Ever since 1993, a conspiracy has circulated online alleging that the German city of Bielefeld doesn’t exist. Now the city is pushing back by offering a million euros to anyone who can definitively prove it doesn’t exist.
It seems to me that the contest has set an impossible task, because it's well known that a negative can never be proven. For instance, we can't definitively prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn't exist. We can only say that we haven't found her yet.
But on the other hand, the opposite is equally true. It's impossible to definitively prove anything with absolute certainty. For instance, what if someone believes that Bielefeld exists because they've lived there their entire life? Well, that doesn't actually prove anything. As Bertrand Russell pointed out in his five-minute hypothesis, it's possible that the entire universe sprang into existence five minutes ago, complete with our memories of an older history. It may seem unlikely, but it's possible. So likewise, just because someone remembers living in Bielefeld, it's possible that their memories are false.
Which is to say that even if no one wins the million euros by proving that Bielefeld doesn't exist, that doesn't mean the city actually does exist. The existence of Bielefeld can never be definitively proven or disproven.
Back in the 19th century, English architect Stedman Whitwell decided that there must be a way to name cities and towns that could not only provide a unique name but also convey geographic information. His idea, as described by George Browning Lockwood in The New Harmony Communities (1902):
Whitwell noted some of the incongruities in American nomenclature, and deplored the repetition which was producing “Washingtons” and “Springfields” in every state in the Union. He proposed to give each locality a distinctive name by expressing in a compound word the latitude and longitude of the place, thus enabling one to locate any community geographically when the name was once known. Letters were proposed as substitutes for the numerals used in expressing latitude and longitude, as follows:
The first part of the town name expressed the latitude, the second the longitude, by a substitution of letters for figures according to the above table. The letter “S” inserted in the latitude name denoted that it was south latitude, its absence that it was north, while “V” indicated west longitude, its absence east longitude.
Extensive rules for pronunciation and for overcoming various difficulties were given. According to this system, Feiba Peveli indicated 38.11 N., 81.53 W. Macluria, 38.12 N., 87.52 W., was to be called Ipad Evenle; New Harmony, 38.11 N., 87.55 W., Ipba Veinul; New Yellow Springs, Green county, Ohio, the location of an Owenite community, 39.48 N., 83.52 W., Irap Evifle; Valley Forge, near Philadelphia, where there was another branch community, 40.7 N., 75.25 W., Outeon Eveldo; Orbiston, 55.34 N., 4.3 W., Uhi Ovouti; New York, Otke Notive; Pittsburg, Otfu Veitoup; Washington, Feili Neivul; London, Lafa Vovutu.
The principal argument in favor of the new system presented by the author was that the name of a neighboring Indian chief, “Occoneocoglecococachecachecodungo,” was even worse than some of the effects produced by this “rational system” of nomenclature.
I think the chart above is slightly misleading, as it implies that the top line is for latitude and the bottom for longitude. But if you look at the names Whitwell was coming up with, it's clear that this wasn't the case. It seems, instead, that one had to choose whether to start the name with a vowel (top line) or consonant (bottom line).
If I've understood his system correctly, then the 'rational' name for San Diego (32.71 N, 117.16 W) could be Fena Baveeby. And Los Angeles (34.05 N, 118.24 W) could be Fotu Avapek.
Back in 1975, Federal Administrative Judge Edward McCarthy briefly tried to promote the idea of granting statehood to Lake Michigan. He figured that if the lake itself was a state, then all the surrounding states wouldn't be able to exploit its resources as easily. As for the oddness of a lake being a state, he reasoned, why not? "After all," he noted, "it's a piece of real estate on which a body of water rests."
I'm encroaching on Paul's territory here, but I just learned a weird factoid about Rhode Island geography so I thought I'd share. And I'm sure many of you will also know this, but if it was new to me I'm hoping it may be new to a few of you as well.
The factoid: Most of Rhode Island is not Rhode Island. It's the Providence Plantations.
Rhode Island's full name is "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," which makes it the longest state name in the U.S. But technically, Rhode Island is just a single island in Narragansett Bay. The island is also known as Aquidneck Island. The mainland part of the state is the Providence Plantations.
In 1975, State Sen. Ambrose Campbell introduced a bill to officially shorten the name to "The State of Rhode Island," but the bill didn't pass. So the full, long name remains.
The 1978-79 Michigan Highway map included some creative geography. If you looked at the part of the map that depicted neighboring Ohio, you found two new towns. There was Goblu, shown just east of Toledo near Bono, and Beatosu, shown to the west near Elmira. These names sounded a lot like the cries of University of Michigan football fans against rival Ohio State University.
They were included in the map at the order of Peter Fletcher, the highway commission chairman, who said he included the names to demonstrate his "loyalty to the Athens of the West, the University of Michigan." The fictitious towns were deleted from the next edition of the map. The map with the towns is now a collector's item. One is currently available for $32.55 on eBay.
Ormonde de Kay, Jr. first proposed the "theory of continental drip" in Horizon magazine (Winter 1973), although it was more of an observation than a theory. He wrote:
Continental drip is the tendency of land masses to drip, droop, sag, depend, or hang down — like wet paint in the Sherwin-Williams trademark — except that they cling to the Earth's surface below the equator instead of falling off into space.
De Kay's article was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and there have been several elaborations of his theory in the same vein, such as here and here.
However, it's true. Continents and peninsulas do seem to "drip" south — Africa, South America, Baja California, Florida, Greenland, Scandinavia, Italy, Greece, India, Malaysia, Indochina, and Korea.
So why? Is there a reason? De Kay wrote:
A few possible explanations come to mind: some palaeomagnetic force, for example, unsuspected and therefore undetected, centered in massive, mountainous Antarctica and perpetually tugging at the lower hems of land masses. Or drip might somehow be the result of the Earth's rotation, or of lunar attraction.
But like I said, De Kay wasn't being completely serious. The closest I've been able to find in the way of a genuine scientific response to this mystery is in New Scientist magazine (Dec 18, 1999), when a reader wrote in asking about the dripping continents and received the following response:
The present pattern of landmasses is just one of many that has occurred as the continents, starting with super continent Pangaea, have wandered all over the globe during the past few hundred million years. In another few hundred million the continents and their positions and shapes will all look quite different again, so not too much can be read into today’s pattern.
In other words, there really is no reason for the dripping. It's just random chance.
Yellowstone National Park contains a 50-square mile "zone of death" where, legal scholars suggest, a person could commit murder without fear of prosecution. This zone is the part of the park that extends into Idaho.
The reason for this free-pass-for-murder lies with the Sixth Amendment which guarantees a defendant the right to a trial by a jury "of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." The zone is in the State of Idaho, but because of the unique legal status of Yellowstone, it's in the judicial District of Wyoming. Therefore, to prosecute anyone a court would need to form a jury of people who live simultaneously in the State of Idaho and the District of Wyoming, and no one fits that bill because no one lives in the Idaho part of Yellowstone. Without being able to create a jury, a trial couldn't proceed.
A similar zone exists in the part of Yellowstone that extends into Montana. However, a few people live there, so a jury could, in theory, be formed from its residents.
This legal loophole was first pointed out in 2005 by Brian Kalt, a professor at Michigan State Law School, in an article published in the Georgetown Law Journal. Kalt urged Congress to pass legislation to fix the loophole before someone tested the loophole by committing murder in the death zone. The simplest fix, he proposed, would be to change the district lines so that the part of Yellowstone in Idaho would be included in the District of Idaho.
To date, Congress has not done anything to fix the problem. Part of the reason for this is political inertia. But there's also resistance to changing the District lines because this would place part of Yellowstone under the jurisdiction of the more liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which, it's feared, environmentalists could use to their advantage. So the "zone of death" remains.
The idea of a legal "zone of death" has naturally appealed to the imaginations of artists. The zone was featured in a best-selling mystery novel, Free Fire, by CJ Box. And in 2016 it became the subject of a film, Population Zero (trailer below).
If you look at a map of South Dakota, you can see that the western border isn't perfectly straight. Right where Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota meet, the border jogs inward a little bit.
The story goes (which I've found in several sources) that this isn't how it was supposed to be. The border was supposed to run straight down the 27th meridian, but the surveyors messed up. The lines they ran from north and south didn't meet up properly, and to fix the error they just made the border jog in slightly, as it does, in order to connect the two lines.
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.