The Sword of Midras, by Tracy Hickman and Richard Garriott

I’ve been getting very nostalgic recently for the video fantasy role-playing games of my youth, most notably the Ultima series of games.  I played Ultima I – V when I was young, and even watched a complete walkthrough of Ultima V about a month ago.

Fortunately, I have an even better outlet for this nostalgia: Richard Garriott aka “Lord British,” the auteur of the original Ultima games, has been working with a team on a new Ultima-ish style game, Shroud of the Avatar.  I’ll say more about the game in a bit, but looking into it led me to the first tie-in novel for the game, The Sword of Midras, written by Richard Garriott and the prolific and talented fantasy author Tracy Hickman.


The Sword of Midras is, basically, a prequel novel to the Shroud of the Avatar game.  It is set in the land of New Britannia (a callback to the Ultima series’ continent of Britannia) and begins a tale of what appears to be the rediscovery of the history of the Avatars.

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Cat-turning in the Washington Post!

Those who have followed this blog for a while know that I have a fascination with the physics and history of “cat-turning,” the ability of a cat to turn over and land on its feet even when it falls with no initial rotation. This is today known as the “cat-righting reflex,” and it has fascinated folks for over a century.

It recently captured the interest of Karen Bruillard, who writes the Animalia blog for the Washington Post, and she and colleagues did an excellent post and video on the history and physics of the process!  It so happens that they interviewed me to understand the details, so if you want to read me going on about cat physics even more, go check it out!

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A trip to the New England Aquarium

I’m in Boston for a couple of days to attend an optics meeting, and I snuck out for an hour this afternoon to visit the lovely New England Aquarium!

Entrance to the New England Aquarium.

Entrance to the New England Aquarium.

Even though I’m a physicist, I love visiting such places, because I always learn something new about the natural world. This trip was no exception — below, I share a few photos of things I learned and creatures I encountered while at the aquarium.

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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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Posted in Physics, Relativity | 20 Comments