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

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

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.

Projects

"Don't Try This in High School"

© Norman Sperling, March 8, 2011; updated May 10, 2011
JIR's newest anthology (our 12th!) selects articles for sharp, science-minded high school students.

* paperback
* ISBN 0-913399-12-4
* ISBN 13: 978-0-913399-12-5
* 8.375 x 5.375 x 0.52 inches
* 10.85 ounces = 307 grams
* 222 pages
* $19.95
* Orders received by May 20, 2011: $14.95
* publication May 2011

Over 3/4 of JIR articles assume longer life-experiences, or higher scientific education, than high school. So we have very few high school subscribers. But over the decades we have published more than enough articles to occupy ... amuse ... and captivate high schoolers. Give them this book:
* for holidays, birthdays, graduation
* to tide them over a long trip or a boring recuperation
* and to encourage thinking and laughing at the same time.

To sample the flavor, here are a few of the topics:

Physics:
Yo Mama jokes
Physicist MacDonald's Farm
Watched pot never boils

Chemistry:
Chocolate cake
Mannekin molecules

Biology:
Frog dissection
Budgies as weapons
Insect rights

Math:
Even prime numbers
The largest integer
The Perpendicularogram
Rebuttal to Multiplication

Word Play:
Suplurals and zero-order terms
Crossword puzzle from Hell

Nature versus Nurture:
Color discrimination
Triplets raised apart

Plus:
Rock - Paper - Scissors
Cluedness
Coin stacking
Ben Franklin was twins
Sunrises
Marmite® versus Vegemite®
Deep space hand salutes
Good Deeds
and several cool songs

If you assemble a kit to give along with the book, include:
* Mentos®
* Tootsie® pops
* sand
* cat hair
* jelly
* and Jell-O®
Yes, a lot of articles are really sweet.

The imaginary invisible companion described in one article is supplied free with the book.

Don't Try This in High School has only a few molecules of overlap with our other current anthology, This Book Warps Space and Time, published by Andrews McMeel. Warps Space selects short, quick, inoffensive, and easy items. Don't Try This includes much longer articles, assumes understanding high school science courses, and - appealing to high schoolers - can't be totally inoffensive. But people who like either, and want more, should dive right into the other.

CLASSIFICATIONS

Dewey: 502.07 science humor
Library of Congress: Q167 science humor
British Library: Q167 science humour
Anatomy: humerus
Biochemistry: hydrocarbon/polymer
Boffin: proto
Dental: nitrous oxide
Emoticon: 8-D
Epidemiology: highly infectious
Gilbert & Sullivan: Major General
Geek: chic
Initialism: ROFLMAO
Latlong: -122+37
Lux: brilliant, sparkling
Madoff: +0.104i
Nerd: pride
Oceanography: dry
Ottewell: 8 3/8 inches
Stratigraphy: Upper Anthropocene
Trigonometry: tangents
Zoology: owl/hyena

Tell Me Where To Go, and What To Do When I Get There

© Norman Sperling, March 1, 2011

In 1981-82, after leaving Sky & Telescope, and planning to move to the Bay Area, with no job or attachments on either end, I went sight-seeing. I traded my car for an RV, left Boston on Winter Solstice 1981, and settled in Oakland on Astronomy Day 1982. I meandered far and wide, seeing astronomical sights that I'd missed at conventions - observatories, planetaria, star parties, etc. I visited interesting companies and people I'd met, but concentrated more on folks I'd heard of and maybe corresponded with, but had never seen.

That trip was one of the highlights of my life. I took lots of photos that I still teach with. I'm still friends with a number of very interesting people I went out of my way to meet. I encountered many curiosities, neat stuff, different ways of doing things ... .

Now I'm finishing a couple decades on Daddy-Duty, and the travel bug is biting again. By January 2013 I hope to start driving anywhere in the US and Canada for 2 or 3 years. I may fit in short excursions before then.

Since I'm in my 60s this is my best remaining opportunity - of course everything is "health and budget permitting". I'm no longer so nimble, and have to watch my diet. I can dawdle and go way off the beaten path. Electronics will make it easier this time, with a laptop, WiFi, WWW, GPS, cell phone, digital camera, etc.

Vehicles
A detachable camper trailer seems good - the type called a "toy hauler", with the big fold-down ramp making it easy to move stuff in and out. I need functions of office/ store/ warehouse/ workshop more than the rooms of a house (in fact, many people change their houses' rooms and garages into offices/ stores/ warehouses/ workshops). So far, every motorhome I've seen tries to be a house, not the office/ workshop/ store I need. I hope I don't have to invent it all myself. I'll need a computer work station (even if the computer itself is a laptop); a drawing desk; and a package-wrapping table. Those could all fold out of the way when not in use. Of course I'll need lots of volume for goods that I buy and sell.

Park the camper for a week. There are trailer parks everywhere, and some folks might let me hook up a hose and extension cord to their garage. I'll probably pull the toy hauler with a powerful American SUV since, away from the coasts, service is said to be harder to find for imports. Get around town and take day-trips in the SUV.

THE GREAT SCIENCE TREK

It might take a week to "do" a city:
* Visit Big Science labs and institutions - academic, government [DoE, NASA, USDA, ...], whatever
* companies that make scientific things
* speak to the astronomy club
* speak to the skeptics (skeptical of pseudoscience)
* speak to the science writers and bloggers
* participate in Science Cafes
* give JIR-humor talks in labs and on campuses
* meet JIR authors and subscribers
* meet this blog's readers
* meet each area's science retailers
I hope to sell subscriptions and goods at most talks.

Tell me where to go! Please recommend:
* Science, technology, and medical places,
* ... sanctuaries and reserves,
* ... personalities, and
* ... companies
* Big Science / Research laboratories / Institutes
* Where scientific headlines happened
* Scientific white elephants
* Conventions, science festivals, science cafes, and star parties
* Life-list experiences
* Factory tours
* Inventors
* People who make neat goods that scientists and doctors would buy
* Authors / Writers / Bloggers
* Must-see buildings / structures / views (I love strong verticals and lots of ins-and-outs)
* Distinctive and off-beat museums
* Natural phenomena
* Scenic byways
* Geological faults and exposures
* Your ideas
* "Don't Go There": where to avoid, and why
Include noteworthy things that miss my criteria by a factor or 2: I can't drive to Arecibo but it's on my wish-list anyway.

Along the way, I'll turn what I learn into books, websites, articles, shows, blogs, or other media. I'm planning half a dozen book-like projects. For example,
* I want to touch rocks deposited during every geological epoch, and probably every age. How old are the rocks exposed near you? Are there any nice, multi-layer road cuts or cliffs?
* I'll visit sites for my forensic-astronomy book, Convicted by the Sun, Acquitted by the Moon. There's room for more cases, if you know of any.
* In historical science, I'll examine scientific White Elephants, including potential future ones.
* In entomology, I want to learn how locals cope with their pests.

I welcome your recommendations and comments on all of this: normsperling [at] gmail.com.

References I've combed as of May 2012:

David Alt & Donald W. Hyndman: Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California. Mountain Press 2002.
Karen Axelrod & Bruce Brumberg: Watch it Made in the USA. 3d ed 2002.
Bishop, Oesterle & Marinacci: Weird California. Sterling 2006.
Robert Burnham, ed: Caves Cliffs & Canyons. Discovery Insight Guides 2000.
Robert Burnham, ed: Star & Sky. Discovery Insight Guides 2000.
Richard Cavendish, ed: 1001 Historic Sites you Must See Before You Die. Barron's.
Glennda Chui: "The Particle Physics Life List". Symmetry, v4 #6 pp10-19, August 2007.
Albert G. Dikas: 101 American Geo-Sites You've Gotta See. Mountain Press 2012.
Chris Epting: James Dean Died Here. Santa Monica Pr 2003.
Chris Epting: The Ruby Slippers, Madonna's Bra, and Einstein's Brain : the Locations of America's Pop Culture Artifacts . Santa Monica Pr 2006.
John Graham-Cumming: The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science & Technology Come Alive. O'Reilly 2009. 542p.
Peter Greenberg: Don't Go There!. Rodale 2009.
Gerald & Patricia Gutek: Experiencing America's Past: A Travel Guide to Museum Villages. 2d ed, U So Car Pr 1994.
Jim Heimann & Rip Georges: California Crazy: Roadside Vernacular Architecture. Chronicle 1980.
Harry Helms: Top Secret Tourism. Feral House 2007.
H. Tom Kirby-Smith: U.S. Observatories: A Directory and Travel Guide. Van Nostrand Reinhold 1976.
John Margolies: Fun Along the Road. Little, Brown 1998.
Mike Marinacci: Mysterious California. Panpipe 1987. 142p.
Daniel Mathews & James S. Jackson: America from the Air. Huffin Muffin 2007.
Gary McKechnie: USA 101. National Geographic 2009.
Mark Moran & Mark Sceurman: Weird U.S. Barnes & Noble 2004.
Duane S. Nickell: Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Astronomy and Space Exploration Sites Across America Rutgers U Pr. 2008.
Duane S. Nickell: Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites Across America Rutgers U Pr. 2010.

Jerome Pohlen: Progressive Nation. Chicago Review Pr. 2008.
Reader's Digest: America’s Historic Places. Reader’s Digest 1988.
Saul Rubin: Offbeat Museums. 1997.
Norm Sperling: "Touring American Observatories", Sky & Telescope, vol. 53, no. 1, January 1977, 14-19.
Mabel Sterns: Directory of Astronomical Observatories in the United States. Edwards 1947.
Salvatore M. Trento: Field Guide to the Mysterious Places of the Pacific Coast. Holt 1997.
Mark Usler: Hometown Declarations. DM 2008.
B. J. Welborn: America's Best Historical Sites. Chicago Review Press 1998.

Now is the Time to Expand the Budget ... of Paradoxes

© Norman Sperling, February 19, 2011

While the Skeptics' movement, as official organizations of people, only dates from the 1970s, there have been skeptics of pseudoscience for hundreds of years. One of the most interesting was a prickly Victorian named Augustus De Morgan.

De Morgan responded tartly in the Athenaeum magazine to assorted balderdash he read in a wide variety of books, and to letters which people sent him. His writings for the Athenaeum were rather like those of some bloggers today. He had a short fuse. Politeness was not a priority.

After he died, his widow published De Morgan's ripostes as one of the first Skeptics' books, A Budget of Paradoxes. I treasure my copy of the second edition, published in 2 volumes in 1915.

I got them from the estate of Joe Ashbrook, editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. Joe's signature inside the front cover says he bought it on June 24, 1935, when the book was 20 years old, and Joe was 17. Over the rest of his career he wrote a great many interesting notes in it. Joe especially used the book's many short biographies; back then, we didn't have the research resources we have now.

But the Budget only publishes De Morgan's retorts. The first half of each dialog isn't there, and can only partly be inferred from what is. Back when De Morgan wrote, and when the Budget was published, there was a perfect reason for that: the copyrights to the other side of the dialog didn't belong to De Morgan, and the writers were usually hostile to him.

Now those copyrights have long expired. And now a huge amount of Victorian text is on-line and otherwise more accessible.

So now that it is possible, somebody should put together the complete version: the claims as well as the disproofs, the bunk as well as the debunk.

It could be published in electronic formats. It could also be printed-on-demand so no publisher has to bet how many others will want to buy a copy, after I buy the first one.

What similar worthy projects, never done before, are now doable?

Catching Satellite Debris With Smart Nets

© Norman Sperling, February 6, 2011

Thanks to Dennis Normile, the Science Insider of Science Magazine, we've learned that last week's flap over satellite-catching nets began with mistranslation and ballooned as journalists and bloggers skipped fact-checking and blundered directly into copying and embroidery.

As far as I know, space nets have not yet been tried. I think they ought to be.

Hanny's Voorwerp: A Protogalaxy?

© Norman Sperling, February 1, 2011

An amateur astronomer, systematically classifying observations from a massive professional survey, noticed something that, at first glance, looked very odd. Further examination confirmed that it is definitely odd. She reported it to the astronomers leading the program, who confirmed all that. Now, the Hubble Space Telescope has taken a much sharper image of the object. It is odd indeed.

Water Birds

© Norman Sperling, January 23, 2011

My bike rides got boring. The same trees, the same curves, the same streams and beaches. Even scenic trails aren't so scenic after many years.

Lately I've paid more attention to a big variable: water and shore birds. My brother Barry, a long-time birder, commented that they're very attractive because they're big, and out in the open. I might point out the avocets and black-necked stilts to a passing kid: "Those are shore birds." "Yep", she'd reply, "they shore are".

Songbirds, by contrast, are small, flit by too fast to identify, and hide in bushes. You may merely hear them. Barry's quite an expert at identifying them by their songs but, for now, I'd rather actually see the birds.

The ever-changing array of water birds brings unpredictable variety to my rides.

Big Science Festival Coming to San Francisco Bay Area

© Norman Sperling, December 25, 2010

What if your club, institution, or company gets access to a lot of the Science-interested public for a few days? What if they come to you, or meet you in a nice venue? What messages would you most want to get across? What could those contacts be best used for? What if you had 10 months to prepare?

Around San Francisco, the Bay Area Science Festival is planned for October 29 - November 6, 2011. But hardly anyone I talk to has heard about it yet!

One indication that the planning's cast in Jell-O® rather than concrete is that they say it's going to be a 10-day event, but the days they list total 9. So it's not too late to get involved. If you're in the Bay Area, think through your optimum result from such a festival. Think through how to achieve it. Then contact the Festival folks to make sure you get included. I'd guess that the more self-contained your package, the easier it should be for them to include.

Here's what I've gleaned so far:

Skipping Transit Stops

© Norman Sperling, November 29, 2010

Transit ridership soars when the ride speeds up. Here on the peninsula south of San Francisco, CalTrain's "Baby Bullet" doesn't actually go faster than other trains, but it does skip a lot of stops, including the slowing down for them. Ridership is up importantly because it's so fast. It's the preferred transit ... even though it's not cheap, and the San Francisco terminal isn't particularly close to all the sky-scrapers.

The speeding up comes from skipping stops. How about EVERY rush-hour train skipping every other station? First send an "Odds" train that only stops at odd-numbered stations, then an "Evens" train. Every station gets served, and all the trains get to the other end much faster.

Memories of Brian Marsden

© Norman Sperling, November 21, 2010

My friend Brian Marsden, longtime director of the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams and the Minor Planet Center, died on November 18th, age 73.

In addition to being a world-class celestial mechanic and puzzle solver, he was one of the very nicest people I ever met. Always cheerful, quick to laugh, happy to talk good astronomy with anybody (amateur or professional, young or old), always trying to get the science right. He was everybody else's friend, too. That's a splendid attitude to emulate!

Brian was not an observer. At all. When a bright comet came by, he wouldn't even consider strolling to a telescope in the same complex to see it.

I remember hearing Brian say "Pluto is a comet" several times in the 1970s and '80s. He cited evidence from its orbital characteristics, and never changed his mind: it is too different from anything else called a "planet" to be covered under the same label. To Brian, that made Pluto more interesting rather than less, because he was most interested in asteroids and comets.

Bright and Not So Bright

The Central Bureau is astronomy's alert service: it evaluates and spreads the word about any new discovery that astronomers ought to look at. Once in a while somebody makes a false claim, and they have to avoid diverting astronomers from reality to track it down. Almost all of the discoveries are conventional like comets or novae or supernovae, but they've also announced sudden storms on Saturn and much more.

Brian announced many fast-breaking stories, and inevitably he misjudged a few. While he was tops at predicting positions, he was not very good at predicting comet brightnesses. Neither was everybody else in the 1970s, when so little was yet known about comets' physical structures. Unfortunately, Brian was very slow to realize how poor his brightness formulae were. Fortunately, a lot of amateur and professional astronomers learned skepticism much faster.

His biggest blunder - politely neglected in the flurry of laudatory obituaries and blogs - was predicting that Comet Kohoutek would reach the stupendous brightness of minus-tenth magnitude in January 1974. Later down-gradings of the predicted brightness never caught up with the initial extreme hype. That comet never got bright enough for most urban people to see at all, and the public and media were VERY turned off. That, in turn, cut deeply into the audience for Comet West on March mornings of 1976, when it was truly gaudy but largely ignored.

Decades later, when "potentially hazardous objects" were discovered with orbits that might endanger Earth, Brian again provided the best early calculations to the public. He labeled the uncertainties, but certain irresponsible and incompetent media failed to explain those uncertainties to the public. Other astronomers criticized Brian for stirring up needless alarm, but all Brian was doing was fully informing the public. Re-aim that criticism to the media who don't explain uncertainties. (Now some of them do, but, curiously, only with opinion polls.)

When I worked at Sky & Telescope, I pointed out that not only was Brian an indispensible source, month in, month out, he was also a splendid article topic himself. Other editors agreed, but didn't give me the assignment. Instead, they assigned it to another assistant editor, Dennis Overbye, who has been with the New York Times for many years now. His article "Life in the Hot Seat" (S&T, August 1980, pp 92-96) is far better than what I had in mind.

Finding Lost Asteroids

"Brian found Adonis" sounded like gossip, but to astronomers concerned with asteroids and history, it meant that the foremost celestial mechanic had cleaned up yet another decades-old mystery.

In the late 1970s, more than 20 numbered asteroids remained "lost" - about 1% of all numbered asteroids at that time. They had been issued their numbers too hastily, before sufficient data firmly pinned down their orbits. One of Brian's ambitions was to patrol the inflooding observations from bigger and more sensitive telescopes for new sightings of those lost asteroids. That would enable accurate orbits to be computed, securing them for the future.

1862 Apollo was recovered in 1973, and 2101 Adonis in 1977. By 1981, 9 numbered asteroids remained lost, and Brian really wanted them found.

The last 2 were finally mopped up by his son-in-law Gareth Williams: 878 Mildred in 1991, and 719 Albert in 2000. Mildred, by the way, was named for co-discoverer Harlow Shapley's infant daughter when it was discovered in 1916; when her asteroid was recovered she was an editor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.

Though Brian put tremendous energy into tidying up the solar system, he never managed to accomplish the same with his office. It had nearly as many paper piles as mine.

Naming Asteroids

Officially, discoverers have the right to name their asteroids, but some observers never get around to naming all the asteroids they discover. Some identifications emerge from computer analyses instead of observers. Many confusions were cleared up decades later. So, many asteroids that earned numbers have no names.

3 times, I came up with names of living (though old) astronomers who obviously merited asteroids. Not being an observer, I never discovered any myself, so I suggested the names to Brian. He liked them and cleared them through his IAU committee. That committee almost never disagreed - not because they were a rubber stamp, but because Brian made good cases for his proposals. That's how asteroids 2157 Ashbrook and 2637 Bobrovnikoff got their names. He relayed the other to a likely astronomer who had some asteroids "available", which is why Ted Bowell named 2421 Nininger.

A Project for You

Now, way over 100,000 asteroids have earned numbers but haven't been named. Names don't have to be astronomers, or even people. Places and instruments, for example, have lent their names to space rocks. A few have been named for events. What names do you think asteroids should carry? Scientists, historians, and others should propose serious names to prolific discoverers who hold naming rights. Wags who concoct names to suggest in jest should send them to me (normsperling@gmail.com) for possible use in The Journal of Irreproducible Results.

What a life Brian led! Friends everywhere, widely respected, a very successful career at the top of his profession. We're all going to miss Brian Marsden.

Multiplying Fall Colors

© Norm Sperling, October 16, 2010

Fall colors are dappling most of the country. In parts of the Appalachians, Rockies, and Sierra, Fall colors are so impressive they're tourist destinations. A few colors can even be seen here in the perpetual-Spring climate around San Francisco.

Most areas can make a lot more of it than they do. Here's a cheap, easy way to turn Fall colors into a big attraction.

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

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