The intersection of physics, optics, history and pulp fiction. The author of Skulls in the Stars is an associate 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.
On my first weekend in Jinan, I vowed to get out and brave the city by myself. On that Sunday, I went to Baotu Spring, which I wrote about in Part 1. On that Saturday, though, I went to the Shandong Museum, which I will cover in this post.
Why am I writing about my first experience in Jinan in Part 4 of my series of posts? Well, it takes a lot more research and effort to properly describe a history museum, so I wanted to take extra time to get around to it!
The Shandong Museum is, as its name suggests, is the principal museum of Shandong Province, a province on the east coast of the country. It is one of the largest museums in the country, in fact, and has a significant history to it, though the current building was completed and opened to the public in 2010.
The Shandong Museum.
The first incarnation of the museum was in fact founded by a Baptist missionary in Qingzhou in 1887, and was called the Yidu Museum. It was moved to Jinan in 1904 and renamed Guangzhi Yuan. In 1942, the museum expanded to a compound in the (I kid you not) Red Swastika Society. The Shandong Provincial Museum was founded in 1954, and divided its collection between the Guangzhi Yuan and the Red Swastika Society locations. A new unified museum location was opened in 1992, but more space was needed, leading to the construction of the current building.
The modern building is definitely impressive. See the dome at the top of the museum? That admits light into the central hall, where it is filtered through a magnificent ceiling.
The jade ceiling of the museum.
I have read a number of tourist descriptions stating that the ceiling is in fact made of transparent jade, though I have not been able to confirm this in any official documents. Considering the museum has an extensive jade collection, though, it is not improbable.
The museum has 3 floors, 83,000 square meters of floor space and 25,000 square meters of exhibition space. The exhibitions include art and cultural and historical artifacts ranging from prehistory up into the 19th century. There are both permanent and temporary exhibits.
Where to begin? I can’t possibly share every artifact that I came across and photographed while visiting the museum, so I will simply hit the highlights, and present them in the order I saw them. This happens to also be the numbering of the galleries themselves.
Gallery 1 is The Exhibition of Buddhist Art. The earliest extant Buddhist temple in Jinan was constructed in 351 CE, and Buddhism flourished in the region after that, resulting in a lot of stone Buddhist sculptures. These sculptures attracted little notice until the 1980s, when many statues were unearthed. In 1996, a cache of sculptures were discovered in Longxing Temple in Qingzhou, leading to national interest. The museum highlights some of the loveliest specimens uncovered in Shandong.
At the entrance to the exhibit, one is greeted by the following impressive figure.*
Statue of Maitreya.
The statue dates from the Northern Wei Dynasty, 527 CE, and was part of the Jiegong Temple. There is an inscription on the statue giving the date of dedication, which is why it is dated so accurately.
Buddhist statues of the area have their own distinct style, called the “Shandong style.” They are characterized by figures in light flowing robes and usually possessing a downward-facing dragon above their heads biting a lotus.
Maitreya statue commission by Bhikkhu Hui Fu, in 530 CE.
Another example of this style follows, in better condition.
Buddha triad statue with mandorla, commission by Jia Zhiyuan, in 525 CE.
Detail of the inverted dragon.
Not all statues are of the same style; see, for example, the undated Bodhisattva statue below, which still retains some traces of its original paint.
Painted Bodhisattva statue, undated.
And there are other Buddhist artifacts on display, as well, such as this Stupa with Dragon and Tiger
Stupa with Dragon and Tiger, commissioned by Yang Zan, 743 CE.
A stupa is a structure used to contain relics; famous ones are actually buildings, but apparently small ones like this could also be used for meditation purposes. The interior makes it look like a building in miniature.
Interior of stupa.
Gallery 2 is the Exhibition of Han Dynasty Pictorial Art. You are welcomed to the gallery by a pair of stone lions which look like they just realized that they left their office keys on the counter at home.
Stone lion, Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE). An inscription on the lion’s neck reads “a pair of lions made by Liu Han outside the central east gate of Luoyang.”
The actual pictorial stones are architectural components of tombs, shrines and gate towers. Some are quite well-preserved and bold, others are faded by age and the elements and barely recognizable without an accompanying enhanced image.
On my first weekend in Jinan I hit two of the major attractions of the city: the Shandong Museum and Baotu Spring. On my second weekend I opted to see a third major attraction, and a centerpiece of the city: Daming Lake, “Lake of the Great Splendor.” This 110 acre lake is fed by the artesian springs of the city, and has a lovely tree-lined walking trail around it with a number of historic buildings.
View of Daming Lake from above.
Before I describe my trip, it helps to have a bit of a big picture view of the lake! The map below shows Daming Lake itself as well as the canal south of it that formed the boundary of the old city. The “main” entrance of the lake park is the Southwest Gate, though I took a taxi and got out at the North Gate, which is right where the label is at the top center of the map. On my first visit, I did a full counterclockwise circuit of the lake, maybe not the best idea since the temperature was in the mid- to high-90s.
The North Gate is a bit of a modest affair, as most of the traffic enters through the southern side of the lake, where there are also the most touristy spots to visit.
The North Gate of Daming Lake.
I, of course, couldn’t resist taking a selfie with one of the lions guarding the gate.
But even this gate has sights of interest — immediately upon entering, one encounters an impressive mural dedicated to Zeng Gong of the Song dynasty, in particular his work in Jinan.
Mural of Zeng Gong.
Zeng Gong (1019-1083) was an important scholar and historian of his era, and had achieved fame and recognition for his writing in his teens. He ended up traveling China extensively, writing about his experiences, and eventually was appointed as governor of several provinces in succession, including Qizhou (now Jinan) in 1072. The mural shows some of his accomplishments, including the building of the north watergate of the lake to handle flooding and promoting agriculture and education. The mural also shows him engaged in leisure activities and ends with his subjects saying goodbye as he moved on to another post.
From there, I walked directly to the lake itself, and the following photo gives a good idea of what it looks like walking around it.
A view of Daming Lake.
It is really a pleasant walk (in spite of the heat), with the lake lined by willows and fields of lotus.
Heading west from the North Gate, I soon came across the Commemorative Hall of Tie Xuan.
Commemorative Hall of Tie Xuan.
Tie Xuan (1366-1402) was an official during the Ming dynasty, and served under the Ming Emperor Jianwen. When Jianwen was deposed by his nephew Zhu Di, Tie Xuan remained loyal to the old emperor and fought for him, and successfully defended Jinan against the upstart. He is most known, however, for his unfailing loyalty — he was eventually captured by Zhu Di, but refused to acknowledge the man in court, even under the most horrendous torture. (Seriously, it’s horrific — I won’t share the details here, but you can read them in the Wikipedia link above.) Incredibly, even Zhu Di tortured Tie Xuan to death, he was impressed with the man’s unwavering faith, and Tie Xuan became honored by the Emperors that followed.
The Commemorative Hall was originally built in 1792 and was rebuilt in 1996.
Iron statue of Tie Xuan.
Neighboring the Commemorative Hall of Tie Xuan is a garden known as Xiaocanglang, which was also originally built in 1792. If I understand it correctly, this small and lovely structure is a part of it, as is the buildings and lotus pond beyond.
Part of the Xiaocanglang Garden.
Part of Xiaocanglang Garden.
The garden’s name literally means “a smaller Canglang,” as it was built in the style of the larger Canglangting in Suzhou.
Amidst the tranquility of the lake, it is a bit unexpected to round a bend and suddenly find oneself in an amusement park on the Northwest side!
This is the Daming Lake Amusement Park. It is apparently rather common for public parks to include at least a couple of amusement park rides to entertain the kids.
The west side of the lake is mostly a quiet and shaded walk, where one can get views of some of the lovely bridges crossing the various waterways feeding into the lake.
Before I dive into a post of more history, culture and scenery of China, I thought I would do a short post on a question that was really weighing heavily on my mind when I arrived: what do I eat here?
China is a country with an incredibly diverse culinary tradition, and there are in fact officially eight major cuisine styles: Shandong, Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui and Fujian. I believe I sampled three or four different styles on this trip, though I am not proficient enough at this point to be able to tell you the differences.
Jumping into Chinese cuisine for a midwestern-raised American like me is a bit of a culture shock, and I spent the first couple of weeks of the trip trying to eat things that were at least vaguely familiar to me. At one of the first banquets, we were given fresh salmon, which is rare in that part of China and quite expensive, and it looked it. Since I’m used to eating sushi these days, I was able to happily enjoy it.
Other things were new to me, but just familiar enough. When I visited Suzhou later in my trip, I was treated to one of the local delicacies known as “squirrel fish,” so called because the sliced and fluffed up fish body looks vaguely like a squirrel’s tail. It is a sweet-and-sour fish dish, and it is magnificent.
As an American, one has to get used to the food coming with the head still attached! I tried to explain to my hosts the scene in “A Christmas Story” in which the family is shocked because the Christmas goose is “smiling” at them!
A Christmas Story Chinese Restaurant Scene - YouTube
And speaking of big birds, one of the culinary highlights was a trip in Beijing to a restaurant where we could get official Beijing (“Peking”) duck! The duck is sliced thin and one then puts it in a wrap with a selection of sauces and vegetables, much like making fajitas.
The restaurant we went to is apparently one of the most famous for Beijing duck, and you even get a postcard afterward with the official record of the duck you ate!
But what about smaller meals? At home, I tend to eat just a couple of granola bars for breakfast, and early into my visit I found some nut packages that served the purpose just as well.
But, really, when visiting China, especially on an extended stay, you really should step out of your comfort zone and try something different, even radically different. The breakthrough for me came during another one of our banquet dinners, where we were welcoming another colleague who had just arrived in town. This was after about three weeks into my stay in Jinan.
I tend to have a very nervous and cautious personality by nature. I’ve managed to overcome that and do some wild things at times — like skydiving — because I get increasingly irritated at my nervousness and finally the anger overwhelms the fear. At the banquet on June 5, that led me to finally try what I believe was cicada!
How was it? Honestly, it was just fine. I likened it to a puff pastry in consistency: the outer shell has a slight crunch to it, and the interior is almost ghostly and melts away in your mouth. It didn’t taste like anything in particular, and any unpleasantness I felt came from my own psychology! I freely admit, though, that although I’m happy I tried it, I won’t be making a regular habit out of it.
After that breakthrough, I got a little bolder! While in Suzhou, my hosts wanted me to try “preserved egg,” which appears as follows.
Apparently, most westerners do not like the preserved egg, but I thought it was just fine! It tasted like egg to me! That first plate was cooked preserved egg, and after that, my hosts threatened to have me try the uncooked variety. We in fact did that the next day, and… I still thought it tasted fine!
I tried one other very Chinese style of food just before I left: chicken feet!
I don’t know what I was expecting from it, but in hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised: it tastes like chicken, just like every other part of the bird! The only difference is that there is much less meat on the feet, so you have to work harder to get at it. My hosts explained to me that chicken feet can be purchased ridiculously cheap in the U.S., because of course very few people eat them but people eat lots of chickens.
One other thing I tried on my last week, but didn’t get a photograph of: sea cucumber. The photo below, from Wikipedia, gives you a sense of what it looked like, with the spikes and everything. Mine was presented in a soup, and I’m not sure it was cooked.
Kind of like the cicada, I didn’t know what to expect, but there wasn’t a particularly strong taste to it. Otherwise, it had a chewy consistency. I also had an appetizer of abalone early in my visit, which was about the same as sea cucumber to my insensitive taste buds.
Not every food was shockingly exotic. At one restaurant in Beijing, we tried a couple of unique rice dishes: pineapple rice and bamboo rice. Both of them get their name for what they’re cooked in, as one can see from the photo.
So I’m back home after my epic month and a half trip to China! It was a really lovely experience: my hosts were incredibly kind and generous, I got to see and do a lot of things that I’ve only dreamed of, and I was able to get a lot of work done.
I also, of course, took a lot of photos! During my trip, I not only took a few trips to other cities, but spent my weekends wandering the city of Jinan, where I was based. I worked at Shandong Normal University, at their newer campus situated in the suburbs.
Me, outside the Center of Light Manipulations and Applications.
During the late spring/early summer, Jinan is a very hot and dry city. Fortunately, it is also a city filled with water — there are a large number of natural artesian springs in the city, 72 of which are important “named” springs. On my first weekend in Jinan, I opted to go to the most famous of these, Baotu Spring, whose name may be translated as the “Spurting” Spring. This blog post is about that visit, and several more visits which I took there during my stay!
A little background about my trip there before I share the photos. I arrived in China on a Wednesday, and the next few days were filled with welcome celebrations. By the weekend, however, my hosts had to go out of town for a PhD defense, so I was left to my own devices. As you may imagine, China is VERY different from the US, in terms of language, culture, writing, and food. Being at heart a midwestern boy who grew up thinking tacos were too exotic to eat, my natural instinct was to spend that first weekend hiding in my hotel room, with occasional forays to the Burger King across the street for sustenance.
But when I feel like that, I force myself to do the opposite! I looked online to find the major attractions in Jinan, of which several stand out: the Shandong Museum, Daming Lake, and Baotu Spring. I hunted down the names written in Chinese, so I could communicate to a taxi driver where I wanted to go, and marched out and took a trip downtown.
On Saturday, on my first excursion, I went to the Shandong Museum, which I will talk about in another post. On Sunday, I caught another taxi and visited Jinan’s most famous and historic spring.
Before this trip, I had never really thought about the geology of springs. What makes water just naturally gush out of the ground at some points? Here we can borrow an illustration from Wikipedia that illustrates how it works.
Illustration of an artesian aquifer, by Artur Jan Fijałkowski.
In short: rainwater (3) is absorbed into a porous layer of material like sand or gravel (1), where it is trapped between non-porous layers (2), forming a sort of natural bottle. If ground level ends up being below the water level (5) of the “bottle,” then it will naturally spill, or gush, out anywhere that an opening is created, be it an artificial well (4) or a natural channel (7). In the case of Jinan, the city is built on a slope that runs downhill from the mountains in the south; rain that falls on the southern mountains fills up the aquifer, resulting in a remarkable number of active springs in the city itself. Daming Lake, which lies in the center of town, is almost entirely sustained by the action of these numerous springs (more on Daming Lake in a future post).
The result, in the case of Baotu Spring, is a spring where the water is coming out of the ground with such force that it actually is visible.
View of the pond of Baotu Spring. Note the three spots of disturbed water in the center; that is the water from the spring.
The jets of the spring can emit water with much more force, if the conditions are right. Do a google search of Baotu Spring and you can easily find photographs where the water is bubbling a foot or more above the surface of the pond. Apparently, historical records indicate that at some times it has had jets which are tens of meters high!
In recent years, however, the force of the spring has apparently lessened, in large part due to the huge demand for water by the surrounding city. Now the government has emergency plans which can be put into action to preserve the flow of water when conditions are hot and dry. In June of 2018, these plans were nearly put into effect.
The buildings around the pond aren’t simply there for show; they have historical significance, as does the spring itself. The spring itself has been dated back some 3500 years, to the Shang dynasty in China. It has long been renowned for its strong forceful flow, and has appeared in documents throughout China’s history.
The buildings surrounding the Spring include the Luoyang Hall, on the north side of the spring (the left of my photo above), which was built during the Song dynasty (960-1279).
The Luoyuan Hall.
West of the spring, on the right of my original photo, is the Guanlan Pavilion, which dates to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
The Guanlan Pavilion.
Was there any particular purpose to these structures? I don’t really know: there is very little information online about the history of the spring (at least in English), and the little I’ve been able to learn comes directly from Wikipedia.
On the east side of the pond, next to the Laihe Bridge (built in the Ming dynasty), is a structure with a modern practical purpose: the Wangheting Teahouse. If I understand it correctly, the teahouse was built in the 1950s when the area around Baotu Spring was turned into an official historic park by the government.
The Wangheting Teahouse entrance.
Apparently, the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) of the Qing dynasty often traveled to the area around Daming Lake, and visited Baotu Spring on one of those occasions. He was much impressed by the spring, and drank tea made from its waters. He found that the tea tasted better than that made elsewhere, and bestowed the title “First Springs in the World” upon the region.
Now, the Wangheting Teahouse exists to honor that historic event. You can drink tea made from the waters of Baotu yourself there, and of course I had to give it a try! I am not a connoisseur of tea, so I cannot tell you if it is exceptionally better than tea elsewhere, but I certainly enjoyed it and the experience.
The buildings around Baotu Spring are lovely, and before moving on it’s worth sharing just a couple of additional photos from different perspectives. It’s also worth noting that you can actually smell the spring water when standing next to the pond, and it smells wonderful and fresh.
Hi all, I just wanted to apologize for being rather quiet with posting lately, as work has been incredibly busy! Alas, things probably won’t pick up for another month, yet, as I am currently spending a month and a half in China to work on research collaborations!
I am hoping to share a few short posts here and there while I’m away, both on physics and on my travels in country. Talk to you all soon!
This blog post is based on some early experimental writing that was done for my Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics book that was cut from the final draft! As you will see, it was much too long and too much of a digression to include in the book, so I’ve posted it here sorta as a preview of not-quite-the-book!
Some of the most fascinating physics demonstrations are some of the oldest. In my office, I have several versions of a device known as a Crookes radiometer, including both quality display pieces as well as a cheap plastic version.
A Crookes radiometer looks very much like a four-armed weathervane, each arm of the vane having a white side and a black side, or a glossy side and a matte side. The entire vane is contained within a thin glass (or plastic) case. When direct light, from the sun or a flashlight, is shined upon the device, it begins to rotate: it is a device whose movement is entirely powered by light!
Though the radiometer is simple in design, its discovery resulted in an epic 50 year history of physicists attempting to adequately explain the origin of its motion. The device would attract the interest of some of the most famous scientists of its time, and provoke lively scientific arguments. It is, in fact, a good illustration of how the solution of problems in physics can often be trickier than they first appear to be!
The radiometer is named after its discoverer, the British chemist and physicist William Crookes (1832-1919). Like many scientists of his era, the London-born Crookes spurned the desires of his family, who wanted him to be an architect, and instead enrolled in the Royal College of Chemistry in 1848, working under one Professor Hofmann. He evidently made excellent progress, as he became an assistant in the college in 1850 and held the position until 1854. From there, he became the Superintendent of the Meteorological Department at the Radcliffe Observatory for a short time, and then a Lecturer in Chemistry at Chester Training College in 1855.
Were it not for twists of fate and Crookes’ temperament, he might have been famous in a very different field of study. He was born in the era of rapid progress in photography, and he developed a love for the science and application of the technology. His enrollment in the Royal College of Chemistry was motivated by the desire to learn more about the chemistry of photography, and together with a classmate he engaged in photographic experiments through his entire time there. By 1855, he was suitably well-known in the field to serve as a witness in a trial over the patents of the groundbreaking photographer William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1857, the War Department was interested in improving artillery by studying the flight of shells photographically, and Crookes successfully took on the task, making him an early pioneer in high-speed photography, ahead of the masters of the field Edweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey.
However, Crookes needed to make a living, and he supported himself as the editor of photographic journals. He began in 1857 as the editor of the London Photographic Society, but was fired a year later due to a dispute over whether their journal should emphasize the art or science of photography; Crookes, clearly, was in favor of science, but he lost to the more artistic members of the society. He moved to the editorship of a new journal, the Photographic News, that same year, and in 1859 started his own journal, Chemical News, to supplement his income. The latter act, however, led Crookes to put the best articles on photography in his own journal, which in turn led the proprietors of the Photographic News to fire him in 1860. Crookes sued his former employers, to no avail; after that, he was for a time supported by his own journal.
The story of the radiometer begins in an unlikely place: the processing of a quantity of raw ore. In 1850, Crookes obtained about 10 lbs. of ore from Professor Hofmann, with which he worked to extract a quantity of the element selenium for chemistry experiments. This study, in fact, resulted in Crookes’ first published scientific work, which appeared in 1852. The processing of selenium from the ore left behind a small amount of leftover residue that Crookes suspected contained a quantity of the element tellurium; the thrifty Crookes put aside this residue for further study.
He did not return to it for a full decade. In 1861, however, needing tellurium for some other experiments, Crookes attempted to extract it from the residue. To test for the presence of the tellurium, he turned to the technique of spectrum-analysis. Every atom and molecule has characteristic frequencies, or colors, of light at which they emit and absorb radiation, a sort of “optical fingerprint” that uniquely identifies them. By burning an unknown substance, it is sometimes possible to deduce the constituent parts from the colors of the light emitted in the combustion; a device called a spectroscope can be used to spatially separate the colors on a screen, where they appear as isolated bright lines. When Crookes did this with his sample, what followed was unexpected and momentous; in his own words ,
A portion of the residue, introduced into a blue gas-flame, gave abundant evidence of selenium; but as the alternate light and dark bands due to this element became fainter, and I was expecting the appearance of the somewhat similar, but closer, bands of tellurium, suddenly a bright green line flashed into view and as quickly disappeared. An isolated green line in this portion of the spectrum was new to me.
Simulation of the bright green spectral line of thallium, superimposed over the visible spectrum. Via Wikipedia.
1862 illustration of the Palace of Art and Industry, where Crookes would have presented, via Wikipedia.
What Crookes had inadvertently discovered was a previously unknown metallic element, which would be given the name thallium. Today, thallium is used in optics, electronics, and medicine; in Crookes’ time, its most practical application was vaulting him into scientific celebrity status almost overnight. In short order, Crookes displayed his new element at the 1862 world’s fair known as the Great London Exhibition. His work appeared alongside other impressive discoveries such as the electric telegraph, the first man-made plastic, one of the earliest refrigerators, and parts of Charles Babbage’s analytic difference engine; even in this formidable company, Crookes won an award for his discovery. By 1863 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a remarkable twist for a person who essentially did science as an amateur occupation.
Mention of Crookes’ award, from Great Exhibition 1862: Medals and Honorable Mentions.
In the discovery of a new element, one of the most important properties to measure is the element’s atomic weight. Crookes set himself upon this task with admirable diligence and thoroughness, and only presented his results over a decade later, in 1873, in a paper  with the to-the-point title, “On the atomic weight of thallium.” He used two different techniques to weigh the substance and found the results of the two agreed sufficiently well to remove any doubt as to their accuracy.
In his work, Crookes used a pair of balances, one which functioned in air and one which functioned in a vacuum; both were designed to weigh exceedingly small quantities of material, and were highly sensitive. In working with the vacuum balance, Crookes found a very unusual result, which he noted only briefly in this paper.
In particularly describing the vacuum-balance, I have one peculiarity to note in relation to the effect of heat in diminishing the weight of bodies. That a hot body should appear to be lighter than a cold one has been considered as arising from the film of air or aqueous vapour condensed upon or adhering to the surface of the colder body, or from the upward currents of air caused by the expansion of the atmosphere in the vicinity of the heated body. But neither hypothesis can be held when the variation the force of gravitation occurs in a vacuum as perfect as the mercurial register, and under other conditions which I am now supplying, and which embodying in a paper to be submitted to the Royal Society during a subsequent session.
Crookes’ vacuum balance.
In short: researchers had long been aware that the weight of objects can appear to change in the presence of heat or cold, and this had been taken to be the effect of thermal motion of the air. But Crookes found these effects still existed even in a vacuum, where no air currents should be present. What, then, was causing the weight change, or force, on the objects?
Crookes immediately set out on a series of experiments  to find out. He designed a novel balance consisting of two pith balls of equal mass on either end of a balance arm, contained entirely in a glass tube which could be evacuated. One of the balls could be brought into contact with a heated or cooled mass within the tube, allowing for any apparent change of weight of the ball to be observed by a change in the tilt of the balance arm. The initial results were somewhat curious: when in air of ordinary density, the ball appeared to be repelled by a cold mass and attracted by a hot mass; when in a vacuum, the ball appeared to be attracted by a cold mass and repelled by a hot mass. To Crookes, this seemed to indicate that air currents played a role in the former case, but that some new fundamental force related to temperature was dominant in the latter. He even tentatively speculated that this new force might be some alternative manifestation of gravity.
Crookes’ pith ball balance.
Crookes made his first demonstration of his discovery at the annual soirée of the Royal Society on April 22, 1874. By placing a candle underneath one end of his vacuum balance, he could get the balance to tilt and show that hot objects apparently cause repulsion. The public display was a sensation, but it also led to the first challenge of Crookes’ work, from soirée attendee Professor Osborne Reynolds. At the soirée, Reynolds noted that the balance seemed to oscillate continuously when exposed to a steady flame. But objects exposed to a steady force, like a pendulum under the influence of gravity, eventually settle into a non-moving position; the fact that Crookes’ radiometer did not do so suggested to Osborne that it was still being subjected to thermal forces due to heating and cooling. He speculated that the motion of the pith balls used in Crookes’ demonstration was due to condensed water on their surface evaporating when exposed to heat; this flight of molecules from the surface would cause the balls to recoil, producing the observed effect. In quite a rapid turnaround, Reynolds presented his results  to the Royal Society on May 16, 1874, less than a month after the soirée.
Crookes presented a rebuttal in August of 1874 . From the text, it appears that he was somewhat offended that anyone might imagine..
(NOTE: Updated the post to include one additional Tomb-related adventure, which I completely forgot about while first writing!)
Part of this feeling on my part is certainly nostalgia, but there really isn’t anything quite like the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and its associated published adventure modules. Recently on twitter, I’ve been reminiscing about “Old School Dungeons & Dragons” and discussing some of the classics of D&D and AD&D.
However, there are some adventures that deserve more than a handful of tweets to discuss. One of these, and one of the greatest of all time is the Tomb of Horrors, a 1981 adventure that was the first official “deathtrap dungeon,” designed solely to torment, challenge, and exterminate the player characters. It is incredible for a number of ways, and I thought I would take a little time to talk about why it is so great, and a bit of its legacy!
Originally, I wasn’t planning on writing an ode to the original Tomb of Horrors module. I was going to blog about a novelization of it that was written in 2002 by Keith Francis Strohm. It was one of seven novel versions of classic adventures put out by Wizards of the Coast a few years after they acquired the rights to Dungeons & Dragons from founding publisher TSR.
We’ll talk about the book in the course of this post. The novel is… okay, but in my opinion rather misses the whole point of the Tomb of Horrors, which is what got me thinking: what makes the original module so special and memorable that it not only inspired this novel, but a number of other products (that we’ll also talk about momentarily)?
It’s worth going to the words of the author Gary Gygax himself to begin. The Tomb of Horrors began as an adventure conceived by Gygax to challenge his own gaming group. As he recalled in 1998,
There were several very expert players in my campaign, and this was meant as yet another challenge to their skill — and the persistence of their theretofore-invincible characters.
Rob Kuntz’s character Robilar and Ernie Gygax’s character Tenser actually managed to achieve victory in their respective quests, but this was not representative of what would happen to the thousands of later adventurers who would venture into the tomb. With further developments, Gygax wrote up the Tomb of Horrors as a tournament module for the 1975 Origins I convention in Baltimore, Maryland, and it made it into print at TSR in 1978, one of the first adventure modules published; the very first were the Against the Giants series G1-G3. But Gygax also had a specific personal use¹ for the tomb in other situations:
Before I put it into manuscript form for publication, I carried the scenario around with me in my briefcase, so as to be ready for those fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game. After an hour or so of time spent within the weird labyrinth of Acererak’s final “resting place,” the players whose characters were survivors typically remembered suddenly that they had pressing engagements elsewhere. Clutching their precious character sheets, they fled the table.
The Tomb of Horrors was therefore conceived of as a humbling experience for players, a Memento mori in game form: “remember that you, too, will die.”
Gravestone inscription in Edinburgh, St. Cuthbert’s Churchyard. Via Wikipedia.
This, I believe, is key to understanding the long-lasting appeal of the Tomb of Horrors, but before I say more, let me describe the tomb. From the module itself:
Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. It is filled with rich treasures both precious and magical, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, there is said to be a demi-lich who still wards his final haunt.
This demi-lich is named Acererak, a once powerful wizard who transformed himself into an undead lich of even greater magical power. But Acererak eventually transcended physical form altogether, becoming a “demi-lich,” and departed the prime material plane for dimensions and goals unknown and unfathomable. The tomb he left behind is designed to kill, torment and mock any who are so foolish as to disturb his last physical resting place. Those who fly above the rectangular tomb mound will get a taste of this mockery, as an original illustration shows.
Top view of the tomb, from the inside cover of the original module.
And the tomb is filled with truly deadly and devious traps, many of which are instant kills for careless adventurers. There are also very few monsters to fight: this adds to the sense of helplessness of the characters, because their (likely) usual strategy of overpowering their enemy simply will not work.
If we put the pieces together, the Tomb of Horrors is a dark, abandoned tomb filled with the constant threat of unknown danger.
To me, it is a haunted house. And the Tomb of Horrors is perhaps the very first published Dungeons & Dragons horror story. This is, I believe, the source of its longevity in the gaming world: almost no adventure, before or since, has come close to matching that feeling of dread and infamy that comes with exploring the Tomb.
It should be noted that the Tomb of Horrors isn’t the first haunted house D&D adventure: that title goes to another classic, Tegel Manor, published in 1977 by Judges Guild. The distinction I make with the Tomb is that Tegel Manor is basically a conventional (but very fun) dungeon crawl that happens to be set in a haunted house; it does not have the same “doom around every corner” feeling of the Tomb and thus doesn’t feel like an actual horror story.
The cover of Tegel Manor. Note the small version of the insanely huge map on the cover! Judges Guild did incredible maps.
The creepy atmosphere of the Tomb of Horrors was enhanced fortuitously by the addition of visual aids to show the appearance of a number of important rooms and features. These images were originally added because there were multiple dungeon masters running the module for tournament play at the same time, and it was important that they all agreed on the details of certain scenes. The original images (which appear in the really amazing 2018 Art & Arcana book on the history of D&D) were upgraded and included in the printed module, and the rest is history.
The entry hall to the Tomb of Horrors. “The scenes painted show fields with kine grazing, a copse with several wolves in the background, slaves (human, orc, elven, and strange human-animal mixture — pig-human, ape-human, and dog-human) going about various tasks.”
One particularly infamous sculpture at the end of the entrance hall would become the symbol not only of the Tomb of Horrors, but of Acererak himself.
The face of the Great Green Devil. It is not recommended to go inside.
These module illustrations, by Dave Sutherland and Dave Trampier, create an amazing atmosphere for the Tomb: it feels like an actual tomb, filled with the relics, art and twisted obsessions of its departed master. It is worth noting that Gygax was originally inspired to create the Tomb of Horrors by the urging of Alan Lucien, who had written part of an Egyptian-themed tomb that Gygax then expanded upon. Looking at the art of the Tomb of Horrors entryway, the Egyptian tomb influence is pretty obvious.
The climax of the adventure, assuming the players ever find the true vault of Acererak, is a deadly and soul-sucking battle with the remaining vestige of the demi-lich on the material plane — a new class of undead monster created just for the tomb. Anyone who survives, and wasn’t turned to ash, will reap great rewards.
Though the module first appeared in 1978, it refused to die, much like Acererak himself. The original version had a two-tone colored cover, which was replaced by the full color cover most people are familiar with in 1981. The Tomb of Horrors was the first of four S-series modules, and the quartet was published together in a single volume in 1987 as Realms of Horror.
1987’s Realms of Horror. Note the jeweled skull on the cover, which is the demi-lich form of Acererak.
The demi-lich monster class introduced in the Tomb was also added as a regular game monster, making an appearance in the 1983 Monster Manual II.
But even this was not enough Tomb for many players! In 1998, TSR published Return to the Tomb of Horrors, by Bruce Cordell, one of a series of nostalgia-based sequels to classic adventures. This mega-campaign, which first appeared in box form, elaborates on the origins of Acererak, and reveals that his tomb was always just the first part of a more elaborate plan to trap the most potent souls. In the adventure, the players will go from the Tomb to other dimensions to a showdown with Acererak himself/itself.
I have to admit that the first time I read this short summary of the plot of Return, I was underwhelmed. As a horror story, the original Tomb is nearly perfect: the mysterious origins and motivations of the demi-lich add to the feeling of dread, and anyone who is a fan of horror knows that too much explanation can ruin the atmosphere.
But last week I finally, after years of delay, purchased and read through Return, and I can say: it..
The question of how falling cats land on their feet has intrigued humans since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. In this playful and eye-opening history, physicist and cat parent Gregory Gbur explores how attempts to understand the cat-righting reflex have provided crucial insights into puzzles in mathematics, geophysics, neuroscience, and human space exploration.
The result is an engaging tumble through physics, physiology, photography, and robotics to uncover, through scientific debate, the secret of the acrobatic performance known as cat-turning, the cat flip, and the cat twist. Readers learn the solution, but also discover that the finer details still inspire heated arguments. As with other cat behavior, the more we investigate, the more surprises we discover.
I’m really excited to share more information going forward! I would like to share the table of contents next, but I want to check with my publisher first to see if that’s okay. More to come!
And, of course, more blog posts to come! The past two weeks I was quite busy working through the major editorial comments on the book draft. I’m mostly done with those, so I should have a bit more free time!
You may recall the big post I did back in December in which I shared a bunch of fake book titles that I had made and shared on twitter? Well, I’ve kept doing those fake titles regularly ever since then, and I thought it was a good time to do a second mega-post compiling everything new I’ve done to date! So, without further ado, here is Volume 2 of my Fake Book Titles Extravaganza!
Original title: A Collection of Stories. I’m quite proud of the work I put in to remove the old title.
Original title: Revolt in 2100.
Original title: 1976. I only changed the year. I posted this one on New Year’s Eve, as a final farewell to a rough, rotten year.
Original title: Basilisk. Every time I think I’ve run out of funny ideas for these titles, I come across a perfect cover.
Original title: Smallbone Deceased.
Original title: Disaster for Hire. I made this to celebrate the day that Trump’s truly awful Secretary of the Interior resigned.
Original title: The Towers of Melnon. I’ve gotten a LOT of mileage out of Richard Blade books, as you will see.
Original title: The Coils of Time. This was either my highest point, or my lowest.
Original title: Clash of Star-Kings.
Original title: Exiles of the Stars. Some fakes that I do I just really love, and this is one of them. By the way, note that I’m really going out of my way to match fonts.
Original title: It’s Not What You Expect.
Original title: The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot.
Original title: The Hawks of Arcturus. I had to do some clever trickery to recreate the star behind the text.
I haven’t written a blog post for over a month, so I thought I should stop in and do something! I’ve had quite a few ups and downs in life over that month, as well as some travel and a lot of work to do — including reviewing the editor’s comments for my upcoming cat physics book! (I have mostly finished them now, thankfully!)
Two weekends ago, I ended up in Chicago for my sister’s 50th birthday party — oh, how time has flown! While I was there, I caught up on some of my favorite Chicago things, like the Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and a plate of White Castle cheeseburgers.
The decision to visit White Castle was fortuitous. On the way to the fast food restaurant, we passed by Orchids by Hausermann, a quite old and very prestigious greenhouse that specializes in orchids of unimaginable variety. Carl Hausermann started growing plants in the 1920s, and his son turned the business into a nearly orchid-exclusive one in 1935. Since then, they’ve become a huge and influential seller of orchids both for professionals and casual hobbyists. Since we were literally right around the corner, my mom, my roommate Sarah and I opted to go for a visit.
The entrance/exit to the Hausermann shop.
It turned out to be a very good weekend to do so! Hausermann’s was holding an open house, so visitors were able to explore pretty much the entirety of the operation, and see all sort of beautiful orchids of every size and color. So, in this blog post, I thought I would simply share some photos of the highlights of the visit. Along the way, I’ll have a few comments, but mostly, this is a photo post!
The walkthrough began in a sales room, where a lot of varieties were available for purchasing and smelling.
Have I mentioned that orchids are amazing? My mother is a bit of an orchid aficionado (she lives only about 15 minutes away from Hausermann’s) and she made sure that we smelled the next orchid, which has an aroma that is strongly suggestive of chocolate!
The “chocolate” orchid, oncidium Sharry Baby.
For the most part, though, I’m not going to even try to identify everything I saw — there are some 28,000 varieties of orchids!