuscripts that promised the secrets of magic and alchemy as revealed to the great occult masters of the past, it could easily occur to a clever scribe that an undecipherable manuscript might fetch a price equivalent to a lifetime of honest work if it were promoted as holding the secrets of Hermes Trismegistus or Roger Bacon in coded form. Nor was the noble dupe badly victimized here, since he received a priceless work of imaginative art—and, as a bonus, a hobby for life in attempting to decipher the script.

The only evidence for this hypothesis, which Dr. Boli will not dignify with the name of “theory,” is the known fascination with alchemy among nobles of the Renaissance, and their equally known fascination with occult books, and the fact that in materials alone this was a very expensive manuscript—it consumed quite a lot of parchment, aside from the expense of the scribe and artist.

The rest of the evidence is negative. The fact that decades of scientific and statistical study have only multiplied theories about the manuscript’s meaning rather than narrowing the possibilities suggests that there is no meaning to be extracted. The script is absolutely unique—it is not known from a single other example—which seems odd for an expensive production, but would be explained if it were part of a con job, so to speak, in which the expense of the production persuaded the mark that the information concealed in the supposed cipher was remarkably valuable.

This is all speculation, and Dr. Boli freely admits it. He is interested, therefore, in hearing contradictions and alternatives, and would be delighted to hear his readers’ own speculations.