Stories of the Past and Future

Inspired by a classic XKCD cartoon, the infographic above shows the year of publication and of setting for several novels, plays, and films.

They fall into four groups. The top (white) section is literature set in our future. The upper grey section contains obsolete predictions – literature (like the book 1984) set in the future when it was written, but now set in our past. The centre grey section contains what XKCD calls “former period pieces” – literature (like Shakespeare’s Richard III) set in the past, but written closer to the setting than to our day. He points out that modern audiences may not realise “which parts were supposed to sound old.” The lower grey section contains literature (like Ivanhoe) set in the more distant past.


Homeopathy is an alternative medicine based, in large part, on extremely dilute solutions of illness-producing agents. For example, diluted coffee is used to treat insomnia.

Given the levels of dilution used, and the fact that 18 grams of water (about one tablespoon) contains about 6 × 1023 molecules, this means that homeopathic medicines generally contain zero molecules of the active ingredient – that is, they are generally plain water. The 10:23 anti-homeopathy campaign is based on that idea:

Last year, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) completed a review of the effectiveness of homeopathy, concluding that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective because no good-quality, well-designed studies with enough participants for a meaningful result reported either that homeopathy caused greater health improvements than placebo, or caused health improvements equal to those of another treatment.

See also a blog post by the report chair here, or listen to this interview with Edzard Ernst, former Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter. XKCD makes an economic argument about effectiveness:

Chaotic dinosaurs?

In the comic above, XKCD is objecting to Jurassic Park (21 years after the movie was released):

MALCOLM: You see? The tyrannosaur doesn’t obey set patterns or park schedules. The essence of Chaos.

ELLIE: I’m still not clear on Chaos.

MALCOLM: It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. The shorthand is the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.

No, Ian Malcolm, XKCD is right. That doesn’t really clear things up. And I’m pretty sure that topological mixing is actually more fundamental to the concept of Chaos:

Wired also has a piece on the anniversary of the film (concentrating on the special effects).

Surface areas of the solar system

Here is another gem from XKCD: surface areas of the various solid objects in the solar system – excluding the gasballs Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, but including their moons (click to zoom). As might be expected from images of the planets, Earth and Venus have the lion’s share of the real estate:

Hacking the stars (#2)

As previously mentioned, XKCD has been supporting the ISEE-3 Reboot Project (click image above for full XKCD comic). Science magazine reports that things are going well so far, as does Wired. Let’s hope they succeed in taking control of this venerable old probe. Good luck to the project!