The Giant’s Shoulders #72: The Seven Wonders

The 2nd century BCE marked an unusual milestone in the history of civilization.  As the Greeks had conquered most of the civilized world, its citizens were more or less free to travel widely through Europe and the Middle East, to see different cultures and their accomplishments.  Soon, travel guides — the Fodors of their time — were written, providing a list of “must see” attractions throughout the world.

Today, of course, we refer to these as the Seven Wonders of the World.  Not every list was the same, but the most commonly-listed attractions were the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia,  the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

The Seven Wonders of the World, as imagined by Maarten van Heemskerck in 1572.  Via Wikipedia.

The Seven Wonders of the World, as imagined by Maarten van Heemskerck in 1572 (w/ exception of Gardens picture). Via Wikipedia.

Of course, nothing lasts forever —  all seven wonders existed at the same time only over a short span of sixty years.  Then, one by one, they succumbed to natural disasters and deliberate destruction, and now only the Great Pyramid of Giza survives.

Blog carnivals can’t last forever, either! The Giant’s Shoulders has been ongoing for six years now, an eternity in internet time, and the decision has been made to bring it to a close.  This will be the final edition, and what better way to send it off than to take a tour of the history of science along with the Wonders of the World?

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Posted in General science, History of science | 1 Comment

Help me help you!

Things have been rather busy and stressful at work over the past few weeks, in spite of the summer break starting, and I’ve consequently been neglecting the blog.  I will be catching up again in the near future, but in the meantime I thought I’d address something blog-related that’s been on my mind for some time.

One of the most common things I hear about my blog when I talk to family members and non-science friends who have read it is something along the lines of “I was reading one of your science articles but I got lost halfway through it.”

This isn’t necessarily surprising, as I’m often trying to write about rather complicated scientific stuff in a non-technical way, and it’s not always going to be as comprehensible as I hope.  What is kinda surprising, though, is the way in which people tell me this, as many people say it so matter-of-factly that they seem to intend it as a compliment.  Or just the way things are.

But here’s the thing I don’t think that many of them understand: when I’m writing these blog posts, I’m trying to write them so that they can be comprehensible to a non-technical reader.  Saying that you’ve gotten lost in a post, but not telling me where, or why, or asking for clarification, doesn’t help me write better posts.  I often feel as exasperated as Jerry Maguire:

“Help me help you.”  That’s a request I’d like to make to my readers: give me feedback! Let me know what you don’t understand, and I’ll try and explain it better. It isn’t always easy to understand the subtleties of physics and optics, but that’s what makes putting in the effort to learn it so rewarding.  It’s a puzzle, like solving a crossword or a jigsaw, and deciphering the mystery can be just as satisfying.

When I think about the phrase “help me help you,” though, it occurs to me that there are two ways to interpret it.  The way I just described it could be emphasized as “help me help YOU,” where “you” are the beneficiary of understanding.  Really, though, it works with a different emphasis, as well: “help ME help you.”  In other words, when you comment on my posts and explain what part lost you, you are helping me to be a better teacher.

Education is really a two-way street, both in online communication as well as in the classroom.  The teacher is, hopefully, imparting knowledge to the student, but the student can also help the teacher learn how to do his job better.*  So rather than simply make this a somewhat condescending plea for the reader to “learn harder,” I am really asking you a favor:  educate me, as well.  Teach me what works, and what doesn’t work, when I explain things.

Hopefully we’ll both find the experience rewarding.


* Random aside: this two-way street is part of the reason why I’m skeptical about MOOCs.

Posted in General science, Personal | 2 Comments

Love is the Law, by Nick Mamatas

In my experience, Nick Mamatas’ novels are not pleasant to read — and I mean that in a good way.  He is willing to dive wholeheartedly into ugly situations in his writing and challenge the reader with unhappy observations about the world we live in.  I somewhat subconsciously noted this when I read his earlier novel Sensation, but it was really driven home to me in his most recent work, Love is the Law.


 Love is the Law is, like much of Mamatas’ work, an unusual mix of genres: depending on how you look at it, the novel is part horror, part science fiction, part domestic drama, and part weird tale.  It is, however, primarily a mystery novel — it follows punk rock girl Dawn Selinger as she attempts to solve the murder of her mentor Bernstein.  Mentor teaching her what, you may ask? Communism and black magic.  The mystery leads her to uncover secrets more horrifying than any supernatural menace.

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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 | 6 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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Posted in Horror | 2 Comments

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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