Search Results for "michael faraday"

Sep 10 2010

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

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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Aug 25 2010

Weird science facts, May 9-May 22

The Twitter #weirdscifacts from May 9 – May 22 are below the fold!

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Aug 18 2010

Weird science facts, April 25-May 8

The Twitter #weirdscifacts from April 25 – May 8 are below the fold!

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Aug 07 2010

Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil?

Published by under Weird fiction

For those who are new to Skulls in the Stars, my other major topic -- other than science -- is "weird fiction", often but not exclusively of the late 1800s/early 1900s.  "Weird fiction" is a term that broadly describes any sort of tale that includes some aspect of the unreal: horror, science fiction, fantasy, and things that are genuinely unclassifiable.

I like to argue that there are threads that tie weird fiction and science blogging together -- weird fiction has historically drawn upon the science of its time to fuel its ideas and give them a plausible feel.  Weird visionary H.P. Lovecraft used the then modern theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to craft a new type of cosmic horror, and was knowledegable enough about science to write an astronomy column for his local paper.  Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), a science fiction utopian novel, introduces robots, ray guns, the equivalent of jetpacks -- and justifies it using direct quotations of Michael Faraday!

However, I also review weird fiction on the blog because I adore the genre and blogging gives me a motivation and an excuse to delve into rare, neglected and forgotten works that are truly wonderful.

One of those truly wonderful books is the collection of stories about "John the Balladeer", titled Who Fears the Devil? (1963), by Manly Wade Wellman.  I've been aware of this collection for some time, but waited to read it until the release of Paizo Press' new edition in February of this year:

This isn't my first encounter with Wellman's work, however; I previously reviewed Wellman's sublimely silly and naive novella Giants From Eternity, which featured history's greatest scientists resurrected to do battle with an alien invader! This isn't even my first encounter with "John the Balladeer": I also blogged about Wellman's series of five novels featuring the character; you can read the description of those books here.

What can I say about John the Balladeer, also known as "Silver John"?  He is an Appalachian mountain man and wanderer who travels the wilds of the South meeting folks, learning new songs, and performing to pay his way.  The wilderness of Wellman's imagination is a dangerous land populated with the fearsome creatures of Southern folklore, and Who Fears the Devil? is a collection of tales in which John faces off against supernatural evil using only his wits, his brawn, his goodness, and his silver-stringed guitar!

These are some of the most beautiful and I dare say inspiring stories I've ever read.  There has never been another character quite like Silver John, and I venture to say there will never be again.  Let's take a closer look at Wellman and the stories of 'Devil...

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Jul 28 2010

Weird science facts, March 14-March 27

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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Mar 28 2010

Some more women in science, and their appreciators

I thought, before this past week, that I appreciated quite well the important but often unacknowledged role that women have played in the history of science and mathematics.  It turns out that I've hardly scratched the surface of their contributions, which go back even further than I imagined.  Perhaps even more fascinating is the fact that a number of truly great male researchers realized the brilliance of these women, even if the bulk of the academic community did not.  As a supplement to my Ada Lovelace day post, I thought I'd present a little more musing on the role of women in science from the point of view of some of these researchers.

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Feb 16 2010

What is science? Answers to a high school student

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

Jul 30 2009

Scientific cranks: Going strong since at least 1891

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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Apr 13 2009

Levitation and diamagnetism, or: LEAVE EARNSHAW ALONE!!!

Published by under Physics

In one of my regular explorations of StumbleUpon I happened across a nice homemade demonstration of magnetic levitation on a page called spark, bang, buzz.  The demonstration is adapted from a description at  The setup is illustrated schematically below:


A strong collection of permanent magnets are supported by a wooden frame above the 'levitation' area, and provide the 'lift' for the levitating magnet.  The levitating magnet itself is supported between a pair of plates made of bismuth which -- and this is in fact the key point -- is a strongly diamagnetic material.

It is a nice demonstration, but what really caught my eye was the following passage of the post:

It is always annoying to me when someone flashes a bunch of mathematical mumbojumbo in our faces and says something is impossible. Many times the impossibility may be true in the true sense of the mathematical definition, but mathematical definitions often fall way short when evaluating our real and practical world. Someone named Earnshaw, using mathematical mumbojumbo, said that a permenant magnet can not be levitated without using some energy input for stabilization. In the practical sense, one would be a fool to take the Earnshaw therom seriously. The picture shows that permenant magnet levitation can easily be done at home... Diamagnetism probably does not fall within the definition of the Earnshaw therom but who cares.

It's hard to tell if the author is being snarky or really looks upon mathematical physics as a "mumbojumbo" that impedes progress.  Taking the statement at face value, it highlights an important and semi-common misunderstanding of many physics theorems, and so I thought I'd take a qualitative stab at explaining Earnshaw's theorem and its relationship to diamagnetic materials and magnetic levitation.

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Feb 08 2009

A physics history-mystery: magnetism from light?

As I've noted in previous posts, one of the fun things about researching historical scientific papers is the unexpected places the investigation can take you.   Often a simple search on a straightforward topic will start a chain reaction of increasingly interesting discoveries, comparable to a trip to the grocery store ending up in Machu Picchu.  Case in point:  I've been doing a series of posts about the research of Michael Faraday (see here and here), but I have yet to write about the paper that originally interested me in the subject!  Too many other intriguing observations keep getting in the way.

Case in point in case in point: I've been looking into Faraday's contribution to the understanding that light is an electromagnetic wave.  That investigation led me to some early work by other researchers on the light/magnetism connection, and led me in turn to a puzzler: how significant and accurate is that earlier research?  I don't have a good answer, so I will pose the questions to the physics/blog community in the post.

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