Archive for: February, 2010

Research Blog of the Year finalist!

Feb 25 2010 Published by under Personal

Today I received a very pleasant surprise: this blog has been nominated as a finalist for Research Blog of the Year!  This is the highest award of a new series of awards based on and sponsored by Seed Media Group.  My blog is one of ten finalists that were picked by an expert panel of judges from a set of some 400 that were nominated.

I don't think it really hit me right away how much this means to me, and how much I appreciate being chosen as a finalist.  This blog really started, like many do, as a hobby that I never necessarily thought would garner much attention, and it is really great to get such an affirmation that I'm doing something right!

The final choice for "blog of the year" will be made by the community of research bloggers, namely those who are registered and blog through  From the announcement:

Voting for the winners will be conducted by invitation to bloggers registered with Invitations will be sent on Thursday, March 4. If you're registered with us, you may want to check your account to make sure your email address is up-to-date. If you're not registered (and you blog about peer-reviewed research), you still have time to register so you can vote. Visit this page for more information.

I don't really expect to win -- I'm up against some really stunningly awesome competition -- but if you're a research blogger, I hope you'll consider throwing me a vote!

In any case, I've always heard that "It's an honor just to be nominated," and now that I'm in that position I can really say that it's true!  (I should also say "thank you" to the person or persons who put my blog up for the awards in the first place.)  I'm also delighted that I get to put this badge on my blog:

Research Blogging Awards 2010 Finalist

Speaking of research blogging, I really need to get back to some -- my impending book deadline has been eating up all my non-work time recently!  I do have a post on the Talbot effect that I'll hopefully put up in a few days; it took me almost a month to decide how to explain the effect with a minimum of mathematics!

Update: For those stopping by from the "finalist" page, to see some of my research blogging please check out my "physics", "optics", and "history of science" categories!  As I noted above, my blog has been a little quiet lately due to numerous deadlines.

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A WTF scientific paper from Edinburgh, 1884

Feb 24 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science, Physics

I'm still quite busy finishing off my book, and a grant proposal in the meantime, but I thought I'd share a very odd paper from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 13 (1884), 23-24, entitled, "Extraordinary occurrence at House No. 7 York Place".

One of the fun things about old journals are the miscellaneous "reports" sent in about unusual phenomena seen in the field, often by non-scientists.  Perhaps my favorite example of this comes from the very first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665, "An account of a very odd monstrous calf," by Robert Boyle.  This was the fifth paper ever published in a scientific journal, a fact that I find very amusing for some reason.

The paper I want to describe carries the sub-heading, "(The following notice was sent to the General Secretary, from the Office of Messrs Hunter, Blair and Cowan, W.S.)".  I can't really do it justice without quoting it in its entirety:

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"The Wicker Tree?" (Updated)

This one was an immediate WTF moment for me: Robin Hardy, the writer/director of the original version of the film The Wicker Man (1973), is "reimagining" his film as The Wicker Tree, slated for release sometime this year:

For those who aren't familiar with the original film, it is undeniably a classic of the horror genre and in my opinion one of the greatest horror films of all time: subtle, atmospheric, darkly humorous, and genuinely horrifying*.

Details are sketchy as it stands; the official movie site is little more than an image right now.  IMDB has the following summary, which may or may not be accurate:

Young Christians Beth and Steve, a gospel singer and her cowboy boyfriend, leave Texas to preach door-to-door in Scotland . When, after initial abuse, they are welcomed with joy and elation to Tressock, the border fiefdom of Sir Lachlan Morrison, they assume their hosts simply want to hear more about Jesus. How innocent and wrong they are.

I'm definitely of mixed emotions about this news.  On the one hand, I'm horrified (and not in a good way); an abysmal remake of The Wicker Man was just recently released in 2006 and illustrates that there is no lower limit on the quality of such projects.  On the other hand, The Wicker Tree is by the original writer/director, and he has seen fit to bring back Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, one of the most inspiring castings of all time.

I suppose we'll just have to wait and see...


* Seriously -- this film has one of the most cringe-inducing moments of any horror movie I've ever seen, and shames a lot of the "extreme" modern horror films.


Update: As long as I'm talking about unusual movie projects, I see IMDB has a trailer up for the Solomon Kane movie, "based" on the character by Robert E. Howard.  I'm not sure what to think, as yet: it might end up being an enjoyable movie, but it doesn't look, or sound, much like Howard's Solomon.  The IMDB summary says a lot:

A mercenary who owes his soul to the devil redeems himself by fighting evil.
Howard's Solomon is a fanatical Puritan who fights the devil's works overly wherever he goes!  It is pretty much impossible to imagine that character having made a deal with the devil, as the summary and trailer implies.

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"Supernatural Buchan", by John Buchan

Feb 23 2010 Published by under Horror, Weird fiction

One of the truly fascinating things about writers of weird fiction is how many of them are remarkably accomplished in other aspects of their lives.  We have folks such as A. Merritt, who had a very successful career as a journalist and newspaper editor, R.W. Wood, who was a very distinguished scientist, Lord Dunsany, who was, well, a Lord, and M.R. James, who was a very distinguished medieval scholar.  And, of course, there's my pièce de résistance, Winston Churchill.

I can now add to my personal list John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir (1875-1940).  Buchan was a politician and novelist, and his resumé includes an impressive collection of honorary academic degrees and military honors.  He was also the 15th Governor General of Canada, representing the monarchy in local Canadian affairs.

In writing, he was incredibly prolific, producing countless novels and works of non-fiction, many based on his time spent working for the colonial administrator of South Africa.  Of his fiction, the work  most likely to be known by most people is his novel The 39 Steps (1915), which was very, very loosely adapted into a great film of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935*.

Buchan also dabbled in horror stories, and many if not most of these have been collected in Supernatural Buchan, a collection by Leonaur Ltd, who have produced quite a few impressive limited editions of weird fiction:

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Tensor? Tensor? I've been getting tenser all week!

Feb 22 2010 Published by under Personal

Whew! For those not following my Twitter account, let me declare that I finished the last major section of my textbook today!  Now I'm going to do a bit of touching up of various sections that I worked on recently, and I should get rid of the whole damn thing first thing next week.

Today was a real brain-buster for me -- I finally sat down to face the section on tensor analysis.  For those not familiar, tensor analysis is a very abstract and hard-to-digest field of mathematics, and the hardest one in my book.  To give you an idea of how painful it is, Einstein formulated his general theory of relativity using tensor mathematics.

I've been reading about tensors for months now, trying to get a good enough understanding to write a clear, concise section for the book.   The experience really drove home for me the difference between understanding something and understanding it well enough to teach it!  I was determined to get through it today, no matter what, and fortunately it finally clicked.  (Though I'm pretty sure I'll need to revise the text significantly later this week.)

The amusing thing is that the section on tensors is one of the less important ones in the book but one that may be absolutely essential in the future.  The relatively recent introduction of "cloaking devices" has spawned a new field of optics referred to as transformation optics, in which the ideas of general relativity and the tools of tensor analysis are used to design materials that manipulate light in novel and even "unnatural" ways.  Though the field isn't a standard topic in optics education, I didn't want to leave out such a possible glaring omission.

Fortunately, I'm done!  Just a few revisions, and the addition of a few additional exercises, and I can get rid of it!  At least until the editor's comments start rolling in...

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: giving climate scientists their due, "revolting" statistics, and a crystal controversy

Feb 22 2010 Published by under General science, Science news

  • Dammit, Jim, I'm a neurobiologist, not a climatologist! It isn't his field (as he freely admits), but Björn Brembs at does an excellent job clearly explaining why we should give climate scientists some credit, even if we don't understand the research.
  • Viva la Neo-Fisherian Liberation Front! In a "revolutionary" post, jebyrnes at I'm a chordata, urochordata! explains a standard used by scientists in statistical analysis... and why it should be overthrown!
  • How dangerous are these crystals, then? Lars Fischer at EuCheMS 2010 Blog looks at a possible example of media misrepresentation of science, in which the result could be harmful consequences in the handling of radioactive waste.
  • Check back next week for more "miscellaneous" highlights!

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    The Giant's Shoulders #20

    Feb 17 2010 Published by under General science, History of science

    Welcome to the February 1(7)th, 2010 edition of The Giant's Shoulders!  I seem to have had some shorted connections with the scheduled host, so I've ended up taking on the hosting myself this month.

    BOOK REVIEW: Emma Townshend's Darwin's Dogs. First up, for the pet lovers out there, Michael Barton of The Dispersal of Darwin presents a review of one of the more unconventional books about Charles Darwin to come out last year, focusing on how dogs -- his pets, and otherwise -- influenced his thinking.

    Primer: William Thomson. Next, Will at Ether Wave Propaganda gives a nice overview of the life and achievements of the physicist William Thomson, one of the more intriguing scientists of the 19th century.

    Like a Greek God. Over at JOST A MON, Fëanor gives the first of a three-part post on the connections in Ancient Greece between religion and astronomy, based on Allan Chapman's TV programme on Channel 4.  Parts 2 and 3 are  here and here.

    Missing "Dots" and Not Seeing the Discovery of Platelets, 1842.  Over at Ptak Science Books, we learn of Alfred Donne, the discoverer of platelets, and the reasons why he isn't generally remembered for the discovery!

    Ancient and modern: First science academy is 350 years old.  Over at, we have a nice article on the Royal Society of London, celebrating its 350th anniversary this year*.

    Mythbusters were scooped — by 130 years! (Archimedes death ray) My own humble contribution over at Skulls in the Stars looks at an early article on the mythical "burning mirrors" of Archimedes, which have a long and contentious history of being tested experimentally.

    S. W. Mitchell and Phantom Limbs.  Over at the blog of the Philadelphia Center for History of Science, we hear of the first description of "phantom limb" symptoms, as described by a surgeon who studied the long-term effects of amputations on Civil War veterans.

    NASA and the Ghosts of Explorers Past. Michael Robinson and Dan Lester of Time to Eat the Dogs discuss the future of NASA by looking back at historical explorers whom we can learn lessons from.

    James Voelkel on Bringing Newton’s Alchemy to the Masses.  In another nice article from the Philadelphia Center for History of Science, we get a summary of an interesting project that intends to put all of Newton's alchemy papers (and there are a LOT) online, and some of the difficulties that have arisen.

    A man with a strange name. One thing I always find fascinating are the occasional and often little known intersections between famous scientists.  Over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, ThonyC describes the ephemeral communication between two giants: Kepler and Galileo.

    Tweeting a history of science.  From Educate Daily, we get a different sort of challenge related to the history of science: tweet a historical paper in about 130 characters!

    Erik Rau on Terry Christensen on Cold-War Liberals.  One more from the Philadelphia Center for History of Science: John Wheeler and Edward Teller were both "cold war liberals", seeking peace through proliferation.  But the former was loved, the latter reviled: how to account for the difference?  This post summarizes a talk by Erik Rau on the subject.

    Bright Idea: The First Lasers — A history of discoveries leading to the 1960 invention.  Not a blog post, but here is a very nice history of science resource: a history of the discoveries leading up to the first laser, appropriate for the 50-year anniversary!  Posted at the American Institute of Physics.

    A Valentine from Leeuwenhoek.  Finally, with Valentine's Day just behind us, what could be more romantic than a Valentine from Antoni van Leeuwenhoek?  Via Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Centraal.

    This concludes this edition of The Giant's Shoulders!  Look for the next edition on March 16th at the blog of the Philadelphia Center for History of Science.

    (I should add a special thanks to ThonyC of The Renaissance Mathematicus for recommending a large number of articles for this edition of the carnival!)


    *ThonyC notes of the title of this article, "It wasn't the first but otherwise the article is OK."

    4 responses so far

    A little delay...

    Feb 16 2010 Published by under Science news

    We seem to be having a little delay in the posting of The Giant's Shoulders #20.  I'm trying to figure out what's up, and hopefully it'll be published within the next day.

    In the meantime, this seems to be a good time to beg for more hosts -- we really need to fill up a few more months in the schedule!  Remember that you don't have to be a historian of science to host -- just someone with an interest in science and its history.

    4 responses so far

    What is science? Answers to a high school student

    Feb 16 2010 Published by under General science

    In my official capacity as a professor, I recently was contacted by a local high school student who asked some questions for a research paper on science.  I asked for permission to repost the questions and the answers I gave here:

    1. In your own words what is science? I view science as a process by which we test our ideas about the natural world, and revise those ideas accordingly based on the results.  The tests, or experiments, are key – ancient philosophers spent lots of time speculating about the nature of the natural world, but they never got very far because they didn’t really test their ideas.
    2. Do you believe that science can be proven? Well, yes and no!  As scientists, we come up with specific hypotheses to explain what we observe, or think we will observe, in nature, and those specific hypotheses can be tested and shown to be correct.  However, no scientific idea is ever considered “set in stone”: scientists are always refining their theories and coming up with more precise experiments to explain the natural world.  It could be said that we are always striving to come closer and closer to “the truth”.
    3. In all the years as a scientist, what has caught your eye the most? One thing that really surprised me about science is the very social nature of the process. People often have the stereotypical impression that scientists are antisocial and spend all day hiding away in the laboratory.  Well, lots of us do spend all day in the lab (or in the office, if you’re a theorist like me), but when we get together at meetings to discuss our research we’re very social and have lots of good interactions.  Scientific meetings for me are like vacations with good friends – friends whom occasionally I get into heated scientific arguments with!
    4. How does science apply to us? Pretty much every piece of technology that we use today, computers, iPhones, vaccines, owes its existence in large part to scientific research.  Also, learning to think critically and scientifically about problems is an important skill in understanding complicated problems that the world currently faces, such as the world’s energy consumption and global climate change.
    5. Are there any scientists that inspire you? My former Ph.D. thesis advisor, Professor Emil Wolf of the University of Rochester, is my biggest inspiration.  He is now in his 80s and still doing excellent research and advising graduate students!  Not only has he transformed the field of optical science during his long career, he has been an amazing advisor, being a friend as well as a teacher.  (And he also has a wonderful sense of humor.)  I will be happy if I manage to be half as amazing a scientist and teacher as Professor Wolf.  Historically, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) is another inspiration.  He was one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time, and made fundamental discoveries in physics and chemistry – and even dabbled in a little biology!  I’ve read many of his original papers and they’re absolutely brilliant.
    6. What has been your greatest discovery? My career is still young, so it’s hard to say!  One of the achievements I’m most proud of is the development of a new type of inverse scattering, called “intensity diffraction tomography”.  It is a technique that is a generalization, of sorts, of the CAT scans that are used in hospitals around the world to produce images of the interior of the human body.  I don’t know if my technique will prove to be as successful or useful, but it is a piece of work that I’m very pleased with.
    7. How does science affect your life? My scientific training has taught me to think skeptically about the world around me, and to pursue vigorously answers to questions that come up in any aspect of my life.  Also, it sounds a little corny, but understanding a little bit about how the natural world works has increased my appreciation of its beauty.

    So, how did I do?  I wrote this relatively quickly during the week as I had plenty of other deadlines to meet.  Feel free to critique my answers, or provide your own takes, in the comments.

    6 responses so far

    Some thoughts on the recent tenure-related shooting

    Feb 15 2010 Published by under [Politics], Science news

    In the wake of the tragedy in Alabama, there has as expected been a lot of discussion on the internet about the nature of the shooting and its implications.  In some sense, my impression is that the case has become a Rorschach test for lots of people, and they've seen reflected in it their own concerns or political crusades.  In that spirit, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the incident and my impressions of some of the other commentary out there.

    To summarize, last Friday afternoon at the University of Alabama in Huntsville three professors were killed and three others seriously wounded when a shooter opened fire at a biology faculty meeting.  Biology professor Amy Bishop was taken into custody and charged with murder.

    The "twist" to the story is that Bishop had been denied tenure in April, and had appealed the decision.  The appeal was turned down on Friday, and this decision is what evidently precipitated the shooting.

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