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Norman Sperling
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Welcome

Welcome to "Everything in the Universe", my blog on Science, Nature, and the Public. I often explore their intertwinings. New posts should appear
roughly weekly, so if you want to check regularly for new items, every Monday or Tuesday you ought to find something.

I don't try to be literary, but I do think before I write, and write only when I have something to say. When news spurs a reaction, mine aren't the
fastest knee-jerk comments, they're more often a considered reflection.

Some entries are full-blown essays, others are ideas that can be presented briefly. I don't yak and I don't blather. When I don't have anything to
say, I don't say it. If my message needs 2 paragraphs, you don’t have to slog through 10 paragraphs to get to it. I try to get things right.

Please also enjoy my previously-published articles posted here.

Comments and suggestions are welcome: eMail me at normsperling [at] gmail.com. I read them all, but don't always post them. To prevent descent into
harsh put-downs, political stabbings, rancor, advertising, and irrelevancy, I squelch those.

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.

Ghostwriting Busters

© Norman Sperling, November 14, 2010

Medical ethicists are in an uproar over misleading medical research articles and presentations being "ghost-written". They're confusing 2 different activities, and blaming the wrong one.

One thing that's going on is ghost writing. That is often good.

The other thing that's going on is distorting results. That is bad.

Experts with talent and training in research can be wonderful at that, but often don't write well. And people who write well are rarely talented or trained in research. In your own experience, you know several people who are great at doing something but poor at expressing it, and several people who are great at expressing things but not so great at originating all of them.

So people who aren't so great at writing, who need to write something for publication, enlist help. They can ask friends, they can hire writers, or their sponsors can hire writers. As long as the output is correct, nobody is deceived about the scholarly content. While literary sleuths dispute "true" authorship of literary gems, that never happens with these reports.

I've done some of this. Here's an example from when I was an editor at Sky & Telescope magazine: An interesting article arrived with a turgid title something like "Thermoluminescence and Cathodoluminescence in Chondritic Meteorites". I changed the title to "Meteorites that Glow". I bet a lot more people read the article than would have with the stilted, stuffy title. That time I was paid by the publisher rather than the writer or the writer's sponsor, so that could be called "editing" instead of "ghost writing", but it's doing the same thing.

Turning ineffective writing into something people actually like to read takes talent and training that is rarely part of researchers' education. It's fair to have a ghostwriter as long as the meaning doesn't change, and the researcher approves everything the ghostwriter did before it's published. It doesn't matter who pays the ghostwriter, though it's cleanest if the money is laundered through the researcher.

Changing the meaning is entirely different. Someone thinks that by lying about reality, they can make quick money. The original author may have at least as much motivation as a hired writer. Warping can be done by ghostwriters, editors, publishers, and others. Of course reality must always win in the end. Concealed harm grows too blatant to hide. Legal settlements for causing harm can bankrupt corporations. Even the accusation can cripple a researcher's career.

The flap over ghostwriters is mis-aimed. Attack liars and cheaters for lying and cheating. Don't attack people who are good at expressing things for being good at expressing things.

Berenice's Hair, by Guy Ottewell.

Universal Workshop 2009. Paperback, 6 x 9 inches, 255 pages. ISBN 978-0-934546-55-3. $18.00 http://www.universalworkshop.com/BERE.htm
Reviewed and © by Norm Sperling, November 8, 2010

The constellation of Berenice's Hair is subtle, complex, and beautiful. Generations of astronomy popularizers have retold the 2200-year-old story of Queen Berenice II, her cut hair missing from the temple it was supposed to be in, the authorities placated by being shown the hair in the sky.

This book is the action epic behind that gloss.

Ottewell has a strong voice, sharp wit, and a splendid eye for telling details. He makes the whole story flow remarkably well.

The book, too, is subtle, complex, and beautiful. As a telescope reveals far richer detail about the stars, this book tells far richer detail about the characters, setting, and action. It follows Berenice's royal heritage and parents, 2 royal husbands, court intrigues, and adventures in running Cyrenaica and Egypt.

These tales are far more plausible, and a lot less gory, than classical Greek myths set centuries earlier. This is a modern book for modern readers, including issues our own time cares more about than they did back then. Ottewell tells me that maybe 1/8 of the book comes from historical references, more from his visits to the scenes, and perhaps half is pure fiction.

Exquisitely rare among works of fiction that include astronomy, every single technicality is right - where, when, what can be seen, how things look, and so on. They're integral to the story, not awkwardly pasted on for show, the way non-astronomical writers often do it. We expect this from the author of the popular Astronomical Calendars and Astronomical Companion, and we aren't disappointed.

The illustrations in my copy are placed at the end. Newer versions give the map a full page up front, and place the other pictures where they occur in the tale. More pictures would be better - Ottewell is a fine artist.

The printing and binding are good. Many readers would not even notice that it's a "print-on-demand" volume, their quality has improved so much lately. The text is virtually free of typos.

The scholar in me wants a list of references, and the astronomer in me wants a follow-up for observing the constellation itself. But the latter would be out of place in this book, and easily obtainable on line and in many other books. Perhaps the references could be posted on the book's web page, plus links to observing guides.

Yesterday's Dumps, Tomorrow's Mines: Minerals and MinURLs

© Norm Sperling, November 1, 2010

The world's market for rare-Earth metals is now dominated - 97%! - by China. China says it will continue selling them, but neighboring Japan now suddenly seeks to buy from Viet Nam instead. A lot of high-tech consumers worry about how much they will be able to obtain, and for how long.

2 major sources have not been properly surveyed and exploited.

Many of those rare-Earth elements go into high-tech devices. Those devices wear out or become outmoded, are discarded, and go into dumps. We build up enormous dumps, filling valleys and building "Mount Trashmore"s.

When rare-Earth resources run out, or become scarce for ecological or political reasons, it should be more practical to mine old dumps and extract the needed elements from today's discards. Over centuries, I suspect that today's polluted dumps will be reclaimed, re-exploited, and re-consumed as resources.

At identifiable strata and pits in dumps, one can find the discards from datable years. And we know when certain chemicals were used. To facilitate reclamation, dumps should be mapped as accurately as practical in 4 dimensions. Zones should be labeled by dumping dates, and any other distinguishing characteristics, too. Time-lapse photos taken from standard vantage points should help the mapping. Seekers of a rare-Earth element can excavate the zones buried a few years after it was used, without having to slog expensively through unlikely zones.

To what degree is it practical to map older dumps? Many capped landfills are turned into parks after their initial organic outgassing subsides. How closely do their records of filling match new drill-core logs? How do those compare to ground-penetrating-radar scans?

Another waste source is ignored even more: mine tailings. Where nature concentrated a valuable mineral, well enough for miners to extract it, the discards simply got dumped. These mine tailings are often eyesores and sometimes accused of fouling their environment. It's time to take modern, high-quality chemical analyses of tailings from each mine. Surely something valuable will show up somewhere. Mineralogists and geochemists will discover new correlations.

Re-mining tailings has many advantages: they're already concentrated, they're already pulverized and therefore easy to process, and the (re-)remaindered tailings should be (re-)discarded in a much safer manner, which the newly-extracted fraction should pay for. Perhaps robots can stuff tailings that contain nothing likely to become valuable back into the depleted mines they came from, reducing the hazard of collapse.

Mapping dumps, and screening mine tailings, will produce new mineral resource locators - minURLs!

ET Isn't Phoning Us

© Norm Sperling, October 25, 2010

One of humanity's longest longings is to find life elsewhere in the Universe. The search has been somewhat respectable scientifically for more than 3 centuries. Does any other scientific topic have a longer track record for not finding what it seeks?

The oldest book I own is a 1695 discussion on the possibilities for life elsewhere: Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757). It surveyed what was known about life, and what was known about conditions elsewhere, and noted where the 2 surveys found common ground.

Books on the same topic from the 1800s and 1900s take much the same reasonable approach, though they differ markedly as scientific understanding of life, and alien habitats, improved.

The Science changed about 1960, when radio astronomers began searching for ET's signals.

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

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