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.
© Norman Sperling, April 30, 2012
The media made a big hullabaloo over the public announcement of forming a company to mine near-Earth asteroids.
In several ways, the announcement sounded right:
* Launch a fleet of spectroscopic telescope satellites to "scope out" potential targets. Wise!
* They distinguished between icy and heavy-metal asteroids, and mentioned the potential values of each. Correct.
* First, target the icy, primitive asteroids (types C, P, D, and probably K) because their ice can make rocket fuel. So far so good. They're also abundant, contain the widest variety of minerals, and are the loosest-bound, so they should be easiest to mine. But the "rare earth" metals are pretty skimpy in these asteroids. Not as bad as Earth's surface rocks, but poor ore.
* Media reports recognize that minerals which are valuable because of scarcity will become much less valuable if the market is flooded. They include the concept of rationing to slow the flow. I expect that must occur naturally, because it will take time to break up and refine an asteroid. Attaching mining devices to an asteroid hardly makes the entire asteroid immediately available as refined metals.
I didn't see the media discuss another big factor, which is both an asset and a liability.
Metal asteroids (type M) are remnant cores of formerly-larger planet-like bodies. They accreted so much that they heated up. They get heat from collision, sunlight, condensation, and the decay of radioactive atoms inside. As long as they're small, they radiate heat out faster than they collect it. But bulk acts like a blanket, so once an object builds up to more than a few hundred kilometers in diameter, it can't dump heat as fast as it builds it up. If you don't mind a sip of technicality: that's because as an object gets bigger, the volume (in which to generate and hold radioactive heat) grows as the cube of the radius, but the surface (from which to radiate heat away) only grows as the square of the radius.
Under the heavy pressure of hundreds of kilometers of minerals sitting on top of them, and the increasing heat, primitive rocks melt. They quickly differentiate: light stuff floats, and dense stuff sinks. This results in layers, in order of density. That's why Earth's layers are the inner core, outer core, mantle, crust, hydrosphere, and atmosphere.
Those aren't pure, refined elements. They are mixtures, alloys, suspensions, and a variety of other combinations.
Cooled-off, solidified nickel-iron outer cores are what we think we're seeing in type-M asteroids. All our metal meteorites are from those outer cores. Iron shells are probably awfully tough to break by collisions at the speeds common in the asteroid belt. But mining engineers can probably crack that problem.
The big problem comes from exposing the inner core, to which most precious heavy metals migrate. The inner kernels may be relatively small. The mix there will have every heavy element that doesn't linger up here on the surface. That's why they're the rarest up here. Those include radioactive elements with long half-lives. In other words, the core alloy must be radioactive. I saw no mention of this important factor in the company's statement or media coverage.
We don't even know which substances dissolve into one another under the conditions of the inner core. The radioactive and the quiet minerals probably make novel combinations with unknown characteristics. Non-radioactive components have been irradiated for 4 billion years. Would that induce unfamiliar radioactive isotopes?
Metal asteroids that expose some of their radioactive inner core might be detectable by that radiation. I've never seen a study relating unattributed detections of ionizing radiation to the locations of type-M asteroids. I wonder if we've already detected some, but not recognized that yet.
Surely, to extract useful minerals from an inner core will require a lot of refinement. Refining enough uranium and plutonium for bombs and reactors required building entire scientific cities - Hanford, Oak Ridge, and so on - running enormous factories round the clock for decades. Similar operations with robots, in space, will probably be extremely expensive. How would mining robots recognize and handle the radiation? Refinery hardware and electronics would have to survive intense radiation as well as extreme temperatures and vacuum. Transmutation of the robots' own atoms would change their usability.
Components for use among people on Earth would have to emit no more than background levels of ionizing radiation. What an extreme refinement!
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, April 15, 2012
Part of a series on Educational Star Parties:
Star Parties Designed for Students (July 7, 2012)
Trading Cards for Telescopes and Celestial Objects (September 20, 2012)
Telescope Triplets (November 25, 2011)
When I teach about stars, the 7 main spectral types usually seem rather abstract. I show their different spectra, but that's hard to relate to what students actually see in a starry sky. I show Planck curves and explain how surface temperature results in color differences that you can actually notice. Star colors aren't the sharp tones of advertising signs, but you can definitely notice the tinges.
Star tinges are less than impressive to the naked eye, because starlight is so dim that it mostly triggers the black-and-white-registering rod cells in your retina. Only the 20 or so brightest stars deliver so much light that they also trigger a few color-sensitive cone cells.
But even a small telescope collects enough light to trigger a whole lot more cones in your retina, making the colors appear much bolder. So a star party that is deliberately planned for student education should use 7 small telescopes to point at a bright star of each of the 7 spectral types, to emphasize their different colors. Arrange the scopes so a single line of viewers looks through all 7 scopes in order, either OBAFGKM or MKGFABO. After everybody has seen that, re-aim those scopes to their next targets.
Yes, A and F stars really do look white, but now you appreciate how real that is, unlike an artifact of not triggering enough cone cells.
For each spectral type, at any position of the sky, you can find examples at third magnitude or brighter.
All 7 spectral types are blatant around the Great Winter Oval:
O: Mintaka and Alnitak
B: Rigel, Bellatrix, El Nath, Alnilam, and Saiph
K: Aldebaran and Pollux
The Great Winter Oval has many advantages. It's accessible late in the Fall semester, late in the evening; all winter long; and just after dusk well into Spring semester. Since it straddles the equator, it's easily seen from practically everywhere that people live. Only in May, June, and July is it not available - parts of it even then.
When part of the Great Winter Oval is hidden by the Sun's glare, here are some bright alternatives:
O: zeta Ophiuchi and zeta Puppis
B: Alpheratz, Algol, Regulus, Spica, and Alkaid
A: Denebola, Alioth, Mizar, Gemma, Vega, Deneb, Altair, and Fomalhaut
F: Polaris, Algenib, and Sadr
G: the Sun, beta Corvi, Vindemiatrix, eta Bootis, eta Draconis, and beta Herculis
K: Alphard, Dubhe, Arcturus, and Kochab
M: Antares, Mira, and beta Andromedae
Decrease the number of telescopes needed, and make the contrast more vivid, by showing wide, bright, color-contrast double stars:
Algieba: K + G
Albireo: K + B
gamma Andromedae: K + B
Cor Caroli: A + F
Bigger scopes show color contrast in:
32 Eridani: G + A
h3945 Canis Majoris: K + F
Don't try to add spectral class W unless you're far enough south to see gamma Velorum. There are only about 150 Wolf-Rayet stars known in our galaxy. No others are close enough to look brighter than 6th magnitude. The biggest bunch is around the Summer Triangle.
I'll comment more on planning star parties for student education in later postings.