Coming soon: The Complete Guide to Science Blogging!

It’s finally been officially announced, and I’m delighted to share the news here: in early 2015, The Complete Guide to Science Blogging will be published!  Edited by amazing science communicators Christie Wilcox, Jason G. Goldman and Bethany Brookshire, this book will be a resource for science types to learn how to effectively use a variety of social meda.  It will contain 25 essays by a variety of “expert science communicators” on a variety of topics, ranging from coping with internet trolls to impacting science classrooms.


I don’t know the entire list of authors yet, which is being released gradually on the official Facebook page, but I know one pretty well: me!  I’ve contributed a chapter about “blogging on the tenure track,” a topic I’m rather familiar with since I started blogging pre-tenure and included my online activities in my tenure package.

The book is tentatively scheduled for release in Spring of 2015, and I’m looking forward to it!  Please help us give it a little momentum and give the Facebook page a like!


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Our Lady of Pain, by John Blackburn

(Over the next couple of days, I’m going to catch up on a few book posts.  More detailed science posts in the works!)

I’m happy to report that one of John Blackburn’s best books, Our Lady of Pain (1974), is now available from Valancourt Books, and it contains an introduction by me!



When reporter Harry Clay really screws up a major assignment, his editor sticks him with the most boring stories imaginable — and Harry is willing to do anything to get back on top.  When a number of career criminals begin dying horribly after performing a mysterious job, Clay sees a major scoop in the making — and he pursues the case without hesitation or moral scruples.  The trail leads to actress Dame Susan Vallance, who is scheduled to premiere in a new play, “Our Lady of Pain,” only days away.  The play is about the Countess Elizabeth Báthory, an infamous Hungarian serial killer who is said to have tortured and killed hundreds of women.  But what is the connection between the actress, the criminals, and the deaths?  Has an ancient disease been released from its slumber, or is something even more sinister going on?  In uncovering the answers, Clay will find his sanity and even his life at risk.

Our Lady of Pain is one of Blackburn’s most powerful novels, and most unique.  It features none of the familiar stock characters such as General Charles Kirk, and instead gives us a protagonist who is both flawed and vulnerable.  Blackburn also departs from his usual plot device of a killer plague and gives us a unique and bizarre threat.  The climax of the book is a scene that I find pretty much unforgettable, and the novel as a whole is well-worth reading for not only Blackburn fans but fans of horror in general.

I was excited to write an introduction for this book because it gave me the opportunity to delve into the real-life story of Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614), who is generally considered the most prolific female serial killer in history.  Estimates of the number of slain range from 30 to several hundred, mostly young women who were lured to her castle with the promise of employment.  Her actions passed quickly into legend, and grew more bizarre and fantastic as time passed.  Most people are familiar with the myth that Báthory bathed in the blood of young women to maintain her vitality, earning her the nickname “The Blood Countess.” There is no evidence that this ever happened, and the truth is perhaps much more horrifying: Báthory just liked to torture and kill.

Blackburn was no doubt aware of the difference between myth and reality, as he was well-read and all his novels show evidence that he thoroughly researched his subjects.  He nevertheless found the mythological aspects worth adding to Pain, and he added a number of his own flourishes to the legend, creating a novel monster the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in fiction.

Our Lady of Pain marks the seventh and last novel of John Blackburn’s for which I have written an introduction, and it is a great one to end on.  With that in mind, I would like to thank Valancourt Books for introducing me to the writing of John Blackburn and giving me the opportunity to discuss his work!

P.S. I also love the cover for this edition, which was done by M.S. Corley.

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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 | 3 Comments

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 | 12 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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