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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com


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.

What's the best way to meet?

January 30, 2014
Dear Friends,

I’m passing through a number of cities and want to meet people like local JIR subscribers and astronomers. Someone suggested simply circulating an announcement that I’ll be in a certain place at a certain time, like a student union lobby or coffee house. This seems way easier and cheaper than renting a meeting room. What sort of times and places do you think would, and would not work?
weekday midmorning
weekday midafternoon
weekday evening
weekend midmorning
weekend midafternoon
weekend evening

The next several are probably Las Cruces, NM, and the Texas cities of El Paso, Fort Worth, and Dallas. In late February, Florida, then a bit northward from there.

Thank you for your thoughts!

Best wishes,
normsperling [at] gmail.com

Uncertainty Done Right

(c) Norman Sperling, January 21, 2014

We astronomers KNEW we didn't know what Comet ISON was going to do. We knew its brightness was extremely unpredictable. We knew that fizzling was one major possibility.

This time, as if in a unified front, practically all astronomers told practically all media the same thing. They told it so emphatically and so uniformly that the media had no choice but to tell that to the public, though the media strongly prefer concrete certainties. The public was well served.

So this time there's no backlash against Science, no criticism, praise for the correctness, and praise for the videos and graphics.

What a stunning contrast to the Kohoutek debacle of 1973. Initial computations - wildly optimistic - predicted brilliance, which the media trumpeted. So telescope companies ramped up production, especially because maximum brightness coincided with the holiday season. The media largely ignored later cautions, and the comet's dimness left Science seeming "wrong", and companies with expensive warehouses full of every scope they expected to sell for the next *year*.

Long Lines and Gotchas

©Norman Sperling, August 4, 2013

Several times I’ve waited in long slow lines at some government facility, only to learn at the front that they consider the area to be a security zone so I have to lose my little pocket knife. And there’s no locker just outside to stow it in. And my turn for the thing I want will take another x hours. And I can’t leave the area without forfeiting my place and having to start over.

What really annoys me is the blatant lack of communication. Electronic signs could be posted along the line, clear to the far end, telling the terms and the waiting times. The same information could be posted online for the hordes who now use smartphones. A whole lot of people would be able to handle the situation a whole lot better.

Mackinac Island

(c) Norman Sperling
visited July 11, 2013

A wonderful way to spend a day! The weather was perfect. The little island is famous for banning motor vehicles (since 1898!). It has other quaintnesses and individualities too.

I took the ferry from St. Ignace. I was looking forward to the lack of cars, but my mind’s ear extrapolated that into a near-silence. Not quite quiet. Lawn mowers were in full throttle, ferry boats came and went frequently, and noisy airplanes landed at the airport. But all that is only in town. Away, on the bike loop, silence is golden. The world sure could use a lot more havens like this.

This island was the site of a bad injury with fortunate consequences. An unlucky man, Alexis St. Martin, was shot, leaving a hole from his stomach to the outside, The fort surgeon, the only doctor around, William Beaumont, brought him back to health, and then researched digestion, running a whole lot of experiments over many years with this unfortunate victim. He wrote a book describing his findings about digestion, many results of which advanced anatomical understanding.

I expected all those horses, but had forgotten how bad their manure smells. Those droppings litter the town. Outside of town, on the 8-mile-long shoreline loop road, I only noticed about 2 piles per mile. The book “The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible” by Otto Bettman points out the selective blindness of nostalgia. Horses were hardly a great mode, and as soon as people had a viable alternative, they stopped using their horses.

Bicycles are Mackinac Island’s major mode by far. Many visitors bring their own, but most rent from numerous shops near the ferry slips. Rental bikes include a lot of retro-style cruisers, and a huge number of tandems for couples and parent/child pairs. No racers. My Brompton got less attention than usual for such an odd folder. I rode the entire circumferential road, stopping to take in sights and to snack. There are a few gentle rises but the road is almost all flat and extremely easy to bike. The route is very peaceful and scenic, a joy to stroll through. As long as I was on my bike, things were fine. But I was nervous every time I had to chain it to a stand. A local policeman said they had 3 or 4 bike thefts a day in tourist season.

Without motor vehicles, porters need some alternative to carry baggage between hotels and ferries. I saw a few improvised wheelbarrows-for-luggage, using bike wheels. Some trikes were clumsily refitted for cargo, and a couple bikes pulled small trailers. What I expected and did NOT see were the many types of cargo and work bikes I saw throughout China. They featured husky frames, huge cargo capacity, and very low gearing. Maybe the hotels just haven’t heard about them.

This island has a thing for cairns. These piles of rocks are found everywhere along the shore where suitable rocks can be found. A lot of angular riprap stabilizes beaches, and those rocks stack very well. My bike map brochure says cairns mark trails, memorialize having been somewhere, or are simply art. No mention of newage hocus pocus. I noticed only a few cairns that I could call artistic. Facilitating and suggesting cairns is another good idea that other locales should adopt.

Up at the fort, built by the British, and then American for a century, seasonal performers ran through a long series of short tours, demonstrations, and narratives. They fired a cannon, shot muskets, sang songs, and told the fort’s story in the fur trade, the War of 1812, and regional development. In most roles, the performers did fine. With musical instruments, the snare drummer was quite adequate, in contrast to the fifer and bugler.

Fudge is the most popular local product, famous for over a century. I bought a slice, and it is indeed very good. It’s also dangerously loaded with lactose from a whole lot of milk and butter.

A great many of the tourists are over 50.

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

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