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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.

Science Askew: A light-hearted look at the scientific world

By Donald E. Simanek and John C. Holden
Bristol, UK: Institute of Physics Publishing, 2002. 0-7503-0714-5. xii + 310 pages. Hardbound.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48 #4, November 2004, p34.

If you like JIR, you'll love Science Askew. Science satires, cartoons, puns, and parodies range from chapter-long tales down to punchy 1-liners.

Among the rules of the lab:
Experiments must be reproducible; they should fail the same way each time.
Experience is directly proportional to equipment ruined.
Teamwork is essential; it allows you to blame someone else.

My reaction upon reading most of the articles was "we should run this item in JIR!". But we reprinted an entire chapter in the last issue, and we published 2 of the articles (by the illustrator, retired geologist John C. Holden) in the 1970s, and the whole thing is already in a nifty package – this book.

From the computer expert's glossary:
On-line: The idea that a human being should always be accessible to a computer.
Machine-Independent Program: A program that will not run on any machine.
Documentation: Instructions translated from Swedish by Japanese for English-speaking people.

Simanek and Holden include fuel for debunking pseudoscience, and teaching students the distinctions. Ever the teacher, Simanek takes several opportunities to "talk straight" and point out legitimate science lessons. The pair of articles arguing opposing sides of the DHMO "controversy" afford chuckles, as well as stimulation for student exercises. "Di-Hydrogen Monoxide", of course, is H2O.

What engineers say and what they mean by it:
"Test results were extremely gratifying": It works, and are we ever surprised!
"The entire concept will have to be abandoned": The only guy who understood the thing quit.
"The designs are well within allowable limits": We just barely made it, by stretching a point or 2.

Holden contributes many clever and witty illustrations. Several other authors appear too, along with some items that have circulated worldwide on the Web which could not be traced to their original authors.

Some of Simanek's Laws of Statistics:
Anyone who trusts in statistics is taking a chance.
When 2 lines of a graph cross, that must be significant.
Once human subjects find out what you have discovered about their behavior, they begin to behave differently.

There are no important typos, and the trivial ones won't distract or confuse anyone. An illustration is mis-numbered, as is a footnote, but context makes the meanings clear. The illustration on page 110 misspells innumeracy and misperception. Page 273 gives the wrong dates for astrophysicist Thornton Page; they should be 1913-1996 instead of 1884-1952, which are the dates of physicist Leigh Page. At the time I found these little errors, none of them was posted on Science Askew's website, www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/askewcom.htm. All the tiny errors posted there, I missed.

Among the "do-it" 1-liners:
Professors do it absent-mindedly
Cosmologists do it with a bang
Logicians do it symbolically

Institute of Physics Publishing produced this book extremely well. The type is clear, the illustrations crisp, and all the parts are where they ought to be, except that there is no index. The paper is very high quality. The binding is excellent, comfortable, tight, and ought to last a long time. That's essential for this book, because the owner, friends, students, visitors, and everyone else lucky enough to happen upon it will dip into it time after time.

Despite excellent achievements by the authors and producers, this book has not been reviewed or advertised as much as it merits because the publisher refuses to send out many review copies, advertises very little outside its own periodicals, and discourages retailers. It took JIR considerable extra effort to wrest copies from the publisher, but this book is positively worth it.

Science Askew belongs in academic libraries, both for amusement and to stimulate classwork. Scientists, doctors, and educators will love this book. And it makes a splendid gift for anyone with technical knowledge and a sense of – or need for – humor.

Expelling Cheaters

Norman Sperling, in Teaching&, Sonoma State University, April 1989, p3.

I used to be plagued by cheaters in my large Astronomy 100 sections, and have evolved mechanisms to minimize it.

The California State University system has a policy on cheating. The part of Title 5 of the State Code that is reprinted in every student's catalog specifies that the penalty for cheating is expulsion from the CSU system! That constitutes abundant warning to students, as well as full definition of sanctions.

Hardly any professors file such charges. Virtually all handle cheating at a much lower level – making cheaters re-do the offending test or paper, or giving an F for that paper. A few give an F for the course. But so few file campus-level charges that, when I did so a few years ago, administrators had to look up the procedure.

From the cheater's viewpoint, course-level sanctions are trivial. Cheaters typically feel that they're going to do poorly on that paper anyway, so they have nothing to lose. At worst, if caught, they do indeed flunk it. Even if the penalty is an F in the course, the Transcript just shows failure, not cause. Thus, faculty might very well have caught your cheaters before. How could you tell? Those professors' policies taught the students that they can keep cheating with near-impunity.

Notice the explicit warning from my syllabus:
"Regardless of anything you may have gotten away with elsewhere, ANY cheating or plagiarism in my class will be prosecuted to the FULL extent permissible. Cheating and plagiarism are offenses against the CSU system, punishable by expulsion from the CSU system. Most of my students work hard for their grades, and I vigorously defend the value of their earned credit. In recent terms I have detected several different types of cheating, and will absolutely not tolerate it. As far as I know, no student I've caught is in the CSU system any more."

I read this out loud on the first day, in a tone leaving no doubt. Thus, all students who are tempted to cheat know that I will buck for expulsion when I catch them. When I catch a cheater, I do indeed file the strongest case I can with the administration, invariable arguing for expulsion. While administrators are very reluctant to expel, they frequently agree to suspend. I can tell a class that I intend to do this, with a perfectly straight face, that I indeed do this, with no sympathy extended after the infraction. This, and only this, practice teaches students that we mean what we say, and that there is an unacceptable penalty for cheating, making the gamble undesirable.

Incidents of cheating have dropped precipitously in my classes. When I first started including that paragraph, they dropped to about a case a year. And since I began reading it aloud, with feeling, in the first session, I have had just one case – a student who hadn't been there the first day. From this, I conclude that following state law, and saying so clearly, virtually eliminates cheating. Lesser practices merely school cheaters in becoming the next generation of embezzlers and the like.

I therefore urge all instructors to absolutely renounce all sympathy for cheaters, to prosecute every case and buck for expulsion, and to sincerely promise this to every class, unmistakably, both in writing and orally. It will tell the vast majority of our students that we defend hard-earned credit, that we mean what we say, and that college is for people who want to learn. And it will reduce cheating to very low levels.

The Science in Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions That Became Scientific Reality

by Robert W. Bly. BenBella 2005. $24.00
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 50, no. 1, 2006, p32.

Not all these predictions became reality, as the text explains; some are merely theoretically possible. But the stories open up many interesting avenues. Science fiction predicts so much, and so much of it is based on Science and written by people who understand Science, that there is no surprise in SF predictions becoming real.
No surprise, but lots of wonder, sometimes at how far-sighted writers were, sometimes at how near-sighted. Some advances were anticipated by centuries, some by just a few years, and quite a number of scientific advances caught the writers by surprise.

FFNs, LBBs, and LBMs

© Norman Sperling 2002. Excerpted from his book What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You, 0-913399-04-3.

FFNs

When novices start to use their first telescope, they look at the sky's major showpieces, such as the Messier nebulae, clusters and galaxies. They're big and bright enough to show up in binoculars, and a beginner's telescope shows detail in many of them. In the background lurk many more faint objects.

Experienced skywatchers buy bigger and better telescopes, seeing ever-richer detail in more and more nebulae, clusters and galaxies. But always, in the background, there are even more objects, too small and faint to make out. Some irreverent amateur astronomers in San Jose call those background objects "Faint Fuzzy Nothings" – FFNs.

FFNs continue in the background as seen by big, professional telescopes, too. Look at a picture of a galaxy in your textbook. In the background you can often notice dim smudges. Each of those is a galaxy, too, but so much farther away that you can't make out as much detail. A 3-meter-wide telescope shows magnificent detail in objects that amateurs can barely glimpse – and in the background lurk uncountable thousands of more FFNs. A 6-meter telescope shows detail in those, and in the background, even more FFNs. A 10-meter telescope reveals detail in those objects ... and in the background, there are ever more FFNs. No telescope has ever been made that didn't find more FFNs in the background.

LBBs

One day when I was visiting my brother, a bird-watcher, I noticed his log of sightings. Almost every entry included "LBB". He told me that LBB stands for "little brown bird". They are so common, so small, and so similar, that they're not worth examining to see which common species each one belongs to. They flock all over, they're usually there, and they're not the big or pretty or rare birds that bird-watchers prize.

LBMs

The university's mycological society hosted a meeting about LBMs. Mycologists study fungi, and I didn't have to attend to figure out that "LBM" stands for "little brown mushroom". LBMs are so common, so small, and so similar, that they're not worth examining to see which common species each one belongs to. They're not the big or pretty or rare mushrooms that fungus-hunters prize.

There's more! In prospecting, ignore LGRs: "Little Grey Rocks". In wildflowers, ignore DYCs: "Darned Yellow Composite" flowers that fill meadows. Among stars, ignore MV red dwarves. Among meteorites, ignore L6 "ordinary" chondrites. Among galaxies, ignore dE dwarf ellipticals. In archaeology, ignore undecorated body shards (they don't have initials, but ignore them anyway). In entomology, ignore midges.

The same principle applies outside of science. In coin collecting, ignore small copper coins. In stamp collecting, ignore definitives. In antiquarian books, ignore textbooks. And in the serious study of literature, ignore science fiction.

This happens a lot in science. Beginners learn all the kinds of phenomena in the field, and quickly concentrate on certain ones, all but ignoring certain others. Sometimes practicality forces the distinction: some are available, others are too difficult to study. Often, though, it's about what's fashionable to study.

Technology advances at such a furious pace these days that it may be worth looking anew at common background items, using the latest devices. Most people don't pay attention to them. You just might recognize something interesting that no one noticed before.

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

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