In World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with firebombs carried by live bats

During World War II, the U.S. Army experimented with a bizarre plan: using live bats to firebomb Japanese cities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the crazy history of the bat bomb, the extraordinary brainchild of a Pennsylvania dentist.

We'll also consider the malleable nature of mental illness and puzzle over an expensive quiz question.

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In 1906, the Bronx Zoo exhibited a Congolese man in its primate house

The Bronx Zoo unveiled a controversial exhibit in 1906 -- a Congolese man in a cage in the primate house. The display attracted jeering crowds to the park, but for the man himself it was only the latest in a string of indignities. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the sad tale of Ota Benga and his life in early 20th-century America.

We'll also delve into fugue states and puzzle over a second interstate speeder.

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'The Children's Blizzard' of 1888 trapped children in schoolhouses across the American Midwest

In January 1888, after a disarming warm spell, a violent storm of blinding snow and bitter cold suddenly struck the American Midwest, trapping farmers in fields, travelers on roads, and hundreds of children in schoolhouses with limited fuel. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Children's Blizzard, one of the most harrowing winter storms in American history.

We'll also play 20 Questions with a computer and puzzle over some vanishing vultures.

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In 1703 a blond Frenchman convinced much of London that he was from Taiwan

In 1703, London had a strange visitor, a young man who ate raw meat and claimed that he came from an unknown country on the island of Taiwan. Though many doubted him, he was able to answer any question he was asked, and even wrote a best-selling book about his homeland. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the curious question of the man from Formosa.

We'll also scrutinize a stamp forger and puzzle over an elastic Utah.

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Six lateral thinking puzzles

Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions.

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In 1924, two British mountaineers disappeared trying to conquer Mount Everest. No one knows if they succeeded.

In 1924 two British mountaineers set out to be the first to conquer Mount Everest. But they never returned to camp, and to this day no one knows whether they reached the top. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll review the case of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, which has been called "one of the greatest unsolved adventure mysteries of the 20th century."

We'll also learn what to do if attacked by a bear and puzzle over the benefits of a water shortage.

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In the 1870s, a French laborer found himself making strange, compulsive journeys all over Europe

In the 1870s, French gas fitter Albert Dadas started making strange, compulsive trips to distant towns, with no planning or awareness of what he was doing. His bizarre affliction set off a 20-year epidemic of "mad travelers" in Europe, which evaporated as mysteriously as it had begun. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll consider the parable of pathological tourism and its meaning for psychiatry.

We'll also contemplate the importance of sick chickens and puzzle over a farmyard contraption.

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The story of a daring 1943 commando raid to stop Germany from getting an atomic bomb

During World War II, the Allies feared that Germany was on the brink of creating an atomic bomb. To prevent this, they launched a dramatic midnight commando raid to destroy a key piece of equipment in the mountains of southern Norway. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll remember Operation Gunnerside, "one of the most daring and important undercover operations of World War II."

We'll also learn what to say when you're invading Britain and puzzle over the life cycle of cicadas.

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Bogus professor Marvin Hewitt taught at seven different schools and universities

Marvin Hewitt never finished high school, but he taught advanced physics, engineering, and mathematics under assumed names at seven different schools and universities between 1945 and 1953. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll trace the curious career of an academic impostor, whose story has been called "one of the strangest academic hoaxes in history."

We'll also try on a flashproof scarf and puzzle over why a healthy man would check into a hospital.

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In the 1930s, two promising young American writers disappeared without a trace

Everett Ruess and Barbara Newhall Follett were born in March 1914 at opposite ends of the U.S. Both followed distinctly unusual lives as they pursued a love of writing. And both disappeared in their 20s, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the brief lives of two promising young authors and the mystery that lingers behind them.

We'll also patrol 10 Downing Street and puzzle over when a pigeon isn't a pigeon.

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Six lateral thinking puzzles

Here are six new lateral thinking puzzles to test your wits and stump your friends -- play along with us as we try to untangle some perplexing situations using yes-or-no questions.

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In 1977, architects realized that Manhattan's Citicorp Tower could be brought down by a high wind

New York's Citicorp Tower was an architectural sensation when it opened in 1977. But then engineer William LeMessurier realized that its unique design left it dangerously vulnerable to high winds. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the drama that followed as a small group of decision makers tried to ward off a catastrophe in midtown Manhattan.

We'll also cringe at an apartment mixup and puzzle over a tolerant trooper.

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The bear that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh

In 1914, Canadian Army veterinarian Harry Colebourn was traveling to the Western Front when he met an orphaned bear cub in an Ontario railway station. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the adventures of Winnie the bear, including her fateful meeting with A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin.

We'll also marvel at some impressive finger counting and puzzle over an impassable bridge.

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The true story that inspired Island of the Blue Dolphins

In 1835, a Native American woman was somehow left behind when her dwindling island tribe was transferred to the California mainland. She would spend the next 18 years living alone in a world of 22 square miles. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the poignant story of the lone woman of San Nicolas Island.

We'll also learn about an inebriated elephant and puzzle over an unattainable test score.

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During WWII, mathematician Arne Beurling made "one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cryptography"

In 1940, Germany was sending vital telegrams through neutral Sweden using a sophisticated cipher, and it fell to mathematician Arne Beurling to make sense of the secret messages. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the outcome, which has been called "one of the most remarkable success stories in the history of cryptanalysis."

We'll also learn about mudlarking and puzzle over a chicken-killing Dane.

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In 1911, three men struggled for five weeks through the Antarctic winter to collect penguin eggs

In 1911, three British explorers made a perilous 70-mile journey in the dead of the Antarctic winter to gather eggs from a penguin rookery in McMurdo Sound. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow the three through perpetual darkness and bone-shattering cold on what one man called "the worst journey in the world."

We'll also dazzle some computers and puzzle over some patriotic highways.

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One man's visit to Japan's closed society changed the country's destiny

In 1848, five years before Japan opened its closed society to the West, a lone American in a whaleboat landed on the country's northern shore, drawn only by a sense of mystery and a love of adventure. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll follow Ranald MacDonald as he travels the length of Japan toward a destiny that will transform the country.

We'll also remember a Soviet hero and puzzle over some security-conscious neighbors.

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