A cheering tale: The Gimli Glider

I like the story of the Gimli Glider. It’s a feel-good true story, for days when a person needs a feel-good true story; it’s invaluable as a case study for my students; it’s also good for putting problems into perspective on a hard day.

If the name gives you surreal images of a Middle-Earth dwarf wielding an axe in a sailplane, you might be relieved to learn that the reality is very different, though equally surreal in some ways.

It’s the true story of an airliner that ran out of fuel at 41,000 feet, because of a misunderstanding about whether it had been fuelled in litres or in pounds of fuel. At that point, it became the world’s largest glider. The co-pilot recommended an emergency landing at Gimli airfield, which he knew from his days in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The pilot landed successfully, largely because he happened to know a lot about flying gliders. Nobody died; everyone walked away, with feelings of disbelief and massive relief. Even by the standards of movies about fictional aircraft in jeopardy, it’s quite a story.

bannerImages from Wikipedia; details with attributions at the end of this article

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Shock, horror, jokes and Necker cubes: Why humour is funny and scary things are scary

By Gordon Rugg

Complex things often have simple causes. Here’s a classic example. It’s a fractal.

julia set detail

(From wikimedia)

Fractal images are so complex that there’s an entire area of mathematics specialising in them. However, the complex fractal image above comes from a single, simple equation.

Humour and sudden shocks are also complex, since they both depend on substantial knowledge about the world and about human behaviour, but, like fractals, the key to them comes from a very simple underlying mechanism. Here’s what it looks like. It’s called the Necker cube.

necker cube red

So what’s the Necker cube, and how is it involved with such emotive areas as humour and horror?

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