How I plan to lose NaNoWriMo this year

NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, is a program run out of Berkeley, California that supports writers, especially first time writers, in completing a novel in one month, November.

The numerical goal is to write 50,000 words. Don’t research, don’t edit, just get your story down on paper, and worry about fixing things later.  50,000 words is a shortish novel, but you’re only working on the first draft anyways, so there’s plenty of time for editing later. Continue reading

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Isaac Newton–Alchemist

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Isaac Newton, at age 46, portrait by Godfre Kneller, 1689.

Isaac Newton is one of the towering intellects in the history of Science.  He formulated the laws of motion, investigated the nature of light, and invented calculus, among many other accomplishments.  Less well known, however, are his experiments in chymistry. Continue reading

Happy Birthday Michael Faraday!

September 22, 1791 is the birthday of my favorite scientist, Michael Faraday.

Here is a portrait painted of him at age 51, looking much younger than he does in most of his later photographic portraits.

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Portrait of Michael Faraday in 1841, painted by Thomas Phillips.

If you’re interested in reading more about this fascinating man, see this blog post.  A slightly more fictional Michael Faraday also features prominently in my latest steampunk adventure novel, “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday.”

Mr. Bazalgette and the Fatberg

Of late the dispatches from London have concerned a gigantic “fatberg” that has completely blocked one of the main sewer channels under Whitechapel.  That the capital’s Victorian sewer system is just now reaching capacity is due to the foresight and engineering genius of Mr. Joseph Bazalgette who was given the mandate to update London’s sewer system following a series of cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1840s.

When calculating out the dimensions of the pipes, he considered the highest population density producing the most amount of sewage.  Then he reportedly said, “Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen,” and doubled the diameter.  It is estimated that Bazalgette’s prudence bought an extra 50 years of life to his brick-lined sewage channels, so that only now is London needing to upgrade its system.

A very informative article in Prospect Magazine investigates the genesis of the Fatberg in more detail.

Our Enduring Preoccupation with Premature Burial  — The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice

Reposted from The Chururgion’s Apprentice blog…

Taphephobia (fear of being buried alive) has to be the ultimate claustrophobia.

Hours before he died, George Washington told his secretary: “Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.” This kind of request was not uncommon. In an era when putrefaction was the only sure sign of death, many people […]

via Our Enduring Preoccupation with Premature Burial  — The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice

Voyages of Heavenly Discovery: Eclipse Expeditions

The upcoming total solar eclipse prompted me to look into the grand history of scientific expeditions, specifically expeditions to observe rare astronomical events.

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Captain Cook’s observatory on Tahiti. Note the carefully mounted long-case clock.

One of the first voyages of discovery was to the newly discovered island of Tahiti (well, at least new to Europeans, the Tahitians obviously already knew it existed) on a ship called HMS Endeavour captained by a young Royal Navy Lieutenant by the name of James Cook.  The purpose of the voyage (at least publicly…) was to observe the Transit of Venus of 1769, that is, to watch and accurately time the planet Venus crossing in front of the sun. The ship’s company also included Joseph Banks, the famed botanist who brought along with him several assistants, two artists, and two servants.  Charles Green was appointed by the Royal Society to by one of the ship’s astronomers, the other being Cook himself who was a skilled observer.

And why all this expense to travel to the other side of the globe to observe one arcane astronomical event? The public reason was to improve navigation, specifically determination of longitude.  While the latitude of a ship at sea was easily determined with a sextant and a sunny noon-time, longitude was more difficult.  By comparing the times of the Transit of Venus at various places across the globe–some of whose positions were already accurately known, the longitudes of the observing sites could be determined with greater precision. (The longitude problem was eventually solved by John Harrison and his marine chronometers.)

So the Endeavour reached Tahiti, they timed the Transit, and then Cook opened his second set of sealed orders which essentially said, “Go look for this Terra Australis we keep hearing about, and if you find it, claim it for Britain.” After completely mapping the coast of New Zealand, Cook sailed a bit further west and found Australia.

Later astronomical expeditions were somewhat less imperialistic.

Continue reading