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Norman Sperling
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Norm Sperling’s Great Science Trek: 2014

San Luis Obispo
Santa Barbara
Palm Springs
Death Valley
Tucson
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Tampa
Everglades
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key
Miami

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard
mid-South

APRIL 2014:
near I-40, I-30, and I-20 westbound

MAY 2014:
near US-101 northbound
May 17-18: Maker Faire, San Mateo
May 23-26: BayCon, Santa Clara

California till midJune

JUNE 2014:
Pacific Northwest

JULY 2014:
Western Canada, eastbound

AUGUST 2014:
near the US/Can border, westbound
August 22-on: UC Berkeley

Speaking engagements welcome!
2014 and 2015 itineraries will probably cross several times.

Blogs

The Issues of the Issue: JIR Volume 52, #4

© Norman Sperling, December 31, 2014

As always, The Journal of Irreproducible Results brings up real issues in its light-hearted way.

“We submitted most of our research design and several very good red velvet bundt cakes and a bottle of Scotch to the local Institutionalized Review Bored consisting of a bioethicist and his medical marijuana, a fairly convincing female impersonator, Plinkey (a nearsighted but lovely golden cocker spaniel), a black & white photograph of Merv Griffin, Mrs. Bronson, and 2 bowling pins. As usual, we were granted full authorization to proceed.”
- Herschel Knapp, PhD, UCLA, page 25

How good and proper are Institutional Review Boards? Occasionally I hear a little grousing. Surely researchers don’t have as much latitude as they used to, and shouldn’t. Are some boards too lax? Are some too restrictive? Should the rules they enforce be adjusted? Should some research be opened back up?

Fireplaces recede into history as more recent heating methods keep us warm. Fireplaces still lend romance and atmosphere. Unfortunately, the atmosphere they generate when users don’t know any better is carbon monoxide, which has killed humans for centuries. The Doherty family wrote an article pointing out that CO deaths rise in the Holiday season, following cheery fires. Let awareness rise instead of deaths.

An optometrist focuses on the problem that “most multi-focal contact lens patients need to accept that to be able to see well for reading, one has to put up with the occasional automobile accident. Conversely, to maintain adequate distance vision, most multi-focal contact lens wearers should expect to carry a lighthouse with them wherever they go, to provide adequate lighting for near tasks.” Exaggeration brings out humor, but to what degree is this true? Should advertising be reined back?

Siri leads consumers by the ear. Her “artificial intelligence” flows out of smartphones. Will she eventually violate Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics? John Wade thinks she could. Or at least, he thought that when he submitted the article we just printed. We haven’t heard from him since.

Hanjo Hamann of Bonn, Germany, tells how a legal scholar there conjured up a type of animal that nature never made. Laws that are contrary to reality and contrary to evidence need to be expunged. Citizens could not tell whether to follow reality, or, instead, law. That cannot promote respect for the law. JIR invites more hilarity on “legal fictions”.

Ice Bucket Challenges made a big splash in late 2014. Sports teams had dumped on heroes for decades, but all of a sudden it became a charity issue, and spread incautiously. Someone died immediately after being dumped on, and the meme receded as abruptly as it arose. A lot of memes aren’t great ideas, and JIR will happily target many of those. Thanks to future-doctor Ryan Sieli for this one.

A curiosity of archaeology and paleontology caught the attention of 3 researchers from the Wolff family (Wolvves?). Excavators in the field *lick* specimens. Bones and their fossils stick to the tongue, while stone and pottery do not. They investigate and propose a reason.

Our front cover continues a JIR tradition stretching back decades: a microscopic photo resembling something funny, in this case Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. These days, Science develops more imaging that ever. We invite amusing contributions from every form of imaging, not just microscopy. Embellishments welcome.

Futurist Steve Johnson shows how current building materials could be fashioned into vastly different houses than tradition fosters.

My front-cover quip mentions alternating-current batteries, a curious concept that an engineer once blew past me. We invite richer exploration of the possibilities.

Once more, contributors have been great with words and less great with illustrations. Once more, we filled in from our now-favorite source, WikiMedia Commons, part of the Wikipedia cluster. A lot of their trove of illustrations are “some-rights-reserved”, usually simply requiring attribution. This time, we thank Kim Quintano, and for the cute cat pictures: Lauraprl, Stephan Czuratis, Alexandra, Dan4th, and chmee2.

Wikipedia and WikiMedia, though not always right or best-proportioned, are spectacular places to start an inquiry. You have some expertise, or you wouldn’t be reading JIR. Please donate some of that by improving Wikipedia articles in subjects and languages you know well.

My Students Explained These to Me

© Norman Sperling, December 25, 2014

Most of my intro-astro students are diligent, and many are creative. Some of that second group aren’t in the first group. Here’s what they wrote on tests.

* [Mayans] used the sun to tell time by using steaks and shadows.

* Planets cover the same amount of mass in the same amount of time.

* [Kepler’s Third Law] The ratio of the average of a period of 2 planets is equal to the average cube of the semi-major axis.

* The period of rotation is proportional to our radius or something!

* Gravity pulls on things because of heat. Sunlight is brought down to Earth with the help from gravity.

* Newtonian telescopes consists of a secondary mirror added to the side in order to create more light to see colors.

* When a meteor passes earth its tail leaves behind comets which light & burn up in the sky or atmosphere of the earth.

* Uranus reflects most of the sunlight that it absorbs.

* You can tell the age of an object by looking at the objects within them.

* You can tell how old a star is by examining its main sequence.

* Stars with darker colors are considered a lot newer.

* Sefiet variables are used to measure the distance between space and the universe.

* A supernova emerges when iron reaches the core of the sun.

* The disk which is made of “arms” is just an extension of clustures which “spirals” out & sometimes makes eddies as a result of the outward gravity for a time being able to push out a section of clustures.

Driver Food

© Norman Sperling, November 13, 2014

Drivers eat. We’re going to keep eating. It’s a fair co-use of time, often the only time available to snarf down a pseudo-meal. Eating can also re-spark wakefulness toward the end of a long day.

Yes, eating is infamously distracting, and distractions kill.

Some foods can be made minimally distracting, well within tolerable limits.

Non-distracting foods would sit in a non-spilling container, so you won’t worry about sudden stops and sharp turns. They’d be in a container easy to dip into. Stick a finger-depth cup in your cup-holder.

The food has to be dry, easy to grasp with 2 fingers, and a single piece should be enough to chew on but not too much.

Several such foods already exist, and more are adaptibly close.

* Marshmallows are nearly perfect for this, though scarcely nutritious.
* Pretzel nuggets, with or without fillings of peanut butter or cheese.
* Baby carrots.
* Wheat-thins and many other crackers.
* Dried apricots are almost too big, and a little sticky.
* Dried cherries are rather small but so tasty you don’t chew several at a time. Some brands are stickier than others.
* Cherry tomatoes.
* Donut holes.
* Spoon-size shredded wheat.
* Necco wafers unwrapped from their tube and sitting loosely in the cup.
* Plain or dry-roasted almonds and other large nuts. Peanuts are so small that a mouthful wants a few, which can be clumsy to pluck from the container.

Several other foods need only the most minimal, quick, low-tech handling to make them work:
* sour balls and Jolly Rancher hard candies are hard to unwrap while driving. Unwrap 3 or 4 in advance. But only enough for this stage of the trip; they get sticky in heat or humidity.
* Celery sticks are 2 bites long. Cut them into single-bite size in advance.
* Grapes need to be pulled off their stems in advance.

Don’t use raisins because they are definitely too small, and very sticky.

Dropped pieces could distract a driver. Grapes, tomatoes, hazelnuts, and sourballs roll around and get underfoot. Dry ones handle well enough to not get dropped.

How True is “Interstellar”?

© Norman Sperling, November 13, 2014

The main message of “Interstellar” is true. Parents do anything they can, and go anywhere they can, for the good of their children. Except for a few uncommitted losers, this holds across all cultures and times. My astronomy students told me to see this movie, but didn’t warn me about this theme, and I didn’t bring anywhere near enough handkerchiefs.

The setting is what makes this movie spectacularly memorable. Certainly the special effects are Hollywood’s best. Nebulae and planet surfaces should look like those. Saturn looks like that. I didn’t notice any specific starfields; the background at the beginning looked like a random scatter instead of a real starfield, and the narrow range of brightnesses was fakey: no bright stars, no faint stars.

I really liked the robots.

The black hole and wormhole effects are imaginary. The view inside a black hole is based on Kip Thorne’s best equations but it’s still speculation. The experience there was more a salute to “2001 A Space Odyssey” than a scientific rendition.

Wormholes don’t seem to exist. I remember when they were hot topics. Black holes had come up at the end of the 1960s and, though bizarre, resisted all attempts at disproof. After a few decades, most astronomers accepted that black holes are part of reality.

In the 1960s and 1970s another extremely puzzling phenomenon challenged astrophysics: quasars. They looked like bluish dots (“quasi-stellar”). They have indistinct spectra with a few absorption lines that bore no resemblance to anything recognized in the 90 years of astronomical spectroscopy until then.

Quasars couldn’t be isolated blue stars because all blue stars are young, so remnants of the nebulae they formed from should still hang around. Also, blue stars don’t live long enough to wander far from their original nebulae, but quasars appeared quite isolated.

If they were as far as galaxies, they were impossibly bright. Anything that tiny, that energetic, held too much energy in too small a volume, and must instantly explode itself.

For these and many more reasons, quasars didn’t make sense as objects like stars in our galaxy, nor as objects related to far-away galaxies.

In the 1970s, some scholars tried linking the 2 mysteries. If black holes take in fantastic amounts of energy, and quasars give out fantastic amounts of energy, maybe quasars are “white holes”: outlets for energy that black holes take in. To transport that energy from the black holes to the while holes, they pushed the “wormhole” idea from the 1950s to extremes.

By the 1980s data built up to show that quasars (and their lower-power cousins, BL Lacertae objects and Seyfert galaxies) were powered by ejections from the neighborhoods of supermassive black holes. If quasars aren’t white holes, there’s no need for wormholes to transport energy to them. The wormhole idea fizzled.

Except in one cultural niche, a favorite of mine. Science fiction often tells stories in astronomical settings. That poses plotting problems: planets and stars are so far apart that action would have to pause for decades or even millennia between scenes. Invoking wormholes lets a story move along briskly by simply declaring transportation to be nearly instantaneous.

“Interstellar” depends on wormholes to travel way faster than light.

A glance at reviews online shows a split. Reviewers who didn’t understand the science therefore thought the movie didn’t hang together, and parts were silly, and their minds wandered. Reviewers who did get the science granted the willful suspension of disbelief, and thought the story more credible. The distinction is in the education of the beholders. The *eyes* of the beholders were nearly unanimous: they loved the space and spacecraft scenery. To enjoy more spectacular, out-of-this-world scenery, any day, in any quantity, browse through astrophotos and spacecraft pictures.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

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