Robert R. McCammon’s The Border

It’s nice to see Robert McCammon return to writing weird horror novels!  From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, McCammon was one of the best writers of the dark and weird out there; some time ago I blogged about how magnificent his 1991 novel Boy’s Life is.  In 1998, however, he effectively retired from writing, due to an interest in focusing on his family life and frustrations with the publishing industry.  When he returned to writing in 2002, he worked on an excellent series of historical novels, starting with Speaks the Nightbird.

In 2013, McCammon made a foray back into horror, with the fun western vampire novella  I Travel by Night (which I was going to blog about but forgot for some reason).  This May, he released his first full horror novel in over 20 years, The Border.


The Border is McCammon’s take on the alien invasion story, and it manages to balance on the (often fuzzy) edge between science fiction and horror.

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8-year blogiversary!

Just a short note: August 14th marked the 8-year anniversary of my first post on this blog!

My first post, on August 14th, 2007, was titled “Educate or bust,” and that still kind of exemplifies what I’m trying to do here on Skulls in the Stars.  You can read that original post here.

Things will be quiet for a few more days, as the new semester is starting and I’ve got some work deadlines coming up, but expect more science and weird fiction goodness soon!

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“Secrets of the Universe” campaign has begun!

I’ve been quite busy the past two weeks, but I just wanted to drop a short note to let folks know that a really cool new science cinematic experience is being crowdfunded on Indiegogo: Secrets of the Universe!

This project, partially funded by the National Science Foundation and supported by CERN, will give an unprecedented look inside the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.  This is where the Higgs boson was discovered, and where the next fundamental, well, secrets of the universe will be uncovered.  What else is there to discover about the fundamental forces of nature?  The LHC will be the place we find out!

The movie will be filmed and presented on IMAX screens throughout the world, and they’ve enlisted a remarkably talented set of scientists and science communicators to help, including some folks I know through twitter, Dianna Cowern (@thephysicsgirl) and Deborah Berebichez (@debbiebere).

Two days in, the project is off to a good start in terms of funding, but they could use your help!  Please take a look at the project page and consider donating.  There are, of course, lots of perks to be had, including tickets to the movie and more!

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Physics demonstrations: Lichtenberg figures

I am a big fan of nature and science-themed artwork, whether inspired by natural phenomenon or created by physical processes.  In my office — which includes several pieces of work by Artologica, by the way — I have the following eye-catching piece.



This is what is known as a Lichtenberg figure, named after the German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), who discovered the effect in 1777.  It is sometimes referred to as “frozen lightning,” which is actually more accurate than it might appear at first.

My decorative Lichtenberg figure — which I purchased online — was produced with the aid of a particle accelerator, obviously not something that people readily have on hand.  However, it is also possible to create such figures at home in a crude manner not far from Lichtenberg’s original technique.

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Posted in History of science, Physics demos | 2 Comments

Dead Reckonings #17 is available!

For those who are interested in reading analyses of the latest in horror literature and cinema, I’m happy to announce that Dead Reckonings No. 17 is now available!



It includes articles by some of the best writers and scholars of the horror field… and also includes articles by me!

I somehow forgot to mention on this blog that I also had an article in Dead Reckonings No. 16, which came out some months ago.  This has been a really delightful opportunity for me: I could hardly imagine that my writing (albeit literary criticism!) would appear alongside such remarkable folks such as Ramsey Campbell and S.T. Joshi.  I would like to thank editor June Pulliam for the opportunity!

Posted in Horror | 4 Comments

Infinite hotels in swirling beams of light

I’ve noticed there seems to be a general unspoken rule about the relationship between mathematics and science: any mathematics, no matter how abstract or seemingly disconnected from reality, eventually finds use or representation in the natural world.  For example, most people are probably familiar with the idea of an “imaginary number,” namely the square root of -1.  The term “imaginary” was coined by famed mathematician René Descartes, who really meant it as a derogatory term: imaginary numbers were thought to be useless artifacts of the imagination.  Today, such numbers are a fundamental part of physics, used in every branch from quantum mechanics to optics to mechanics to describe the properties of physical systems.  They are almost the opposite of useless.

Other examples abound.  Number theory, which is the branch of mathematics devoted to the study of the integers, i.e. 1,2,3,4,…, and their relationships, would seem to be completely devoid of practical interest.  However, it plays an important role in modern cryptography, helping to keep our data secure in the information age.  Another example is the study of quaternions, objects which may be considered three-dimensional generalizations of imaginary numbers.  These quantities were almost forgotten by the early 20th century but have become extremely useful in computer graphics and robotics, among other technologies.

Even with a knowledge that even the most abstract math can be of real-world relevance, I still can find myself caught of guard, even stunned, when such math peeks out from within a very physical problem.  Today, I was working on an optics problem when I realized that the problem in question was a direct demonstration of the strangeness of infinite sets!  The optics problem in question involves light beams with so-called optical vortices in them, something I’ve talked about on the blog before.  And the property of infinite sets in question is the very strange booking practices of a hotel with infinite rooms!

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Posted in Mathematics, Optics | 11 Comments

Dr. SkySkull in China, part 4: the Silk Road Museum

Still have a few posts on China to write, even though I’ve been back for over two weeks!  Can’t let all of these photos sit on my laptop with nothing to do.

My last day in China was a Saturday, which meant that I had time to see more of the sites.  My postdoc advisor Taco and his student Yundou and I went first in the morning to see a very historic location: the site of the starting point of the famed Silk Road, now a museum about it.

No, not the online black market known as the “Silk Road” that was shut down in 2014.  The original Silk Road was an ancient and long-lived trade route that connected the West and East, beginning in 130 BCE and ending in 1453 CE.  It was opened by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty and lasted until the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans, the latter of whom cut off all contact with the West.

Trading routes on the Silk Road around roughly 100 CE.  Image by

Trading routes on the Silk Road around roughly 100 CE. Image by Shizhao, reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License.

The Northern route of the Silk Road, which stretches West and splits into three branches in the middle of Asia, started at the ancient city of Chang’an, which is now Xi’an, which, of course, is where I was in China.  As seen on the map, there were in fact many different trade paths across the continent; in modern times, historians tend to refer to the “Silk Routes” rather than a solitary-sounding “Silk Road.”

So “road” is not quite accurate, but the “silk” part is: the Silk Road got its name for all of the Chinese silk that was in great demand in the West.  I would have a chance to see some samples of it during my visit to the museum.  The road also brought less welcome goods to the West: the bubonic plague of 542, which is estimated to have killed some 25 million people, likely was brought via the Silk Road.

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