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Radiolab: The Pitch Drop Experiment


For the last three weeks, I’ve been in the Congolese rainforest, almost completely incommunicado thanks to a finicky satellite phone. While I was away, my first ever segment for NPR’s Radiolab aired, as part of an episode devoted to the subject of speed.

It’s about one of the world’s longest running science experiments, underway at the University of Queensland in Australia since 1927.

If, after listening to the piece, you’re interested in becoming a “pitch drop junkie” yourself, you can do so here. The ninth drop is expected to fall sometime in the next year. Will you be watching live?


How I Write


Each week the Daily Beast interviews a different author about his or her writing habits, for a series called “How I Write.” I talked about my favorite underwear, superstitions, and my morning routine. A couple answers below.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I have a woodshop in my garage. If I’ve made good progress in the morning, I’ll reward myself by going out back to spend an hour making sawdust, before returning to work for the afternoon. Woodworking requires a completely different kind of thinking and problem-solving ability than writing. With writing, you take a set of facts and ideas, and you reason your way forward to a story that pulls them together. With woodworking, you start with an end product in mind, and reason your way backward to the raw wood. If you can’t envision the entire journey that a plank of wood will take on its way to becoming something finished, you will make uncorrectable mistakes. With writing, each step of creation justifies the one that comes before. With woodworking, each step has to justify the one that comes after. On a good day, I’ve had a chance to exercise both kinds of reasoning.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

I was standing by the door, about to go on stage at Elliott Bay in Seattle, when a young couple got out of their seats and frantically rushed out past me. On her way out the door, the woman whispered to me, “Sorry, you lost out to Sacks.” I thought to myself, “Yeah, no hard feelings, if Oliver Sacks were in town, I’d probably choose to see him over me, too.” But, as I was walking up to the podium, it suddenly hit me. It wasn’t Sacks I’d lost out to. That’s the wonderful thing about Seattle: in New York, a horny couple would never have the common courtesy to explain to you why they were leaving your book reading.

Read the rest of the interview at the Daily Beast.

Linnaean Flower Clock


Linnean Flower Cock

Quarterly Co. is a subscription service that enables people to receive physical items in the mail from contributors of their choice. The theme of my quarterly mailings is “Machines for Experimental Living.” My most recent mailing was an Horologium Florae, or flower clock. Below is the letter I sent to subscribers:

Dear Quarterly Subscriber,

Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, divided the flowering plants into three groups: the meteorici, which change their opening and closing times according to the weather conditions; the tropici, which change their opening and closing times according to the length of the day; and the aequinoctales, which have fixed opening and closing times, regardless of weather or season. Linnaeus noted in his Philosophia Botanica that if one possessed a sufficiently large variety of aequinoctal species, it would be possible to tell time simply by observing the daily opening and closing of flowers. He commented, to the consternation of several local horologists, that his floral clock would be so accurate that it “could put all the watchmakers in Sweden out of business.” Though Linnaeus seems never actually to have planted an horologium florae, or flower clock, we shall. Enclosed in this package are seeds for a variety of aequinoctal flowers that can be used in an horologium florae.

Though winter is now nearly upon us in the northern hemisphere, that only means spring is not far behind. Please let me know how accurately your Linnaean flower clocks tells time, and be sure to email photos and videos to or tweet them with the hashtag #JXF04.


Joshua Foer

Subscriptions to “Machines for Experimental Living” cost just $25, and make a great gift. My next mailing ships in two months. Stay tuned.

Utopian for Beginners


John Quijada, inventor of IthkuilI’ve been following John Quijada, inventor of an artificial language called Ithkuil, for five and a half years. This week, my story on him ran in the New Yorker:

Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”

Read More

UPDATE: Here is a discussion the piece on the New Yorker’s “Out Loud” podcast.

Topophonic Telestereoscope


Topophonic Telestereoscope

This is a topophonic telestereoscope, a machine I built for exaggerated three-dimensional vision and sound. It is a mash-up of two nineteenth-century inventions: the topophone and the telestereoscope.

The topophone, shown at right, was invented by Alfred Mayer, a professor of physics at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, to help locate distant sounds. It worked by artificially exaggerating the distance between the ears, and amplifying their inputs. An 1880 Scientific American article, from which this image is drawn, explains the topophone’s intended purpose:

The aim of the topophone, which was invented and patented by Professor A. M. Mayer, last winter, is to enable the user to determine quickly and surely the exact direction and position of any source of sound. Our figure shows a portable style of the instrument; for use on ship-board it would probably form one of the fixtures of the pilot-house or the “bridge,” or both. In most cases arising in sailing through fogs, it would be enough for the captain or pilot to be sure of the exact direction of a fog horn, whistling buoy, or steam whistle; and for this a single aural observation suffices.

Acoustic locators were later widely used to pick up the distant rumble of aircraft engines–until the invention of radar during World War II rendered them all but obsolete. Below is a photograph of Emperor Hirohito touring Japanese “war tubas.”

And here’s an American version of the same technology, being demonstrated in 1921:

The telestereoscope was first described in 1857 by the German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, who is best remembered for his treatise on the conservation of energy, and for inventing the opthalmoscope. The device uses widely separated mirrors to artificially increase intra-ocular distance and exaggerate the user’s perception of depth, giving “a much clearer representation of the form of a landscape than the view of the landscape itself.”

In 2000, a group of artists reconstructed the telestereoscope for the Burning Man Festival. The machine is mentioned briefly in one of my favorite books, Instruments and the Imagination by Thomas Hankins and Robert Silverman.

For those interested in building their own head-mounted telesterescopes, there is a java applet to help you calculate mirror angles and field of vision.