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I WAS PERUSING my secondhand copy of The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, this time around, getting around to reading its editor Clifton Fadiman’s introductory notes (for the first time, I confess).
Immanuel Kant. On the authenticity of anecdotes, Fadiman cites German philosopher Immanuel Kant who remarked, “Great men are like high church towers: Around both there is apt to be a great deal of wind.”
This, for no particular reason, got me reading the K entries of Fadiman’s collection. Here are several, including those attributed to mathematicians, a conductor, and a clerical Sherlockian scholar.
Mark Kac. Fadiman shares the experience of mathematician Mark Kac in examining a Ph.D. candidate.
Kac said, “The candidate shall remain anonymous. He was not terribly good—in mathematics, at least. After he had failed to answer a couple of questions, I asked him a really simple one which was to describe the behavior of the function l/z in the complex plane. ‘The function is analytic, sir, in the whole plane except at z=0 where it has a singularity,’ he answered and it was perfectly correct, ‘What is the singularity called?’ I continued. The student stopped in his tracks. ‘Look at me,’ I said, ‘What am I?’ His face lit up. ‘A simple Pole, sir,’ which is, in fact, the correct answer.”
Edward Kasner. It was mathematician Kasner who proposed the term “googol” for 1 followed by 100 zeros. The name Google originated from this term.
Fadiman described, “The eccentric Kasner liked to take his summer vacation in Brussels, where he had become especially attached to a particular chair in a certain outdoor café. He also maintained that he liked Brussels because it was a convenient base from which to organize a mountain-climbing expedition to the highest point in Belgium. ‘How high is that?’ he was asked. ‘Twelve feet above sea level,’ he replied.”
For the record, according to Atlas Obscura, “… this seemingly flat landscape is actually 694 meters (2277 feet) above sea level, making it the highest point in Belgium.”
In 1923, to round things off, a 6-meter stone staircase was built at Signal de Botrange, in the east of Belgium, near the German border.
Otto Klemperer. German-born conductor Klemperer was famous for his interpretations of Beethoven symphonies.
Fadiman described the time Klemperer went into a music shop one day accompanied by recording company executive George de Mendelssohn-Bartholdy [founder of Vox Records, a fourth-generation descendant of composer Felix Mendelssohn]. “Do you have Klemperer conducting Beethoven’s Fifth?” he asked the young man behind the counter.
“No,” said the clerk. “We have it conducted by Ormandy and Toscanini. Why do you want it by Klemperer?”
Replied the indignant conductor: “Because I am Klemperer!”
The clerk looked at him skeptically, then nodded toward George. “And that, I suppose, is Beethoven,” he said.
“No,” replied Klemperer, with a triumphant smile. “That’s Mendelssohn.”
Father Ronald Knox. The Roman Catholic Chaplin at Oxford University, 1926–1939, Father Knox was also a Sherlockian of the highest order.
Fadiman shares Knox’s encounter with scientist John Scott Haldane: “In the universe containing millions of planets,” reasoned Haldane, “is it not inevitable that life should appear on at least one of them?”
“Sir,” replied Knox, “if Scotland Yard found a body in your cabin truck, would you tell them: ‘There are millions of trunks in the world—surely one of them must contain a body?’ I think they would still want to know who put it there.”
This reminds me of a similar rejoinder: Thus, somewhere else in this vast universe of billions of galaxies, there must be a really fine Northern Italian restaurant. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020