Twitter Weird Science Facts, Volume 15

It’s been a long delay since my last volume of twitter #weirdscifacts, so we’ve got a lot of catching up do to!  I was at the Frontiers in Optics meeting in Rochester all last week, which put me quite behind.

Click below the link to find out the deal with this freaky bird. (Gif via io9/Gizmodo.)



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Halloween Treats 2016

It’s that most wonderful time of year again, when the leaves change colors and the spirits become restless!  In the “spirit” of Halloween, I again present a series of classic horror stories to properly get you in the mood. I’ve been doing this since 2007, and you can read the old editions here:   2007200820092011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and my 2010 post on the true story of the “Lady of the Lake“. It is likely that not all of the links in those old posts work, but the lists are there.

We begin with an audio story from the classic radio series “Lights Out.” It was written by Arch Oboler, whose great novel House on Fire I recently blogged about…

The Dark, Arch Oboler (1962).  When paramedics respond to a call at a remote mansion, they find an insane woman, a horribly, impossibly mutilated body… and a darkness that spreads like fog and carries death with it.

The Groom, Emily Carroll (2015). Emily Carroll’s illustrated stories capture perfectly the classic feel of old dark folk tales, and she has rightly been praised for her work. In The Groom, two children find an abandoned diorama of a wedding scene, and take it as a toy.  As it is missing a groom figure in the box, they fashion their own crude representation.  But when their play turns darker, it awakens something terrible.

Scoured Silk, Marjorie Bowen (1919). When Mr. Orford finally is engaged to be remarried, he takes the unusual step of bringing his young bride-to-be to visit the grave of his first wife.  The visit deeply disturbs Elisa, who becomes frantic about calling off the wedding. Her fears turn out to be justified, though nobody can imagine what true horror lies in Orford’s history.

The Yellow Sign, Robert W. Chambers (1895). An artist finds himself haunted by an unsettling church watchman, a man who reminds him of a “coffin-worm.” The recurring appearances of this watchman seem connected to an infamous play, The King in Yellow: it is rumored that reading it leads to madness and death.

The Thing in the Hall, E.F. Benson (1912). Francis Assheton and Louis Fielder have long been interested in pushing the boundaries of knowledge, in all areas of exploration.  When Fielder decides to open himself up to psychic contact with supernatural beings, however, he is unprepared for the inhuman thing that answers his call.

Leiningen Versus the Ants, by Carl Stephenson (1938). When a rampaging wave of army ants threaten to overwhelm Leiningen’s plantation in Brazil, Leiningen chooses to stay and fight rather than flee. His plantation is too valuable to him and, he reasons, how could he be outsmarted by a bunch of ants?

We’ll end it there for this year — have a happy Halloween!


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Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris

I am nowhere near as versed in science fiction as I am in horror fiction, and recently I’ve been trying to remedy that somewhat, in particular focusing on science fiction by Russian and Eastern European authors.  Back in March I read Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 (2005), which was influenced heavily by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972), which I read in May.  Both were brilliant, thought-provoking novels, and it was only natural to proceed next to the famous Polish science fiction novel, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961).


Solaris is a quiet novel about contact with an alien intelligence that is utterly beyond human comprehension.  It is a book filled with ideas, not action, and it will leave you thinking about those ideas long after finishing it.

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How much does a photon weigh?

A couple of weeks ago, after a glass of wine, I did a twitter “ask me anything” about optics and light which resulted in the question that is the title of this post.  I took a rough twitter stab at it that led to a spirited discussion with Dr. Matthew Francis, at the end of which I think we concluded that we were in agreement, my tipsy imprecise initial explanation notwithstanding.

After a little more reflection, though, I thought it would be worth exploring this question more fully in a blog post.  In particular, I want to use the “how much does a photon weigh?” question to look at the confusion that often arises due to Einstein’s famous and mischievous equation:

\displaystyle E = mc^2,

where E represents energy, m represents mass, and c represents the speed of light.  Crudely, this equation is often referred to as defining “mass-energy equivalence.” But that description is overly simplistic and leads to all sorts of mistakes, even though — and I stress this — the equation itself is absolutely correct.

Let’s begin by describing some standard confusion that arises in talking about Einstein’s “mass-energy equivalence,” and then how to resolve it.  Beyond that, though, we will then talk about the circumstances under which we can “weigh” a photon!

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Twitter Weird Science Facts, Volume 14

Time again for a compilation of Twitter #weirdscifacts! Click below the link to find out what the heck these Japanese honeybees are doing.

Image by Takahashi, via Wikipedia.

Image by Takahashi, via Wikipedia.

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Kecksies, by Marjorie Bowen

I suspect that most people are unaware of the pivotal role that publisher Arkham House played in the history of weird fiction.  Founded in 1939 by authors and H.P. Lovecraft fans August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, the original goal of the publishing house was to preserve the fiction and legacy of Lovecraft.  It did not take long, however, before they branched out to publishing a wide variety of weird fiction by a variety of authors, often providing the opportunity for many new authors to get established in the field. Arkham House is evidently still in existence today, though they do not seem to be producing much new right now.

I’ve been cultivating a collection of Arkham House hardcover volumes, which are distinguished by their high quality and their often beautiful covers.  Recently, I went on a short buying spree of Arkham classics, and among those I purchased was Kecksies and Other Twilight Tales (1976), by Marjorie Bowen.


Though published in 1976, the collection was in fact put together in the 1940s, not long after Bowen’s other two collections of “twilight tales”: The Last Bouquet (1933) and The Bishop of Hell (1949).   Of the twelve stories in Kecksies, seven of them come from these earlier volumes.

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The Hunt for Vulcan, by Thomas Levenson

Some of the most interesting stories in the history of science are those where investigations take a wrong turn.  Scientific progress is filled with red herrings, failed assumptions, and wild guesses that rarely make it into the science textbooks.  When I first started this blog, for instance, I talked about the ridiculous number of atomic models that were proposed before Rutherford finally discovered the atomic nucleus in 1910.

It’s a shame that these stories are often overlooked, because they can often tell us more about how science is done than the famous success stories can.  And, as I said above, these failures are often fascinating, and in the hands of a great writer can be utterly compelling.

I was therefore really excited to read Thomas Levenson’s most recent book, The Hunt for Vulcan (2015):


The Hunt for Vulcan tells the curious story of how physicists and astronomers became convinced of the existence of a planet that orbits closer to the Sun than Mercury, a planet that never existed.   The search for Vulcan would eventually lead to one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history: Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which unifies gravity with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and truly transformed our understanding of the universe as a whole.  Along the way, there were personal squabbles among scientists, failed searches, mistaken discoveries, and a World War that altered the course of science.

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