Paper Does the Impossible, and Other News


On the Shelf

Photo: Craig Kaplan, via Nautilus.


  • It’s always nice to discover a new use for paper. Sometimes it seems as if all the good ones have been taken. Writing on it, wrapping fragile objects in it, wiping with it—these are old news. But, as Evelyn Lamb writes, mathematicians have fairly recently begun to use it to make impossible objects. Paper’s “wiggle room” affords it a kind of impossible latitude: “Using stiff paper and transparent tape, Craig Kaplan assembles a beautiful roundish shape that looks like a Buckminster Fuller creation or a fancy new kind of soccer ball. It consists of four regular dodecagons (twelve-sided polygons with all angles and sides the same) and twelve decagons (ten-sided), with twenty-eight little gaps in the shape of equilateral triangles. There’s just one problem. This figure should be impossible. That set of polygons won’t meet at the vertices. The shape can’t close up. Kaplan’s model works only because of the wiggle room you get when you assemble it with paper. The sides can warp a little bit, almost imperceptibly … It is a new example of an unexpected class of mathematical objects that the American mathematician Norman Johnson stumbled upon in the 1960s … Not only does this niggling near-perfection draw the interest of Kaplan and other math enthusiasts today, it is part of a large class of near-miss mathematics.”
  • Andrew Sean Greer has your occasional reminder that the literary-prize racket is an ego parade with no value whatsoever to writing and reading: “There’s a great book by James English, The Economy of Prestige, in which he examines literary prizes and what they are about. Basically: an exchange of prestige for either money or another kind of prestige. Prizes evolve to serve themselves. They have nothing to do with actual writing … It’s like wanting a wedding—that’s not something to want. A wedding? Then what? You want a good relationship. A prize? Then what? You want to write something you’re proud of. Like, today, on the page. It’s easy to forget that’s the only real pleasure that writers have. And yet all the writers I know seethe when they aren’t acknowledged … But what if you knew a masterpiece had been written that year? And was ignored?”

  • James Wood, in his new study of Thomas Hardy, has handpicked some of the author’s best metaphors for your delectation: “Something like the labor of metaphor can also be felt in Hardy’s prose, with usefully estranging effects. Hardy can be awkward, but at the same time astonishing beauty is sowed into every scene and stanza of his work. Herons, in Tess, which arrive ‘with a great bold noise as of opening doors and shutters.’ Winter winds, in the poem ‘The Prospect’: ‘Iced airs wheeze through the skeletoned hedge from the north.’ Hares, in ‘The Haunter’: ‘Where the shy hares print long paces.’ ‘Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time’ in ‘At Day-Close in November.’ The rain, in ‘Childhood among the Ferns’: ‘The rain gained strength, and damped each lopping frond.’ This is the writer who meant so much to D. H. Lawrence, to Auden, to Larkin. But all my examples are pastoral, drawn from Hardy’s uncanny noticing of the natural world … Hardy also trained his eye, as Baudelaire desired, by looking at the city, by gazing at ‘landscapes of stone.’ ”
  • Annalisa Quinn on the evolution of the term witch hunt: “Witch hunt once meant persecution of the marginalized by the powerful. So how did it come to suggest something so nearly the opposite? … Witch hunt first became regular shorthand for government repression in the 1920s and ’30s, when American newspapers covering events in the Soviet Union applied the label to Stalinist purges of dissenters … In the years that followed, witch hunt was transplanted back to American soil, as hyperbole for unreasonable government regulation of almost any variety. The right tended to use it to describe persecution of industry, the left to describe persecution of labor and everybody to describe persecution of themselves. By the mid-’40s, people quoted in the Times had complained of witch hunts against bathing-suit wearers, horse-racing bookies and a group of New England egg dealers (a pleasing dozen) accused of price fixing. When Arnold Reuben—he of the corned-beef sandwich—was fined by health inspectors in 1946 for having roaches in his New York delicatessen, his lawyer complained: ‘If ever there was a witch hunt, this is one.’ ”