The Little Black Bag, by C.M. Kornbluth

As long as I’ve been having fun tracking down classic science fiction stories that I absolutely love, let me share at least one more! “The Little Black Bag,” by C.M. Kornbluth, first appeared in the July 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. (You can read it on the Archive at this link.)

Cyril M. Kornbluth is one of my favorite science fiction authors, and largely due to three stories, that encapsulate a truly prescient view of the future and an extremely cynical one. In his story “The Silly Season” (1950), strange and nonsensical events worldwide that take up the attention of the newspapers turn out to be a distraction for an alien invasion. This story really anticipates the “noise chambers” that a lot of media companies have become, harping on nonsense issues to distract from serious ones. In his story “The Only Thing We Learn” (1949), a teacher recounts to students the heroic origins of their civilized society, whereas flashbacks show us the horror and brutality that those founders actually achieved. This story warns against the whitewashing of our history, while cynically suggesting that it will repeat itself with another conqueror.

The third story is “The Little Black Bag.” (Severe spoilers from here on out, so please read it first from the link.)

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Prisoner of the Vampires of Mars, by Gustave Le Rouge

Sometimes you just have to read a book because of its title. This was certainly the case when I decided I wanted to read Prisoner of the Vampires of Mars (1908-1909), by Gustave Le Rouge!

Like, the title has everything! Mars! Vampires! Prisoners! How could I not read it? I put the book on one of my holiday wishlists, and my roommate got it for me this past Christmas. It took me some time to read it, an admittedly my expectations were not particularly high, but I ended up enjoying the book immensely! Let’s take a look at the book, without major spoilers, below.

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So, what is “structured light?”

The fields of optical science and engineering have undergone dramatic changes over the past twenty years. Through most of its history, stretching back for hundreds of years, optics researchers have been asking the question, “what can light do?” Revolutionary discoveries have changed the question to, “how can we make light do whatever we want it to?”

One area where there has been dramatic change in recent years is in the very structure of a beam of light itself. Ever since the invention of the laser, it has been the standard source of light for experiments an applications, far superior to using natural light sources, which must be collimated and filtered to produce a directional and monochromatic beam. Most ordinary laser sources, like a laser pointer you might use to entertain your cats or give a presentation, produce a Gaussian beam, so named because they produce a brightness (intensity) spot shaped like a Gaussian function, as shown below.

On the left: a simulation of the brightness of a Gaussian spot, as if you would see if you looked directly in the beam (don’t do that). On the right: the cross-section of the spot, showing its Gaussian shape.

A Gaussian beam is great for most uses: it is very directional, and propagates long distances without significant spreading, it is very close to being a single frequency wave, which also means it is coherent (more on this momentarily). However, researchers have gradually realized that beams with properties different than a Gaussian beam could show unusual, beneficial, and even seemingly impossible behaviors! These beams are created by modifying, or “structuring,” the properties of the beam spot.

There are a number of properties that can be structured in the transverse cross-section of the beam. The shape of the intensity spot can be changed, the phase of the light wave can be modified, the polarization properties of the light can be manipulated, and the spatial coherence can be adjusted. Let’s look at examples of each of these “structured” light beams, and see what weird things can be done!

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Relook at “Giants From Eternity,” by Manly Wade Wellman

In my investigations of classic pulp magazines over the past year, I’ve come across some classic stories and real gems that I had forgotten about. One of these guilty pleasures is “Giants From Eternity,” by Manly Wade Wellman, published in the July 1939 issue of Startling Stories.

The cover image, incidentally, doesn’t represent Wellman’s story in the magazine.

I’m a big fan of Manly Wade Wellman’s work; his Silver John series of stories and novels, about a wandering Appalachian minstrel who fights evil with wit and a song, are absolutely delightful. With his son, he wrote a story about Sherlock Holmes squaring off against H.G. Wells’ invaders from The War of the Worlds! I’ve also written about Giants From Eternity before, when I read it in a modern edition, though I read it and blogged about it over a decade ago!

Digging up the story in magazine form gives me an excuse to take another look at the story, and share the original images from the magazine! (And once you know what the story is about, you’ll see why.) If you want to read it in advance, the issue is available on the Internet Archive, or you can buy a modern edition.

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A Subway Named Mobius, by A.J. Deutsch

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about short stories about invisibility, but my searches have occasionally reminded me of some of my other favorite, non-invisibility-related, science fiction stories. Today I thought I’d take a short look at “A Subway Named Mobius,” written by Armin Joseph Deutsch and which appeared in the December 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

This story is one of the true classics of science fiction, all the more remarkable because I believe it is the only story that Deutsch ever published! It is a semi-humorous story based on one of the more challenging subjects in mathematics, topology: the study of those properties of sets or objects that are invariant under continuous deformations of the object. A classic example of this line of thinking is the topological similarity of a coffee cup and a donut; both of them have a single hole, and if we imagine them made out of clay, one could be molded into the other, as long as we obey the rule that we can stretch and compress and warp the clay, but not tear it.

Another classic structure from topology is the Möbius strip, a one-sided surface, that gives the story its name. It is created by taking a ribbon of paper, giving one end a half-twist, and then taping the ends together. It is distinct from a cylinder, which could be created by taping the ends of the paper together without the half-twist.

A paper Mobius strip.

So let’s take a look at “A Subway Named Mobius!” You can read the entire story from its original source at this link.

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Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys

Oh, what the heck — as long as I’m thinking of Algis Budrys’ work, and I’m still on a blogging roll, let me say a few words about his most famous novel Rogue Moon (1960). I read it on a Kindle on a trip a few years ago, which is why I suppose I never got around to blogging it — by the time I returned from the trip, I was already reading other things.

But Rogue Moon is a classic of science fiction, and well worth exploring. However, readers may find that the novel is not exactly about what it seems to be about at first glance!

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Me on the “6 Degrees of Cats” podcast!

Hey folks! I’ve appeared on yet another podcast! Fortunately, for those who are tired of me talking about invisibility, this one is about cats, and related to my previous book on Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics.

I’m part of an episode discussing the righting reflex. Click on the image above to go to the episode, or this link here. Thanks again to Amanda for having me on the show!

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Perseus Had a Helmet, by Richard Sale

Fate has led me to another invisibility story while looking for something completely different! This gives me one more opportunity to remind people that my book on invisibility is available while I blog about this story.

One of the very oldest stories about invisibility in the history of humanity is the story of Perseus from ancient Greek folklore. Perseus, the son of Zeus, is given gifts by the gods to accomplish his quest. One of these is the Cap of Hades, that confers invisibility on the wearer; Perseus uses it to sneak up on Medusa and her immortal sisters and escape safely with her head. This story has been told in many versions, though one of the most detailed was written in the first or second century CE in the Bibliotheca of an author known as pseudo-Apollodorus. (For years, scholars thought that Apollodorus wrote the Bibliotheca, but now believe this not to be true, so the unknown author is simply known as pseudo-Apollodorus.)

With this in mind, you’d think that I would’ve found a significant number of modern stories inspired by Perseus, but so far I’ve only found one: “Perseus Had a Helmet,” by Richard Sale, which appeared in the very first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949. (I’ll give a few spoilers again, so please read the story first if you’re concerned.)

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Hard Landing, by Algis Budrys

Some time ago, I read Rogue Moon (1960), by Algis Budrys, a classic science fiction novel about an alien deathtrap maze discovered on the moon and the man willing to die over and over again to discover its secrets. I found it fascinating, even though for some reason I never blogged about it. I’ve thought about looking up more of Budrys’ work, and after recently rereading his invisibility-related story “For Love,” I decided to give Hard Landing (1993) a try.

Hard Landing is a very unusual but compelling novel — it tells the story of alien explorers from another solar system who crash land on Earth and are forced to “go native,” and the ways they go about it.

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Quantum jumps: The Franck-Hertz experiment (1914)

The early years of quantum physics, from Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect in 1905 through the introduction of the Schrödinger equation in 1926, was a remarkable time for science and filled with novel ideas, speculations, and experiments. In the teaching of physics, some of these results get more attention, and some absolutely beautiful experiments are not discussed as often as others, as they are not essential to understanding the phenomena, even if they were essential in proving them.

One example of this I’ve had on my mind for some time is the Franck-Hertz experiment, reported in 1914. This experiment was the first demonstration that the energy levels of atoms are quantized, and that an atom can only absorb or emit energy in discrete amounts referred to as “quanta.” I did the Franck-Hertz experiment as an undergraduate, and it has always stuck with me. A few years ago, I tried to track down the original paper, but found to my surprise that it was extremely difficult to find — even an attempt to acquire it through Interlibrary Loan failed! This week, however, I took another look, and managed to get the original paper in German and translate it, and wanted to share a description of it here.

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