Dr. SkySkull in China, part 2: the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

I arrived in Xi’an late on a Saturday night, two hours later than expected due to a weather delay flying out of Beijing.  So I was pretty exhausted on Sunday, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to get out and see some of the sights!

After a nice lunch, my former postdoc advisor and his graduate student took me to see the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a historic and still active Buddhist temple which is also a popular tourist destination.  It was a great opportunity for me to practice making stitched panorama photographs using PTGui, an excellent piece of software which I haven’t played around with for a long time.  I uploaded most of the panorama pictures, and many of the other ones, at high resolution, so be sure to click on them if you want to see details.

Front of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

Front of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

Continue reading

Posted in Personal, Travel | Leave a comment

Dr. SkySkull in China, part 1: Overview

The blog has been quiet this past week because I’ve been literally halfway around the world!  I was invited to China to give a pair of scientific talks and plan out some collaborative work.  The trip was productive and fun, and already I’ve been invited to return again, which I will be seriously considering (though not right away — 20 hours of flying is brutal!).

My hosts at Northwestern Polytechnical University were very hospitable, helping arrange a number of fun activities.  My former postdoctoral advisor has also been working there for several months every year, and he not only helped arrange an invitation for me but showed me around and helped me, as a clueless American, navigate a very different culture.

There was so much to see and do, and I tried to do as much as possible and take pictures of everything.  I’ll write a number of posts about my trip, and I’ll start with a general overview and some impressions of China, stretching over the entire trip.  This wasn’t my first visit to China — I visited Shanghai some ten years ago — but everything was still quite novel to me.

Continue reading

Posted in Personal, Travel | 8 Comments

Unconventional skydives: helicopter jump!

I haven’t posted any skydiving videos for a while, largely because I’ve long depended on other people, with cameras, to video me in freefall.  This Christmas, my lovely wife got me a GoPro, however, and the other day I finally broke it out to video a jump or two!  It so happens that this week was  Carolinafest at Skydive Carolina, a week-long skydive “boogie” with lots of visitors, trainers, load organizers and, of course, cool aircraft.  I took the opportunity today to make two jumps out of a helicopter, which was a perfect opportunity to try the camera in action.

I was originally planning to just stand on the strut of the helicopter and hop off, but the first group I jumped with insisted on hanging from the strut!  It is not exactly easy to get down in a hanging position on a lonely metal bar 5,000 feet above the ground, and I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I managed!

There are a couple of cool things about doing a helicopter skydive.  Like hot air balloons, helicopters can move with little or no horizontal motion, so one can experience genuine freefall with almost no wind resistance.  It is a weird feeling — the first time I jumped from a balloon I involuntarily shouted “Holy CRAP!”

The other cool thing about helicopter jumps is the ride up.  The helicopter doesn’t have its doors, so one gets an entire open-air view of the countryside for the entire ride to altitude.  I included this ride in the video — if you just want to see the jump and canopy ride to the ground, skip to about 7:39.

This video is the second helicopter jump I made today — if I have time, I’ll add the first later!

Update: here’s the video of the first helicopter jump! Very much like the second.

Posted in Sports | 3 Comments

The comics moment that most inspires me: Suicide Squad

Update: Forgot to say “thank you” to my Dad for mailing me my complete “Suicide Squad” collection, which made this whole post possible!

I suspect that people who don’t read comics fail to realize how much kids can be inspired by them, in both behavior and morality.  This can be both good and bad, of course, depending on the comic.  One of my big influences growing up was Mark Gruenwald‘s massive run on Captain America, from 1985 to 1995.  Gruenwald portrayed Cap as simultaneously very idealistic and very human, often struggling to make his moral code live up to the complexities of the world.

Even today, I occasionally draw inspiration from the comics I used to read when I was younger.  One scene in particular stands out to me, and it is led by a rather unconventional characters in the DC Comics Universe.

Amanda Waller, boss of the “Suicide Squad.”

Amanda Waller, from the DC Comics Wikia.

Amanda Waller, from the DC Comics Wikia.

Continue reading

Posted in Entertainment, Personal | 3 Comments

Michael Talbot’s The Bog

A novel about an archaeologist digging up 2000 year-old bog bodies in the UK that have been mauled by some mysterious ancient creature?  A supernatural creature that is awakened by the excavations and begins to stalk and kill again?  Yes, please.

Since starting to publish 20th century authors, Valancourt Books has been on an incredible roll, and they’ve released so many forgotten gems that I’ve had a hard time keeping up with them.  Last month, I finished reading The Bog (1986), by Michael Talbot.



Talbot was not a terribly prolific fiction writer, only publishing 3 novels during his lifetime.  In fact, his is known much better for his books on mysticism and science, of which I will say more later.  Nevertheless, his novels are clever and well-written, and one of them — The Delicate Dependency — is widely regarded as a classic of horror.

Continue reading

Posted in General science, Horror | Leave a comment

1975: The year that quantum mechanics met gravity

Since the revolutionary development of both theories in the early twentieth century, it is fair to say that general relativity and quantum mechanics have had a rather hostile relationship to one another.  One reason for this is simple a matter of scale: gravitational effects, described by general relativity, are essentially negligible in particle interactions.  It is rather straightforward to calculate that the gravitational force between a pair of electrons is 39 orders of magnitude smaller than the electrical force.  That is,

\displaystyle \frac{F_{gravity}}{F_{electric}} =0.000000000000000000000000000000000000001!

This is a very small ratio!  In interactions between quantum particles, then, gravity plays no role whatsoever.  Furthermore, on cosmological scales at which gravity is the dominant force, quantum mechanics has no noticeable effect.

The problem is more than just the relative size of forces, however.  Quantum mechanics and general relativity just don’t seem to fit together very well, like pieces of completely different jigsaw puzzles.  There are many challenges in formulating a perfectly consistent theory of quantum gravity, and we only mention one of these here.  The force of gravity is determined by the distance between two massive objects, but the Heisenberg uncertainty relation of quantum mechanics states that this distance is fundamentally an uncertain quantity.  An attempt to reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics is one of the fundamental driving forces behind the continually-controversial string theory.

But there have been some crude experimental glimpses at the relationship between gravity and quantum mechanics.  In 1975, a collaboration between Purdue University and Ford Motor Company, of all places, researchers measured the effect of gravity on the wave properties of matter*.  Though they verified quantum-mechanical predictions, their results also left some perplexing theoretical and experimental questions that are still being investigated today.

Continue reading

Posted in History of science, Physics | 5 Comments

Mary SanGiovanni’s “Chaos” and “Thrall”

My first encounter with the work of Mary SanGiovanni was her dark and elegant chapbook No Songs for the Stars, and it left me intrigued and interested in reading more.  Fortunately, I had a short vacation to Mexico a few weeks ago and it was a perfect opportunity to sit on the beach and do nothing but read.  During the trip, I was able to read quite a few books, in fact, and among them were two of SanGiovanni’s more recent novels, Thrall (2013) and Chaos (2014).


Both books are best categorized as supernatural or unnatural horror, though they are quite different in their plots and overall pacing.  Both are compelling reads, and I found it difficult to put either of them down.

Since I read them back to back anyway, I thought I would blog about them together!

Continue reading

Posted in Horror | Leave a comment