Archive for: September, 2010

Kitty fostering success!

Sep 12 2010 Published by under Animals, Personal

Almost two weeks ago, I noted the arrival of two foster kitties in our home: Brewster and Breyer!  Well, I'm happy to say that we dropped them off at their new hopefully "forever home" this evening!

This was all done with the help of (and helping) Terry who runs F.U.R.R. — Feline Urgent Rescue and Rehabilitation.  We'll almost certainly be fostering some more cats in the near future, and I'll keep folks posted on events as they progress.

In the meantime, here are some final shots of Brewster and Breyer, so I can remember how sweet they are!

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Whittaker breaks the irony meter (1910/1953)

Sep 11 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science, Physics

I'm currently working my way through E.T. Whittaker's monumental A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (1910), among other things.  Whittaker's book is a very comprehensive study of electricity and aether that stretches back from the seventeenth century up to the beginning of the twentieth, and it really is excellent -- I've already learned a lot, and am only 20 pages into it!  (I loved a fascinating tidbit about the first experimental measurement of magnetic field lines, demonstrating the poles of the magnet -- I'll come back to this in a future post.)

However, as I've blogged about previously, there is one glaring weakness in Whittaker's treatment.  In his second volume of the 'History, released in 1953,  he almost completely discounted Einstein's contribution to the theory of special relativity!  While discussing the "relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz," his primary statement regarding Einstein's work is:

In the autumn of the same year, in the same volume of the Annalen der Physik as his paper on the Brownian motion, Einstein published a paper which set forth the relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz with some amplifications, and which attracted much attention.

Whittaker is much more generous towards Einstein's general theory of relativity, and gives him the credit, but his dismissal of Einstein's contribution to special relativity is puzzling.  I've speculated that Whittaker was perhaps a bit miffed that his life's work on the aether was made obsolete in 1905 by Einstein before it was even published; it may also be that Whittaker genuinely didn't completely grasp the philosophical implications of Einstein's contribution.

So what is the irony in this?

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R.W. Wood's lecture demonstrations (1897-1905)

Sep 10 2010 Published by under History of science, Physics

With all the concerted efforts into popularizing science that goes on these days, it is quite easy to forget that some of the best scientists throughout history put a lot of effort into making their knowledge accessible both to students of  the arts and laypeople alike.  Physicists in particular are often viewed as "keepers of secret knowledge" who study phenomena outside the ken of mortals and who are unwilling or unable to make this knowledge accessible to others.

A perfect counterexample to this perception is the great physicist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) , who over the course of many years presented the Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution,  targeted at nonspecialists and young people.  Two of these lectures, "The Forces of Matter" and "The Chemical History of a Candle", have been reprinted and are still available today; I will be blogging about them in detail in the near future (hopefully). Faraday in fact put much effort and thought into his public presentations; long before he was a recognized scientist and had any opportunity to speak to an audience, he observed other lecturers and took elaborate notes on the "do's" and "don't's" of lecturing.

Another example of a distinguished scientist working very hard on presentation is Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955).  Wood is best known today for his work in optics, particularly in the study of infrared and ultraviolet light.  As we have seen previously on this blog, however, Wood was also active in popularizing science: he co-authored two science fiction novels, The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915) and The Moon Maker (1916).  He also was quite skilled at setting up simple demonstrations of optical effects; I've previously discussed his 1902 illustration of a simple form of invisibility.   Between the years 1897 and 1905, Wood in fact published a number of short articles suggesting simple lecture hall demonstrations of a variety of physical phenomena; in this post, we'll take a short look at these demonstrations.

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5 days until The Giant's Shoulders #27!

Sep 10 2010 Published by under General science, Science news

There’s only 11 days left before the deadline of the next edition of The Giant’s Shoulders history of science blog carnival!  It will be held at Entertaining Research, and the deadline for entries is September 15th.  Entries can be submitted through or directly to the host blog, as usual!

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Weird science facts, June 6-June 19

Sep 08 2010 Published by under Weirdscifacts

The Twitter #weirdscifacts from June 06 – June 19 are below the fold!

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Making molecular motors (video)

Sep 07 2010 Published by under General science

My friend and colleague, Dr. Charles Sykes of Tufts University, recently sent me a link to an  interesting video his research group has put together!  Dr. Sykes' group has been studying the behavior of complex molecules on surfaces at low temperatures.  They use scanning tunneling microscopy to image and interact with the molecules on the surface, with the ultimate goal of making nanoscale machines, i.e. machines consisting of a single molecule!

Their research video describes the techniques, science, and challenges in developing such molecular motors:

Let me know what you think of the video, or contact the Sykes group directly!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: age of the Earth, hacking quantum cryptography, American camels and free kick physics

Sep 06 2010 Published by under General science, Science news

skyskull "Dr. SkySkull" selects several notable posts each week from a miscellany of categories. He blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

  • When a few million years don't mean much... Recent investigations have revised scientific estimates of the age of the Earth by several million years! Greg Fish at weird things explains the nature of the revision and reassures us that, although important, it doesn't indicate major problems in our understanding of Earth's history.
  • Hacking commercial quantum cryptography systems by illumination. "Quantum cryptography" has been much touted as a "near perfect" system for secure communications, using the laws of quantum mechanics to make any attempt to eavesdrop immediately detectable. However, recent research has shown that existing systems can be hacked by the judicious application of a bright, classical light source! Olexandr Isayev at explains the strategy, and how its discovery will actually help produce more secure cryptographic systems in the future.
  • Dirty browsers -- determining a menu for North America's fossil camels. Starting with the fascinating history of the U.S.'s attempt to use camels as military animals, Brian Switek of his eponymous blog segues into a look at the fossil remains of America's own native camel species.
  • Free kick physics, Roberto Carlos style. The 1997 winning free kick of Roberto Carlos in soccer is legendary, but nobody knew how it was actually possible! Michael Gutbrod of A Scientific Nature explains how such amazing curved shots have been shown experimentally to be a consequence of the Magnus effect.

Check back next week for more "miscellaneous" suggestions!

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Physical Review Letters gives a WARNING!!! (1958)

Though scientific knowledge has increased by leaps and bounds throughout the course of human history, human nature itself hasn't changed very much!  Looking through the old scientific journals, one can find arguments and conflicts that are still in some form still playing out today.  A few months ago, I described an 1804 paper titled, "On the decline of mathematical studies, and the sciences dependent upon them," which laments England's loss of competitiveness due to lack of comprehensive mathematics education; the arguments in the paper might have been written today.

A week ago, I was browsing the archives of Physical Review Letters, which is in essence the most prestigious physics-only journal in existence.  (Papers in Nature and Science are considered more prestigious, but those journals cover all scientific topics.)  Getting a paper into PRL is considered a great achievement -- it supposedly indicates that your research is a significant scientific advance of very broad importance that should be published rapidly.  The prestige is so great, in fact, that it is very tempting for researchers to submit work that is not quite appropriate for PRL, on the off-chance that it can be "snuck in".  This results in an excessive amount of papers being submitted to the journal, overwhelming its editors and its peer-reviewers, and can be a real hassle.

I suspect the top journals in every field see this sort of problem, but surely this wasn't a problem for PRL in the heyday of physics, when the journal was first initiated, right?

Volume 1, issue 1 of Physical Review Letters came out on July 1st, 1958; in the February 1st, 1959 issue of PRL (vol. 2, p. 80), an editorial appeared with the very ominous title, "A WARNING".  The text of this editorial is presented in its entirety below.

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Conservation mode/growing pains

Sep 01 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, [Etc]

What Christina said:

We’re putting scientopia basically in to conservation mode to conserve resources until we get hosting issues squared away. So we’ll have no commenting on new posts for a bit.

This isn't a sinister plot to stifle dissenting opinions -- as you may have noticed, we've been having some issues lately!  If you want to comment on any new posts I write in the near future, you can always email me at:

skullsinthestars *the*at*thingy*

You can also "tweet" me at @drskyskull.

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Weird science facts, May 23-June 05

Sep 01 2010 Published by under [PhysicalScience], Weirdscifacts

The Twitter #weirdscifacts from May 23 – June 05 are below the fold!

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