© Norman Sperling, November 19, 2012
For half a century I've built my library. First I accumulated all the astronomy references I could get. Then I expanded to history of science. More recently, science humor and science travel.
I read many hundreds of them. I use their old illustrations in my courses and lectures. I traced the development of ideas over centuries using long shelves arranged by date.
And now it's time to sell off most of the ones I don't expect to ever use again.
I'm keeping books that
1. I like (usually because of what they say, sometimes how they look)
2. I have a story about (occasionally negative)
3. I expect to use
Not all the books that I price will sell right away, so I'll still have those for a while.
I'm also putting off selling books autographed by living authors. I got almost 400 volumes autographed, but I did so for myself, not for resale value. I wouldn't want any authors to think I got their autographs just to raise the resale price a few dollars. Since it's hard to hurt the feelings of deceased authors, it's OK to sell those autographs. Books that I bought already autographed are fair game, of course.
For pricing, I seek the median for used copies presently listed online. I add a bit for rarity and autographs and great condition. I subtract a bit for worse condition and commonness.
If a book is rare, I say so on the tab. Or "uncommon". Sometimes I think to myself "deservedly rare", though I don't mark "unimportant" or "undistinguished" or "dull" even when that's what I think.
If I don't like a book, or its author, and want to sell fast, I'll cut the price markedly. Just now I thought "I never liked this book" so I said that on the price tab, and marked it 1 cent. Years ago I had a book I couldn't stand, but couldn't stand to dump into recycling, either. I taped a nickel to it, with the statement "Here's 5 cents if you'll take this away." Sure enough, someone did, with a grin.
© Norman Sperling, October 29, 2012
No, I didn't make 100 enchiladas, the tasty Mexican food. NCHALADA - pronounced the same - is the Northern California Historical Astronomy Luncheon and Discussion Association. It's an informal group, meeting 3 or 4 times a year since 1985. No charter, no bylaws, no dues, and between meetings it only exists as a mailing list.
With Ron Oriti, I co-founded the group as Northern California's version of the "Society for the History of Astronomy", which conducted discussions around Los Angeles. Ron was active there while working at Griffith Observatory, and I visited one excellent session hosted by Gibson Reeves.
We thought the same kind of thing might work around San Francisco. We were right. Meeting mostly at Chabot Observatory, and its successor Chabot Space and Science Center, we discuss a very wide range of topics, some timely, some timeless.
Each meeting selects topics, chairs, and dates for the next. Where a different venue is wanted, or needed, we take offers, or find a suitable place.
Discussions are always good-humored, with many a pun (by many participants, not just me).
But the characteristic commented on repeatedly is that participants bring strong mindpower and expertise, and join in purely for the intellectual joy of it. Bob Multhauf said he enjoyed NCHALADA meetings more than academic colloquia because no one was trying to impress an advisor or potential employer, they were all there because they're interested. A high-ranking MD said NCHALADA discussions show stronger brainpower than he finds in professional meetings.
Attendance has dwindled. The Los Angeles group gave up several years ago. Our attendance has drifted downward, though meeting 100 brought a dozen, our best total in a while.
-- == 100 == --
Nancy Cox, Alan Fisher, and John Westfall have attended about 90 of the 100 meetings. And I have attended every single one.
I was wondering if I could make it. I normally don't make a big issue of numerical milestones, but I've been hoping for this one. Would I still be in town? Though I reconciled myself to missing some because of my upcoming travels, the group picked meeting dates for when I'm home. Would family, health, and other considerations allow it? They never got in the way. The next meeting or 2 also look possible.
-- == Historical Astronomy On Line == --
We just set up an online Yahoo Group to resurrect our former website in an easy format, spark discussion between meetings, and encourage people everywhere to consider our topics. It's also an invitation for more people to join discussions that interest them.
We're posting many of our previous "discussion suggestions" of varying strength. They may include essays, bibliographies, and/or questions. Bringing up a topic is NOT the same as agreeing with it, and participants discuss it from many different viewpoints.
If other places wish to conduct sporadic or regular discussion sessions, we applaud. If you would like to link to any of our postings, please do. If you would like to adapt some, please ask its author, but it'll probably be fine. If you would like to contribute questions, bibliographies, or essays in historical astronomy, send them to us and we'll probably want to post them unless they are offensive.
© Norman Sperling, September 15, 2012
For all the guidebooks I've combed and all the historical technology I've plowed through, I should have known about the Collier Memorial State Park Logging Museum, but I didn't.
Tucked into a small state park on US-97 north of Klamath Falls in south-central Oregon, this is an absolute gem! They collect out-of-date equipment from the logging industry, and are re-arranging it into historical and thematic periods. Through their hardware, they can illustrate the progression from the muscle power of horses and oxen, to steam engines, to diesel engines. You can also see the progression from wood (which they used, as well as harvested), to iron, to steel. One of the excellent details in their signage was the slow fading in and out of the eras, rather than hard, sharp boundaries: each technology was kept as long as it was useful, and replaced when it wore out. A hundred diesels replaced a hundred steam engines over decades, not overnight.
Their knowledgeable volunteer guide showed me a great deal of detail, including how the 10-foot-high wheel haulers dragged logs, and how the steam donkeys could haul lumber, and themselves. The stronger the machines, the steeper the slopes on which they could work. An early horse-drawn road-grader sported a narrow blade, and the stronger the engines that pulled later ones, the bigger the blades could grow.
Most of the wooden equipment was handmade, of course. A lot of their gasoline and diesel equipment was made by Caterpillar and Case but they have several other makers too.
I've visited a lot of technology-through-time collections, but this one is decidedly different. Telescopes and microscopes operate in developed, protected environments, and look it. Cars interface with the great outdoors, but the outdoors are massively changed to accommodate them: we build smooth roads and service stations. Logging equipment is out in brutal nature, in the wild, coping with tough, heavy trees and boulders and canyons ... and they look it. No delicate fittings. No polish. No decoration. Enormous, strong wheels and treads. Fat, heavy cables and chains. Bulky, dented iron and steel housings. Heavily chipped paint. Repaired wheels. Patches and dings. Some equipment wasn't built strongly enough: all 3 tractors built by International/Mack have severely bent and dented hoods because that sheet-metal just couldn't stand up to logging in the wild.
The collection is obviously catch-as-catch-can. Logging companies donated 3 Caterpillar Thirty tractors, so they have 3, even though no story they tell requires that many. They have a big, complicated thresher because somebody donated it, not because farm equipment is part of their logging story. They should swap or sell such items to get more useful and relevant items or make improvements.
as of May 9, 2012
May 19-20: Maker Faire. Visit my sales booth. They usually put me in the largest building, most often halfway between its center and its east corner. Introducing: manual mechanical analog tetris! Topical sets of JIR. And important parts of my personal library, which I must now sell because of impending lack of space.
May 25-28: BayCon 2012
Friday, May 25
Irreproducible Results 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM in San Tomas room (with Berry Kercheval, Jay Reynolds Freeman, Allison Lonsdale) Panelists discuss the fun and foibles of the scientific world.
Is the Patent System Broken? 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM in San Tomas room (with Vickie Brewster, Scott Beckstead, Hugh Daniel) The Patent Law Reform Act of 2011 made many significant changes, including making it first to file, not first to invent. Is this an improvement, or are their still fundamental flaws?
Saturday, May 26
How the Style of Writing Can Make a Book Readable 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM in Winchester room (with Brandon Sanderson, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Diana L. Paxson, Dario Ciriello) First person? Omniscient? First person smart aleck? A discussion of how and why does the point of view change our liking or disliking of a storyline. How does the way authors convey their story, film noir, western, fairytale, tall tale, all come together or fall apart for the reader?
After the Space Shuttle: What's Next? 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM in Camino Real room (with Arthur Bozlee, Jay Reynolds Freeman, Mike Van Pelt) With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, what's happening with getting men and material into space? How about space tourism? Whither the mission to Mars?
The Science of Science Fiction 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM in Lafayette room (with Scott Beckstead, Kay Tracy, Dani Kollin) A discussion of the science behind the fiction, whether e=mc^2 or the warp drive of Star Trek, or the hyperdrive of Star Wars. How much science is needed? How much care do we need to take to avoid having our science come back and bite the author in the bum?
Sunday, May 27
Self Publishing: Where does it fit in the Literary Food Chain? 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM in Lawrence room (with Kyle Aisteach, Jon Cory, Marty Halpern) Between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, self-publishing has taken off; no longer the classical vanity press, often seen as the redheaded stepchild. Is it? Should it be? Where does this fit in the food chain, or is this about to become the Shark?
Travel is My Drug of Choice 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM in Camino Real room (with Chaz Brenchley, James Stanley Daugherty, Deirdre Saoirse Moen) Avid travelers travel for different reasons. Panelists discuss the motivations behind their enthusiasm.
"Hard Science" Science Fiction Doesn't have to be Hard 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM in Winchester room (with Arthur Bozlee, Scott Beckstead, Veronica Belmont, Kyle Aisteach, Eytan Kollin) What are some books, movies, comic books, etc. that have used GOOD science and still managed to be exciting? What was the bad science that made you howl in pain, could it have been modified to be better science and still keep the story intact?
Monday, May 28
What Do We Know About Mars? 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM in Camino Real room (with Arthur Bozlee, Paula Butler, Kyle Aisteach, Jay Reynolds Freeman) Past, present, and future explorations.
Wednesday, June 13: Speaking for Bay Area Skeptics: Skeptalk:
Tell Me Where to Go, and What to Do When I Get There
7:00 PM, Wednesday, June 13, 2012
La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley
After 20 years on Daddy-duty, I hit the road next January, towing my camper all over the US and Canada. "The Great Science Trek" will include:
* Touring "Big Science" places. I'm listing labs, space bases, important research institutes, ... How can I tour the Agriculture Lab in Albany?
* I plan to speak to groups of: skeptics, astronomers, science writers and bloggers, science cafes, ... Where can I get lists of these? What other types of audience should I seek?
* Amateur astronomers hold big "star parties". I'll observe the sky, and the kinds of telescopes now used, and how observers interact with their scopes. Do amateurs in other sciences have comparable gatherings? I'd love to sample some of those.
* I'll photograph myself at places with scientific names. When I lecture my students about Mars, I can show myself at Mars, Pa., and tell them "I know, because I've BEEN THERE." Any suggestions?
* "Don't Go There": where, and why not. Juarez, Mexico: not safe.
I'll gather input for book-like projects to publish by ~2016:
* Scientific white elephants: The Superconducting Super Collider left a big arc-shaped hole in Texas. Missile silos are being recycled for storage, housing, and a survivalist compound. Big observatories may turn into white elephants. What else might? (Mansions are often too expensive for families to keep. They often turn public, recycled as colleges, hospitals, or musea, and often aren't such great venues, very expensive to maintain.)
* I want to touch rocks deposited during every geological epoch (about 38 epochs in the last 542 million years). It's difficult to find listings of layers' ages because geologists prefer to describe their minerals and how they formed. To get all 38 epochs since the Cambrian will probably require visiting more than 10 sites. Please recommend multi-layer road cuts, cliffs, and other exposures.
* In entomology, I want to learn how locals cope with their pests. Some of those critters have specific behaviors and characteristics that locals have noticed.
* Especially, characteristics of infestations by Argentine ants. They absolutely LOVE my kitchen. They make fantastic supercolonies. Where edges of their supercolonies meet, they can wage perpetual ant-wars, where the front can move back and forth a hundred meters a year. Have you noticed anything about Argentine ants?
* Places rebuilding from disaster: The Bay Bridge was closed for a month after the 1989 earthquake, and its reconstruction should finish any generation now. The Oakland Hills burned in 1991 and now feature bigger homes and smaller trees. Greensburg, Kansas, was demolished by a tornado and rebuilt as a "green" city. Where did destruction defeat a town? Can I determine factors regarding type of disaster, degree of disaster, years since disaster?
* I'll photograph and measure giant pop-art sculptures of people, animals, objects, and so on. I intend to concoct a tongue-in-cheek satire, saying these are traces of giant critters and cultures. Can you suggest where I can find some of these giant figures?
* I'll visit places "Frozen in Time", like Plimouth Plantation, where it's always 1627. By arranging them by date, I can trace development through time. I can track technological evolution in kitchens, windows, chairs, etc. I've noticed that basic components of "comfortably furnished rooms" haven't changed hugely since the early 1700s, it's just that vastly more people can now afford them. Where do you know a place that's "frozen in time"?
I'll bring maps of places listed-so-far.
More detail on my blog.
Saturday, June 30: attending the Northern California Historical Astronomy Luncheon and Discussion Association, viewing 2 private antiquarian collections in Marin County. If you're interested, contact me for details.
AM: Of Beauties and Beasts: The Golden Age of Celestial Cartography. Hundreds of maps, frontispieces, memorabilia from a superb collection!
From 1600 to 1800, celestial cartography reached its peak in beauty and quality with the publication in Europe of a number of breathtaking atlases and prints related to the heavens. Some were maps of lunar or planetary surfaces, or diagrams of the solar system according to various cosmological theories (e.g., the Earth-centered universe of the classical Greeks, the Sun-centered system of Copernicus). But the most striking images were of the constellations. Classical Greek traditions abounded, with allegorical visual representations of heroes and heroines, real and imaginary animals, and scientific and artistic tools and instruments. But why were such constellation images used in star maps?
The 17th Century ushered in the Golden Age of celestial cartography in Europe. 4 individuals particularly advanced the field and influenced the work of other celestial cartographers: Johann Bayer, Johannes Hevelius, John Flansteed, and Johann Bode. Lesser contributions from Andreas Cellarius, Johann Doppelmayr, and John Bevis.
PM: A collection of detailed ship models. These are really big models at 1/4"= 1 ft scale so seeing the real things is really a shocking experience for the arts and craft lover. It is remarkable that so many such delicate creations have survived centuries of violence and accidents to come down to us intact to appreciate.
The ship models mostly are old models built in the 17th and 18th Centuries, mostly in Britain. They are often called Navy Board or Admiralty models. The practice of building very accurate and exquisitely decorated ship models in England appears to date from the time of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th Century. They are considered the pinnacle of the ship modelers' art and many advanced modelers copy the style or make modern replicas to show off their skills.
Weird Astronomy: Tales of Unusual, Bizarre, and Other Hard to Explain Observations, by David A. J. Seargent. 317p. Springer 2010. $39.95. 978-1-4419-6423-6.
reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, April 26, 2012
Australian astronomy writer David Seargent knows sky-watching - a long-time amateur astronomer, he discovered a comet in 1978. He has been telling about these curiosities in a long string of articles for Southern Astronomy, which became Sky & Space magazine. He has integrated and smoothed them out well for this book. But one standard that may have been OK in the magazine grates on me! He uses exclamation points way too much!
Between exclamation points, Seargent tells these neat stories with an easy flow and a light touch. He explains things in a clear, friendly way that teaches accurately but painlessly. Collectively, they form good lessons on scientific reasoning, the importance of data quality, and understanding how the sky works. The Universe seems to show more phenomena than humans have so far commanded. The stories are very enjoyable for readers who haven't heard them before. They will certainly entertain readers interested in any science.
Seargent also inserts suggestions for projects. Every reader, from novice through expert, can find some interesting possibilities to work on.
Some items from the main chapters:
* Our Weird Moon: William Herschel noticed 3 red glowing spots on the dark part of the Moon on April 19, 1787. He thought they were erupting volcanoes, but that would have left evidence that we would now see, and we don't. Seargent points out that that very same night had intense aurora as far south as Italy, and asks if the same flow of high-energy particles hitting Earth might trigger glows on the Moon.
* Odd but Interesting Events Near the Sun, including transits and comets.
* Planetary Weirdness dwells mostly on Mars, and wonders if microbes do, too.
* Weird Meteors: Curving, zigzagging, and black meteors have been reported.
* Strange Stars and Star-Like Objects: including assorted flashes and blinks.
* Moving Mysteries and Wandering Stars: several tiny comets have been spotted close to Earth.
* Facts, Fallacies, Unusual Observations, and Other Miscellaneous Gleanings: planets and stars by daylight, the thinnest crescent Moon, odd meteorites, and the "potassium flare" star whose spectrum actually measured a smoker striking a match.
The publisher's contributions to this book aren't as good as the author's. There are several typos, though none of them interferes with understanding. While the text is printed very clearly, many of the pictures are too dark and murky, and hard to distinguish. The color pictures lack resolution. The publisher appears to have trusted a new printing technology, which seems not ready for prime time yet.
Defining any book project requires many decisions to be made. They decided this one would be "popular" rather than scholarly, so they left out all references. But this subject matter is deliberately obscure, and they give no hint as to where to chase down any item that attracts your fancy. There were many items that I could not even guess where to pursue, beyond a web-search.
But many of them I do know where to look for: Mysterious Universe by the late William R. Corliss. (Sourcebook Project, 1979). When I started wondering about those Earth-approaching comets, I checked the Corliss compendium and found 2 of Seargent's 3, plus several others, all with full quotations from the original literature. Corliss has quite a number of Seargent's phenomena. More on the personalities and places can be found in Joe Ashbrook's Astronomical Scrapbook (Cambridge University Press), a compilation of his articles in Sky & Telescope magazine. So readers have a choice: the simplest pleasure-read is Seargent's. Ashbrook's is more scholarly. Corliss reprints the original sources verbatim, retaining all the original information and flavor ... sometimes stuffy. Also, Corliss never tells how a story came out: were the observations flawed? Did they start a new paradigm? Seargent can solve scholars' problems by posting his references on a website.
As expected, Seargent finds more articles in the British heritage, Ashbrook in the American. This leads me to wonder how badly culture and language still inhibit communication. What curiosities have observers logged in other languages? Can we get those correctly translated, compiled, indexed, and entertainingly narrated? What percentage of the total do these English-language sources contain? How can readers of lots of other languages become familiar with these?
Corliss compendia cover most sciences. Seargent has now published one on meteorology. Do other sciences have corresponding light-reading books of curiosities like Seargent's or Ashbrook's?
© Norman Sperling, March 7, 2012
I would like to read a comprehensive book about Y2K, especially a competent description and analysis of the aftermath. I haven't been able to find such a book. Does one exist?
Broadening to the big issue of legacy software would generalize it from a single event to an ongoing situation. Legacy code is a real issue for many companies because a lot of original code was not optimal:
* it was written as a first try,
* under great pressure,
* in an under-funded company,
* thinking months ahead, not decades.
Inelegance is the least of its problems.
A lot has been learned about superior ways to do things since then, but later editions all have to work with the original. This weighs down products from many big companies.
A software engineer who had worked at Oracle told me that Oracle did indeed find and fix what would have failed.
© Norman Sperling, February 1, 2012
We're all familiar with giant computer-industry corporations. Here in Silicon Valley, we have hundreds of them. But they didn't start out giant, they started out basic and bare-bones. I drove around the Valley a couple weeks ago to look at some of their birthplaces. See pictures of these and many companies' first buildings at scaruffi.com. (HP and Google were founded in garages just around the corners of the houses shown.) You can also find them on satellite imagery.
1939: Hewlett Packard garage, 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto: quite rustic, with not-quite-even wooden planks. Narrow 1-car garage (no house had a 2-car garage in 1938!). Were it not for the bronze plaques in front of the house (a duplex, private residences), absolutely nothing would call attention to the garage. Unassuming. It's well-painted because the garage is now owned by Hewlett-Packard and maintained as their honored birthplace. A private tour inside, that I didn't see: by Brian Solis.
1956-57: 391 San Antonio Road, Mountain View: where Shockley Semiconductor got started. This pioneering transistor company was a terrible place to work. Experts fleeing Shockley founded Fairchild, Intel, Kleiner, and others. Now at the corner of a gigantic shopping center (redeveloped in 2012), a WalMart stands on the opposite corner. The building is hard to recognize! It's now an "International Market" selling halal meats. The historic, main part is extremely plain, basic, slab-sided, undistinguished. The newer front segment is much better looking. The Geek Atlas says there's a plaque but I didn't find any.
~1958: 844 E. Charleston Road, Palo Alto: Fairchild Semiconductor , 1957- . Invented integrated circuits. Moore's Law 1965. Begat the "Fairchildren" LSI, Advanced MicroDevices, and many more. Very plain light-industrial building, with only a few faint touches of styling. Modern for the 1950s. 2 bronze plaques out front tell how the commercial integrated circuit chip was invented there, but you'd never notice the building if it wasn't pointed out. 2 suites are for rent as of January 2012.
1975: Apple's garage, 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos. The front actually looks rather like my house, though the spacing between houses is quite a bit wider. It has a double-width garage, where mine has a single. Extremely unassuming, less adorned than most of the houses on the street. No plaque. This front lawn has the smallest tree on the block (perhaps a big old tree had died). The garage is absolutely unassuming.
1998: Google's garage, 232 Santa Margarita Avenue, Menlo Park. Somewhat newer, with a classy mailbox and tile address on the garage. No sign or plaque visible. Clean and trim but plain. Some neighbors haven't been maintained in decades, others are junior palaces.
Nobody would pick any of these as a place of future greatness. These ventures all started very small and plain and unadorned, all hope and work. Nothing big or rich till long after they outgrew these cradles. If the beginning work hadn't fostered sales and expansion, we'd never have heard of any of them. It doesn't matter how tiny your accommodations (I say, typing away in a corner of a closet), what counts is where you take it from there.
Reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, October 3, 2011
Duane S. Nickell: Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2010. Paperback $19.95. 978-0-8135-4730-5.
and Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Astronomy and Space Exploration Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2008. Paperback $21.95. 978-0-8135-4374-1.
Most of the travel books I've filtered through in planning my Great Science Trek specialize in factories, oddities, architecture, history, pop culture, technology, and politics. Travel books for scientists are rare - just a few on geology and observatories. Do you know any others? Duane S. Nickell is starting a series to fill this niche. Rutgers University Press has set up "The Scientific Traveler" series, and Nickell has written its first 2 volumes.
Each chapter begins with a gem-quality tutorial. To understand gigantic particle accelerators, start with the essay on particle physics. To get why you should examine meteorite collections, start with the essay on meteorites.
Taking advantage of his modern, tech-savvy audience, Nickell wastes no space on maps or directions. He gives addresses, phone numbers, and websites, from which visitors can get all they need. He cites admission fees as of presstime, which everybody knows can change.
Nickell found a whole lot of chemistry places I'd never heard of, and points out aspects of astronomy and physics places that I never thought of - such as rooms where important things occurred on the campus where I teach (certainly not my room). He has chapters on the scientists themselves plus their universities, labs, accelerators, museums, and monuments. "Chemicals in Industry", for example, features places that make glass, borax, paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, beer, and whiskey.
Some kinds of technology lie in plain sight but go uninterpreted. Wind farms, for example, occupy impressive stretches of hills and deserts, but none has a visitor center or even a gift counter. A display of varieties of windmills, a demonstration of a generator, and a few relevant models and publications for sale, would make a respectable roadside stop. Other energy forms with sites-to-see include oil, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and solar.
Astronomers flock to places with the darkest skies, and buy up all the land to prevent disturbing lights from encroaching. Several such astronomy villages have sprung up. I can only think of one other place where followers of a science build their vacation homes together: Scientist's Cliffs, Maryland. Are there others?
The books are well-produced, well-illustrated, and reasonably priced. The rare misspellings won't cause any problems. But use an actual map rather than trust a statement like "15 miles southeast" because it might not be southeast.
Science people should consult these both for novel day-trips in their own areas, and for sights to visit while traveling. I tallied the listings I've visited so far: 36 of 57 in the Astronomy/Space volume, but only 25 of 92 in Physics/Chemistry. I'm going to enjoy some more sights!
© Norman Sperling, August 20, 2011
One of the most interesting and scientifically-important people I ever met was the independent scientist William R. Corliss. Since the 1970s, he was by far the world's finest collector, categorizer, and ranker of scientific anomalies. He made himself the world's greatest authority on things that don't fit the paradigms of the times.
I had a long meeting with him in 1988, and corresponded several times with him afterward. He was always a scrupulous scientist and a quiet, reserved, proper gentleman. Bill died of a heart attack on July 8th, age 84.
Science always notices a lot of things, and it takes time to fit these pieces into the puzzle - sometimes months, sometimes centuries. Until they fit, the odder pieces are anomalies. Narrow-minded swallowers of paradigms-they-are-taught ignore them whenever possible, and pooh-pooh them when they're brought up. Broader-minded investigators of Nature comb through them for items that might, now, fit; or items that now point more clearly in some novel direction. Yet others (including most astronomers who mentioned Corliss) browse through anomalies simply because they're neat, or fun, or inspiring, or awesome, or remind us that we don't know everything and may never.
Bill spent enormous numbers of hours combing scientific literature for such anomalies, often driving to Washington, DC, to use the Library of Congress and other scientific libraries. He was looking for evidence about how Nature works.
Just what constituted an anomaly changed with the times. Early on, when plate tectonics was the "challenger" paradigm, he sought out nuggets that supported it; later, when it became the "dominant" paradigm, he sought items to the contrary. He supported Chip Arp's challenge to interpreting galaxies' red shifts as distance markers. He was very slow to accept that Arp seems to be, simply, wrong ... but he always followed the evidence. Several items that Corliss plucked from scientific literature surely are mistaken, but more are valid, though (as with everything else in Science) subject to refinement and reinterpretation.
Bill compiled his findings into vast topical compendia. Most of the drawings were commissioned from geologist/illustrator Jack Holden, who is also a JIR contributor, though Corliss and Holden never met. A few of his books were marketed rather widely by large publishing companies. All the rest were published by The Sourcebook Project, which was Bill, his wife Virginia, and their barn. We retail several of his books.
Bill was best known as an "anomalist", most praised by the Society for Scientific Exploration, and bloggers of the "unknown". He had many fans among seekers of cryptids, UFOs, and other things beyond Science.
Bill experienced organized Skeptics as debunkers, enforcers for mainstream-paradigm-as-law, and thus enemies of anomalies. He definitely recognized that some claims are indeed bunk, deserving and needing debunking.
The scientific establishment usually ignored him. A few, like Joe Ashbrook, acted visibly uneasy at the mention of his compilations. That always confused me, because all Bill quoted were scientific publications.
He read JIR, and quoted it in his bimonthly newsletter, always with tongue pointedly in cheek.
Bill lived on a farm north of Baltimore. He was a man of his times: though he did commission a website for his wares, the torrent of spam scared him away from eMail. His website doesn't take credit cards, and directs customers to mail checks. Every communication I got from him over several decades was typed on a typewriter, not a word-processor.
I hope ways are found to preserve his files and keep his work available to the public.
© Norman Sperling, July 30, 2011
Reference books and websites copy one another. Hardly anybody digs back into the original records to find out what really happened.
With global warming attracting so much attention, the Weather Underground's weather historian, Chris Burt, is exploring the actual original reports of record high temperatures. He's been passionate about weather records for 40 years. I know, because 40 years ago he was a student of mine at Princeton Day School. Mostly I taught astronomy, but there was a panel of weather instruments alongside the planetarium, and Chris wanted to do things with their information. He tended the instruments and recorded the data and noticed patterns (the barograph showed a "noon hump") and posted findings on the bulletin board.
Chris also haunted the Princeton office of Weatherwise magazine, and went on to study meteorology at the University of Wisconsin. More recently he has published 2 editions of the book Extreme Weather.
He finds that a lot of the equipment was not just old but primitive, used in non-standard ways, and/or reported in substandard ways. The highest temperature that stands up to modern scientific standards is 129 degrees Fahrenheit, at Death Valley. All reports of higher temperatures have problems, and many are probably or clearly erroneous. In other words, don't rely on those old reports.
Global-warming-critics cite the ultra-high records to say that it used to be hotter, so there's no problem. Chris shows that they are probably wrong on historical counts. They also seem to be wrong on scientific issues, judging from the private remarks I hear from the overwhelming majority of scientists at American Geophysical Union conventions over many years. Politically, they appear to be little short of craven stooges, as revealed in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published by Bloomsbury in 2010.
Chris posted his preliminary report at Weather Underground. Now, he's on a United Nations committee to scientifically examine the reports of highest temperatures. Look for their official results in Spring 2012.