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Norman Sperling
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Great Guidebooks for Scientific Travelers

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!

Novice Astronomy Over 50 Years

© Norman Sperling, July 5, 2011

A presentation I saw on how to get into amateur astronomy showed how much has changed in the half-century since I began ... and how much hasn't. Amateurs from the Phoenix and San Jose areas explained the ins and outs to science fiction buffs at Westercon.

Stars, planets, and humans are still the same, so the principal advice is still to go somewhere dark (away from light pollution), and learn the constellations and how the sky moves. That advice is absolutely identical to what I was told in 1957, and it's right. They mentioned some recent and classic beginner books, as well as the latest 'pod apps. Light pollution is now a lot worse, so getting to a dark place is much more difficult, but the advice is the same.

The second advice is still to not dive into buying a big, complicated, expensive telescope. After the naked eye, use binoculars. After binoculars, a useful beginner telescope is now available for as little as $50 or $60. That price is relatively lower (considering inflation) than in my youth - an advantage of modern design and production. Then and now, beginners must be warned away from flimsy, incompetent, disappointing telescopes from non-specialist merchants.

They still recommend Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. (OK, the latter was founded in 1973.) They still recommend finding your local astronomy club and star parties, and using red-light flashlights to preserve night vision.

They still recommend studying the richest and most informative telescope catalog – though that used to be Edmund's and now it's Orion's. The lust generated by seeing all the glorious equipment used to be called "aperture fever" and is now "Telescope Porn".

Modern optical and electronic technology has outmoded the old equipment, and enabled whole new categories of activities.

The Dobsonian Revolution made far larger telescopes affordable to serious amateurs, and they can observe deep sky objects spectacularly better than 50 years ago. Today's top Schmidt-Cassegrains, Maksutovs, and refractors deliver markedly better images than you could buy 50 years ago. Some astronomers love automatic object-finding telescopes because it's easier to observe what you want; purists consider it cheating if you don't point the telescope correctly yourself.

Electronic imaging has popularized incredible tools like webcams. Commercial mounts now mate phone-cameras to telescopes. Software now lets photographers stack multiple exposures using more skill and time than money. The best amateur astrophotography of 2011 far surpasses the best that the big professional observatories could do just 30 years ago. These tools enable amateurs to study, and make discoveries about, far fainter objects than before.

One aspect that hasn't changed is the mindset that "amateur astronomy" = observing. That wasn't true 50 years ago and it's less true today, but it's what springs to mind. Lots of non-observational aspects are wide open – history, education, tourism, and telescope making are just a few popular options. Data-mining now combs and analyzes enormous amounts of data, usually gathered by professionals. Anyone competent with a computer and an internet connection can do this. Some such projects are called "Citizen Science".

Overall, getting to a dark sky is markedly harder nowadays. Learning the sky and climbing above beginner status are about the same. But optical as well as electronic technology have improved spectacularly. Far greater viewing and computing power are affordable, and projects to use them multiply very fast. Nowadays the limiting factor isn't telescope size, or imaging skill, or computing talent, but the creativity to think up a new project. Go for it!

Early Astronomy Days

© Norman Sperling, May 6, 2011

May 7th is Astronomy Day. Astronomy clubs and institutions across and beyond the US invite the public to look through their telescopes, and explain assorted astronomical things to them. That brings back memories of the 1970s.

The Idea
The context included converting the Astronomical League (the US federation of astronomy clubs) from a do-little social group run by its aging founders, into a do-something group run by "young Turks", of whom I was one.

We activists knew there was a lot to do, but very few suggestions of just what to do gained wide support. Nobody thought the BAA or RASC systems were appropriate here. Our situation was unprecedented so there were no models to copy. That was just when I was running Sky &Telescope's amateur department. I joined S&T in September 1976, shortly after the AL convention. Some activists were elected that year, along with some holdover traditionalists. By 1977 Bob Young of Harrisburg, the new president, really wanted to accomplish things. We spoke by phone rather often, and corresponded a lot.

I already knew a couple of the Astronomy Day founders. Irene Sacks hosted the first Astronomy Day I heard about, at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ. I went to a couple of her yearly events (Novembers?) while planetarium director in Princeton, NJ, not too far away. On my 1974 and 1976 drives to California I met Doug Berger, Frank Miller, and others in the Astronomical Association of Northern California, who were running Bay-Area-wide observances.

Bob Young enthusiastically agreed that the League should foster participation. Frank Miller and Doug Berger of AANC were enthusiastic about spreading the idea, as long as AANC was treated as an equal of AL. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada quickly joined in, making Astronomy Day international (obviously with a date later in Spring), and soon a number of other places joined the fun, making it very international, which it remains today.

One problem that cropped up immediately was climate. There is no time when the whole USA all enjoys the most favorable weather all at once. At all dates, somewhere's too cold, somewhere's too hot, and somewhere's too rainy. Winter was obviously out despite the clear skies following cold fronts; the public wouldn't come. Summer had many similar problems, including the ridiculously late arrival of darkness around solstice. That left Spring and Fall. So I talked it over with meteorologist Ed Brooks of Boston College. Brooks immediately pointed out that Fall had a problem that Spring didn't have: "thunderstorms in the MidWest" was his terse veto - I still remember him speaking those exact words, and marveled at how succinct and relevant they were. True, thunderstorms come in thin squall lines that pass quickly, but they're an afternoon-and-evening phenomenon that would ruin events in large swaths of the country.

That left Spring. And here we met some very narrow constraints. AANC wouldn't hear of anything too early in Spring, because the rainy season doesn't end here till well into April. Northern states also plugged for later dates. The South didn't seem to mind that. But the advent of Daylight Time in most of the country would push skywatching to too late an hour to attract many crowds. A consensus emerged for a Saturday in Spring, just before Daylight Time started.

We also found consensus that a First Quarter Moon is a highly desirable attraction - it is easy to see, shows lots of details, but isn't so bright as to wipe out deep sky objects that we also want to show.

Of course, First Quarter doesn't always occur on Saturdays, and doesn't always occur immediately before the switch to Daylight Time. So we agreed that every year we'd talk to one another about the best date, rather than invent a formula akin to that for determining the date of Easter. While I was at S&T, I was the one who did the phoning, on the pretext of preparing the amateur events calendar for the magazine. The news I heard from the participants fully justified the magazine's investment in my time, postage, and phone bills. After I left S&T in 1981, Gary Tomlinson of Grand Rapids, the AL's Astronomy Day Coordinator, had a long talk with Doug Berger, established dates for many years at once, and published them all in the AL's Astronomy Day Handbook.

Another issue that we handled correctly from the beginning was the primacy of the local sponsor. Everyone feared some big impersonal "other" ordering them to do something that wasn't appropriate in their own local circumstances. So, right from the beginning, we wrote into the principles that while Astronomy Day was recommended, and the League would facilitate events and suggest things as best it could, every club should do exactly what it pleased. For many clubs, that was "doing nothing". Other clubs adapted their own observances. We got this idea by extension of the way President Ford handled the 1976 US BiCentennial celebrations. Political bickering persisted so long (partly distracted by Watergate) that no big national effort to accomplish any major celebration could be arranged. So Ford let necessity be the mother of invention, and declared that each community should observe the BiCentennial however it wanted - there was still enough time for local planning. Practically everybody seemed delighted with this - it wasn't merely coping with a political messup, it was a positive good. Making this an Astronomy Day principle meant that places that needed or wanted a different date would do what they needed, places that couldn't get an act together could skip it, no one felt hassled by anyone else, and everyone did what they felt best.

The wisdom of local primacy was immediately apparent when I suggested that the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston run an Astronomy Day. General agreement was reached on when and where (Boston Common). But that first event turned out to be on a frigid evening just after a late-season snowstorm, and a LOT of ATMoB people ribbed me for getting them into something that was not a good show. After that, ATMoB shifted to later dates with higher probabilities of pleasant weather.

Saying So Made It So: Sky & Telescope Articles
At S&T I read over 100 astronomy club newsletters a month. Snippets about somewhat-related events in a few other places could be put together and called local versions of "Astronomy Day". My first article on all this was the first time that most people ever heard of Astronomy Day: "'Astronomy Day' Sprouts Nationwide", v56 #1, July 1978, p35-39. The various participants mentioned had no idea that anyone else was doing anything, and absolutely no idea that it was a national movement, until my article told them it was. Saying so made it so. Adding official participation by the League, the following year I put together "Astronomy Day 1979: The Biggest Yet", v58 #2, August 1979, p167-169. Then "The Resounding Success of Astronomy Day 1980", v60 #2, August 1980, p149-153. And even after leaving the staff I was asked to compile "Astronomy Day 1981", v62 #3, September 1981, p265-267.

In those same years I was consulting for Edmund Scientific, and triggered their "Norman W. Edmund Award" for the best observance. I also chaired the judging, and even picked the other judges, all on the pretext of getting the information early to put into the S&T articles. The award for Astronomy Day observances disappeared for several years and then reappeared.


J. Kelly Beatty comments: FWIW, I think Ed Brooks blew it. IMHO the likelihood of clear skies and widespread temperate weather in the fall trumps the chance of sporadic thunderstorms. In late April or early May it's still way too cold and damp in lots of places. I brought up the spring-fall debate with the League's council a few years ago, and on the basis of that an alternate fall A-Day date has been added.

The Star Winked at Me

© Norman Sperling, April 24, 2011

Last New Year's Day I got an eMail with an old, familiar ring to it: "Spectacular graze in 98 days". A grazing occultation, a special kind of eclipse where the north or south pole of the Moon grazes by a star, can be really nifty to watch. The star is at full brightness, and then abruptly disappears as a mountain covers it up. It may reappear through a valley, disappear behind another mountain, and can do so several pairs of times.

In the 1960s, computers advanced enough to make worthwhile predictions, so astronomers learned how to make scientifically valuable observations of grazing occultations ... using portable telescopes and cassette recorders. An observer watches the star through a telescope, and tells the recorder the instant that the image turns off and on. Timing is maintained either by recording the shortwave signals of WWV or WWVH directly, or by recording a nearby clear-channel AM radio station that somebody else is recording simultaneously with WWV.

With such simple equipment, teams of observers, strung out perpendicular to the graze path, can determine the profiles of mountains and valleys on the Moon to an accuracy of a few tens of meters, from a distance of 400,000 km!

To organize the whole operation, Dr. David Dunham and others set up the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA). The last half century has seen marked improvements in computers, telescopes, eyepieces, voice recorders, video recorders, mapping, and communications, and IOTA has used each to refine its procedures. The leaders have stuck with it for many decades: Dunham, whom I met in the National Capital Astronomers in the 1960s, still leads it now, more than half a century after observing his first occultation!

Here in Northern California, Walt Morgan has organized expeditions for several decades. Walt's alert commented: "For many years IOTA classified grazes as Marginal, Favorable, or SPECTACULAR! There were mighty few of the latter, and now those labels are not used at all. Nevertheless, I think you will agree with me that it would be appropriate to apply the classification to the following:
- star: magnitude 3.5 eta Geminorum
- moon: 36% sunlit
- limb: northern
- cusp angle: +14 degrees (dark)
- lunar elevation: 42 degrees
- lunar azimuth: 266 degrees (west)
- when: 9:43 p.m. Saturday, April 9, 2011
- where: Vacaville, Dixon, Davis area

"If you have been waiting for just the right opportunity to break out your occultation tools, this is the one: as grazes go, it has everything going for it, including the time of day and day of week."

One of the brightest stars to occult (binoculars would suffice), the Moon not glaringly bright, in its best, easiest situation, at a convenient hour, on a weekend, in a place easy to reach from a freeway - wow!

It's been more than 20 years since the last graze I observed - Regulus, November 30, 1988, Fremont California. So I'm not exactly in practice. Devotees measure many per year.

But the timing was perfect, the weather was clear (though windy), I had most of the equipment I needed and could easily borrow the rest. So I went. Walt's long experience has led to immaculate preparations. I checked in with him at the appointed spot, south of Dixon, at dusk, a good 2 hours in advance, and also said hello to Derek Breit and several other veteran "grazers" I'd met at various astronomical gatherings. Our observing line was well populated with 9 observing stations, and another, near Stockton, had 11 more.

I brought my Astroscan telescope, 2 eyepieces, binoculars, a small portable table, a larger card table, and a few ways to keep warm. There was a streetlight just north of my assigned position, and wind coming from the southeast. I positioned my van to block both streetlight and wind, and set the telescope on the floor inside to look out the side door. I could close the door for warmth when I wasn't observing. That wasn't very much, since the whole glorious Winter Oval was there, deserving long looks with the Astroscan. With the car radio tuned to the right station, and the borrowed voice recorder turned on, there were no hassles, and I even kept pretty warm! I ended up not needing the binoculars, either table, or most of the warmth gear - but experience has long proven that it's better to bring too much than too little.

The star winked at me! 3 times!

Walt timed my voice on the audio. First, a peak hid the star for 3 seconds. Then the star was visible again through a valley for 15 seconds. A big mountain hid the star for 1 minutes and 42 seconds. Then the star shone through a valley for just 1 second till it was hidden by another peak for 3 seconds. After that the star was no longer occulted from my location.

Others took videos, whose results can be timed to individual frames, with no "reaction time" delay from going through a human. Derek Breit, who has way more experience and way better equipment than I have, has posted this page about the event, and at the bottom you can click on his spectacular video. You can easily see the result of wind shaking his telescope. But you can also see the star not merely blinking off and on, but dimming as edges of hills barely blocked part of the star! The timing is in "Universal Time" (Greenwich, with a few small corrections). His location was a few hundred meters north of me, closer to the Moon's edge, and obviously in the perfect position to take advantage of his experience and equipment.

One really neat effect I remember from that graze a couple decades ago has been outmoded by technology. These days, most observers make videos rather than voice timings. Back then, almost everybody used voice, and at that event we had so many observers we were very closely spaced. So as a disappearance or reappearance neared me, I could hear observers from up or down the line saying so into their recorders, then I saw it, then others farther down or up the line. I heard the profile of the mountains and valleys live, in stereo!

Picture-rich, ad-rich websites

© Norman Sperling, March 13, 2011

Setting up this blog not only lets me give my take on various issues, it lets me air a 30-year accumulation of writings that should still be read. Search engines find them for readers who are interested in their topics. Otherwise, they'll turn up only rarely when someone digs through the old magazines they originally appeared in. Sure enough, the "hit-counter" shows that my old essays already have hundreds of hits, and while some of those are from the spiders that crawl the web to construct the search engines, I'm confident that quite a lot are from real humans who read and consider my writings.

In addition to writing those essays, I've spent decades taking pictures, largely of Science-related scenes. A few of my photos have artistic merit, many have scientific value, and a lot could help teachers teach. For now, however, my pictures sit in their binders, dark and silent, helping nobody.

Not just me! My friend Carl photographs sundials and sky phenomena. My friend John photographs celestial objects. My artist-friend Guy draws and paints beautiful and useful perspectives. My late friend Lu took hundreds of the best sunset pictures I know - where are they now? My late friend Carter photographed tens of thousands of great astronomical scenes, a trove too big for his heirs to organize yet. Thousands and thousands of people have such troves of useful pictures sitting unused.

Here's what we should do:

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.

Astroscan Memories

© Norman Sperling, January 15, 2011

A recommendation by Sky & Telescope magazine last month, following a [.pdf] review last July, rekindled an old glow. The Astroscan telescope - my first big project - was once again named one of the 3 best inexpensive telescopes ... 34 years after it was introduced!

I remember its development clearly.

It was meant to be a superior first telescope, and it is. It has also proven to be a superior second telescope: folks keep it after they graduate to something bigger, and use it for a quick session, and as a convenient portable. Because people keep their Astroscans, remarkably few are offered on the used market.

Robert Edmund was taking over Edmund Scientific Company leadership from his father Norman. Norm has enjoyed retirement in Florida ever since. Robert had studied business management and knew how to run a going concern in changing markets. His telescope line was not doing well. Telescope leadership belonged to Criterion, Unitron, Questar, and Celestron, and Edmund Scientific wanted to earn its way to the top tier. The Astroscan was his opening salvo.

Robert Edmund hired me as a consultant in 1975, when I was 28. I was planetarium director at a private school, an hour's drive north of Edmund's. I was young and unknown and had even rougher edges than now. My ideas were unconventional, and entirely untested in the market. I contributed to a lot of Edmund's smaller astronomy projects, too.

I had observed observers observing in amateur, public, and school settings, and discovered that some of the wisdom of my elders wasn't wisdom. Telescope setup took frustratingly long, mountings were clumsy and shaky with narrow pivot points and long overhangs, eyepieces were tough to squint through, and views were underwhelmingly faint and dull. To improve on those, I preferred quick setup with minimal moving parts, stubby bodies, wide fields of view with wide exit pupils and bright contrast, lightweight and cheap. Those all shouted "Rich-Field".

Dr. Harvey Davis of the Lansing Astronomical Society introduced me to the principles of rich-field telescopes in the late 1960s. He was a friendly young math prof at Michigan State, where I was an undergrad. In the early '70s my friend - everybody's friend - Roger Tuthill made an RFT with an optical window (the success of which spurred us to do the same with the Astroscan). Roger's scope had a conventional cylindrical tube with a simple handle, so the only characteristics in which it was a predecessor of the Astroscan were the window and being an RFT. It didn't sell well at all.

No one in all history had ever gotten Americans to buy a LOW-power telescope, and we knew this was a huge hurdle. I assured Edmund that the telescope would please its users, but I explicitly never promised that anyone would buy it, and I wondered whether the expensive project would ever turn a profit. When Marketing VP Jack Sharff claimed that people would buy it, I thought that was bravado more than business sense. Sharff assured me that making it "popular" was his task, not mine. A good thing, because I understood almost nothing about marketing back then.

I wanted to make the eyepiece's exit-pupil an enormous 6 mm, because that's about the widest a dark-adapted human eye can take in. So, figuring from that, I championed a 4 1/4" f/4 (which the company nudged to f/4.2 for manufacturing convenience). Astroscan's richfield view - 3 degrees wide - means that finding things is easy, and keeping them in view is easy. It also means that hundreds of deep-sky objects are unusually contrasty, making them more obvious to beginners. The tradeoffs are minor: no astrophotography (which we wouldn't wish on novices anyway), planets look too tiny, and only a few double stars would look good. But any novice scope would only show pleasing detail on Jupiter and Saturn, the other planets being too small, featureless, and/or faint. So we swapped decent views of 2 objects (Jupiter and Saturn) to get superior views of hundreds of deep-sky objects.

I expounded on telescope design, exit pupils, and surface brightness in "Of Pupils and Brightness", Griffith Observer, January 1985.

At least as important as the optics, I wrote Astroscan's behavioral specifications. I remember blathering on and on for maybe 2/3 of a page singlespaced that I could have shortened enormously had I known the term "user-friendly". I didn't have the term, but I did have the concept. In beginner telescopes, it meant minimizing adjustments to fiddle with, and shortening the setup time (competitors, then and now, often take 15-20 minutes). Our setup time target was 3 minutes. We got it down to 10 seconds, and NO user's attention-span is too short for that.

While I did the optical and behavioral design, a brilliant young optical engineer, Mike Simmons, created the mechanical design that satisfied our needs. Simmons figured out that pushing the tube into the mounting made sense, and Simmons figured out that the ball-in-socket would work best. He was right. He advocated a very large sphere, with just the focuser-end of the tube sticking out. However, manufacturability, aesthetic appearance, and the awkwardness of a large-diameter sphere pointed the company to a smaller sphere, with more of the cylinder sticking out. This, however, is top-heavy, so to balance it, 2 semicircular slugs of cast iron surround the mirror. The extra weight, and the need for it, offended Simmons, and he left Edmund's soon after. I haven't seen him since the early '80s.

The shell satisfied all my specifications, including being nearly student-proof (it's meant to be checked out by students and carried home on a school bus). An industrial designer did the detail work. It's cast in 2 pieces of ABS plastic (one with the focuser insert, one without) and glued together.

In the fall of 1976, just before the first ads came out, I asked Robert Edmund what amount of sales he'd consider successful. He said 800 units by Christmas. Privately I thought that unlikely. Well, they sold 3,000 Astroscans in those first 3 months, which taught me another business lesson: there are DISeconomies of scale, as well as economies of scale. For example, the company couldn't produce the telescopes fast enough, and had to add shifts. Part of the optical design was meant to use an excellent, but slow-selling eyepiece that Edmund had a thousand of. They ran out, and had to scramble, buying every eyepiece on the world market that could possibly work - some Astroscans were shipped with Clave Plossls worth almost as much as the entire scope! Robert Edmund soon had Penn State's Dr. David Rank design the RKE eyepiece line, stimulated by the need to make a new eyepiece for the Astroscan. I'm happy that the company has sold in the neighborhood of 100,000 of them.

It was Robert Edmund who selected and hired and coordinated all the various people whose work combined to make Astroscan a success. He paid for all the work and assumed all the risk. He paid me quite well. In addition, the Edmund family and company ALWAYS treated me exceptionally well, and very often did me favors far beyond a conventional business relationship. Then and now, I regard my relationship with Edmund as one of the best I have ever had. I consulted for them for 9 years, 1975-84, but I have been a customer of theirs for 50 years, and endorse them as a fine set of people.


Nobody since then has hired me to design a telescope, and such a project is beyond my personal resources. But I still get ideas.


Parts of this post appeared on the Old Scope list in February 2002.

Merry Bloopers

© Norman Sperling, December 19, 2010

Exam week holds terrors for teachers as well as students. This week, I wallowed in eye-strain by reading 61 3-hour intro-astro essay finals on the prompt: Starting with hydrogen and time, narrate how the Universe began and evolved to us, here, now.

We had a record number of A+ essays, and not a single F. I expected their bloopers to fill a big post, but only found these 5:

* [Newton's Law of Gravity described] why we are orbitting the moon.

* Neuron stars are created by supernovas. They are made entirely of neurons.

* In the "oscillating universe" theory, there will be a Big Bang and then a Big Crunch (where everything comes back together) every 140 years.

* [Kepler's Third Law] No matter where in orbit the area formed by the diameter of the planet to the sun will always be equal.

* Along with gas giants, black holes are also observed on Earth.

+ + +

Here are cosmology bloopers from classes longer ago:

* The beginning of the Universe is not 100% correct.

* The greater the mass of an object the faster it is moving away from the sun.

* Our universe was formed by the third star.

* The Big Bang Theory ... states that the universe was created due to particles and organisms that lay dormant until they collided, and the Big Bang occurred.

* We have observational proof of the Big Bang in the form of backward radiation.

* This Big Bang supposedly occured thirteen pt. seven years ago.

* [The Bang-Bang] theory was used when nearby objects were blue shifted and far away objects were red shifted.

* the Red Shift ... All the objects that is far away from here supposedly marked in red.

* The Big Bang theory states that in order to know what was going on in the universe a million years ago, you would have to have watched it two million years ago.

* Nature developed as an explosion in the heavens that fell into the waters and began to grow plants and fish and other underwater creatures.

* Before the Big Bang, all the living creatures such as dinasours had been totally dieseased and new birth has been adopted to this new young planets.

* There was so much bonding and chemical energy that it all spontaneously combusted and made a universe.

* The universe started with that big-bang. A big rock or a galaxy hit the earth and it came to pieces. The fusion up in the galaxy, the pieces, the dust of earth came back together. Before the big-bang, the earth was without water, only dust and volcanos and was extremely hot. After the big-bang, oceans were discovery. The bacteria from the water of oceans transform dinosaurs. The water which have H2O made the air as oxygen. So we can breath. Soon, the ocean's water wet it the sands, that it started growing plants on the sands and later it became trees and then a forest. The leaves from plants and trees were food for the dinosours. There was a big earthquake that opened up the lands and swallowed all the dinosours. Later the bacteria and germs started to form in molecules and human being started to form. That's how the universe was form.

* When density increases the university begins to contract everywhere.

* Unknown is known.

* Every concept is still a theory until it can be proven false.

+ + +

An excellent student wrote at the very end "I have spent all my time and just scratched the surface." That's how I feel after teaching the whole course ... and after studying my whole career.

Instant A

© Norman Sperling, December 12, 2010

Instant-A Dare! Any student who solves this problem, to the satisfaction of experts in this specialty, gets an instant A for this entire course, regardless of anything else.

My astronomy students see this message 20 or 30 times a semester. I use it whenever a topic isn't resolved, whenever something remains unknown or not understood - such as magnetic fields. Textbooks' traditional "positivist" style systematically tells what IS known, and determinedly leaves out what ISN'T known. This gives students the false impression that Science is all about stuff that's already securely known. Textbooks usually neglect the thrill of the chase, and systematically avoid mentioning what isn't known.

So I make quite a point of it. I even emphasize it with this offer of an "Instant A".

Students I re-encounter many years after they took my course still remember the offer and its point.

Of course, this is not just a surface issue.

I point out that Science doesn't yet understand most of Nature's workings. That way students should be able to figure out where future discoveries fit in. And I make sure to emphasize that this is not only true in astronomy, but in all Sciences and many other scholarly fields.

I also distinguish which information is "cast in concrete" from items that are progressively less firm: "cast in Jell-O"®, or even "cast in hot air". Switching metaphors, I tell them that certain items deserve to be "written in ink", but others should only be "written in pencil", because they're merely this year's best estimate. Still other points should be written in "fuzzy pencil" or "faint fuzzy pencil" according to how weakly we grasp them.

I often point out that when something doesn't yet deserve to be written in ink, or is so unknown it would earn my Instant A, that's a dare. A dare to the students to go solve that. They're sharp and clever and knowledgeable, so they just might be the people to solve such problems.

Certain problems may not need better data, they might just need a different point of view. Most professional astronomers share a lot of experiences to which to compare things - pattern-recognition. My students come from a far richer variety of national, cultural, and religious heritages, travel experiences, and previous schooling. Perhaps somewhere among that richer trove of things to compare to, someone will recognize a new pattern. I alert them to be on the lookout. You, too.

Several of these problems are worth a lot more than an A in intro-astro. Many would make splendid thesis topics. Some would put their solvers on fast-tracks to tenure. Identifying or disproving dark energy is worth a big prize.

So far, no student has won an "Instant A". Several have brought up points that I had to think about for weeks, and consult experts about, though none has turned into a true scientific advance. I'd give most of those students an A for scientific excellence anyway, but almost all of them were already earning an A.

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

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