Row, row row your boat, James Clerk Maxwell (1841)

Another short post inspired by my work on my upcoming book on the history of invisibility physics!

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) is rightly regarded as one of the most important physicists of the 19th century, and indeed of all time, thanks to his work on a variety of subjects: color vision, statistical mechanics, and electromagnetic theory. It was Maxwell who found the “missing link” in electromagnetic theory, a previously unknown factor in the interaction of electricity and magnetism that, when included, predicts electromagnetic waves that travel at the speed of light. From this, Maxwell correctly concluded that light is an electromagnetic wave, revolutionizing our understanding of light, electricity and magnetism all at once.

James Clerk Maxwell.png
James Clerk Maxwell, later in life.

I always enjoy stories that humanize such powerful figures, and the 1882 book The Life of James Clerk Maxwell goes into some detail about the curious and intelligent child that Maxwell was. Throughout his childhood, his repeated question about any new object was, “What’s the go o’ that? What does it do?” If the answer was insufficient, he would add, “But what’s the particular go of it?”

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Thomas Young sees the light (1800)

A post inspired by work I’m doing on my next book, on the history of invisibility! Also will help me get my thoughts in order to write the book chapter.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, humanity’s understanding of the nature of light underwent a dramatic transformation. For about a century, the study of optics had been dominated by the views of Isaac Newton, who published his classic work on the subject, Opticks, in 1704. Newton did rigorous experiments, testing the properties of light in every way imaginable in his era, and concluded from his work that light consists of a stream of particles. Newton’s work seemed to put to rest an argument that had raged in his time — is light a stream of tiny particles, or a wave, like water and sound? In 1800, however, the British scientist Thomas Young published the first of several papers arguing that light does, in fact, have wavelike properties, and his research would be the start of a new era of wave optics that continues (with some important modifications) to this day.

I’m not sure how many people are aware of the work of Young. I think most scientists have heard about his most famous contribution, now known as Young’s double-slit experiment, but even most of them may not be aware of the fascinating story of how Young came to his conclusions. This post is an attempt to rectify this.

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Some photos of the conjunction!

You may have heard that yesterday there was a rare planetary conjunction, in which Jupiter and Saturn appear very close together in the sky! Well, the planets will still be close for several days, and I thought I would go out tonight and try a few shots with my old Canon PowerShot camera, which did surprisingly well.

So, here’s one of the best images I got, where you can actually see the rings of Saturn, probably not much different than Galileo did when he first looked at the planet through a telescope in 1610!

Fun trivia: much like my image above, to Galileo the rings appeared as two dots on either side of the planet, which slowly appeared to disappear as the days passed. What Galileo didn’t know is that the rings were tilting towards him, making them effectively invisible, but Galileo wrote to a friend, “Has Saturn devoured his children?” (Which is appropriate, if one knows the story of Saturn.)

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Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 18

Time for another round of old school Dungeons and Dragons, taken from my long-running twitter series!

Dragons (1986), by Cory Glaberson. Here is another supplement in the Role Aids line for D&D that was produced by Mayfair Games, originally under the untested premise that TSR couldn’t sue them for making unlicensed products!

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Posted in Fantasy fiction, role-playing games | 6 Comments

Superoscillations: imaging beyond the limits of diffraction

This past week I gave a virtual talk to the Charlotte Amateur Astronomy Club about a fascinating development in wave physics and imaging called “superoscillations,” and I thought I would record a version that I could share here!

Hopefully the video makes sense — I throw in a little history about the wave theory of light in addition to the discussion of modern developments.

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Some of my favorite horror video games!

So Halloween may be done, but I’m not quite done with Halloween! I was sitting around thinking about horror-themed video games, and decided that I wanted to put together a list of some of my favorites!

Such a list is, of course, a personal one and is not intended to be some sort of list of the “absolute” best, as I haven’t played many of the most well-known. I wasn’t gaming during the early PS “Resident Evil” era, so I missed a lot of those classics.

So don’t yell at me that I didn’t include your favorite! However, feel free to share your thoughts on your own favorites in the comments!

The Lurking Horror (1987). Let’s start with one of the earliest games that can truly be called “horror,” in that it told a creepy narrative story! The Lurking Horror is an interactive text adventure released by the famed Infocom back in its heyday, and written by Dave Lebling. For those unfamiliar, “text adventures” were just that: stories told entirely through text, and with the player giving commands in the form of sentences, such as “go east,” “eat the spider,” and “hit the tentacle with the sword.”

The story is set at the fictional university G.U.E. Tech, modeled after M.I.T. and its name an allusion to the “Great Underground Empire” of the original Zork games, that started Infocom and the whole text adventure industry. The player is trying to finish a term paper in the computer lab while a fierce blizzard rages outside. While working, however, the paper gets corrupted with data from the Department of Alchemy, sending the player in that direction hoping to recovery the missing pages. With the storm outside, the player must navigate the steam tunnels below the university as well as its abandoned halls, and along the way finds evidence of a sinister and otherworldly force at work on campus. After surviving numerous perils, such as carnivorous rats and a murderous inhuman custodian, the player must finally put a stop to the evil and recover their paper in the process!

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Halloween Treats 2020!

I almost forgot to do one of my oldest blog traditions: sharing a series of classic ghost and horror stories to celebrate Halloween! The list of past post is too long to share these days, but you can search “Halloween Treats” on my blog page to find my past posts.

This year, I thought I would go with a theme for my stories. At first, I thought about doing a theme of “disease,” but… that is a bit too topical! So my second choice? Horrors of the sea! So many creepy stories are set at sea or feature the ocean prominently in some way, which is not surprising: the ocean is ancient and vast, and can produce a visceral fear even without adding supernatural threats to it.

So without further ado, here are a list of nautical-themed horror stories, with links!

The Shadow over Innsmouth, by H.P. Lovecraft (1931). One of my favorite horror stories of all time! When a young man opts to take a sightseeing tour of New England, he finds the cheapest route requires a stop at the sinister seaside town of Innsmouth, where the locals appear very unhappy to see him. Innsmouth holds an ancient secret, and as the sun sets in the town, the narrator finds himself hunted by residents determined to keep that secret. (Incidentally, the story of Innsmouth was made into one of the best horror games of all time, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which came out in 2005. You can still buy and play the game, but sure to seek out the unofficial patch for the PC version!)

The Derelict, by William Hope Hodgson (1912). Derelict ships are always creepy as heck (see, for instance, the real story of the Mary Celeste), but Hodgson creates a derelict like none other in literature! When the crew of the Bheospsé come across an ancient and abandoned ship off of the Eastern coast of Africa, they send a small boarding party to investigate. But none of the boarders are prepared for what they find, and for the true nature of the nameless vessel.

The Upper Berth, by F. Marion Crawford (1926). Simply one of the most effective ghost stories ever written, with one of the best closing lines of any such story, as well! When the sailor Brisbane takes an Atlantic voyage on the ship Kamtschatka, he is assigned the lower berth in room 105. Soon he realizes that his chamber may be occupied by something not quite human.

The Sea Raiders, by H.G. Wells (1896). Wells is most known as a science fiction author, but his short fiction could be quite horrifying! A quite town on the coast of England finds itself the target of a monstrous invasion of beings that are decidedly hungry for humans.

MS. Found in a Bottle, by Edgar Allan Poe (1833). Though some speculate that it is a satirical tale of nautical horror, Poe’s story nevertheless manages to chill with eerie and incomprehensible happenings. When disaster strikes a cargo ship heading from Indonesia, only the narrator and an old sailor are left onboard. From there, things get stranger and stranger as the pair are sent towards what seems to be an inexorable doom.

I hope you find these stories entertaining, and happy Halloween!

The Mary Celeste, then known as Amazon, painted in 1861.
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I am now an OSA Fellow!

I’ve been a little quiet on the blog lately thanks to a combination of lots of work, lots of D&D games during the week, and just stress about the world! Hoping to get back to a more regular schedule in the near future, but in the meantime, I wanted to share the news:

I am now a Fellow of the Optical Society of America for 2021!

Fellows are members of the Optical Society that have been recognized for their accomplishments in the field. I have been recognized “for contributions to coherence theory, singular optics, and the intersection of these disciplines.”

It’s quite an honor and I wasn’t sure that I would ever be made a Fellow, to be honest. From the OSA website,

OSA Fellows are an important part of our community and we greatly appreciate their on-going support of OSA and our field. The number of Fellows is limited by the Society’s bylaws to be no more than 10% of the total OSA Membership and the number elected each year is limited to approximately 0.5% of the current membership total.

Just wanted to share this bit of happy personal news — I’ll be back soon with more science, horror, and D&D posts!

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Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 17

Since I’m behind in compiling my old school D&D posts from twitter, here’s another post!

Operation Seventh Seal (1985), by Evan Robinson. Let’s look at an adventure from another TSR roleplaying game, Top Secret!

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Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 16

Been a while since I’ve compiled my twitter threads on old school D&D, so time to catch up a bit!

Reunion (1998), by Jackie Cassada and Nicky Rea.  Here we look at a rather unusual specimen from the Al-Qadim line of “Arabian Adventures.”

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Posted in Fantasy fiction, role-playing games | 7 Comments