A Michael Faraday primer for COSMOS!

I’ve really been enjoying the new version of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” though this Sunday’s coming episode has me more excited than any other!  Titled “The Electric Boy,” the episode will focus on Michael Faraday (1791-1867), one of the most influential scientists of the 19th century and my personal hero.

So who was Michael Faraday?  He came upon the scientific scene at a time when physics was on the verge of a revolution that would unify the seemingly disparate forces of light, electricity and magnetism — and he played a pivotal role in unifying all of them!  He also made fundamental contributions to chemistry, and on top of it was an amazing teacher whose surviving Christmas lectures are insightful and enjoyable 150 years after their conception.

Portrait of Michael Faraday, 1842.  Via Wikipedia.

Portrait of Michael Faraday, 1842. Via Wikipedia.

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Posted in History of science, Physics | 6 Comments

Death by ball lightning

Lightning has been a source of fear and mystery through the entire history of mankind.  Violent, unpredictable, and potentially deadly, it was often seen as an indication of divine judgment or displeasure.  Now we know it is a natural electrical discharge, but even today there are some aspects of lightning that have remained mysterious and nearly inscrutable.  The most famous of these is ball lightning, an exceedingly rare phenomenon in which luminous spherical objects, up to a meter in diameter, appear, move erratically…

… and even kill.

Illustration of ball lightning from  Dr. G. Hartwig, "The Aerial World" (London, 1886).  Via Wikipedia.

Illustration of ball lightning from Dr. G. Hartwig, “The Aerial World” (London, 1886). Via Wikipedia.

The most devastating example of this is the tragedy that struck during the Great Thunderstorm at Widecombe-in-the-Moor on October 21, 1638.  At least four people were killed and around 60 injured when lightning struck the a church during service, and ball lightning burst through the window and fell among the parishioners. It was a stunning, unthinkable tragedy and, thanks to its instant notoriety, its effects were painstakingly documented.

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Posted in History of science, Horror, Physics | 5 Comments

Jack Cady’s The Well

I’ve been meaning to write more about books not printed by Valancourt Books, but they’ve been on a roll recently with quite a few irresistible releases, and I’ve had a hard time staying away!  The most recent one that caught my eye is Jack Cady’s The Well (1980):


This novel of supernatural horror is about a house filled with deathtraps that were designed to imprison the devil… and might just have succeeded!

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Physics demonstrations: The Phantom Lightbulb

Some of the most spectacular physics demonstrations rely on surprisingly simple science.  Throughout history, for instance, very simple optics has been used to great effect to terrify and amaze audiences (see, for instance, Robertson’s Phantasmagoria).  I recently came across such a demonstration on YouTube, and decided to make my own version, as shown below.

I like to call this the “phantom lightbulb illusion” [1].  Its operation can be seen at the end of the video, and described as follows.  A functioning lightbulb is placed in a socket upside-down inside of a box, while an identical socket is empty directly above.  When the bulb is turned on and the box is in the proper place, the concave mirror in front of the box produces a real image that lies directly above it.  As long as one keeps the empty socket between the observer and the mirror, the image will remain in the proper place.


This is, in short, how the illusion works, but doesn’t explain why it works — that is, what is the underlying optics that creates the image in the proper place?

What a great opportunity for me to explain a little bit of geometrical optics!  By the end of this post, I will have described the basic theory of image formation in concave mirrors and, hopefully, we’ll really understand why the “phantom lightbulb illusion” works.

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How many quarks would a charm quark charm if a charm quark could charm quarks?

Fundamental physics is having quite a spectacular season.  In mid-March, the collaborators of the BICEP2 telescope announced the first direct evidence of cosmic inflation, answering a long-standing question about the beginnings of the universe.

Now, on the heels of that discovery, the LHCb (Large Hadron Collider beauty) collaboration at CERN has announced the discovery of a new particle — an exotic hadron that has four quarks in it, instead of the usual three quarks or quark-antiquark pair.  Such a beast lies outside our current understanding of particle physics, opening the door to even more revelations about our universe.  Matthew Francis has another nice summary of the discovery at Ars Technica.

The details of this discovery, and its long-term implications for physics, are out of my depth these days (I haven’t been a particle physicist for a while).  However, the press releases assumes a lot from the reader — do they know what quarks are, and why they only come in threes or quark-antiquark pairs?  With this in mind, I thought I could write a short post giving some background for those who aren’t familiar with the details — the “Cliff Notes” of quarks, so to speak! As I tend to do, I’ll approach this from a historical perspective, though this history will be simplified for the sake of brevity.

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The House of the Wolf, by Basil Copper

I haven’t been reading much fiction as of late, thanks to work and a desire to catch up on a lot of science reading.  This past week, however, I jumped back into the fiction, picking up Basil Copper‘s 1983 novel The House of the Wolf.


It is not difficult to deduce from the title that The House of the Wolf is about werewolves!  In fact, that realization made me reluctant to pick up the book, which has been sitting on my shelf for at least six months, simply because I (personally) find werewolf stories a little tedious. (One notable exception: Valancourt’s collection of very early werewolf stories that I’ve blogged about before.)

As I should have known, however, from my previous experiences with Copper’s writing, The House of the Wolf is quite fun!  A Gothic novel similar to his earlier Necropolis (1980) and his later The Black Death (1991), it is a mixture of horror and mystery that is slow to start but quite stunning by the end.

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My appearance on WCNC television!

Today I appeared on NBC Charlotte on “Larry’s Look” to promote our upcoming UNC Charlotte Science and Tech Expo and show off some science demos!  You can check out the video at this link.  Don’t ask me what I thought of it yet, as I usually wait a few days before watching my television appearances!

This makes my third appearance, I believe, after an appearance on WCCB TV last year to talk invisibility and cloaking and a short spot on News 14 Carolina (now Time Warner Cable News) that I can’t even find any more.

I love doing these appearances because it gives me an opportunity to see “behind the scenes” at how news crews work.  Larry Sprinkle was a lot of fun to work with and the cameraman was awesome — no problem with any of my crazy stuff! :)

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