Archive for: July, 2009

Scientific cranks: Going strong since at least 1891

Jul 30 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science, Physics

It is easy to assume that scientific crankery is a relatively new phenomenon, perhaps fueled by the completely non-intuitive, sometimes intimidating nature of many modern scientific theories.   In physics, for instance, most cranks spend their time attacking Einstein's theories of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics, both of which go against "common sense."

While browsing the older journals, however, I came across an example of crankery from 1891, well before the advent of "modern" physics!  The crankery practically jumped off the page at me as I was skimming the table of contents in the Philosophical Magazine.  An image of the page in question is below; see if you can spot what caught my eye (click to enlarge):


Does anything strike you?

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Another short note -- and goldfinches!

Jul 29 2009 Published by under Animals, Personal

Just a quick note again -- I'm still quite swamped with work, even after getting my proposal done.  Now I'm working feverishly on my book, as I want to have a first draft completed by the end of August.  I've also got to put my tenure package together at the same time, with the same deadline.  I'm still planning to post, but I'll probably be pretty sporadic for a while -- when I get home at night, I'm pretty bleary-eyed from staring at equations all day!

In the meantime, here's some pics of some of our backyard visitors.  A male goldfinch, caught with thistle in his mouth:


and the female, getting her fill:


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Leonard Cline's The Dark Chamber

Jul 27 2009 Published by under Horror

Lovecraft's essay Supernatural Horror in Literature is a great starting source for finding very good but relatively unknown horror gems.  I've been slowly working my way through Lovecraft's picks, and recently Leonard Cline's The Dark Chamber (1927) caught my eye:


Lovecraft adored this novel!  After working his way up the library waiting list to read it, he wrote ecstatically about it to Donald Wandrei on March 16, 1928:

My only reading since "Witch Wood" has been "The Dark Chamber" by Leonard Cline, & this is an absolutely magnificent work of art!  Poetry -- song -- & the ultimate quintessence of atmospheric morbidity & horror.  It rambles unfortunately in its effort to build up a dense miasma of unwholesomeness & madness, but even the divagations are authentic art.  And the main stream is superb -- the terrible quest of a scholar back through the corridors of memory, personal & ancestral.  Ugh!  The strange odour.... & that hellish hound Tod, that bays in the night.... Don't miss it!

A good recommendation, eh?  In a rare occurrence, however, I find myself somewhat in disagreement with Lovecraft.  I enjoyed The Dark Chamber, but found it fell short of my expectations.

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Thomas Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter

Jul 26 2009 Published by under History of science, Physics

About a month ago, I noted that Thomas Levenson's book Newton and the Counterfeiter (2009) is now available:


The book is the story of how the great scientist Isaac Newton, after making the discoveries which electrified the scientific world, took a job as the Warden of the Royal Mint, an official charged with protecting the nation's currency.  In this role, he came into contact, and conflict, with a criminal mastermind and counterfeiter William Chalconer, and the two would play a game of cat-and-mouse with life literally at stake.

When I've told people about this book, they ask, "For real?"  They naturally assume that the book is historical fiction, but it is in fact a true story!

I bought the book immediately, but didn't read and review it right away: I figured that a book with such subject matter would naturally be an instant hit!  But as Tom Levenson noted on his own blog, the book has not gotten the publicity it needs (I would say deserves), so I thought I'd do my own part to draw people's attention to it.

It deserves your attention, too: if you're a fan of history, a fan of science, a fan of true crime stories, a fan of economics, or just interested in reading a good, true, tale, Newton and the Counterfeiter is well worth your time.

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8 responses so far

Maxwell on Faraday

Jul 25 2009 Published by under History of science, Physics

I'm working on a few longer posts at the moment, but in the meantime I thought I'd share a nice little passage I came across while looking through James Clerk Maxwell's A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873).  Maxwell, of course, was the scientist who theoretically put together, for the first time, a complete set of equations of electricity and magnetism, the eponymous Maxwell's equations, and also used these equations to postulate that light is an electromagnetic wave.

I've blogged a lot about the accomplishments of Michael Faraday, who did most of the experimental legwork which allowed Maxwell to make his discovery.  This relationship was not lost on Maxwell, who had nothing but unadulterated praise for his predecessor in the introduction to his own text:

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Skating a rollercoaster?

Jul 23 2009 Published by under Sports

I know people will call me nuts, but this looks like fun: via The Daily Mail, we learn that an extreme sports enthusiast took a high-speed ride on a rollercoaster -- on specially designed roller skates!

An adrenaline junkie has taken in-line skating to new heights and set a new world record after racing down a roller coaster at speeds of 56mph.

Dirk Auer decided to go where no sane man or woman had gone before and skated down an 860 metre track in just over a minute.

Wearing specially designed in-line skates, the German made the attempt on the Mammoth roller coaster at the Trips Drill theme park in Stuttgart.

There's several photos accompanying the feat, including this one:

From a physics point of view, this is sort of interesting.  On the one hand, it's probably easier to skate a coaster than it looks, because the banked turns of the coaster are designed to keep the forces a rider experiences pointing down into the track, meaning that one would expect that forces tugging from side to side are not too bad.  On the other hand, I get the impression that Auer was traversing the coaster faster than a normal car would, which means that the banked turns would not compensate as well for his motion.

I predict that I won't have to wait too long to try such a thing: I'm guessing some enterprising theme park manager will design a ride similar to Auer's feat, though probably not one going quite so fast...

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Hummingbirds move fast!

Jul 22 2009 Published by under Animals

Less than 24 hours after putting up a new hummingbird feeder, we have this:



This one is from a little later in the day:


We've got a lot of birds visiting our yard these days, so much so that we've had to get more feeders.  I'll put up more bird pics once I get good ones (damn cardinals never sit still).

7 responses so far

Lord Dunsany's Pegana

Jul 21 2009 Published by under Fantasy fiction, Lovecraft

A bit over a month ago, I decided to read a few of Lord Dunsany's plays after reading Lovecraft's glowing review of them in Supernatural Horror in Literature.  The plays are wonderfully eerie and capture the spirit of ancient myths and folktales, in which people sin against the Gods, and the Gods, in a pissy mood, bring divine justice against the sinners.

Dunsany's most influential works relating to ancient myths are his Pegana1 stories, within which a complete fictional pantheon and its associated mythology are constructed.  Below is the cover of the Chaosium edition, which collects all of Dunsany's tales of Pegana:


The Complete Pegana combines three of Dunsany's collections: The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), and three later stories grouped as Beyond the Fields We Know.

In a word, these tales are magnificent!  There have been plenty of authors who have created their own fictional mythos, but I can't think of any other who so perfectly captures the spirit of ancient myths and bends that spirit to his own purposes.

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2 responses so far

CAREER award craziness!

Jul 20 2009 Published by under Personal

Sorry the blog has been quiet recently.  I'm in the midst of putting the finishing touches on an NSF CAREER award proposal, and that's been taking up all my mental energy.  The proposal is due on Wednesday, so I'll be back to blogging stuff in a couple of days.

Fortunately  or unfortunately, I should have tenure by this time next year and thus ineligible to put myself through this again...

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Edward Lee's Ghouls

Jul 18 2009 Published by under Horror

When I was a teenager, I used to read a lot of horror novels, some good, many very bad. In fact, I gave up on reading horror for a number of years due to my frustration. After starting the blog, though, I decided to hunt down and reread those novels which stayed with me through the years. A lot of pretty good books have come and gone, and deserve at least a mention. My first reread was Seth Pfefferle's Stickman, some time ago; my second is Edward Lee's Ghouls (1988):


Edward Lee is known as one of the most "hardcore" horror authors writing today, combining graphic sex and violence with supernatural horror.   Ghouls is technically not his first novel, but it is his first major novel and is characteristic of his later works though not quite as graphic.

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