Fred Hoyle’s “The Black Cloud”

I am utterly fascinated by active scientists who also write fiction, particularly science fiction.  There have been more of them than the average person realizes, including physicist Robert W. Wood, who co-wrote The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915) and The Moon-Maker (1916), and astronomer Simon Newcomb, who wrote His Wisdom the Defender (1900).  I would also add to this list millionaire inventor John Jacob Astor, who wrote A Journey in Other Worlds in 1894.  The tradition continues to this day, as illustrated by my friends Blake Stacey, who wrote Until Earthset (2008), and Andrew David Thaler, who wrote Fleet (2013).

There are still more out there, I’m sure, that I have yet to come across.  This was demonstrated to me recently, when I encountered astronomer Fred Hoyle’s 1957 novel The Black Cloud.

First edition cover of The Black Cloud, via Wikipedia.

First edition cover of The Black Cloud, via Wikipedia.

I learned of this book through the always excellent Valancourt Books, who will be releasing a new edition in 2015.

Set in the year 1964, the novel focuses on the efforts of an international group of scientists as they try and save humanity from a massive black cloud that is approaching the solar system from interstellar space.  You’ll notice that I say “save humanity” instead of “stop the cloud,” because there is no stopping the cloud: it is an object of planetary scale, and the best mankind can do is anticipate its behavior using the laws of physics and attempt to plan accordingly.

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Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods

Let me say this immediately: Emily Carroll’s work is amazing.  Her work first came to my attention, as it did for many people, through an io9 post describing some of the best horror webcomics available.  The post included a link to Carroll’s story His Face All Red, which was by far the best of them, and I was hooked.  Since then, I’ve kept a constant vigil for the occasional new comic to appear on her site.

Happily, Carroll recently released a printed collection of almost all new horror comics, Through the Woods.



The collection includes five stories, four of which are previously unpublished, and the tales are bookended by an introduction and a conclusion that are equally creepy.

The five stories are:

  • Our Neighbor’s House.  Three children are given explicit instructions by their father on what to do when he goes hunting in the woods.  Of course, they don’t quite follow these instructions…
  • A Lady’s Hands Are Cold.  A young woman is forced by her father into marriage with a wealthy lord.  When she arrives at his manor, she learns that he — and the home — hold terrible secrets.
  • His Face All Red (previously published online).  A man and his older brother head into the forest at night to find the monster that is killing the village animals.  The horrors they discover, however, are completely different.
  • My Friend Janna.  Janna and her friend have made a great game out of pretending to speak to the dead.  Toying with the spirit world has terrible consequences, as they will learn.
  • The Nesting Place.  When boarding school lets out for the summer, Mabel goes to stay with her brother and his fiancée in their country home.  Rebecca — the fiancée — seems perfect, so why does Mabel feel uncomfortable around her?  And why does their housekeeper tell Mabel not to go in the woods — ever?

Carroll’s stories tap into what I can only call primal fears.  They feel like the darkest of fairy tales, and often follow a very similar structure.  The illustrations are elegant and often very subtle, conveying a sense of dread with color and shadow.  Carroll, like all great horror writers, knows that showing a monster is nowhere near as scary as hinting at it.

The book is rather short — you can read the entire thing within an hour if you like — but the tales merit repeated reading.  I’ve already read it through two times, and before it was available I read His Face All Red at least a dozen times online.

In conclusion: I very much recommend Through the Woods.  I’m looking forward to more works from Emily Carroll, and hope I won’t have long to wait.

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H.G. Wells’ stories about BUGS

Update: Added one more Wells bug story!

This short post is something of a public service.  Earlier today I saw some tweets from film critic Scott Weinberg referencing an urban legend related to the very silly 1977 Bert I. Gordon film Empire of the Ants.  I had never heard of the movie before, and I certainly didn’t know that the movie was based on a short story by the incredible science fiction author H.G. Wells!

I had never heard of the story before, though this is not surprising — Wells was ridiculously prolific, writing dozens of novels and non-fiction books over the course of his life, in addition to short stories.  Most people are only familiar with a handful of his most famous works – The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau — though he wrote many intriguing and forward-thinking novels such as his chilling story of nuclear war, The World Set Free.

So I was curious about the story, and of course it is available to read online from in a variety of places.  Being me, however, I had to go right back to the source.  Thanks to the magic of Google books, I was able to find the original 1905 issue of The Strand magazine containing the story.  One of the great things about these Edwardian magazines is that they often illustrated the stories in question, and The Empire of the Ants is no exception.

Emboldened, I also dug up another H.G. Wells story about bugs — The Valley of Spiders, which appeared in a 1903 edition of Pearson’s Magazine.  Wells was quite famous by this point, and got quite a spectacular title image:



So my public service of the day?  To provide pdfs of the two illustrated stories!  The Valley of Spiders is quite a bizarre and fascinating tale, while The Empire of the Ants reminds me somewhat of John Wyndham’s much later novel, Web.

The Valley of Spiders

The Empire of the Ants


Update: Being obsessed with being thorough, here’s one more Wells story about a bug, though of a significantly different nature!  It apparently first appeared in the late 1800s, but I found an illustrated version of it in a 1905 volume of Pearson’s.

A Moth — Genus Novo

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Physics demonstrations: Geiger counter

Update: Fixed a couple of incorrect statements regarding cosmic rays and the radiation of uranium.  Thanks to encephalartos for the corrections!

In recent months, I’ve been diving wholeheartedly into learning how to build and design electronics.  My ultimate goal is to build a Tesla coil, but before I do, I’ve been warming up with a variety of kits and designs online.

Not too long ago, I learned that it is possible to buy a kit to build a basic Geiger counter, for only around $100!  I jumped at the opportunity and, after some minor modifications, started checking for radioactivity!



If you compare this with the image of the original kit below, you can see that I’ve protected all of the circuitry in a plastic case.  I also added an external switch as well as a spiffy drawer handle from Lowe’s.


So you probably know that a Geiger counter detects radioactivity, but how does it work — and what sort of things can you detect?  I thought I would write a short post discussing this, ending with a video showing my Geiger counter in action.

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Cloaking from earthquakes?

There has been a lot of excitement among researchers about the science of invisibility over the past decade, and a variety of designs of invisibility cloaks have been suggested since the groundbreaking 2006 papers.  I’ve talked a lot about invisibility on this blog, but I haven’t said a lot about one of the most intriguing — and overlooked — possibilities: the use of cloaking to protect objects, instead of just hide them!

What do I mean?  Well, an invisibility cloak is, in principle*, a material structure that guides light around a central space — the cloaked region — and sends it on its way as if it had hit nothing at all.  An illustration of how this would work for light rays, from the original paper by Pendry, Schurig and Smith, is shown below.


The black lines represent the light rays, being bent around the cloaked region (inner sphere).  Such a cloak, however, is not limited to rays of light; it has been demonstrated that it guides waves of light perfectly, as well.

But if a cloak can be designed to deflect light waves, it stands to reason, then why not other types of waves, or fields?  Magnetic fields could be deflected, to protect sensitive electronics within.  Water waves could be deflected, to protect offshore platforms or buoys from damaging waves during extreme storms.  Or, maybe — just maybe — seismic waves from earthquakes could be guided around vulnerable buildings!

Recent research* suggests that protecting buildings from earthquakes might be possible, at least to a limited extent.  In experimental work published in April of this year, French researchers were able to screen, or protect, a region of earth from artificially generated seismic waves.

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The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us! (hopefully)

Proving once again that you can’t keep a good undead down, at least not the first or second time, it was recently announced that there will be a third film in the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (soon-to-be) trilogy!

Being that I am pretty much a floating skull in space (at least in my twitter and blog identity), I’m pretty excited about this development.  The project, which brings back the original cast, including star/writer/director Larry Blamire, is being crowdfunded on Kickstarter this month; the video introduction can be watched on the Kickstarter page.


I’ve already got the giggles just watching the faux documentary A World Without Lost Skeleton included in the Kickstarter video!  I’ve been a big fan of the original 2001 movie The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and its 2009 sequel, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, and would love to see the third film get made.*

If you’re familiar with The Lost Skeleton, I probably need say no more; if you’re not, I thought I would give a brief intro to the series, because the films are a total treat!

But there’s more: I managed to score some production art and storyboards from the upcoming film from the promotional team to use in a blog post!  Let’s take a look at the saga of the skeleton…

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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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