Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy

I’ve recently been trying to become more acquainted with science fiction as a genre, as most of my life I’ve been focused primarily on horror fiction.  A natural and obvious place to place some emphasis is on classic works from the golden age of science fiction, and a natural and obvious place to start there is with the work of Isaac Asimov.  A few weeks ago, I read Asimov’s Foundation (1951), and blogged my thoughts about it.

Asimov has written seven books set in the Foundation setting; I figured that I would be content reading the first one, to get a feel for it, and then move on to other authors and other series…

… and, as of today, I’ve started reading the fifth of the Foundation novels.

As the first three books, Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953), form the original trilogy, and I thought it would be worthwhile to blog my thoughts on the trilogy as a whole.


The Foundation trilogy tells an epic, galaxy-spanning story over the course of some 400 years, telling the early history of what is known simply as, well, the Foundation.  Some 12,000 years into the existence of a powerful galactic Empire, a mathematician named Hari Seldon predicts, using a new and advanced mathematical science known as psychohistory, the collapse of the Empire within 300 years and a galaxy-wide Dark Age to follow lasting some 30,000 years.  The collapse of the Empire is inevitable — the actions of quintillions of humans in the Empire possess a momentum that cannot be overturned in time to avoid disaster.

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Posted in Science fiction | 6 Comments

Twitter Weird Science Facts, Volume 19

Happy Holidays!  Nearing completion of a full year of facts!  Read on to learn what this strange leech-based device was designed to do.


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Posted in General science, Weirdscifacts | Leave a comment

Michael Faraday meets “The Ghost”

My most recent blog post, concerning the history of the Pepper-Dircks Ghost, was extremely long but didn’t even include all the fascinating aspects of its history.  For instance: the ghost was such an incredibly effective illusion that it even drew celebrities of all types to see it.  From Pepper’s own True History, for example, we have the following description from the May 20th, 1863 edition of The Times:

Yesterday morning, by special command. Professor Pepper had the honour of delivering his ghost lecture before their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Prince and Princess Louis of Hesse, who were attended by the Countess of Macclesfield, Baroness Von Schenck, Major Teesdale, and Captain Westerweller. The distinguished party were received by Professor Pepper, and after being conducted round the galleries passed to the large theatre, where a commodious Royal box had been prepared for their reception. At the conclusion of the lecture, by the invitation of Professor Pepper, they went behind the scenes, and examined with much interest the machinery and appliances for producing the Polytechnic ‘ghost.’ At the conclusion, their Royal Highnesses graciously thanked the directors of the institution, and after shaking hands with Professor Pepper, retired.

The illusion also drew scientific luminaries to its presence, including one of my scientific heroes, Michael Faraday (1791-1867), who played a major role in demonstrating that light, electricity, and magnetism are all part of one single related phenomenon, electromagnetism.  Faraday visited Pepper’s theater sometime before his death and, as Pepper recounts,

Very few persons could understand how the ghost was produced, although many persons wrote about and explained it; even the distinguished philosopher, Michael Faraday, when I took him behind the scenes, said, with his usual love of truth: “Do you know, Mr. Pepper, I really don’t understand it.” I then took his hand, and put it on one of the huge glass plates, when he said, ” Ah ! now I comprehend it; but your glasses are kept so well protected I could not see them even behind your scenes.”

This seems very like Faraday to me! He was a humble man and not particularly sophisticated when it came to abstract thought, but he could pick up quickly on experimental techniques.

Posted in History of science, Optics, Physics | 1 Comment

Dircks and Pepper: A Tale of Two Ghosts

It is often told that in the 1860s, John Henry Pepper used science and technology to invent a ghost.

Or did he?

This is the surprisingly tricky question that we will try to answer in this lengthy post.

It is a somewhat sad and recurring theme in science that many discoveries are not named after the actual people that discovered them.  In fact, this phenomenon is so common that it has a name — Stigler’s law.  Appropriately, Stigler’s law was, in fact, first discovered by Robert Merton.

This effect is not necessarily the result of deception or injustice.  The history of science is complicated, and it so happens that things are often “discovered” multiple times before their significance is truly appreciated and recorded by the scientific community. One example is Snell’s Law, which describes how the direction of light changes when it crosses the boundary between two different transparent materials.  Named for Willebrord Snellius who observed it in 1621, it was noted by English astronomer Thomas Harriot twenty years before, and in fact had been first discovered by Persian mathematician Ibn Sahl in 984.

In the case of “Pepper’s ghost,” the issue is weighing the relative contributions of two discoverers who each made important contributions. There are in fact two key inventors whose roles must be examined: John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) and Henry Dircks (1806-1873).  Their story inextricably entwines science, engineering, legal theory, and entertainment.

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Posted in History of science, Optics | Leave a comment

The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories

I’ve been following Valancourt Books almost since they started publishing books back in 2005 (and of course I’ve written a number of book intros for them).  It has been really exciting to see them expand from their origins in reprinting very rare Victorian (and earlier) novels, to reprinting 20th century classics, to printing original anthologies.  This past October, they released a wonderful new anthology, The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories (VBHS).


This is not the first anthology released by Valancourt, but it seems like a new direction, as it is, I believe, the first that is inspired by and drawn from the list of authors that they have contracted with.  The result is an incredibly diverse collection with stories by classic authors that stretch over 200 years.

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Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

It is a truly daunting task to try and write a blog post about an utterly unique and undisputed classic of literature like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (1951). On the other hand, it is almost impossible to not write about such a book after reading it, considering the torrent of ideas it bombards and infuses you with.  I’ve never gotten very deep into science fiction in my life, and in recent years I’ve been trying to correct that by hunting down the classics: Foundation does not disappoint.


Originally a series of short stories that was turned into a novel, Foundation chronicles 150 years of history of an organization called, well, the Foundation, which has been created in a remote corner of the galaxy to preserve the history and knowledge of humanity and restore it after what amounts to a galactic Dark Age.

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Posted in Politics, Science fiction | 12 Comments

Dinosaur feathers and other oddly-discovered science

Several days ago, a truly awe-inspiring and beautiful scientific achievement was announced to the public: the discovery of the first piece of amber ever found to actually contain the preserved tissue from the tail of a dinosaur, including bones, flesh — and feathers.

Photo by R.C. McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, via The Guardian.

Photo by R.C. McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, via The Guardian.

We’ve known for quite some time that some dinosaurs are the ancestors of modern birds, and that those dinosaurs often had feathers; scientists have even, recently, found wingtips from that era preserved in amber that possessed similar feathers.  However, this is evidently the first specimen that clearly shows that it is from a non-avian dinosaur.  It is truly amazing that, after centuries of just seeing fossilized bones, we are able to get a glimpse of what a living dinosaur might have looked like.  More detail can be found in a National Geographic article about the find.

Something else that caught my eye, however, was the means by which this sample was discovered:

The amber sample—formally called DIP-V-15103 and nicknamed “Eva” in honor of paleobotanist Eva Koppelhus, the wife of co-author Philip Currie—comes from a mine in the Hukawng Valley in Kachin state, northern Myanmar. Amber from this region most likely contains the world’s largest variety of animal and plant life from the Cretaceous period.

It was one of more than a dozen amber samples with significant inclusions that were collected by Xing and his research team in 2015 at a well-known amber market in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state. Two of the other samples contained the dinosaur-era bird wings published earlier this summer.

The majority of Burmese amber is used in jewelry and carvings, and the “Eva” sample had already been subject to shaping by the time it was collected by the researchers.

In short: the scientists found this incredibly rare and wonderful specimen by shopping in a what amounts to a jewelry market!

This got me thinking about how many stories exist of scientific discoveries being made in weird and fascinating ways, and I thought I’d share a few of those in this post.  Feel free to share others in the comments!

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Posted in Animals, General science, History of science | 2 Comments