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

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


Welcome to "Everything in the Universe", my blog on Science, Nature, and the Public. I often explore their intertwinings. New posts should appear
roughly weekly, so if you want to check regularly for new items, every Monday or Tuesday you ought to find something.

I don't try to be literary, but I do think before I write, and write only when I have something to say. When news spurs a reaction, mine aren't the
fastest knee-jerk comments, they're more often a considered reflection.

Some entries are full-blown essays, others are ideas that can be presented briefly. I don't yak and I don't blather. When I don't have anything to
say, I don't say it. If my message needs 2 paragraphs, you don’t have to slog through 10 paragraphs to get to it. I try to get things right.

Please also enjoy my previously-published articles posted here.

Comments and suggestions are welcome: eMail me at normsperling [at] gmail.com. I read them all, but don't always post them. To prevent descent into
harsh put-downs, political stabbings, rancor, advertising, and irrelevancy, I squelch those.

Norm Sperling’s Great Science Trek: 2014

San Luis Obispo
Santa Barbara
Palm Springs
Death Valley
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard

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.

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 Issues of the Issue, JIR v51 #3

© Norman Sperling, December 5, 2010

The Journal of Irreproducible Results that I just took to the printer - volume 51 #3 - features a number of wonderful takeoffs on new and old themes. A brilliant article solves the puzzle of how to make Cold Fusion work: use polywater!

Cold Fusion, as reported in 1989, was clearly a bust. That's not how nature works. There is, however, an underground mumble from quite a number of scientists that when related experiments are done to the most scrupulous standards, the results are not strictly according to textbooks. The version we make fun of is explicitly the 1989 junk. Good Science done since then deserves a closer look.

JIR often prints real science which is amusing. Our title attracts articles on the reproducibility of results. We've got another one this issue, and it ties in with an article due very soon from a major, main-stream scientific journal.

We also have takeoffs on:

personnel reviews ... for a fax machine
psychological "faces" scales ... for symposia
folie a deux ... for "word salad"
math exams ... describe a tea pot
New Age Kundalini ... for demography
husband training ... in the manner of canine training
and faculty evaluation ... divide citations by years since PhD.
We have a poem about traffic jams
and a song about thermodynamics.

We also have a recent-high of pseudonymous authors: 4. JIR has published articles under pseudonyms since it began in the 1950s. 2 or 3 of this issue's pseudonyms appear to be parts of the wit of their articles. The other(s) conceal submitters who may have professional reasons to not be identified. Yes, that still happens, and it isn't just because "serious" bosses might frown on "humorous" writing. Some doings that JIR snickers at really aren't the way quality professionals ought to work. If all professional institutions would shape up, we would happily do without that type of article.

For authors we can identify with confidence, the Americans come from Maryland, Colorado, California, Texas, Maine, Iowa, and Tennessee. Other authors come from Hungary, India, Canada, and Australia.

To JIR's Past Authors:

Media are changing a lot, and JIR's old copyright/permission forms didn't anticipate today's situation any better than anybody else's did. Certain articles could be transformed into online postings, audio podcasts, videos, performances, anthologies, and/or posters. We appeal to past authors to tell us their current addresses, because, unless they're current subscribers, we don't know where to find them. For deceased authors, we would like to find their heirs or literary executors. Anyone knowing the true authorship of pseudonymous articles before 2004, please tell us.

If you're not a subscriber, your copy is not in the mail. Fix that by clicking on the magazine shown at top right, and subscribing.

Skipping Transit Stops

© Norman Sperling, November 29, 2010

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

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

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

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