Sympathetic Physics

John Worrell Keely and his invention.

Poking my head out of the woods for one little bit of good news: Technology & Culture has just published my article, “Sympathetic Physics: The Keely Motor and the Laws of Thermodynamics in Nineteenth-Century Culture.” It’s about the Keely Motor, which was the most notorious perpetual motion hoax of the 19th-century–unless, of course, it was real. Technology & Culture is probably the leading journal in the history of technology, and I’ve been wanting to publish an article there for years. I’m delighted that the first one I did was this one, which I think is both smart and a lot of fun.  Read more


She Blinded Me With History

Jeremy Kalgreen’s Science! t-shirts are, obviously, awesome. It’s a sign of how much I’ve changed since the 1990s that I have not already ordered a closet of them. If another sign were needed, that is, besides kids, minivan, hair in places where there was no hair before… The key is the Magnus Pyke exclamation mark. Science (no exclamation mark) is a painstaking process consisting mainly of grant applications, faculty meetings, and washing out test tubes. But Science! is giant guitar-shredding robots, cloned T-rex burgers, and tri-breasted alien honeys. You see the difference?

I want a line of History! t-shirts.

But what would History! designs depict? Shirley Temple decking Hitler? Voltaire and Ben Franklin playing electric guitar? Vikings, just being themselves? All worthy subjects, but not iconic enough to immediately read as a t-shirt design. What are history’s goofy, “hell yeah!” equivalents to Kalgreen’s jubilant mad scientists? I suppose some of his equally swell Teach The Controversy t-shirts, like UFOs building the pyramids or the Illuminati ruling the world, could work as History! designs. As could much of Kate Beaton‘s stuff. But I welcome alternate suggestions.

I’ve been trying to come up with a mission statement for this blog: to figure out if and why I want to keep writing it, to boil what it’s all about down to one or two sentences. I haven’t gotten there yet, but one thing I’ve always known is this: History ought to be awesome.


Demon Haunted

Richard Lewontin, on his friend Carl Sagan and how to think about pseudoscience, from a 1997 review of Sagan’s Demon Haunted World:

[Carl] Sagan and I drew different conclusions from our experience [debating creationists]. For me the confrontation between creationism and the science of evolution was an example of historical, regional, and class differences in culture that could only be understood in the context of American social history. For Carl it was a struggle between ignorance and knowledge.

Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.

I am (finally) starting to think about my cranks book again.