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26 March 2005

Napier's Magicke Black Rooster

You may have suspected from the last post that I'm a Boffin, which is UK-ish for scientist, usually of the mad or addled variety.

No I am not -- but I just always wanted to be a mad scientist.

Most of what I saw as a child urged me to become a cowboy or a fireman or a spaceman or a policeman, and then when my folks started nudging me with their unsolicited opinions, the Medical Arts were recommended very strongly. (My mom bought me The Visible Man for my birthday, and I performed many really pointless surgical procedures on it. I pioneered the Spleen Relocation. I don't recall my rents ever suggesting I become a Beatnik or a Beat Poet or a Jazz Musician.)

But somewhere I must have seen a Boffin. Superman was always flying to Metropolis Observatory and getting advice or warnings from the scientists there. Superman was the strongest man on Earth, but he needed the boffins to tell him what needed to be pushed around, or fetched from Dwingeloo 2, or flown to the middle of the Sun. To Boffins, Superman was just a guy who was useful for heavy lifting, or for rides.

I loved the way Boffins dressed and wore their hair -- as if their moms had abruptly stopped dressing them and combing their hair. And I got the definite impression that Cactus Junction would get by without the Lone Ranger, but Metropolis, or the Earth, was Up Shit's Creek without its boffins and their advice and gizmos.

Albert Einstein died when I was eight, and I remember seeing lots of photos and film on TV all weekend (it interrupted my cartoons and pre-empted "Captain Video"), and getting the distinct impression from the hushed tones of the news announcers that this screwy-looking guy who hadn't combed his hair since around 1900 was the reason World War II ended so suddenly, and also why all the adults were so worried and nervous. (Cf. "On the Beach" by Neville Shute, or better yet, rent the video starring Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, but don't expect dancing or Gershwin tunes.)

Right about then, doctors began prescribing the first anti-unhappiness pill, Milltown (Meprobamate), and it was an instant smash, it was bigger than Kate Smith. I don't remember anyone calling it Einstein Candy, but that might have been a good nickname for it.

I am a charter member of The Duck and Cover Club. I went to the Washington DC public schools in the 1950s, and we understood very clearly that the playground of Alice Deal Junior High School had a big bullseye painted on it; we weren't stoopid.

Cowboys and firemen had nothing on this guy. Superman was ringing Einstein's doorbell. In "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a Visitor fom Outer Space lands his way rad phat bitchin awesome flying saucer in (my!) Washington DC (notice that he did not land in Omaha or Wilmington, Delaware), and while he's sneaking around my neighborhood (he steals a suit from the dry cleaners at Walter Reed because he looks out of place in his aluminum foil soot), he goes straight to visit The Guy Who's Supposed to Be Einstein (Sam Jaffe). Einstein isn't home, so the Space Guy fixes Einstein's blackboard equations.

Tell me you've seen this movie. Klaatu barada nikto. Okay, so it's in black and white, so you're getting ripped off, but it has lots of sound, and it has a REALLY COOL ... oh, just rent the goddam thing tonight, okay? You can see Little Bobby in short pants picking my nose down by the Washington Monument, gawking at the flying saucer. Bernard Herrmann wrote the score. Three words: theremin! theremin! theremin!

(Back before I married SWMBO, I dated a woman who refused to watch any movies that didn't have sound or color. She was convinced there was something very creepy and defective about a movie that had no color or sound. Who the hell am I? Maybe she was right. Maybe it's time to re-make "Citizen Kane" with Keanu Reeves. And he's always on the cell phone. And Rosebud was his snowboard.)

Anyway, remember John Napier from the last post? He discovered logarithms, which were followed in very short order by the invention of The Slide Rule. He was a Scots baron, 8th Laird of Merchiston, and lived in a medieval castle in Edinburgh. This was around 1600, and Scotland was not exactly an educationally or scientifically advanced or sophisticated neighborhood. (No place was, but Scotland considerably less so.)

The best explanation the people of Scotland could make of Napier was that he was a dangerous magical wizard, a thaumaturge, and a practitioner of ye Blacke Artes. He found this consensus to be personally convenient, as very few people tried to fuck with him or thwart him, because they didn't want their cows to die or their scrotums to shrivel up.

One persistent fable about him is that he figured out a way to vaporize a flock of sheep from a mile away, with some kind of ray, but after this successful demonstration, he refused to reveal how he'd done it, and never repeated it. Like Paganini's violin-playing arrangement with the Devil, this rumor did nothing but make Napier's life easier and smoother.

Napier suspected that somebody on the Castle staff was stealing the silver, but he had no suspects. He summoned every one of his employees (serfs, peasants, ghillies) to a small outbuilding, and explained that there was a Magic Black Rooster inside the shed, and the Magic Black Rooster would magically and immediately know who the thief was. One at a time, each employee was ordered to enter the dark shed by himself, place his hands on the Magic Rooster, and swear that he had not stolen the castle silver. When the last employee re-emerged from the shed, Napier went into the shed, chatted with the rooster, and then came out and pointed right at the thief, who immediately confessed.

How did he do it? If you don't cheat and try to hunt up the story, if you just think and guess and adhere strictly to The Vleeptron PizzaQ Honor System, this one's worth 1 Vleeptron Pizza Slice (or a nice fat Belgian endive) credited to your account.


Blogger Mike said...

Well, based on the information in the post, there's no way that he could tell unless he really was a magical guy. So, I'm just going to guess that he cheated.

So, if I'm a thief, and a guy that can supposedly vaporize a herd of sheep from a mile away tells me he has a rooster that can tell if I stole from him or not, what's the first thing I'm going to do? I sure as hell wouldn't touch the damn rooster.

If I'm Napier, and I'm known to be a guy that can vaporize a herd of sheep from a mile away, I can pretty much lie about anything I want, and any of the people that believe the sheep story are probably going to buy anything I tell them.

So, why the rooster? I sat and thought about this all day. The only thing that I can think of is that the rooster was the trap. If I'm innocent, I don't care what the rooster has to say, in fact, I WANT it to say that I'm innocent so I don't end up like a vaporized sheep. If I'm guilty, I'm just thinking about those sheep.

After a very long winded post on my part, I'm going to guess that he booby trapped the rooster. Covered it in ink or soot or something so that it marked the people that wanted to be vindicated (the innocent), and made it obvious who the only one that didn't want to get anywhere near that rooster was (the guilty).

My biggest question was, how did he get the stupid rooster to sit still for all of this? Butcher it first?

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Credit 1 pizza slice to Mike's account! Outstanding!

Napier coated the Black Rooster with lampblack = soot. When everyone had gone into the shed, sworn the oath as commanded, and come out again, only one person's hands were completely sootless, because only one person didn't have the nerve to touch the magic rooster. The whole scam only works in a neighborhood where everybody believes in all sorts of magic, and particularly believes Napier's a wizard.

Scotland was an odd place at this twilight between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. It was simultaneously a very primitive, backwards society, and at the same time full of characters who leaped the world forward into science and philosophy beyond the rest of Europe. Newton was the co-discoverer of calculus, but his own Cambridge was too mathematically conservative and slow to teach it while he was alive. But the University of Edinburgh started teaching it promptly.

Dr. Johnson said of a Scot who became a famous statesman in London: "Much can be done with a Scotsman if he be caught young."

Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, I was just assigned a geometry project over this guy, Napier.Of course, I start reading the paper to wee what questions I have to answer, and WHAM! there's one asking for the story of the magic rooster. After bursting into laughter, sharing what seemd like the most random question ever with my surrounding classmates(being immature and in highschool), and listening to the ensuing sexual references that have been somehow brought up(since there are others who are even less mature than me), I decided that I would research that question first.

Unfortunately, I had already read the story in another place and did not have a chance to solve the mystery myself by the time I had gotten to this site. Still, I felt that it was worth metioning that I thoroughly enjoyed your recounting of the tale and that I applaud you.

Blogger Vleeptron Dude said...

Yo ilovegarthnix --

Well, first of all, thanks for introducing me to Garth Nix. I feel like I'm In The Loop for a change. What's your fave Garth Nix book?

I've only done a driveby (changing trains) in Edinburgh, but I swear I am going back again to hunt up Napier's old castle or what's left of it. The guy just fascinates me.

(I'm DEFINITELY also going to ride the Falkirk Wheel

which is probably just a half-hour away from Edinburgh.)

Ain't Mike smart? He answers lots of my loopy questions on the blog, and I think by now I owe him 3.2 metric tons of Pizza.

Would you have figured out how Napier caught the thief?

Napier's Amazing Logarithms (and slide rules -- if you find any slide rules at tag sales, PLEASE SEND THEM TO ME thanks) are practically out of business now, computers and calculators have pretty much made them obsolete. But if you keep taking math in college, you'll smash into Logarithms again, bigtime, because they're very important in calculus and beyond.

But for about 350 years, Napier's logarithms and the slide rules that used them were how every scientist and engineer Got The Answer, and then built the Brooklyn Bridge or designed the airplane or the rocket or the submarine. The Industrial Revolution couldn't have happened without Napier's logs. I've got huge hardback books that weigh a ton, from pre-computer days, of 5- and 6-place Logarithm Tables, Common (base 10) and Natural (base e = 2.718281828... don't ask). Before computers and calculators, whole forests had to be chopped down to print those Logarithm Tables.

Oh, Logs were invented independently at the same time by a Swiss guy named Burghi who made the most gorgeous and best clocks in Europe, probably in the world. I doubt if he was as loony or loopy as Napier.

Who are you where are you what colleges are you thinking about what do you want to be when you grow up what music rocks your world?

Oh, this Vleeptron blog broke about 2 years ago -- it's fixed now -- but I had to start a new one. The Adventure Continues at:

and there are more Pizza Questions. Like this one:

which is worth 1 Giant with the toppings of your choice. (Transportation & Shipping not included.)

Glad you liked the story!


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