20 books that have stayed with me

A meme was going around on Facebook in early September, which I present as was assigned to me by my friend Ryan Cagle of Valancourt Books:

In your status, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be the “right” books or great works of literature, just ones that affected you in some way. Tag 10 friends, including me so I can see your list!

I followed the instructions, choosing ten books quickly to post.  I was also putting my book collection back on the shelves at the same time, however, as we recently replaced carpeting in the house and everything had been in storage.  This means that I came across other books that I read long ago, that influenced me greatly, that have been lost in my jumbled memory.

So I thought: why stick with 10 books?  In this blog post, I’ll share 20 of the books that have stayed with me for one reason or another.  Going beyond my Facebook post, I’ll also described the books in some detail and explain the effect they had on me.  Feel free to share some of the books that have had an effect on you in the comments, if you are so inclined!

Before I begin, I should note that even this list isn’t a complete one! It is hard to choose the “most influential” books out of the many wonderful ones I’ve read.  When I’ve written a blog post about the book, I link to my original post, as well.

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Posted in Fiction, Personal | 1 Comment

Bertram Mitford’s In the Whirl of the Rising

Last week I found myself in the mood for some adventure fiction, and that made me immediately think of Bertram Mitford!  A contemporary and competitor of sorts of H. Rider Haggard, Bertram Mitford (1855-1914) was a prolific writer of novels set in Africa.  Thanks to Valancourt Books, I’ve read a number of his works: The King’s Assegai (1894), The Weird of Deadly Hollow (1891), Renshaw Fanning’s Quest (1894), and the sublime The Sign of the Spider (1896).  Having almost tapped out all of Valancourt’s Mitford selections, and not being a big fan of reading books online, I was happy to find a few other Mitford books have been recently released in print form*.

What appears to be the original cover of In The Whirl of the Rising, from the Barnes & Noble Nook edition.

What appears to be the original cover of In The Whirl of the Rising, from the Barnes & Noble Nook edition.

In the Whirl of the Rising, published in 1904, is an action thriller set in Southern Africa that tells the story of a native uprising against the British settlers, and the fight by the settlers to survive against murderous warriors.  As one might imagine from the subject matter, to today’s sensibilities it is a very problematic book.  It is nevertheless well written, and one can learn a lot about 19th century colonialism in reading it.  Also, I would argue that Mitford gives hints that he is slightly more enlightened than many of his contemporary countrymen.

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How anti-vaccination is like a nuclear bomb

Update: tweaked the descriptions of nuclear physics to be a little more specific.

I’m not sure that anything fills me with despair more than the trend of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. A couple of weeks ago, an article in The Hollywood Reporter described how affluent Hollywood schools are experiencing outbreaks of whooping cough and measles that haven’t been seen since, well, before vaccination.  These are nasty diseases, debilitating and potentially fatal.  It is shameful and not a bit terrifying that people are more or less deliberately bringing back illness that predominantly targets the very young.

But why do they do it?  From the article, we have this depressing tidbit:

According to more than a dozen area pediatricians and infectious disease specialists THR spoke to, most vaccine-wary parents have abandoned autism concerns for a diffuse constellation of unproven anxieties, from allergies and asthma to eczema and seizures.

In other words: once the link between vaccines and autism was shown not only to be mistaken but in fact fraudulent, people found other reasons to rationalize their actions.

Another statement from the same article left me utterly flabbergasted:

Experts on both sides of the issue say these families seem unconcerned about herd immunity — often questioning the legitimacy of the very concept…

Reading such things is genuinely painful to me.  For those unfamiliar with the term, “herd immunity” is the — uncontroversial to science and medicine — idea that a properly vaccinated population provides additional protection to everyone in the community, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.  This is extremely relevant to the question of “anti-vaccination,” because it suggests that the group benefits pretty much disappear when enough of the population stops vaccination.

I find it pretty much unthinkable that people wouldn’t believe in herd immunity; I can only hope that they don’t completely understand how it works.  With this on my mind, it occurred to me on the drive home the other day that herd immunity can be readily explained by analogy with a phenomenon in physics — nuclear chain reactions and critical mass.  In short, we can argue that group vaccination is akin to keeping a nuclear substance below its critical mass — and failing to vaccinate is mathematically akin to setting off a nuclear bomb.

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Posted in ... the Hell?, General science, Health | 11 Comments

Dr. SkySkull’s Monday Cavalcade of Interesting Science Stuff – September 15, 2014

While I’m working on more detailed blog posts, here’s a collection of interesting science-related stuff I came across over the past week!

Will hopefully have another cavalcade of science stuff next week!

Posted in General science, Science news | 1 Comment

Dr. SkySkull’s Monday Cavalcade of Interesting Science Stuff – September 8, 2014

In order to make my blogging a little more regular, I thought I would start doing a weekly roundup of interesting science-based posts from around the internet! Also, there’s so much good stuff out there that should be shared.  With this in mind, I present the first edition of what will hopefully be a more or less regular feature: Dr. SkySkull’s Monday Cavalcade of Interesting Science Stuff!

This week’s intriguing posts:

  • How a 19th Century Math Genius Taught Us the Best Way to Hold a Pizza Slice.  In this wonderful post, Aatish Bhatia of Empirical Zeal explains how the mathematics of curvature — most commonly encountered in the theory of general relativity — gives us the best way to hold a pizza slice.  Rarely will you find a post that explains complicated mathematics so clearly and ties it to simple everyday phenomena so well.

  • What Kind of Demon Sorcery Created This Laser-Spitting Fish?  At io9 Animals, Jason Goldman describes the curious case of a fish that seems to spit out light itself!  The explanation of what’s really going on is equally fascinating, and is a great example of evolutionary processes playing off each other.

  • Jack the Ripper was Polish 23-year-old barber Aaron Kosminski, new book claims.  Science, screwup, or scam?  The author of a new book claims to have found the only surviving piece of forensic evidence related to the Jack the Ripper case, and to have used surviving DNA to identify the killer, through the DNA of a relative.  Interesting story, but there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical.

  • ‘Could happen at any time’ God particle could DESTROY universe, warns Stephen Hawking. Boy, Stephen Hawking has gotten cynical lately, hasn’t he?  Four years ago, he warned us that aliens could arrive to destroy us all, and now he’s warning that the Higgs field (not particle) could become unstable and wipe out the universe at any time.  Folks should relax, though — Hawking was not talking about experiments at the LHC wiping out the planet, but rather the theoretical possibility that an inherent instability in nature could go horribly wrong for us.  My thoughts?  As a general rule, anything that has a finite probability of happening in the universe already would have happened.  In a radio interview, Katie Mack throws some cold water on the hysteria.

  • How archer fish gun down prey from a distance.  It’s a good week for “spitting fish” news. Archer fish have the amazing ability to shoot jets of water at their prey, knocking insects from trees and into the water to be eaten.  New research shows that the fish have an extraordinary amount of control over the speed and duration of their jets, adjusting for maximum impact at the target.

  • World’s largest dinosaur discovered. Finally, we have good news for dinosaur fans: a new species has been unearthed, the largest ever discovered!  Named Dreadnoughtus schrani, this herbivore was as tall as a two-story building and weighed some 59,000 kilograms.  Even better, the skeleton was found remarkably complete.

That’s it for this week!  Check back next Monday for more news.

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Physics demonstrations: Faraday disk

I’m prepping a new course to teach this semester: undergraduate Electromagnetism II!  I’m trying to put together some nice simple demos to illustrate principles in the class, and I’ll blog some of those that work and are interesting.

When Michael Faraday discovered the phenomenon of electromagnetic induction in 1831, paving the way for the complete unification of electricity and magnetism, he came up with a variety of experiments to demonstrate the effect.

One of them is now known as the Faraday disk, and it is very easy to construct — though I ended up buying one.  My version is shown below.


All of the parts are visible in this photo.  By turning a hand crank, one rotates a copper disk between a pair of magnets (the black disks), one generates an electrical current that runs from the outer edge of the disk to the central axis.  Wires connected to these two points runs to the red and black plugs, through which one can measure the voltage difference generated.  It isn’t a spectacular amount — I measured about 5 millivolts, max — but it demonstrates the phenomenon known as rotational electromotive force.

As we have noted, however, Faraday interpreted his disk experiment as electromagnetic induction, not rotational emf.  It turns out that he was kinda wrong — but he was also kinda right!  The explanation of this simple experiment involves some rather deep concepts in physics, and inevitably leads us to Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

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Posted in Physics, Physics demos | 4 Comments

7 years of blogging!

I’ve been rather busy with my academic duties lately and haven’t had much time to update my blog with new science and fiction posts.  Because of this, I almost completely missed the fact that August 14th marked the 7th anniversary of this blog!  My first post was on August 14th, 2007, with the title “Educate or bust,” based on the name of an obscure Robert E. Howard story.  That title still captures the spirit of what I try to do here at “Skulls in the Stars,” and what I hope to continue doing in the future.

With this in mind, here’s a few teasers of posts I’m planning and working on for the next few months.  This list is partly to keep people intrigued, but also to keep me inspired!

  • A physics demonstration in which I attempt to generate “frozen lightning” in the form of a Lichtenberg figure.
  • A somewhat poetic look at the importance of early physics discoveries related to heliocentrism through the writings of its biggest advocates.
  • A history of physics post about the very first “vortex of light” discovered in the 1950s, and the strange optics that inspired its discovery.
  • An in-depth post about the most important physics research that nobody ever talks about.  (This one has been in the works for years.)
  • A “how-to” discussion about my favorite social media platform, twitter, and how to use it in a productive way.
  • The optics of impossibility!  Many things that traditionally were thought to be literally impossible in optics have now been demonstrated experimentally (usually with some important caveats).  This post will survey how these discoveries are changing the technological possibilities with light.
  • A look at one of the strangest planets in the Solar System, and probably not the one you think.
  • Some blogging about my own research into invisibility and cloaking, after I finally get the papers written and published!
  • More blog posts about the history of electricity and magnetism, particularly in the 19th century.  The first of these I’ve been looking at is the work of Heinrich Lenz.

I’ve got lots of ideas — I just need to find the time to work on them!  I’d also like to thank everyone who follows or subscribes to my blog for your interest.  Hopefully, the next seven years will be as fun as the first!

Posted in Personal | 7 Comments