This week, I attended my first in-person scientific conference since 2019. I went to Optica’s Frontiers in Optics in Rochester, NY, a city near and dear to my heart, since I did my PhD there, as well. I had a lovely time catching up with both friends and colleagues at the meeting, and came up with lots of interesting ideas for future research projects.
I also made a quick stop at Mount Hope Cemetery, an absolutely lovely retreat founded in 1838 and containing the final resting places of a number of important figures, such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It is especially beautiful during the autumn, when the vibrant fall colors provide a magnificent contrast to the pale monument. I last had the opportunity to visit in 2010, and wrote a lengthy blog post at that time. My trip this week was shorter, but I thought I would share some photos that I took, which give another look at some of the sights.
The photos are a mixture of camera phone images and digital camera images.
Of course, my publisher never tells me these things, but the cover for my next popular science book, on the history and physics of invisibility, has been made public and the book has a release date!
It was a challenge to come up with a cover for a book on things that are literally not to be seen, but the art department at Yale University Press did a great job, I think! (I suggested a little revision to the cover to make it more appealing, so of course I think it looks great.)
The book is already available for pre-order at Amazon, and has a release date of April 11, 2023. When it comes closer to that date, I’ll encourage (pester) people to pre-order to see if we can get some buzz going about this fun topic!
Incidentally, the original title was going to simply be “How Not To Be Seen,” which I thought would be fun, but the marketing department felt that people might miss the whole point of the book, so “Invisibility” became the main title, and “how not to be seen” became part of the subtitle.
Very excited about this! This book will not only tell the history of invisibility, but will explain the history of optical science along the way. The history of invisibility is tied up intimately with light itself.
It’s time for me to get back into blogging about weird fiction! I really fell off in my reading over the past few years, due to the stress of political turmoil, the pandemic, and life in general. Fortunately, I’ve been feeling a bit better lately and have been able to delve back into the weird stuff that I love, reading before bed.
This book by Norwegian author Bjerke is a mixture of murder mystery and supernatural thriller, and the second to feature his psychoanalyst character Kai Bugge thrust into a deadly puzzle. The first was Nattmennesket, published in 1941, followed by De dødes tjern (Lake of the Dead) in 1942. The latter book was a hit, and was made into a film in 1958. This Valancourt edition is a new English translation, and the first ever American publication of the book. I was immediately hooked, as I often am, by the book’s spooky cover!
This past Monday turned out to be a rather rare event for skywatchers: the planet Jupiter’s closest point of approach to the Earth since 1963! This was the coincidence of two situations. The first is the planet being in opposition to the Earth: the Earth was directly between the Sun and Jupiter, which not only makes it relatively close to us, but also results in the strongest illumination of the planet from our view. The second situation is perigee — the planet is as close to us as it ever gets. (I believe this coincides with the perihelion of the planet, i.e. its closest point of approach to the Sun in its elliptical orbit.)
I’ve been trying to get out more at night to appreciate these special events, and I went out late on Monday to try and snap a few photos with my 50x Canon digital camera. I in fact almost missed the event, as I had forgotten about it, but when I took out the trash late at night, Jupiter was unmissable in the sky! I ran in for my tripod and camera to try and get a few photos.
The last time I tried to photograph Jupiter was during the 2020 planetary conjunction, when Jupiter and Saturn were close together in the sky. The planets were much dimmer, and I failed to capture the moons of Jupiter in my photos, though I could see them clearly in the camera viewfinder. This time, I was much more successful!
The bright spot in the center is, of course, Jupiter, and the four dimmer dots around it are its four Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. They are of course given the name “Galilean moons” because they were first observed by Galileo Galilei on January 7, 1610. They received their individual names from the German astronomer Simon Marius, who remarkably discovered the moons one day after Galileo, on January 8, 1610.
I endeavored to get a more detailed photo, and used the digital zoom on my camera to bring things a little closer.
I am not sure which moon is which, because I have no idea at which point any of them are in their orbits. Incidentally, the eclipses of these moons by Jupiter resulted in the first quantitative measurement of the speed of light, by Ole Christensen Römer and published in 1672. Römer had noticed that the eclipses of Jupiter’s moon Io happened more frequently when Earth is moving towards Jupiter, and less frequently when Earth is moving away from Jupiter. Römer correctly concluded that these changes arose because light takes a finite amount of time to reach us from Jupiter, and therefore the relative motion of the Earth and Jupiter changes the observed time of the eclipses.
A reproduction of an illustration from a 1676 news report about his discovery is shown below. I have always liked the smiley sun!
I am not a particularly good photographer, and my images are not particularly good when compared with what amateur astronomers have taken. But I love the fact that one can see, and photograph, another planet and its moons even with very little experience and a relatively inexpensive camera!
To close, let me note that as I write this, NASA’s Juno spacecraft is less than six hours away from its closest point of approach to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, and it will come within 222 miles of the surface! Expect to see lots of remarkable images from NASA in the near future!
PS: I recently got my old telescope out of storage from Chicago. Assuming it isn’t damaged, I’ll hopefully have more detailed astronomy photos in the future.
Well, it turns out I missed a big anniversary for my blog — again! August 14th marks 15 years of me blogging, which is pretty amazing considering this was really just going to be a minor thing that I experimented with when I started.
But blogging has really transformed my life. It introduced me to an entire community of science communicators, scientists, and gamers, many of whom have become good longtime friend. My blogging on horror led me to become an amateur scholar of horror fiction, writing introductions for Valancourt Books and reviews for the periodical Dead Reckonings. My science blogging led me to writing guest posts at Scientific American and articles for Optics and Photonics News, American Scientist, and La Recherche. And, of course, it has led to me writing popular science books, such as my often mentioned Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics and my upcoming Invisibility: the history and science of how not to be seen.
I definitely don’t blog as much as I used to, but I intend to keep writing about those subjects that interest me as long as I can! Here’s to another 15 years.
So when writing my book Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics, on the history and science of how cats land on my feet, I attempted to track down the oldest explanation in print that attempted to explain why cats seem to always land on their feet, whether scientific or not.
The potentially earliest story I found is a legend about the Prophet Muhammad. The version that I posted in my book is given below:
The Prophet Mohammed had one day gone far into the desert, and after walking a long distance, fell asleep, overcome with fatigue. A great serpent – may this son of Satan be accursed! – came out of the bushes and approached the Prophet, the Messenger of Allah – whose name be glorified! The serpent was on the point of biting the Servant of the All-Merciful, when a cat, passing by accident, fell upon the reptile, and, after a long struggle, killed it. The hissing of the expiring monster awoke the Prophet, who understood from what danger the cat had saved him.
“Come hither!” commanded the Servant of Allah.
The cat approached, and Mohammed caressed him three times, and three times he blessed him, saying, “May peace be upon thee, O cat!” Then in further token of his gratitude, the Messenger added, “In return for the service thou hast done me, thou shalt be invincible in combat. No living creature shall be able to turn thee on thy back. Go, thou art thrice blessed!”
It is in consequence of this benediction of the Prophet that a cat always alights on its feet from whatever height it may fall.
This version of the story came from the 1891 book The Women of Turkey and Their Folk- Lore, written by English folklorist Lucy Mary Jane Garnett. Garnett referenced a book only a few years older, which in turn got the story from a theology student.
At the time, I was unable to trace the story back any further. If it came from anywhere near the time of Mohammed, it would definitely be the oldest falling cat explanation known, but it could of course be much, much more recent, as often happens with such stories.
A couple of years ago, however, a former student of mine read my book and did a little research, and confirmed that the story is, in fact, much, much older!*
It comes from the book with the (translated) title The Feats of the Knowers of God, written by Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad Aflākī and published around 1318. It is a collection of lectures given by the influential Persian poet, Muslim scholar and Sufi mystic known as Rumi (1207-1273) to his followers. In this collection, we find the origin of the story that Garnett referenced some 570 years later!
My apologies for my relative quietness on the blog lately — I’ve been quite busy with work, which has left me little energy for detailed blogging!
However, I rediscovered a small story about cats that amused me, and that I thought I’d share. It is from The Fireside Sphinx (1901), by Anges Repplier. It is one of many books that appeared through the Victorian and Edwardian eras expounding upon the glory of housecats, which had been largely vilified in the Western world up until that point.
This was one of my references for my book on Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics, though I ended up not finding any information relevant to falling cats in it. It contains a fun stylized narrative of the housecat throughout history, though it starts with the Garden of Eden and probably shouldn’t be considered a super-reliable source! However, it is a fascinating narrative that looks at how cats had once been revered in ancient times, fell out of favor in the “Dark Ages” as the servants of witches, and returned to favor in more recent times.
The small anecdote I want to share is about the rise of cats after the Renaissance, and one humorously quantitative way to see that rise:
Two proofs we find of Pussy’s rapid progress in esteem. The French country houses built between the middle of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were all furnished with “chatieres,” little openings cut in the doors for the accommodation of the cat, who wandered in and out of the great chill tapestried rooms as her restless fancy prompted her. These chatieres indicate a careful study of her convenience, yet, by the close of the seventeenth century, they had wholly disappeared ; – a circumstance, says M. Havard, which points to but one conclusion. In her hundred years of pampered domesticity, the cat had accustomed mankind to wait upon her pleasure. There was no longer any need of creeping through a hole. If she wanted to come in or go out, -and cats are perpetually wanting to do one or the other, – somebody was always ready to get up and open the door.
This is quite familiar to most cat parents, including myself! My cats are fully indoors, but they like hanging out in the garage, and my roommate and I will regularly get up to indulge their passage.
I am also reminded of the legend of the prophet Mohammed,
The love which Mohammed bore for his fair white cat, Muezza, has thrown a veil of sanctity over the whole feline race ; and no good Ottoman ever forgets that when Muezza slept one day upon her master’s flowing sleeve, the Prophet – being summoned to the Council – cut off his sleeve, rather than disturb her slumber.
Again, every cat parent can understand this feeling! I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen people take photos with their cat lying on top of them, with a caption something like: “trapped.”
Time for the next installment of old school D&D! I have been buoyed by a visit to Games Plus in Mount Prospect outside of Chicago, which has a massive collection of new and used game stuff! (So expect posts to continue in the future!)
The author of Skulls in the Stars is a professor of physics, specializing in optical science, at UNC Charlotte. The blog covers topics in physics and optics, the history of science, classic pulp fantasy and horror fiction, and the surprising intersections between these areas.