I’ve said before that old illustrated magazines are a treasure trove of fascinating stuff. From the same 1904 issue of The Strand where I found the vintage math puzzle in my previous post, I found this amazing reader-submitted photograph:
In case you can’t read the text:
I did not take the photograph which I send you, because my cat did! I tied a piece of wood to my magazine camera and fixed a piece of meat at the end thereof, so that when the cat started eating the meat it would release the shutter and take a photograph of itself. A large mirror had to be used, of course, and this photograph was the result.
I find this image fascinating not only because it is probably the first “cat selfie” ever taken, but it shows that our obsession as a species with finding weird and novel ways to do things for attention is not new! This is the sort of thing that would have been posted on TikTok, if TikTok had existed in 1904.
The earliest surviving photographs of cats date back to the mid-1800s, and I included one of these in my Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics book. But now I am just frustrated that, after spending years researching and writing a book on cats and photography, I only now find this perfect image!
Over a decade ago, at the beginning of this blog, I wrote a blog post about some classic math puzzles where a nonsensical result is arrived at by seemingly plausible mathematics; in the post, I challenged folks to figure out the mistake before reading the answers! That post went viral, and was for a while the main driver of traffic to my blog. (Now the main driver is a post about how to hook up a PlayStation 2 to a modern TV.)
This week, I’ve been finishing up my next book project, on the history of invisibility, and in hunting down some references, I had to go to a 1904 issue of The Strand magazine. This led me down a rabbit hole of weirdness, and I wrote a long viral twitter thread about everything I found.
This included another math puzzle, which I post below!
The solution to this puzzle is similar to one from my older post, but I thought I would share it anyway and let people figure out where the math went wrong! A hint, and then the answer, given below the fold.
In the wake of my 14 year blog anniversary, I’ve also been hit with one of the biggest episodes of depression I’ve ever experienced. Going to take a bit of time to see if I can hopefully get myself back in shape. This is just a note to let folks know that I’m not gone, but will be on a short hiatus.
I have been rather busy with work and book writing so I haven’t been posting much, but I haven’t given up and will hopefully be back with more interesting stuff soon! (Especially once I get my book draft finished in the next two months.)
In the meantime, I couldn’t let pass without comment that today is the 14 year anniversary of starting my blog! It has changed my life dramatically for the better, introducing me to new friends and colleagues, providing me opportunities as a science writer, a science historian, and a scholar of horror fiction, and even is responsible for me getting a popular science book published.
Here’s hoping I’ve got more exciting blogging in my future and more stuff to say!
Hey, you know what I haven’t done in a while? Compile my old school Dungeons & Dragons twitter threads into a post! So here we go…
Undermountain: Stardock (1997), by Steven E. Schend. I bought this one specifically because I thought I might adapt it’s plot into one of my own campaigns in the future!
This adventure has a very dubious distinction: according to DriveThruRPG, it was the last RPG product published by TSR before their bankruptcy! (Though Wizards of the Coast would publish more adventures under the TSR label for several years.)
Writing a book about the history and science of invisibility has led me to read things that I would otherwise never have encountered, including a whole slew of science fiction tales about invisibility and invisible creatures. I thought I would blog about a few of them, especially considering not all of them will be commented on in my final book!
The first one I want to share is Sinister Barrier, published in 1943 and written by British author Eric Frank Russell. I read the 1985 edition, shown below.
The “sinister barrier” of the title is the boundary between those frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can see, that we call visible light, and those frequencies beyond, where who knows what may be lurking? (Technically, we can image in all those frequencies in modern times, but in 1943 this was a reasonable premise.)
Most everyone knows the name H.G. Wells: he is one of the founders of science fiction as a popular and accepted form of literature, thanks to his brilliant novels The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The Invisible Man (1897), among others.
I’ve been researching Wells for my next popular science book on the history of invisibility, and was interested in finding out where the inspiration for The Invisible Man came from. Obviously, it is influenced by the discovery of X-rays in 1895, as Wells practically says in the story, but was there any additional impetus?
Wells appears to have been quite reticent in talking about the inspiration for his tales, and through multiple interviews I could find no discussion of the topic. My last hope was to look at the Preface to his collected works published around 1924, which was written by Wells himself. I did an interlibrary loan of the Preface of the volume containing The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, hoping to learn more. The preface didn’t tell me anything about his writing process, but it did give some hilarious insight into Wells’ disappointment with all of humanity, so I thought I would share it here.
Having a quiet night at home and realized this would be a good time to catch up on some book blogging! I finally started getting back into reading, after a long pandemic-depression hiatus, at the start of the new year, but am way behind in writing about the books I read.
Edited by James Jenkins and Ryan Cagle, the founders of Valancourt Books, this volume collects a bunch of horror stories, never translated into English, by authors from around the world. As they put it in the blurb for the book, there’s a whole world of horror fiction out there that most of us in the United States have never explored, and we’re missing out on some wonderful work.
This is a good time to review volume 1, as volume 2 in what will presumably be a series is already available for pre-order. And I’m glad they’ve evidently found success with the concept, because they’ve demonstrated that there are a lot of wonderful stories to be found around the world.
I’m having a lot of fun doing video chats on science shows lately! A few days ago, I happened to see that This Week in Science talked about some optics that I am familiar with, and I jokingly complained to them that I should have been consulted. Well, that turned into me appearing to talk about optics, invisibility, and cat physics this week! You can watch the interview and discussion below:
The author of Skulls in the Stars is a professor of physics, specializing in optical science, at UNC Charlotte. The blog covers topics in physics and optics, the history of science, classic pulp fantasy and horror fiction, and the surprising intersections between these areas.