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Futility Closet

Jul 17, 2017

One stormy morning in 1880, naturalist John Muir set out to explore a glacier in Alaska's Taylor Bay, accompanied by an adventurous little dog that had joined his expedition. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the harrowing predicament that the two faced on the ice, which became the basis of one of Muir's most beloved stories.

We'll also marvel at some phonetic actors and puzzle over a season for vasectomies.


In 1904 a 12-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien sent this rebus to a family friend.

In 1856 Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner with a gold-headed cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Sources for our feature on John Muir and Stickeen:

John Muir, Stickeen, 1909.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, John Muir's "Stickeen" and the Lessons of Nature, 1996.

Kim Heacox, John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire, 2014.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, "Stickeen and the Moral Education of John Muir," Environmental History Review 15:1 (Spring 1991), 25-45.

Hal Crimmel, "No Place for 'Little Children and Tender, Pulpy People': John Muir in Alaska," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 92:4 (Fall 2001), 171-180.

Stefan Beck, "The Outdoor Kid," New Criterion 33:4 (December 2014), 1-6.

Edward Hoagland, "John Muir's Alaskan Rhapsody," American Scholar 71:2 (Spring 2002), 101-105.

Ronald H. Limbaugh, "John Muir and Modern Environmental Education," California History 71:2 (Summer 1992), 170-177.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "John Muir" (accessed July 2, 2017).

"John Muir: Naturalist," Journal of Education 81:6 (Feb. 11, 1915), 146.

William Frederic Badè, "John Muir," Science 41:1053 (March 5, 1915), 353-354.

Charles R. Van Hise, "John Muir," Science 45:1153 (Feb. 2, 1917), 103-109.

Listener mail:

Delta Spirit, "Ballad of Vitaly."

Wikipedia, "Aftermath (2017 Film)" (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, "Überlingen Mid-Air Collision" (accessed July 14, 2017).

Anthony Breznican, "'The Princess Bride': 10 Inconceivable Facts From Director Rob Reiner," Entertainment Weekly, Aug. 16, 2013.

Wikipedia, "Charlotte Kate Fox" (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, "Incubus (1966 film)" (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, "Esperanto" (accessed July 14, 2017).

Toño del Barrio, "Esperanto and Cinema" (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, "Phonetical Singing" (accessed July 14, 2017).

Wikipedia, "Deliver Us (The Prince of Egypt)" (accessed July 14, 2017).

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item in Dan Lewis' Now I Know enewsletter. (Warning: This link spoils the puzzle.)

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music 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!