Archive for: July, 2010

Educate or bust!

Jul 30 2010 Published by under Personal

Welcome to the new incarnation of Skulls in the Stars here at Scientopia! The title of this post refers to the title of an unpublished Robert E. Howard story, and also sounds like a perfect way to describe my goals here. I’m a professor of Physics and Optical Science at UNC Charlotte who has a love of science and "weird" fiction; a blog seemed like a perfect place to explore both topics, and even their surprising interconnections!

Of scientific topics, I cover primarily optics and general physics, with a large amount of posts on the history of these fields.  My interests in "weird" fiction are focused primarily on horror, sci-fi, and fantasy of the 1930s and earlier, though I do discuss more recent stuff as the mood strikes me.  The combination of science and "weird" fiction originally started as an expression of my eclectic interests, but it turns out that science has had a significant influence on the imaginations of authors, and through them society as a whole!  I will try and highlight more or these connections as the blog continues.

I will hopefully be importing my old archives from in the near future; in the meantime, you can see them at this link.

For an explanation about the title of the blog, which is also a Robert E. Howard story, see the ‘about’ page.

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The Discovery Place does optics!

Jul 29 2010 Published by under Optics, Personal

This post involves a little bit of boasting!  For the past month, the Discovery Place science museum in Charlotte has been displaying a small interactive optics exhibit targeted at 8-14 year-olds as part of their "Explore More Stuff" series.  The kicker is that I played a small part in the exhibit, suggesting an idea for one of the interactive "stations"!

The museum contacted our department a couple of months ago and a few faculty, including me, went to brainstorm with their staff for their exhibit.  They did a great job quickly turning the ideas that came out of the session into kid-resistant displays.  The exhibit gets phased out next week, but I stopped downtown this week to take a few quick pics!

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Weird science facts, March 14-March 27

Jul 28 2010 Published by under General science

Several months ago, I started a "tag" on Twitter called #weirdscifacts, in which I am chronicling in short form various little oddities about the people, events, and phenomena of science.  I've vowed to do these facts daily for a full year, and I'm 130 in already!

Unfortunately, I didn't realize when I started that Twitter doesn't allow tag searches beyond the most recent week!  The only way to currently view my earlier facts on Twitter directly is to rummage through my entire set of Tweets, a tedious proposition.  So I've decided to post the week's #weirdscifacts here every Wednesday, though I'll do two weeks at a time until I catch up.

My #weirdscifacts are short blurbs that are intended to encourage people to investigate further.  Since I have more space on the blog, I'll fill in a little more context when it will help understand the topic.

See the week's facts below the fold!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: WEIRD science, copycat suicides, square quantum mechanics, nanophobia and Mars' oceans

Jul 26 2010 Published by under General science, Science news

  • Are most experimental subjects in behavioral science WEIRD? "Weird" here is an acronym, but also reflects the idea that the representative samples in behavioral science aren't really that representative of humanity as a whole.  Michael Meadon of Ionian Enchantment discusses the research related to this intriguing observation, and its implications.
  • The Media Noose: Copycat Suicides and Social Learning. We've all heard of "copycat crimes" before, but it had certainly never occurred to me that they could be a source of cultural study!  At A Replicated Typo 2.0, wintz looks at research into copycat suicides, and the media's role in the phenomenon.
  • Quantum Mechanics Is Square: "Ruling Out Multi-Order Interference in Quantum Mechanics". A new test of quantum mechanics has come back with a negative result, but an important one.  Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles explains the research and why you should find it interesting.
  • Just say no to sunscreen nanophobia! Aaah! Nanoscience!  In recent years there has been an increasing, and often unjustified, fear of nanotechnology the public's eye (I partly blame Michael Crichton).  At sciencebase, David Bradley looks at the recent hysteria regarding nanoparticles in sunscreen, and explains why the panic is overblown.
  • New Evidence for an Ocean on Mars? A recent paper suggests that evidence for former oceans on Mars has been right there in front of us all the time!  Ryan at The Martian Chronicles describes the details.

Finally, for those who deal with reviewing for journals, a new proposal to make the process work better -- "privatizing" the reviewer commons!  jebyrnes at I'm a chordata, urochordata! explains the details, and links to a petition!

Check back next Monday!

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5-way formation skydive!

Jul 25 2010 Published by under Sports

It occurred to me, after some discussion on Twitter, that I haven't posted any skydiving videos for a while!  Part of the problem is that I haven't had that many videos taken over the past half-year; the other part of the problem is that I often get video copies in DVD format, which requires me to first transfer the video to an uploadable format -- no trivial feat on my system.

The following video is a 5-way (5-person) formation skydive I did in March of this year with my friends Mickey, Robyn, Mike, and Peanut.  Video was graciously taken by my friend Larry:

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Release the kraken! (1790)

Jul 24 2010 Published by under General science, History of science

This is a science topic that isn't really my field, but it's just so charming that I had to post about it.  While browsing through the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 1790, I found a note titled, "letter relative to the kraken", which describes an alleged sighting of the beast!  I quote the short note in full:

At the same Meeting, a letter was read from John Ramsay L'Amy, Esq; one of the Justices of Peace for the county of Forfar, and Mr. John Guild, one of the Magistrates of Dundee, inclosing an affidavit made before them, of Jens Anderson, master, and Mads Jenson, mate of a Norwegian ship, relating to the appearance of a supposed kraken or sea-worm, on Sunday, August 5. 1786. about 15 leagues to the eastward of the coast of Scotland, in north latitude 56.16.  The appearance was that of three low islands or sand-banks of a grayish colour, within less than a mile's distance from the ship, and extending about three miles from the one extremity to the other.  It remained in sight about fifty minutes, and upon the springing up of a breeze, gradually sunk into the water.  The account contains no further particulars worthy of notice, and is perfectly consistent with the idea of this being nothing more than a fog-bank, of which the appearances are familiar to mariners.

Today, it is generally recognized that the legend of the kraken was inspired by actual sightings of the giant squid, genus Architeuthis, a deep ocean cephalopod that can reach over 40 feet in total length!  Giant squid are one of those rare natural phenomena that were widely believed in long before they were formally recognized by the scientific community (another example is the phenomenon of freak waves, which I discussed in a recent post).

Formal recognition of the giant squid only seems to have began in the mid-1800s, with the recovery of a partial carcass by the French warship Alecton in 1861, the characterization and naming of the species by Japetus Steenstrup in the 1850s, and a mass beaching that occurred in Newfoundland between 1870 and 1880 that provided many specimens.  It is not surprising, then, to see that the Royal Society of Edinburgh was skeptical of the 1786 sighting described above.

At least in this case, though, the Society was right to be skeptical -- whatever the mariners saw on their voyage, they certainly didn't see a 3-mile long giant squid!  It is somewhat odd to think that they simply saw a fog bank, however, as the Society itself notes, "of which the appearances are familiar to mariners."

I have no other comment about this letter, other than to say again that one can find really interesting stuff by browsing the old scientific journals!


"Letter relative to the kraken," Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinburgh 2 (1790), 16-17.

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Cerenkov sees the light (1937)

Jul 21 2010 Published by under History of science, Physics

This particular post serves a double purpose: highlighting an important event in the history of physics and highlighting an important moment of my personal interest in said history!

The event in question is the publication of a letter in the Physical Review in 1937, "Visible radiation produced by electrons moving in a medium with velocities exceeding that of light," by P.A. Cerenkov.  This was the first English paper published on the observation of what is now known as Cerenkov radiation, a discovery that has found numerous applications and made its discoverer a co-winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physics.

I've talked about Cerenkov radiation before, in a previous post about "reverse" Cerenkov radiation in metamaterials.  Though I touched upon the basics of the Cerenkov effect there, it seemed worthwhile to go back and look in more detail at how it was discovered!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: why no wheels?, GADZOOKS!, butterfly faces and gravity's existence

Jul 19 2010 Published by under General science, Science news

Check back next week for more "miscellaneous" suggestions!

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Skullsinthestars featured in the local paper!

Jul 19 2010 Published by under Personal

This is nice -- my blog work has been featured in my local newspaper, The Charlotte Observer!  It's a relatively short piece, and in hindsight I wish I had said things a bit differently, but it's always nice to get some recognition from the news.

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Welcome ThonyC as co-manager of The Giant's Shoulders!

Jul 17 2010 Published by under History of science, Science news

I've been thinking for a while that I would like to get some additional help and suggestions on how to keep The Giant's Shoulders history of science carnival going and come up with new ideas for it.  Well, I finally did something about it!

ThonyC of The Renaissance Mathematicus has graciously agreed to be a co-manager of TGS, and will be helping to plan future editions and occasionally posting over there.  Please give him a nice welcome!

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