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Futility Closet

Aug 12, 2019

In 1934, two Englishwomen set out to do what no one had ever done before: travel the length of Africa on a motorcycle. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron from Algiers to Cape Town on a 14,000-mile adventure that many had told them was impossible.

We'll also anticipate some earthquakes and puzzle over a daughter's age.


Among the survivors of the Titanic were two boys who were unclaimed by any adult.

In 1638, Galileo saw through a mistake in Aristotle simply by thinking about it.

Sources for our feature on Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron's trans-African odyssey:

Theresa Wallach, The Rugged Road, 2001.

Steven E. Alford and Suzanne Ferriss, Motorcycle, 2007.

Iain Burns, "The British Women Who Conquered the Sahara," Daily Mail, Jan. 22, 2018.

Miles Davis, "Incredible Journeys," Walneck's Classic Cycle Trader 267 (June 2006), 143-145.

"Theresa Wallach – Motorcycle Pioneer of the 1930s," Archives Blog, Institution of Engineering and Technology (accessed July 28, 2019).

"Through Africa by Motor-Cycle (1934-1935)," Africa Overland Network, July 9, 2014.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, "Earthquake Warning System" (accessed July 27, 2019).

Wikipedia, "Earthquake Early Warning (Japan)" (accessed July 27, 2019).

Wikipedia, "Mexican Seismic Alert System" (accessed August 1, 2019).

Wikipedia, "2017 Puebla Earthquake" (accessed August 1, 2019).

"Earthquake Early Warning System," Japan Meteorological Agency.

Sarah E. Minson, et al., "The Limits of Earthquake Early Warning Accuracy and Best Alerting Strategy: Discussion," Scientific Reports 9:1 (Feb. 21, 2019), 2478.

Sarah E. Minson, et al., "The Limits of Earthquake Early Warning: Timeliness of Ground Motion Estimates," Science Advances 4:3 (March 21, 2018), eaaq0504.

"Earthquake Early Warning," United States Geological Survey.

"Earthquake Early Warning: Background," United States Geological Survey.

Mary Halton, "How Effective Are Earthquake Early Warning Systems?," BBC News, March 24, 2018.

Jonathan Amos, "Are Mexico's Two September Earthquakes Connected?," BBC News, Sept. 20, 2017.

"How Did Mexico's Early Warning System Perform During Recent Earthquakes?," Seismological Society of America, Feb. 7, 2018.

"False Earthquake Warning Panics Japan," BBC, Jan. 5, 2018.


Richard M. Allen, et al., "Lessons From Mexico's Earthquake Early Warning System," Eos, Sept. 17, 2018.

Mary Beth Griggs, "LA's Earthquake Warning System Worked — Just Not How People Expected," The Verge, July 5, 2019.

Emily Baumgaertner, "L.A.'S ShakeAlert Earthquake Warning App Worked Exactly as Planned. That's the Problem," Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2019.

Alex Dobuzinskis, "California Expanding Early Quake Detection and Warning System," Reuters, July 9, 2019.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Paul Schoeps.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!