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Norman Sperling
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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.

The First Step

© Norman Sperling, March 19, 2013

After being on the road for 10 days, 4 states, and 3 time zones, I have finally located enough computer parts to make this system work.

I took way, way too long to organize and stow my stuff. I now feel much more clearly that “having” something necessitates “minding” it, and I’ve skimped way too much on that for the last half century. I’ll need some years to straighten all my stuff out, and I intend to.

I finally got away by tossing lots of cartons and bags into the trailer. I’m sorting it out so I’m more functional every day.

Trailer life can work just fine. It takes different procedures than minding a house, perhaps fewer, but I’m a novice at most. I’m still on the uncomfortably steep part of the learning curves for my new way of life and assorted equipment. But now I know it works in practice, it’s not just an idea that I’ve been fostering for 4 years.

RV people are extremely nice. Usually relaxed, highly helpful, and used to novices like me.

RV parks vary enormously in quality and facilities. The ones I’ve seen so far close around 6 or 7 PM. So my old check-into-a-hotel-late habit won’t work. I’ve got to comb the enormous directory pretty early, phone the most likely ones, and arrive when I can check in and set up. It’s do-able, but calls for a different mindset.

Today: Midland, Texas. Saturday: Houston.

Tunguska is Still a Mystery

Vladimir Rubtsov: The Tunguska Mystery. 318 p. Springer 2009.
Review © Norman Sperling, February 22, 2013

The explosion of a large meteor above Chelyabinsk, on the same day as asteroid 2012 DA14 buzzed Earth, has brought back the riddle of the Tunguska event.

In 1908, far to the east of the Ural Mountains, over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in central Siberia, something - an icy, rocky asteroid or comet? - slammed into Earth's atmosphere, exploded in the air, flattened a forest, and triggered unusually bright and colorful skies over much of the world for many days.

The site is terribly remote. Communication and transportation were primitive in the terminal times of the tsarist empire. After World War I, the new Soviet regime clamped down on communications with non-Communists.

Very little news about the Tunguska explosion leaked out through the Iron Curtain. A few Soviet scientists explored, but hardly any of their data reached the West. Eyewitness reports were gathered, but we didn't see them. Important scientists declared solutions, but we only heard their answers, not their supporting data.

The absence of scientific data opened infinite possibilities for speculation. Creative minds responded by suggesting a colorful variety of explanations. Some of those caught the public imagination.

Unbeknownst to the West, much the same was happening in the Soviet Union. By selecting favorite reports, theorists put together plausible narratives which hung together only as long as all other data were ignored.

This grated on a lot of Soviet scientists. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev loosened the repression. Professional and amateur scientists responded creatively by founding the Independent Tunguska Exploration Group in 1958. These days the fashionable name for this centuries-old practice is "Citizen Science".

Investigators gathered information to plug holes in previous work. We hardly ever heard their results. In this book, an ITEG stalwart describes their research, findings, and speculations.

The story is FAR more complex than I had imagined. Exploration found a great deal more information than I had ever heard of, much of it scientifically strong. Practically all of it appears to contradict some theory or other. Several fairly strong solutions have been proposed, accounting for large portions of the observations. No solution, however, has yet accounted for all the credible data.

So this book is a superb example of exploratory science, and a superb example of a scientist who understands how much he doesn’t understand.

The most frequent suggestions are comets or meteoroids or asteroids. One huge problem is that our concepts of these have changed often, and radically, over the last 100 years, so the proposal means different things to different people at different times. Recent understandings relate comets to primitive chondrite meteoroids, which are extremely similar to asteroid types C, P, D, and K. Those meteoroids are probably chips of those asteroids. If they have surface ice, they appear as "comets". The Sun can vaporize surface ice while leaving ice inside.

Yet many details, from the exact pattern of the fallen trees, to eyewitnesses describing one object approaching from the south while a second one came from the east, to chemical traces (ytterbium!), don't seem to concur.

The suggestion that appears to satisfy the most data - still not all - posits 2 huge and powerful spacecraft, both turning to converge at the explosion site, and only one continuing westward from there. Science fiction fans like this scenario a lot better than most scientists do, but it satisfies more data than any other.

The comet concept satisfies the second-greatest quantity of data.

Now that this book has taught me a great deal more about Tunguska science, I am no longer confident about any one explanation. Rubtsov is right: we don't know enough. Previous such cases include:
• discovering the constancy of the speed of light, before Relativity;
• Auguste Comte's declaration that the composition of remote stars must remain forever unknown, before spectroscopy;
• noticing fundamental parallels in living things, like backbones, before Evolution.

Enjoy this book for its rich scientific and historical narrative, its scientific rigor, and its logical structure. The book is well written, well edited, and well produced. There's just enough Russian syntax to suggest local flavor. But if you want The Answer to what hit Tunguska, it's not here, nor anywhere else. Yet. Check back later.

The Great Airship of 1897

J. Allan Danelek: The Great Airship of 1897: a Provocative Look at the Most Mysterious Aviation Event in History. Adventures Unlimited Press 2009.
review © Norman Sperling, February 10, 2013

A mysterious bright light in the night sky sparked this big flap at the end of the 1800s. It was unexpected and unexplained. Reports grossly contradict one another, so investigators can favor very different inferences, interpretations, and explanations simply by selecting different reports to prefer.

In the 1800s, no one considered the light to be a space ship from another planet. Paranormal boosters have made that case more recently. Since this book's author energetically investigates paranormal and Fortean matters, I was all prepared for the author to go Paranormal.

He never did. The one place where the paranormal is invoked by others, Danelek dismisses it tersely. This book has nothing at all to do with the paranormal. Every explanation is purely naturalistic. Danelek invokes real physics, real engineering, and common human nature. At every turn, Danelek reports what records show, and points out contradictions and gaping ignorance. He discusses assorted possibilities.

He selects reports that can be strung together into a consistent story, and says that's why he prefers those. The data are so sketchy that there is lots of room for speculation. Danelek offers several speculations, but clearly labels each one as it comes up. Danelek builds a case that it was a searchlight coming from a lighter-than-air dirigible-type airship.

Astronomer Charles Burckhalter, among others, said the "searchlight" was actually the brilliant planet Venus, which dominated the western sky in late 1896 and early 1897.

Danelek ties his case together in a fictionalized story, which he blatantly labels as fiction at both its start and its end. A few readers may deplore putting fiction in this book, but as long as the reader can tell what's fiction, that's fine. In fact, my motive to read this book was to see if I could adapt part of its story for astronomical fiction that I'm writing. I can.

The illustrations are quite clear and plausible. The editing is not as sharp as the writing. Several misspellings got into print. A sharper editor would have squelched several redundancies.

Overall, this is an interesting, entertaining, and rational book. It shines some light on a bright light of long ago.

The Issues of the Issue: The Journal of Irreproducible Results, v52 #1

© Norman Sperling, Editor, February 5, 2013

JIR always looks for new angles. Longtime contributor Steve Groninger, a voracious reader, sends in several good catches of innumeracy. He finds Copernicus (or his translator?) saying "360° are equal to 2 right angles". Meanwhile, Herschel Knapp at UCLA points out that circles have 360° while triangles only have 180°, so circles are twice as hot as triangles.

Current issues make current articles. Twinkies are famous for not spoiling. Archaeology prof Alex Taub buried a pack at Wenatchee Valley College. Dug up a year later, he found a little spoilage, but not that much. I look forward to the return of Twinkies and especially Hostess cupcakes.

JIR also keeps up with the zombie apocalypse. For a useful indicator, A. L. Holm of the University of Michigan explored counts of websearch finds for "braaains" with various numbers of "a"s. The first supernumerary peak occurs with 3 "a"s, quantities decay till 11, then secondary peaks at 13 and 17, but it takes a surprising number to reach 0. I don't look forward to the return of zombies.

Also up-to-date is our article on texting, as seen by Lehigh prof Brian Pinaire. An idealist, he wants students to pay attention to what he's teaching. For a while I thought this was an age problem, with teenagers self-distracting. Then I saw their middle-aged parents doing the same thing. Should I text my students during class to remind them to pay attention to my lecture?

A longer look at recent trends reveals an accompaniment to several decades of Global Warming: Global Swarming! Pawan Dhar of Yokohama shows that as temperature has risen, so has the invention of new scientific directions.

That generates scads of new scholarly books. Many of us still use actual, physical books. Academic libraries are brimful of them. Longtime librarian Norman Stevens promotes an app for that: leave books anywhere they fit, and guide users to them by GPS.

A much shorter, more specialized form of literature is the "package insert" for drugs. Keenan Bora demonstrates how a treatment could be worse than its disease.

Timeless rather than timely is Andrew Olsen's exploration of the nether end of the spinal cord in human cognition. He indicates that people do often seem to think with their butt. I'm not going to touch that.

Immediately following that conclusion comes an expose of the role of a roll of toilet paper. It doesn't just indicate who's a winner and who's a loser, it determines which is which.

Neither of the 2 previous articles could explain the interview by which Tom Szirtes of Toronto got one of his best jobs.

David J. Burns of Xavier University, Cincinnati, proposes using a "Higgs Vacuum and Mass Transfer Device" for a wonderful particle-physics solution to clinical obesity and the Federal Debt. Higgs bosons confer mass. Extract fat from obese people, and then insert the mass into gold bars.

We are very pleased to publish a further examination of the Dreaded Sock Monster by Elaine Foster, near Melbourne, Australia. We're delighted to learn that she's recovering from some recent setbacks.

A followup of a different character explores the highly-publicized "Mozart Effect". Peter Lefevre of Caltech tested how rats would react to the "music" of the Insane Clown Posse. The lab assistants rebelled. The ethics committee rebelled. And the rats rebelled.

Some people like birds. Some people like cats. Cats prey on birds. Robert Haas summons up a bigger bird - an eagle - that preys on cats.

2 new cartoonists have found us. Sally Mills memorably pronounces on particle physics, and Michael Capozzola has a tasteful take on Star Wars.

For decades, JIR has struggled to find good illustrations. A minority of contributors illustrate their own articles. For the rest, we have to hunt. A new resource is yielding astonishingly appropriate resources: Wikimedia, a "sister project" to Wikipedia. They provided this issue with a leaky bucket, a zombie, boats, medicines, texting, library books, toilet paper, and the surprising picture on page 22. All we have to do is acknowledge the creative-commons sources and terms, and indeed we are very grateful for them. If you have some spare resources, and you also use Wikipedia and Wikimedia, consider enriching their articles, increasing their open media, or sending them some money.

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

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