Monthly Archives: February 2014



One of the largest and longest-running projects I’ve been working on as part of my research fellowship at Notre Dame and the Adler Planetarium has been Dioptrice, a database of surviving pre-1775 refracting telescopes. The brainchild of the former chief curator at the Adler, Dioptrice is the first step toward a richer history of the telescope: its origins, evolution, and diffusion as well as popular perceptions of the instrument in works of art and early books and manuscripts. The principle investigators of the project, which is funded by NSF and NEH grants, travel the world looking for early telescopes in museums and private collections. They analyze and photograph them and then send the data to me, where I add it to the database. I also scour catalogues and websites, initiate contact with additional collections, and search the rare book collection at the Adler for early telescope images. All of this goes into the database, which has been slowly building for the past few years.

Now it’s ready to go public. Information on hundreds of telescopes, fully searchable by year, type, maker, country of origin, and just about every other category you can think of. All hosted online in a sleek website designed by Parallactic Consulting but curated by yours truly. If you’re interested in the history of the telescope as art, artifact, or instrument, feel free to look around. If you know of telescopes that should be hosted here, let me know.

Have fun:


Update: I presented a poster on Dioptrice at the AAAS meeting in Chicago yesterday. ScienceNOW, the online AAAS science magazine, just published an article on the database, and I was featured as part of the #scienceWOW video series talking about William Herschel. (You can see all the videos, including one by Alan Alda, here.)

Earthsea vol. 1 and 2

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The blurb on the book said Le Guin was to be ranked among Lewis and Tolkien, which was probably why the tattered paperback had survived through so many shelf purges even though I had never yet read it. I finally did, and I think the blurb was correct. There’s a richness, a thickness to the prose coupled with a simplicity in the telling. It’s a simple story, lacking the complexities and mechanics of much of contemporary fantasy, but it’s better for it. It’s about growing up, friendship, learning wisdom, learning to take responsibility for one’s choices. It is also about magic and the wonder of a new world. I think the magic here might be one of the most compelling aspects, because again, it’s simple and somehow true without a bunch of trappings. Magic is about knowing things, about naming things truly. That seems right. I read it, and I should have read it when I was twelve, so I immediately passed it along to a bright twelve-year-old I know.

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do you remember the scene in The Horse and His Boy where Shasta has to spend the night at the tombs outside the city of Tashbaan and how creepy it was and how Lewis never really explained the tombs but you knew they were old and foreboding and had entire dark stories of their own? The Tombs of Atuan, the setting for the second book of the Earthsea trilogy of the same title, have that same feel, but we as readers spend the greater portion of the book exploring their secrets. The book focuses on Arha, the Eaten One, the high (and only) priestess of the Nameless Ones who live in the Tombs. Taken from her family at a young age, the only life she knows is that of service to these gods almost forgotten by all outside the desert shrine that houses the Tombs.

The book starts slowly. Coming on the heels of the first volume, it almost lost me in the first two chapters. The main character of the previous novel, Ged, does not make his appearance until almost halfway through the book. But soon the mystery of the tombs themselves makes itself felt, and you’re drawn into Arha’s world and the Gormenghast-like rituals of the tombs and the labyrinth beneath. When Ged finally does show up, the sense of incongruity he represents as a foreigner and stranger to this dark world is effective and dramatic. From there, the plot unfolds quickly (though somewhat predictably).

Where was LeGuin when I was a kid looking for “Christian” fantasy? According to Family Christian Stores, this genre extended to pretty much Lewis, Stephen R. Lawhead, and Frank Peretti. Why wasn’t LeGuin there, bringing some literary depth to these shelves? If the theme of the previous volume, A Wizard of Earthsea, was growing into wisdom and true friendship, this one is redemption. Consider what Ged tells Arha upon leaving the Tombs: “You were the vessel of evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives its light.”

Highly recommended, especially if you know a young person looking for some quality fantasy that speaks wisdom and goodness without beating you over the head with an explicitly Christian metaphor or allusion every other page.

Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel

A Calendar Of The Correspondence Of Sir John HerschelA Calendar Of The Correspondence Of Sir John Herschel by Michael J. Crowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Herschel was the most famous scientist you never heard of. His name may sound familiar (especially if you’ve spent much time around me), but if so you’re likely thinking of his father, the astronomer famous for discovering the planet Uranus. Yet during his lifetime John Herschel, whose life and career spanned most of the nineteenth century, was Britain’s leading scientist (though the term itself is a bit anachronistic here) and a prime player in the international scientific community. I tell people he was the Stephen Hawking of the nineteenth century: an astronomer himself and the person people thought of when they envisioned the epitome of the scientific life. His generation considered him second to Newton in English science, so much so that he was buried next to the famous physicist in Westminster Abbey upon his death.

So why has no one heard of him today? There are lots of likely reasons. Though his career spanned decades, he was the last of the natural philosophers, the scientists who could still expect to have a mastery of all scientific fields. In astronomy, he was the first (and perhaps the only) to closely survey the entire northern and southern skies with a large optical telescope. But despite his influence he had no single large discovery (like his father’s planet), and his work was quickly overshadowed by the developments of spectroscopy and photography. In mathematics, he is largely the reason we use the Continental form of calculus instead of the Newtonian fluxions that held sway in England until the early 1800s, but the history of mathematical analysis doesn’t make great cover. He did important work in optics, chemistry, and photography as well, before they were considered separate fields. He coined the phrases snapshot, negative, and positive. His very omnicompetence may have helped efface his memory. He doesn’t have one specific theory or field of speciality to attach to him, like Maxwell or Darwin.

This breadth also contributes to another aspect of Herschel’s current anonymity: lack of a good biography. An adequate biography of Herschel would be a huge undertaking. The only attempt so far is a book-length sketch by a German librarian, which has been translated into English (Gunther Buttmann’s The Shadow of the Telescope). Herschel is starting to get more treatment though. He features prominently in Laura Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club and Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder. In both of these however, Herschel himself is not the primary focus.

Several years ago Dr. Michael Crowe, a scholar on my dissertation committee, decided he would attempt a Herschel biography. What he realized very quickly though was that the amount of material that needed to be processed for such a project was immense. Correspondence to and from Herschel alone (not to mention his published works and his journals) amounted to more than 14,000 letters scattered in repositories, libraries, and archives all over the world. The first task would be to assemble and organize this correspondence, and the results (after a decade of work involving dozens of graduate students) was the massive Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel.

This is not a book to be read straight through (unless you’re writing your dissertation on Herschel). It is truly massive, for one thing, weighing in at over 700 pages. And the content is not narrative but instead chronological summaries of all of Herschel’s correspondence. Every letter (known at the time) that he wrote or received has been read, dated, and summarized. And then indexed, which is perhaps the most useful thing of all. Because Herschel really was at the center of an immense network of scientists, and if you are interested in any aspect of what might loosely be termed Victorian science (and why wouldn’t you be, because this is the age of steam, electricity, exploration– science becoming the science we know today) you’re likely to find that Herschel corresponded with someone about it. Pretty much every big name (and several smaller ones) in the history of nineteenth-century science makes an appearance.

For a Herschel scholar, this is an absolutely essential resource. Besides a complete guide to his letters, Crowe also includes very large and very useful appendices listing all of Herschel’s published works as well as a bibliography of secondary works on Herschel up to the time of publishing (and while there is still no book-length treatment of Herschel’s life, the huge amount of papers and essays written about him shows his enduring influence on a wide range of fields). Though the book is currently out of print, the information entailed is available in an even more useful form, fully searchable and online, as a database hosted by the Adler Planetarium.

Venture forth:

What I Wrote for Andronicus


This may be my favorite story I’ve written so far. Much of my work is a love song to trees, and that’s evident in this piece. It’s about the afterlife too, a concept I like to play with in fiction. (I also like it because I was able to work in one of my favorite Chesterton quotes.)

If you only ever read one of my pieces, I think I would want it to be this one.

“What I Wrote for Andronicus” appeared in Ideomancer back in 2010. Ideomancer is a sharp, shiny online magazine that pays semipro rates, which according to Duotrope means between 1  and 4.9 cents per word. (Ideomancer currently pays 3 cents per word with a maximum payment of $40 per story.)

You can read “What I Wrote for Andronicus” here.

Imaginary Lands

Imaginary LandsImaginary Lands by Robin McKinley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My wife brought this anthology home because it was edited by her favorite author. I’ve never been enthralled by McKinley myself, but I recognized several of the authors in this collection and decided to give it a chance. Also, my wife made the task easier by marking those stories she felt were particularly enjoyable. So, my caveat to this review is that I’ve actually only read 5/9ths of the entire volume.

The highpoint for me was “Flight” by Peter Dickinson, which was quite wonderful. It was a well-crafted, meticulously “researched” essay exploring the relationship between an Empire and one recalcitrant tribe stretching over hundreds of years, from the Empire’s mythical origins through the Industrial Revolution, political revolution, and the Nuclear Age. It accomplished what the best fantasy should: holding up a mirror to the real world in a thoughtful and entertaining way. (I think the mirror analogy is especially apt. The most mundane scene takes on an entirely new aspect when seen in reflection. Dickinson’s work does this with our history.)

There were other good stories as well, but nothing that stood out like Dickinson’s contribution. “Rock Candy Mountain” was cute, as “The Stone Fey” was haunting. In all, I wondered what the common theme was holding these together beside a strong sense of place– yet some of the stories lacked it. I think I was most disappointed with “Paper Dragons,” which started the collection. The language in this piece was evocative and effective, but the story never gathered steam and eventually came to pieces like the dragon in Filby’s garage.