Archive for: February, 2009

Michael Faraday, scientific rock-star!

Feb 28 2009 Published by under History of science

I've been planning another post on the scientific discoveries of Michael Faraday, but in the process of researching his work on so-called Faraday rotation, I came across a wonderful story which is too charming not to share!

By 1844, Faraday was at the height of his popularity, and reports of his discoveries would apparently be devoured by scientists and non-scientists alike.  One would hesitate to compare his popularity to a modern rock star's, but then there's this charming anecdote from The Life and Letters of Faraday, vol 2 (1870).

Faraday received a letter from a lady 'of the highest talent' who proposed 'to become his disciple and go through with him all his own experiments.'  The lady's name is not mentioned by Dr. Bence Jones, who compiled the letters; it was likely still considered rather improper in that era for a lady to boldly apply for a research assistantship from one of the most prominent scientists of the day.  Faraday, however, gave a charming and very cordial response (Oct 24, 1844):

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Faking tilt-shift photography, via Photoshop

Feb 27 2009 Published by under Optics

I recently took another look at my post on depth of focus and depth of field, and noticed to my chagrin that the link to the original 'miniworld' pics, which show how a real scene can be made to look miniature by appropriate blurring, had been broken!

Fortunately, it's no great mystery how such images are done.  I easily found a very nice webpage that describes in detail how to manipulate your own photographs using Photoshop.  The results of my crude tinkering are shown below (click on the pictures to see the full effect):




The first one is of houses on the coast near the Florida-Alabama border, the second is of the ice rink Jaap Edenbaan in Amsterdam, and the third is a view of Amsterdam from the Zuiderkerk.  I put these pictures into an update on the depth of field post.

One thing is worth noting about this technique: real miniature photographs have a narrow depth of field, which means that only objects at a certain distance from the camera will be in focus.  The Photoshop technique shown here fakes this by creating a vertical gradient blur on the image.  To look reasonable, however, the image must be one for which the vertical axis of the picture maps more or less to the actual distance of the object from the camera.  Big objects in the foreground, which stretch across the vertical axis of the picture, can ruin the effect.  For instance, check out this attempt on a Providence cemetary:


The trees on the left and right (and the church steeple, to a lesser extent) disrupt the illusion, to my eye.

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Adventures in iRiff-ery!

Feb 26 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, Entertainment

I've been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for years.   If you're not familiar, the show consisted of a human host and two wisecracking (puppet) robots ridiculing bad science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, and was generally a hoot! (I pay tribute to the show with my category, "...the Hell?", which was a common refrain by Tom Servo.)

Like plenty of fans, I  found myself almost uncontrollably ridiculing films and television shows, much to the chagrin of my friends and fiancée!  After MST3K ended its run in 1999,  the comedians on the show apparently felt very much the same way: several of them started a company called RiffTrax, in which they record audio commentaries for movies ('riffs') which can be played in sync with the DVD audio track.  This brilliant premise means that the RiffTrax folks don't need to fight for costly film rights and can riff on pretty much any film they like, including new and terrible releases such as The Happening!

Well, last fall they introduced a new innovation: iRiffs, in which the fans can write, record, and sell their own riffs through the RiffTrax store!  I was intrigued, and started writing a script almost immediately.  A recent deadline for an iRiff contest (which I didn't really make) spurred me to finish my iRiff of the 1998 American version of Godzilla, which is now available online!  I thought I'd share some observations about the iRiff construction process in this post.

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Bobby Jindal hates lifesaving research!

Feb 25 2009 Published by under [Politics], Science news

This one's been bugging me all day, and although others have tackled it admirably, I wanted to give my perspective, and an amateur would-be vulcanologist.  In the Republican response to President Obama's speech last night, in which he strongly defended the stimulus bill, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal had the following to say:

While some of the projects in the [stimulus] bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a 'magnetic levitation' line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.

There's a lot wrong with this statement; for instance, as pointed out by Steven Benen, the quip about a rail line from Las Vegas to Disneyland is pure Republican fantasy.  What really angered me, though, is the mocking tone Jindal had for 'volcano monitoring'.

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E is for Edward, who birthday was today...

Feb 22 2009 Published by under Entertainment

Via The Greenbelt, I see that today was the birthday of macabre artist Edward Gorey (1925-2000), who produced such bizarre and twisted classics such as The Gashlycrumb Tinies and The Curious Sofa.  It is an interesting coincidence since I just referred to Gorey only a few days ago in relation to the upcoming horror game The Path.

To celebrate, The Greenbelt points us to a wonderful little short online quiz: What will be your Edward Gorey death, in which you can determine what sort of Gashlycrumb Tinies fate is most fitting for you!

I got Xerxes:


"You will be devoured by mice. You are so shy and always off alone in the corner. No one knows you are there except for the blood thirsty rodents."

Doesn't really seem to fit my personality, but who am I to argue with an online quiz?

P.S.  My apologies to Blake if this reopens old wounds...

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A. Merritt's Dwellers in the Mirage

Abraham Merritt (1888-1943) was one of the greats of pulp fiction, although up until recently his work was largely forgotten.  Recently, two of his novels were reprinted, The Moon Pool (1919) and The Metal Monster (1920), both of which I've blogged about in some detail.  I found The Moon Pool, on the whole, a rather ordinary pulp adventure novel punctuated by scenes of brilliant weirdness, while The Metal Monster was a truly unique masterpiece of weird fiction.

I wanted to see where other works of Merritt would fall on the mundane/genius scale, but the book that most caught my eye isn't currently in press.  Dwellers in the Mirage (1932) was too intriguing to pass up for me, though, as the cover will make clear:


That tentacled monster on the cover of the novel is the "terrible octopus-god Khalk'ru", who heralds from an area outside space and time.  If you read H.P. Lovecraft, Merritt's "Khalk'ru" will sound very much like Lovecraft's "Cthulhu".  Let's take a closer look at Merritt's interpretation of the Cthulhu mythos...

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A personal academic milestone!

Feb 17 2009 Published by under Personal

Well, I've managed to graduate my first doctoral student!  I was confident in his ability to pass the dissertation defense, but I was still probably as nervous as he was.  Did I train him well enough?  Is his research sound enough?  All sorts of uncomfortable questions start to float through one's mind before the talk.

He passed with flying colors, though!  Now my problem is figuring out how I'll continue his line of research when he leaves...

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The Giant's Shoulders #8 is up!

Feb 15 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

The eighth edition of The Giant’s Shoulders is up at Greg Laden's Blog, with a special emphasis on birthday boy Charles Darwin!  Many thanks to Greg for putting it together!

The next edition will appear on March 16th at The Evilutionary Biologist.

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Do optics like Darwin's Dad!

Feb 12 2009 Published by under History of science, Optics

A few days ago, I was wondeirng what else I could contribute to the celebration of the birthday of Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution which forms the cornerstone of modern biology.   Of course, I'm an optical physicist, not a biologist, so my options for discussing Darwin's life and work are limited.

Enter the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, the oldest scientific journal in the English-speaking world!  I was browsing the archives for the late 1700s when I came across a paper by Robert Waring Darwin, M.D., "New experiments on the ocular spectra of light and colours," Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. 76 (1786), 313.  The paper was communicated by Erasmus Darwin, M.D., F.R.S.: Darwin's grandfather!  Robert Waring Darwin is the father of Charles Darwin -- and he wrote a paper about optical phenomena!

The paper is actually a collection of observations regarding vision, and these observations are straightforward and can be readily repeated by anyone who is interested.  So, to celebrate Darwin in my own, weird way, I thought I'd look at the paper of Robert Waring Darwin!

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Upcoming horror game: The Path

Feb 10 2009 Published by under Entertainment, Horror

Via StumbleUpon, I came across the website for a short horror game which will be released in March or April 2009:  The Path.  Produced by a small independent game company called Tale of Tales (and I mean small: two programmers), the idea of The Path has totally captivated me and I can't wait for the game to come out!

The Path is inspired by the tale of Little Red Riding Hood: the player's official goal is to get six sisters to their grandmother's house through a dark forest.  The girls have been given one important instruction: stay on the path to grandmother's house.  Apparently, one can easily follow the path to grandma's place without incident.   However, unlike most horror games, the true goal of the game is not survival; rather, the only way interesting things happen is by breaking that one rule.  Exploration of the areas of the forest off the path will reveal more about the story of the girls and eventually lead to their deaths.

The artwork looks very atmospheric and creepy, aided for me at least by the fact that it has a bit of an Edward Gorey "Gashlycrumb Tinies" feel to it.  If you aren't familiar with the "Gashlycrumb Tinies", it is a twisted work of humor that alphabetically describes the horrible fates of twenty-six children on an outing ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears"... damn, I still have it memorized).  If you compare this image of the six sisters,


with the famous image from "After the Outing",


you may get an idea of why I make the comparison.

If you're tired of "Resident Evil" games which become more and more "Halo with zombies" in each iteration, you might want to give The Path a look when it comes out...

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