While the Black Stars Burn, by Lucy A. Snyder

Though it has been almost a century since H.P. Lovecraft essentially invented and championed the genre of cosmic horror, it remains an incredibly popular source of inspiration for writers.  I suspect this is the case because authors have taken Lovecraft’s basic premise and extended it in ways that were beyond his capabilities.

A great example of this can be found in the recent collection While the Black Stars Burn (2015), by Lucy A. Snyder.


Snyder’s stories uses cosmic horror, among other ideas, to explore concepts of vulnerability and betrayal.  They are remarkably effective and often difficult to read, due to their intensity.

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Twitter Weird Science Facts, Volume 2

Continuing to post a #weirdscifacts a day on Twitter; here’s the latest summary since my last posting!

16. (January 16). Project A119, when the US almost nuked the Moon to boost domestic morale.  The Cold War was a really scary time, when “mine’s bigger than yours” mentality was rampant, except on a national level with nuclear weapons.  This won’t be the last time we’ll hear about Cold War nuclear insanity in these facts.

17. (January 17). The 1982 movie “Tron” inspired an important computer algorithm, Perlin noise.  The movie itself was a bit of a flop, but it nevertheless resulted in a really important graphics algorithm.  The connection between entertainment and science is stronger than most people realize!

18. (January 18). Glacial earthquakes, up to 5.1 magnitude quakes where glaciers move “fast.”  These days, most people are aware that fracking can cause non-tectonic earthquakes, but relatively few are probably aware that glaciers can, too.

19. (January 19). Did you ever imagine a fish could use a tool? Well, the blackspot tuskfish can.  I personally find it quite amazing that, when I was growing up, we were taught that humankind is above the animals because we can use tools.   Now, tool use in the animal kingdom is so obvious that I’ve even seen it at the zoo. But even fish using tools? That is surprising. But, as Jason Goldman pointed out, even the tuskfish isn’t unique in this.

20. (January 20).  Badgers and coyotes can work together and play together to catch prey.  As long as I’m talking about scary smart animals, how about different species working together as a team to get food?

21. (January 21). The newest quantum puzzle: an impossible mixture of three pigeons in two holes?  Many people have heard of the idea of Schrodinger’s cat by now: a cat, placed in a box in which the release of poison is tied to the decay of a single quantum particle, will seemingly end up in a quantum state in which it is simultaneously living and dead.  In this new puzzle, the paradox is that three pigeons can be fit in two holes in a quantum way in which no two pigeons are in the same hole!

22. (January 22). Venus flytraps actually can count — in order to better trap their prey.  By keeping track of the number of hairs touched by prey, the flytraps can eliminate “false positives,” in which a hair gets accidentally tripped but no prey is present.

23. (January 23). The deep-sea shrimp Acanthephyra purpurea spews bioluminescence at predators as a defense!  Ever see a movie where the bad guys are using night vision goggles and the good guys take them out by suddenly switching on the lights? (For example: Patriot Games.)  Well, this is what A. purpurea basically does.  Evolution has resulted in an incredible number of defense — and offensive — strategies for living creatures.

24. (January 24). The mysterious elliptical Carolina Bays, whose origin is still not understood.  A mystery right in my backyard, so to speak!  There is still so much we don’t understand about our planet.

25. (January 25). The red-cockaded woodpecker keeps tree sap flowing in its nest as a sticky protection vs. snakes!  Speaking of animal defenses — as well as tool use, of a sort — the woodpecker pecks at the tree to keep the sap flowing around the entrance to its nest, in order to block snakes.

26. (January 26). Smoke rings play a peculiar role in the history of atomic theory in the mid 1800s. The link here is to one of my old blog posts, in which I talk about how the stability of rings of smoke, and their interactions, caused a number of physicists to seriously consider a model of atoms as linked and knotted vortices.

27. (January 27). In 1504, Colombus used a lunar eclipse to frighten Jamaican natives and keep his crew fed.  This story used to seem quite funny and clever; in hindsight, knowing how horribly Colombus treated native Americans, it now feels a bit cruel.

28. (January 28). Ancient Babylonians were further along the way to developing calculus than we ever thought! This is very new research, just published in Science, and it will be interesting to see if it holds up under further peer scrutiny.  It is an intriguing possibility, however.

29. (January 29). In 1975, J.H. Hetherington co-authored a physics paper with his Siamese cat, F.D.C. Willard!  As a huge cat-lover, I just adore this story! Be sure to read the whole article, which is a mix of the whimsical and absurd.

That’s all for this post! More to come in a couple of weeks!

Signature of F.D.C. Willard, via WIkipedia.

Signature of F.D.C. Willard, via Wikipedia.

Posted in General science, Weirdscifacts | 1 Comment

Beautiful equations of math and physics: my picks

A few days ago, the BBC introduced a series of posts in which they asked mathematicians and physicists to share their favorite equations.  It’s a fun list, and the original post can be found here.

One of the equations selected is known as Euler’s identity, and is written as:

\displaystyle e^{i\pi}+1 =0.

In this equation, “i” is a so-called imaginary number, defined such that i^2 = -1.  This expression, which is a special case of a more general one known as Euler’s formula, is often considered to be mathematically beautiful because it includes five of the most important mathematical constants: 0, 1, i, π, and e.

An interesting discussion arose on Twitter when Evelyn Lamb posted the following in response:

I kinda agree with her, though maybe not for exactly the same reason!  For me, as a researcher who sort of balances on the line between theoretical physics and applied mathematics, “beauty” in mathematics comes from an expression that really shows you something, and leads to insights and a sense of wonder.  Euler’s identity doesn’t really do it for me anymore; it contains some insight, but its main attraction is the fact that it happens to include many mathematical constants.

This led to a gauntlet of sorts being thrown down by On This Day in Math!

A fair question, and I thought I would share some of the equations that I find beautiful, taken from both math and physics.

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Posted in Mathematics, Physics | 8 Comments

The return of the “Weird science facts!”

Those who have been around this blog for a while will remember that I did a two year nonstop marathon of “weird science facts” (hashtag #weirdscifacts), with at least one fact a day.  It got pretty darn hard to keep it up after that long a stretch, and I finally wound down the series.

But, several years later, I’ve decided to give #weirdscifacts another run!  I have a lot more followers than I did in 2012, and there has been a lot more weirdness since then.  Twitter has changed a lot since then as well, adding unlimited searching and linked tweets which makes it much easier to keep track of what I’ve already done.

So here we are! I started the new run on January 1st, and will try and keep it going at least a year.  I’ll provide a mixture of previously-tweeted facts and new ones, and will post a list of those tweeted here every week or so.

Without further ado, here’s the first two weeks!

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1801: Fraunhofer gets research funding in the worst possible way

It is rather unsettling to think that scientific careers are often made by simple luck.  For example, eventual Nobel Prize winner Albert Michelson (1852-1931) only got an education thanks to the literal last-minute intervention of none other than the President of the United States, as I’ve blogged about before!

For modern scientists, one of the biggest bits of anxiety is securing funding to undertake research in the first place, as I can personally attest!  Funding has been hard to come by in recent years, thanks to government cuts and budget crises. Nevertheless, I don’t think I would be eager to get a career and research support in quite the way that Joseph Fraunhofer (1787-1826) did!

Joseph Fraunhofer, via Wikipedia.

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Emmie Mears’ Storm in a Teacup

It’s a new year, and time to get back on the blogging train! (It is a train, right?  I am so bad with metaphors these days.)  Some time back, I realized that I was definitely not reading enough fiction by women and minority writers, so I put out a call for suggestions for new reading material.  My twitter friends directed me to Emmie Mears’ early 2015 novel Storm in a Teacup, the first in a series of books about Mediator Ayala Storme, slayer of demons.


Mears has been releasing Ayala Storme novels at a rapid pace: Storm in a Teacup was released in February, Any Port in a Storm in June, and Taken by Storm just came out in December.  I started reading right away, before I fell even further behind!

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Spoiler-filled Star Wars thoughts and open discussion thread

So — I saw it last night.  It was amazing.  In fact, I saw it just in time, as this tweet of mine indicates:

And the kid wasn’t even leaving the theater — he was coming with his mom into the theater to see another movie!

Fear of spoilers has been rampant amongst Star Wars fans, only topped by a fervent desire to talk about the movie.  With that in mind, I thought I’d write a blog post to share some of my SUPER SPOILER-Y thoughts about the movie, and also use this as a thread where folks can share their own thoughts, if they want.

WARNING: Below the break I share my incredibly spoiler-filled thoughts about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Do not read further until you have seen the movie.

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Posted in Entertainment, Personal | 54 Comments