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.

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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 | 1 Comment

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!

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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!

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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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Posted in Personal, Travel | 1 Comment

Ghosts Know, by Ramsey Campbell

The British author Ramsey Campbell has long been my favorite writer of horror, and one of his novellas — Needing Ghosts — has the unusual distinction of being the only story I’ve ever read that made me doubt my sanity when I finished it.  I’ve always had a hard time keeping up with all of his writing, however, and so it was only recently that I got around to reading his 2013 novel Ghosts Know.

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Broadly speaking, almost all of Campbell’s novels can usually be divided into two categories: supernatural horror and non-supernatural murder/thriller.  The former includes Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989) and  The Grin of the Dark (2007), while the latter includes The Count of Eleven (1992) and The Seven Days of Cain (2011).

Ghosts Know is somewhat unique in that it not only straddles the two categories, but it is also a genuine mystery novel, something that I have not seen from Campbell before.

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Dr. SkySkull in China, part 3: the Terracotta Army

There have been two books sitting on the shelf in my office for as long as I can remember.  They are picture books about the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, constructed to serve the Emperor in the afterlife and buried around the time of his death in 210 BCE.  The books I’ve had are children’s books, but at the time I became interested in the Army, there really weren’t any other books I could find on the subject.

I mention this to illustrate how it has long been a dream of mine to see the massive Terracotta Army in person, and on my recent trip to China I was finally able to visit this magnificent array of sculptures that has reasonably referred to as a “wonder of the world.”

I took a lot of pictures.   This will be a long blog post.  As always, you can click on individual photos to see them larger. But before we begin, let’s talk about what the Terracotta Army is, and its history.

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Posted in Personal, Travel | 6 Comments

The Sea of Ash, by Scott Thomas

A short break from my China posts to catch up on some weird fiction blogging!

In 1870, a spiritualist named Simon Brinklow disappears as he is pulled into a barrel full of leaves at a farm in Vermont.  In 1920, Dr. Albert Pond goes missing after he investigates the appearance, and strange disappearance, of a beautiful woman with teeth fashioned out of fossilized trilobites; his investigation is preceded by a bizarre murder.  And, today, a retired school teacher takes a sightseeing tour across New England, retracing the path of Pond’s investigations.  Though he intends to be only a spectator, he soon finds that it is not possible to be a passive observer of the secretive unnatural parts of the world.

Such is, in broad strokes, the plot of The Sea of Ash by Scott Thomas, which was first published in 2011 but only received wider attention in late 2014.

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This novella is, for me, a perfect illustration of how bad I am at recognizing excellent weird fiction at a glance!  I had come across it several times in my Amazon recommendations, but didn’t look at it closely or purchase it until I was taking a lengthy trip and needed to load up my eReader.  Since then, I’ve read it twice, and its sublime and beautiful weirdness haunts me regularly.

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Posted in Horror, Weird fiction | 1 Comment