Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Two


We use the phrase like moving through treacle as a simile for doing something slowly and with difficulty. For the enquiring mind, the obvious question is – is it really slower than moving through any other form of liquid? It is a question that has occupied much greater minds than mine. In the 17th century Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens considered the question, with Newton arguing that an object’s speed would be affected by the viscosity of the fluid through which it was travelling. Huygens took the contrary view – that it would not make a jot of difference. Newton was sufficiently troubled by his colleague’s assertion that he included both theories in his Principia Mathematica. Not very helpful!

In 2004 Edward Cussler of the University of Minnesota published a paper in the ever popular American Institute of Chemical Engineers Journal in which he described the results of his researches, into whether humans swim more slowly in syrup than in water, ably assisted by a student competitive swimmer, Brian Gettelfinger. Their syrup of choice was guar gum or guaran, which comes from the guar bean, native to India. It is used commercially in the food industry primarily because it binds water and it only takes small amounts to thicken. Guar is often used in ice cream to improve texture and in gluten-free baking to replace some of the structure lost by removing the glutens.

When you consider it there are a host of problems to be overcome if you adopt the empirical approach to the problem. You need to find sympathetic owners of a swimming pool who will allow you to fill it with syrup, you need enough of the stuff to fill the pool and then you need to work out how to dispose of it after the experiment is over. Showing the tenacity of a determined scientist, Cussler secured the twenty two separate permissions he needed to conduct the experiment and managed to convince the local authority that it was perfectly safe to empty the syrup down the drains.

So the stage was set for the experiment. Two 25 metre swimming pools were used, one with ordinary water and the other mixed with more than 300 kilograms of guar syrup, producing a gloopy liquid twice the thickness of water. Sixteen volunteers, some competitive and others recreational swimmers, took part, deploying the same strokes in each of the pools. What the researchers found was that irrespective of the strokes used, the swimmers’ times differed by no more than 4%. What is more neither water nor syrup produced consistently faster times. So Huygens was right.

It seems that when you are in syrup you experience more friction from your movement – what is known as viscous drag – you generate more forwards force from each stroke. In other words, the two cancel each other out. For humans what determines the speed at which you swim at is not the liquid you are swimming in but the shape you adopt. Once the effects of thrust and friction have cancelled themselves out, the predominant force is form drag, the frontal area presented by the body. The perfect swimmer has powerful muscles but a narrow frontal profile.

However, below a certain threshold of speed and size, viscous drag becomes the dominant force and in those circumstances swimming through syrup would be more difficult than through water. Just ask some bacteria.

So now we know!

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone? Available now. Just follow any of the links

Millipede Of The Week


For someone who finds it difficult to co-ordinate two limbs at times, it is mind-boggling how a creature with 414 legs gets along. According to reports in ZooKeys this week this is exactly the number of limbs a new species of millipede found in a cave in the Sequoia National Park in California possesses.

Illacme tobini, as it is known, has in addition to all its legs, 200 poison glands, silk-secreting hairs and things that are shaped like paired nozzles which shoot out some form of chemical to ward off its enemies. The ninth and tenth pairs of legs are used as “copulatory devices”, as the report quaintly puts it, which the male creature uses to transfer sperm to its partner. After all, it has plenty of legs to spare.

Still, this is not the millipede with the most legs. That distinction goes to a close relative, Illacme plenipes, which has 750 of the things.

On reflection, though,I can’t help thinking that millipede is a bit of a misnomer.

Takeaway Of The Week


There are two problems with collecting a takeaway. The first is how to stop the smell lingering in your car and the second is how you make sure that it is still warm enough to eat by the time you get home.

Lee Rutherford thought he had cracked the second problem when he collected his McDonald’s repast in the Blyth area of Northumberland and drove home in his souped-up Renault Clio. Unfortunately, he came to the police’s attention, I read this week, when he was clocked driving at 129 miles per hour along the A189.

He had his collar felt, claiming, not unreasonably, that he was travelling at speed to ensure that his burger and chips were warm when he got home. But the beak was having nothing of it and Rutherford had his chips, copping a 20 week suspended sentence for dangerous driving and being economical with the actualite with his insurance company over the conversion of his motor and getting a whopper of a fine totalling £1,120.

Rutherford has since sold his Clio. Whether he has given up Big Macs is unclear. A cautionary tale for us all, I think.

What Is The Origin Of (103)?…

'Can of worms - do not open!'

Open a can of worms

When I was very young there was a popular TV show on ITV – the first programme to offer cash prizes – called Take Your Pick! Contestants had to navigate a quick fire round where the answers to questions were yes and no. The denouement featured a round where contestants on answering a question correctly were invited either to take the money (a guaranteed amount) or to open a box which contained a mystery prize. The prize could exceed the value of the cash on offer or, equally, be of little value. What fun but life was more innocent in those days.

Opening something always brings with it a frisson of excitement. After all, you can never be quite sure what is inside. In Western culture the perils of opening something owe their origins to the Greek myth of Pandora. She was the first woman on Earth and was made by Hephaestus out of earth and water. Her name means “all gifts” and reflected the fact that many of the other gods and goddesses added their own particular flourishes to her character. Pandora was given a large jar – the Greek word used by Hesiod, pithos, was mistranslated by Erasmus of Rotterdam into Latin as box and so it has stuck – which she was told on no account should she open.

One of the characteristics that the gods had bestowed on Pandora was an irrepressible curiosity and despite the warnings she could not resist the temptation of opening the stopper of the jar. All the evils of the world flew out – sickness, old age, suffering, toiling and death – and by the time she was able to put the stopper back on again, all that was left in the jar was Elpis, hope. The earliest example of Elpis being in the room, perhaps.

When we use the phrase opening a can of worms we mean that we are about to investigate something complicated, the outcome of which is uncertain and probably going to cause some kind of trouble. The earliest example of its use in a metaphorical sense seems to have been around the middle of the last century. The Ironwood Daily Globe of Michigan reported in 1951, “the question of command for Middle East defence against Soviet aggression is still regarded as a can of worms at General Eisenhower’s SHAPE headquarters here”. Its usage grew like topsy and in time it became a bit of a journalistic cliché.

So were there ever any actual cans of worms? Anglers like to tempt their victims with a juicy member of the oligochaeta subclass – worms to you and me. In the days before plastic and other synthetic materials it seems that cans with handles and lids were used to convey the worms to the river bank. Leona Dalrymple in 1914 in her prize-winning novel Diane of the Green Van, described the use of a can to carry worms thus, “thoroughly out of patience, Diane presently unjointed her rod, emptied her can of worms upon the bank and returned to camp”.  Once the lid was off, the problem for the angler was to stop the bait from heading for freedom. So, the opening of the lid presented you with a problem. A practical problem became a figurative description for a whole range of problems.

Both opening Pandora’s box and a can of worms sets in motion a train of events which cannot easily be undone. If there is a distinction in the usage, perhaps the can of worms presents us with something annoying or too complicated whereas Pandora’s box delivers something much worse.

Double Your Money – Part Ten

John Sadleir MP

John Sadlier (1813 – 1856)

Dickens’ Mr Merdle (Little Dorrit) and Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte (The Way We Live Now) are larger than life literary characters, the epitome of all that was wrong and evil with the Victorian capitalist system. There is little doubt that these characters were based on John Sadlier, an Irish financier and Member of Parliament, dubbed by the contemporary press as the Prince of Swindlers when his peculations were unearthed.

Although he started his working career as a solicitor in Dublin, he founded the Tipperary Joint Stock bank with his uncle, James Scully, in 1838, offering above average interest rates to small farmers and tradesmen. The bank prospered. In 1847 Sadlier was elected member of parliament for Carlow and on moving to London was appointed chairman of the London County Joint Stock Banking Company the following year. It was from this base that he began his investment career, financing railway developments in Sweden, France and Italy, founding his own Dublin newspaper, the Weekly Telegraph and buying swathes of land, valued at over £250 million.

Sadlier seemed to have the Midas touch and quickly became a household name as the Warren Buffett of his era. He couldn’t fail and returned dividends of 6%, significantly higher than his competitors, to his delighted shareholders. In parliament he led what was known as the Pope’s Brass Band, a group of MPs who resisted the Liberal government’s attempt to restructure the Catholic Church, founded the Catholic Defence Association and in late 1852 became Junior Lord of the Treasury.

But like Midas, he was doomed. Not everything was at it seemed. The high dividends were only payable because of fraudulent book-keeping and over-valuation of assets. In 1853 Sadlier was forced to resign his parliamentary seat when an investigation into his election campaign of 1852 showed that the financier had used his bank to bring pressure to bear on 208 voters in the Carlow constituency.

Sadlier started to make increasingly reckless investments, borrowing heavily from his own bank, forging shares in the Royal Swedish Railway Company of which he was chairman and rather desperately and unsuccessfully sought the hand of any Catholic heiress that had enough dosh to get him out of his difficulties. By February 13th 1856 the writing was on the wall. The London agents of the Tipperary Bank refused to cash drafts that Sadlier sent him. The following weekend he wrote a despairing letter to a cousin in which he confessed to “numberless crimes of a diabolical nature” causing “ruin and misery and disgrace to thousands – ay, tens of thousands”.

On the night of February 16th he went to Hampstead heath and behind Jack Straw’s Castle took prussic acid from a silver cream jug – Melmotte’s chosen form of suicide – and was found the next day. Sadlier may have escaped justice but his peculations left many ruined. His overdraft was £250,000 and his collapsed banking empire owed the Bank of Ireland £122,000. He had defrauded the Royal Swedish Railway Company to the tune of £300,000. Over £400,000 was lost by depositors – an enormous sum given that the total deposits of all the joint stock banks in Ireland at the time was £12 million.

Sadlier’s brother, James, an MP at the time, also put his hand in the till and upon his brother’s death scarpered, ultimately to Paris where he was spotted and ordered to return to Westminster. He refused to attend and was expelled – the first MP to suffer this fate in half a century. James eventually settled in Zurich and in June 1881 he was set upon by a knife wielding man who stabbed him to death. Whether the assassin was a creditor with a long memory is not certain.