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The Straight Dope



While rereading Moby-Dick recently I came across a reference to something called the Pythagorean maxim. We were all forced to learn the Pythagorean theorem in grade school, but this was something new. In my Norton Critical Edition the footnote says, "The Pythagorean injunction is to avoid eating beans, which cause flatulence." Inasmuch as you are the world's top expert on all matters scatological, I figured I should turn to you for help. Where did this injunction come from, and how have I managed to spend 40 years on this planet without noticing any reference to it before? --Mike Beazley, Toledo, Ohio

Blame the schools. The passage from Moby-Dick reads, "In this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)." That Melville, he cracks me up. Or at least he would have if I'd understood this joke when I first read it, which unfortunately I didn't, since I was only in high school at the time and neither the teacher nor the text bothered to explain it. Too bad. It would have greatly enriched the literary experience for me and, I'll bet, for the whole sophomore class. Luckily today's youth have guys like me to plug these embarrassing educational lacunae.

The Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (circa 580 to circa 500 BC) founded a quasi-religious brotherhood that adhered to a strict discipline. Since none of Mr. P's original writings survive, we can't distinguish his contributions from those of his disciples and can only call the whole mess Pythagoreanism. Some alleged Pythagorean precepts: Not to let swallows share one's roof. Not to sit on a quart measure. Not to walk on highways. When the pot is taken off the fire, not to leave the mark of it in the ashes, but to stir them together. And of course to abstain from beans.

You are probably thinking one of two thoughts: (1) these guys were deep, or (2) these guys were missing a few strings on their ukuleles. I incline to the former view. The Pythagorean theorem (hypotenuse squared = sum of squares of other sides) shows these guys were into practical knowledge with an eye to the sublime. Given what we know about the magical fruit, doesn't the antibean injunction demonstrate the same?

The recent network showing of The Sound of Music called to mind the musical's two howling bloopers: how can Captain von Trapp be a captain in the Austrian navy if Austria is a landlocked country, and why do the von Trapps, refugees from the Nazis, "climb every mountain" into what on the map looks like Berchtesgaden's backyard? What about the real von Trapps? How did they actually escape Austria, and what navy was the captain in? (I know that before 1918 Austria held the coast of Yugoslavia, but then why would Hitler be hot to get his hands on somebody who hadn't smelled salt water in 20 years?) --David Drewer, Baltimore

You've answered your own question, bro. During World War I Georg Trapp commanded a submarine launched from the Adriatic port of Fiume, then held by Austria-Hungary. He wreaked havoc on Allied shipping, but in vain. Having lost the war, A-H lost the port and the rest of its coastline as well. Trapp's wartime exploits, which made him a national hero and earned him a baronetcy, hadn't eluded the notice of Berlin, however. After the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938 he was offered command of a new submarine that was eventually to be based in the Adriatic. The captain was in his mid-50s at the time, and his World War I sub had been only 40 feet long with a crew of five. But he did have combat experience, knowledge of the local waters, and guts.

In the movie it looks like the Trapp family escapes by sneaking out their backyard and over the mountains into what on the map is obviously Germany. But that's only in the movie. In fact, they made the excuse that they were going mountain climbing in the Alps, about 100 kilometers south. They kept going into Italy, at that time not firmly allied with Germany, and wound up in the U.S.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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