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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Posted in Horror | Leave a comment

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

Twitter Weird Science Facts, Volume 18

Getting soooo close to having done a full year of Twitter weirdscifacts! Read below to learn the amazing ability that this seemingly ordinary European robin possesses.


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Posted in General science, Science news, Weirdscifacts | Leave a comment

The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The first indication that something is seriously wrong in the city is the arrival of the baboons.  They appear without warning at the garbage dump by the hundreds, rapidly fanning out through the rest of the city and wreaking havoc wherever they go.

Where did they come from? Nobody knows. Why are they here? Nobody knows. What can be done about them? Very little, apparently: after attempts to kill or capture them fails, the government institutes a policy of “adopting” a baboon and caring for it.

Such is the mixture of surreality and absurdity that characterizes The Doomed City, the brilliant 1972 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, only published in English for the first time this year.  It is an intricate, elegant, and haunting combination of allegory, science fiction, and horror that will stay with you long after finishing.


It is no surprise that The Doomed City is a magnificent novel, considering its authors also wrote the incredible science fiction story Roadside Picnic, of which I’ve blogged before.  The Doomed City, however, is really their masterwork: a dense and meticulous commentary on society through the lens of a supernatural city.

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Posted in Horror, Science fiction | 1 Comment

Twitter Weird Science Facts, Volume 17

Time for another round of #weirdscifacts from Twitter! I’m closing in quickly on a full year of facts, and I don’t think I’ll continue this past a year, so enjoy them while you can!

Read below to find out what the deal is with this image.


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Posted in General science, Weirdscifacts | 2 Comments