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A Catalogue of Impossibilities

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Most of us have seen those lists of things that are impossible: you can’t lick your elbow, you can’t lose weight by drinking beer (curses). Here are a few personal choices of things that can't be done: It’s impossible to like haggis. It’s impossible to dislike elephants. It's impossible to fly in comfort. It’s impossible to create perpetual motion. It’s impossible to cure stupidity.

It’s Impossible to Like Haggis

Once a year, on January 25, Scottish people, or those who wish they are Scottish, all over the world gather to celebrate Robert Burns, a man who wrote incomprehensible doggerel that some people call poetry. The centrepiece of the ceremony is the arrival of the haggis, which is brought into the banquet hall while a bagpiper makes noise.

Then comes a performance of Burns’s Address tae the Haggis; a verse that suggests only a distant relationship to English.

The attending diners now have to pretend to enjoy eating one of the most revolting dishes ever to find its way onto a plate.

Oatmeal and onions are combined; stop there and it might be edible, but no, so brace yourself. Add the chopped up heart, liver, and lungs of a lamb. Then comes the final gruesome touch: the whole concoction is stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled for two hours.

It is traditionally served with neeps and tatties: that is boiled and mashed rutabagas and potatoes. Sometimes, the veggies are combined into something called clapshot.

The best advice is to always have engagements booked for January 25th in case a so-called friend invites you to a Burns Night Supper.

There can be few things less appetizing to look at than haggis. The salad looks fine though.

There can be few things less appetizing to look at than haggis. The salad looks fine though.

Humans Cannot Fly

No doubt our earliest ancestors looked a birds soaring the sky and wondered “if only I could fly.” But, we can't and “scientists have determined that we never will: it is mathematically impossible for humans to fly like birds” (Yale Scientific).

This impossibility didn't stop basement tinkerers building all manner of flying machines that didn't fly. In Britain, Horatio Phillips built his first Multiplane in 1904. It had 22 wings fixed to a bicycle and had a small motor. The Multiplane remained resolutely earthbound.

Not enough wings, concluded the inventor, so the third iteration of the Multiplane had 200 wings. It appeared in 1907 and actually lifted off, making it the first powered flight in England.

Many others created strange-looking contraptions that didn't work and sometimes took their inventors to an early grave.

However, humans eventually overcame the impossible and built aircraft that could carry passengers high in the sky, but then they invented airlines whose function is to make the experience as miserable as possible.

Horatio Phillips's first Multiplane.

Horatio Phillips's first Multiplane.

Adult Elephants Can’t Jump

Elephants are here because it’s impossible not to adore them. That sounds awkward so, put another way, elephants are among the world’s most loved critters. Arkive.org lists the African elephant as number three on its top ten list of animal popularity.

In first place is―wait for it, drum roll please―the kakapo. What? You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s a flightless parrot that lives only on a small island off the coast of New Zealand. There are only a few of dozen kakapos alive so one suspects a bit of ballot stuffing took place in establishing the list. The tiger is number two; no argument there.

Back to elephants. They have a matriarchal society and so make decisions based on what’s best for the herd. If bull elephants were the leaders, all decisions would be couched in terms of where can I get some procreative action? And, we all know where that kind of thinking can lead.

Mothers and aunts are social and loving and spend all their time protecting and teaching their calves. They console one another and mourn their dead. They display immense compassion and live sustainably within the confines of their environment. In short, elephants are marvelous and it's impossible not to love them.

There’s another species that could do well by adopting elephantine social behaviour.

Perpetual Motion is Impossible

There are people, probably numbered in the tens of thousands, who profoundly regret getting caught up in a perpetual motion scheme. The immutable laws of physics state that perpetual motion is impossible although it has proven to be an excellent way of relieving folks of their money.

For perpetual motion to be possible the First Law of Thermodynamics would have to be proved wrong, and that hasn’t happened yet. The law states that energy cannot be created, nor can it be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. Perpetual motion would also violate the principles of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which deals with relationships among forms of energy.

Norman Rockwell shows a puzzled tinkerer on the cover of Popular Science, October 1920.

Norman Rockwell shows a puzzled tinkerer on the cover of Popular Science, October 1920.

Most perpetual energy machines designed by their inventors seem to involve wheels that run forever and/or magnets. Often, the contraptions have a purpose other than demonstrating the impossible; their function is to persuade the gullible to invest funds so that further research can be conducted.

The French Royal Academy of Sciences tumbled to this years ago when, in 1775, it announced that it would “no longer accept or deal with proposals concerning perpetual motion.”

Some serious scientists have dabbled in the pursuit of free energy machines. Even the great engineer Nikola Tesla thought he was onto something in a “self-acting” machine.

The efforts, some noble others rascally, always end the same way―perpetual failure.

Stupidity Cannot Be Cured

We can treat pneumonia, we can give the legless artificial limbs, we can teach Braille to the blind, but it’s impossible to cure stupidity.

Philosophy professor Steven Nadler has written (Time Magazine) that “Stupidity is a kind of intellectual stubbornness. A stupid person has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs and yet fails to do so.” The glaring examples being anti-vaxxers and Trump supporters.

There is no point trying to use rational arguments with such people in an attempt to change their minds; they are deeply invested in irrational beliefs and nothing will shift that stance.

Even if you could come up with film showing slaves building the pyramids in Egypt that would not impress Vince Fenech, the director of Malta's Accelerated Christian Academy, because he knows that dinosaurs were involved in the construction.

“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

— George Carlin

Eric Dietrich is a philosophy professor at Binghamton University, New York. In August 2016, he listed for Psychology Today weird beliefs among people he has known:

  • An aerospace engineer who skipped meals because he thought he could sustain himself by absorbing bacteria through his skin;
  • A geologist who believed the Grand Canyon was carved in a few weeks by run-off from the biblical flood; and,
  • A university philosopher professor (he says it’s not him) who buys the theory that the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center was the work of the U.S. government.

These are all highly educated people, so you don’t have to be ignorant to be stupid, although it helps; it helps a lot.

Bonus Factoids

  • Hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses, when they run, briefly have all four feet off the ground, but that is not jumping. Sloths cannot jump, so they and elephants are the only land mammals that cannot leap upwards.
  • In 2017, scientists at the University of Maryland used lasers to knock ytterbium atoms out of equilibrium. The atoms could not settle back into equilibrium prompting Popular Mechanics to comment “that the crystals perpetually remain in motion, though they don’t contain any energy.”
  • It is impossible to neatly fold a fitted sheet.
  • It's impossible for a man to look good in a Speedo.

The Thing that Couldn't Be Done

Sources

  • “It’s Haggis the Horrible Time.” Doug Spiers, Winnipeg Free Press, January 25, 2012.
  • “Three Myths About Elephants You Probably Believed, and Three Amazing Facts You’ll Be Glad to Know.” Helena Williams, The Independent, December 8, 2013.
  • “History of Perpetual Motion Machines.” Academic Kids, June 20, 2005.
  • “Scientists Create A New Kind Of Matter: Time Crystals.” Sophie Weiner, Popular Mechanics, January 28, 2017.
  • “How to Fix American Stupidity.” Steven Nadler, Time, September 12, 2017.
  • “Weird Beliefs.” Eric Dietrich, Psychology Today, August 24, 2016.
  • “Q&A: Why Can’t Humans Fly?” Payal Marathe, Yale Scientific, March 31, 2013.
  • “Horatio Phillips & Multiplanes.” Joe Yoon, aerospaceweb.org, June 12, 2005.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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