Archive for: March, 2009

Relive the history of The Oregon Trail... the game!

Mar 12 2009 Published by under Entertainment

I'm currently mulling over my next science blog post, which will hopefully be out soon.  In the meantime, I had to point out this wonderful discovery via StumbleUpon:  an Apple II emulator which allows one to play the classic educational game The Oregon Trail!

I remember The Oregon Trail as one of the few computer games which high school students were allowed to play in school back in my day, due to its history/geography emphasis.  The game allows the player to guide a family of settlers across the western United States circa 1848, from Missouri to Oregon's Willamette Valley.  One must stock up on supplies and prepare for various random misfortunes which await you, from bad weather to illness to friggin' thieves stealing all of your oxen!

Even though it is a crude game, I still found it strangely compelling.  I struggled to get my family back on the trail after we lost all our oxen, but unfortunately all succumbed to disease, in spite of my excellent ability to shoot bison.  It was difficult, dangerous, and damned frustrating to travel west back in those days, and the game does a good job of simulating that aspect...

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University of Chicago undergraduates vs. Westboro Baptist!

Mar 11 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, Religion, Silliness

I did my undergraduate work at the University of Chicago, and though I can vouch for the fact that we all took ourselves way too seriously in general, it turns out the kids there now are okay!  The homophobic Westboro Baptist Church clan, led by uber-homophobe Phelps, decided to stage a protest at the campus.  They were answered by the men of Alpha Delta Phi (h/t Americablog):

While I'm on the subject, Michael Moore's take-down of WBC from his show The Awful Truth is still relevant, and a riot:

P.S. From the Hyde Park Urbanist (h/t Pharyngula), a bonus win:


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Bertram Mitford's The Weird of Deadly Hollow

Mar 09 2009 Published by under Horror

I've been haunted by Bertram Mitford's novel The Sign of the Spider (1896) ever since I read it (and blogged about it), so I thought the time was past due to investigate some of his other works.  The next one that caught my eye was Mitford's second novel, The Weird of Deadly Hollow (1891), and I thought I'd share a few thoughts about it:

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Michael Faraday, grand unified theorist? (1851)

Mar 06 2009 Published by under History of science, Physics

At long last, I get to blog about the paper that first piqued my interest about the research of Michael Faraday!  If you haven't been following my Faraday posts, let me give a quick recap: Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was one of the greatest experimental physicists of all time, and the discoverer of some of the most important effects related to electricity and magnetism.  I've blogged previously about his discovery of electromagnetic induction, his work in proving that all forms of electricity have the same common origin, and his demonstration of the relationship between light and magnetism (Faraday rotation). I haven't even had time to discuss Faraday's contributions in formulating the laws of electrolysis, understanding diamagnetism, and inventing the Faraday cage.

The common thread of many of these discoveries is their goal: demonstrating that all the physical forces of nature are but different manifestations of a single, 'universal' force.  This idea was a surprisingly modern one for Faraday's time, and is known today as a unified field theory.  Such research was likely on the minds of many researchers of that era, however: once Ørsted discovered that a magnetic compass needle could be deflected by an electric current, the notion that all forces might be related was a tantalizing dream.  Faraday went further than any of his contemporaries in realizing that dream, and experimentally cemented the link between electricity and magnetism and light.  Faraday was by no means done, however, and in 1851 he published the results of his attempts to demonstrate that electricity and gravity are related!

Though his results were negative, they are a fascinating piece of experimental work and provide some lessons for modern day theorists and experimentalists alike.

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SOS: Save Our (favorite) Shows!

Mar 03 2009 Published by under Entertainment

The fiancée pointed out to me today that one of our new favorite shows, Life on Mars, will not be surviving to season 2.  This is a real shame; though it was a remake of a classic UK show, we'd grown really fond of the series.

In fact, there have been a lot of good shows on television this season; for the first time in a long time, I've actually found much of my weeknights filled up with good television viewing.  Quite a few of these shows, however, are wavering in the ratings and could share the fate of Life on Mars.  I thought I'd do a post about, and a general appeal for, those shows I've fallen in love with in recent months/years:

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Some blogroll updates...

Mar 03 2009 Published by under Personal

I finally got around to adding a few additional blogs to my blogroll, and thought I'd acknowledge them:

White Coat Underground.  I met PalMD at ScienceOnline09 and, in addition to him being one of those people I immediately liked and enjoy talking to, he writes a wonderful and compelling blog about "the intersection of science, medicine, and culture."

The Inverse Square Blog.  I also met Tom Levenson at ScienceOnline09, and have been enjoying his blog and its discussion of "science and the public square."  I'm looking forward to his upcoming book about a little-known chapter of Isaac Newton's life, Newton and the Counterfeiter.

Bittersweet Sage's Blog.  My friend and colleague, who harasses me on my own blog under the name "Personal Demon", has been writing his own blog as "an experiment in writing productively outside of my job."  As he acknowledges, the content is a bit random right now, but he always has some interesting things to say (and he scooped me in reviewing Dan Simmons' new novel Drood).

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Is it worse, or better, than a creationist on the school board?

Mar 02 2009 Published by under Lovecraft, Silliness

Once again the folks at The Onion have demonstrated their satirical genius!  They 'report' on an Arkham, MA school board member who is pushing to add the unspeakable, sanity-shattering dark arts to the curriculum:

"Fools!" said West, his clenched fist striking the lectern before him. "We must prepare today's youth for a world whose terrors are etched upon ancient clay tablets recounting the fever-dreams of the other gods—not fill their heads with such trivia as math and English. Our graduates need to know about those who lie beneath the earth, waiting until the stars align so they can return to their rightful place as our masters and wage war against the Elder Things and the shoggoths!"

The article is very entertaining, even for those with only a passing knowledge of the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  (h/t Pharyngula)

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Faraday brings light and magnetism together (1845)

Mar 02 2009 Published by under History of science, Optics, Physics

The more I read of Michael Faraday's work, the more I am in awe  of the scientist's insights and abilities.  As evidence of the remarkable intuition he had regarding the forces of nature, consider the following passage:

I have long held an opinion, almost amounting to conviction, in common I believe with many others of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest have one common origin; or, in other words, are so directly and mutually dependent, that they are convertible, as it were, one into another, and possess equivalents of power in their action.  In modern times the proofs of their convertibility have been accumulated to a very considerable extent, and a commencement made of the determination of their equivalent forces.

Faraday wrote this as the introduction to the nineteenth series of his "Experimental Researches in Electricity," published in the Philosophical Transactions (vol 136, pp. 1-20) in 1846!  It is an eloquent and remarkably timeless statement which could very well have been written by any modern physicist working on the foundations of a grand unified theory of forces.

As he himself notes in the passage above, Faraday was not alone in envisioning a single theory encompassing all physical phenomena.  Indeed, once Ørsted discovered that a magnetic compass needle could be deflected by an electric current, the relationship of electricity and magnetism, as well as other forces, was very much on the minds of physicists.  Faraday, however, led the charge in actually demonstrating these relations.  As I have noted in previous blog posts, Faraday demonstrated experimentally that magnets could induce electric currents (Faraday induction) around 1831, and also compiled evidence demonstrating that the diverse sources of electricity were different manifestations of the same electrical phenomena around 1833.

Because of these discoveries (and other hugely important ones that I haven't had time yet to discuss), by 1845 Faraday was one of the most prestigious and famous scientists in England.  He was by no means done with his research, however, and in that year he presented a paper describing his observations that a magnetic field can indirectly influence the behavior of a light wave.  This was the first definitive evidence that light and electromagnetism are related, and helped pave the way for Maxwell's brilliant theoretical demonstration of the existence of electromagnetic waves, and their identity with light.

The effect that Faraday observed is now known as Faraday rotation, and we take a look at the experiments, and their reception, in this post.

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