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The Straight Dope

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I heard there is a book purporting that Lewis Carroll and a close associate were actually "Jack the Ripper." Supposedly done by a scholar, the book examined Carroll's "Jabberwocky," claiming there is a pattern in the nonsense words that reveals such messages as, "We killed the whores," etc. Have you ever heard of such a theory or book? If so, any ideas of your own on the subject? "Intriguing scholarship" or "skip this sheaf of academic drool and try spinning Ozzy Osbourne LPs backward?"

--A.H. Traugott, Austin, Texas

Stick with Ozzy, A.H. This drool doesn't even qualify as academic. Richard Wallace, author of Jack the Ripper: "Light-hearted Friend" (Gemini Press, 1996), spent "25 years in the data processing field," according to his bio--meaning, I dunno, he spent a quarter century in the basement operating the paper shredder. The book proceeds from the following logic: Lewis Carroll loved anagrams. Anagrams reveal deep truths. The lines in Carroll's poetry can be formed into anagrams. Some of these anagrams strike certain crackpots as incriminating. Ergo, Lewis Carroll was Jack the Ripper.

For example, Wallace starts with this famous verse from "Jabberwocky":

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

And transmutes it into:

Bet I beat my glands til,

With hand-sword I slay the evil gender.

A slimey theme; borrow gloves,

And masturbate the hog more!

You get the picture. The lesson in this clearly is that if you know a guy who's got too much time on his hands, don't suggest he take up Scrabble.

I love fountains--especially the fact that they were installed in very old homes and public places before the advent of electricity. We all know modern fountains recirculate water with the aid of electric pumps, but how did these fountains of yesteryear operate?

--Joel Hazan, via the Internet

Conceptually it was easy. Of course I guess conceptually the creation of the universe wasn't all that complicated. Take the fountains of Rome, probably the most famous in the world. In ancient times someone realized there were lots of water sources outside Rome that were at a higher elevation than the city itself. If one could convey the water from the sources to the town, one would have water pressure (and if desired, fountains) galore. One then had the mere technical detail of building ten miles of more or less watertight aqueduct with a constant slope of 1 in 320 using the resources available in 312 BC. Plus ten more aqueducts in later years, the longest extending 56 miles, bringing in a total of 38 million gallons of water per day. Plus an elaborate municipal plumbing system in which the runoff from one fountain fed others downhill from it and ultimately wound up in the sewers. Result: 1,200 fountains (and 800 baths) that couldn't be shut off. (Engineers to Roman senate: Get it to stop? We had enough trouble getting it to start! It's only 312 BC! You want freaking miracles, wait till the birth of Christ!) Your poet says, ah, the fountains, the gushing water, they are so beautiful! To which your plumber says, yeah, bub, it was either that or rupture the pipes.

QUESTIONS WE'RE STILL THINKING ABOUT

I am a grad student in a certain engineering/science school in Cambridge, MA. In some of the labs I work in we use phosphine and arsine gases to grow semiconductor films. These gases are very toxic (like, a quarter of a breath will kill you). I read a list of toxic gases that said arsine had a "garlic odor" and phosphine had a "rotting fish odor." I've also heard these descriptions from other sources. My question is, how do they find out the smell of these extremely lethal gases? Would anyone survive a good sniff long enough to tell about it? How much did they get paid, and what were the perks?

--Yakov Royter, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Who discovered you could milk a cow, and what were they thinking about?

--Barry A., via the Internet

When my cat, Gimli, gets rubbed behind the ears he begins to purr uncontrollably and seemingly reaches a state of euphoria. What I want to know is whether or not his cousins in the Serengeti share this same trait. Thank you.

--Kelly P. and Nick D., Toronto, Ontario

Tell you what, folks. I'll arrange for the trip to the Serengeti, and you pet the cats.

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

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