© 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.
© 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.
© 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.
© Norman Sperling, November 21, 2010
In addition to being a world-class celestial mechanic and puzzle solver, he was one of the very nicest people I ever met. Always cheerful, quick to laugh, happy to talk good astronomy with anybody (amateur or professional, young or old), always trying to get the science right. He was everybody else's friend, too. That's a splendid attitude to emulate!
Brian was not an observer. At all. When a bright comet came by, he wouldn't even consider strolling to a telescope in the same complex to see it.
I remember hearing Brian say "Pluto is a comet" several times in the 1970s and '80s. He cited evidence from its orbital characteristics, and never changed his mind: it is too different from anything else called a "planet" to be covered under the same label. To Brian, that made Pluto more interesting rather than less, because he was most interested in asteroids and comets.
Bright and Not So Bright
The Central Bureau is astronomy's alert service: it evaluates and spreads the word about any new discovery that astronomers ought to look at. Once in a while somebody makes a false claim, and they have to avoid diverting astronomers from reality to track it down. Almost all of the discoveries are conventional like comets or novae or supernovae, but they've also announced sudden storms on Saturn and much more.
Brian announced many fast-breaking stories, and inevitably he misjudged a few. While he was tops at predicting positions, he was not very good at predicting comet brightnesses. Neither was everybody else in the 1970s, when so little was yet known about comets' physical structures. Unfortunately, Brian was very slow to realize how poor his brightness formulae were. Fortunately, a lot of amateur and professional astronomers learned skepticism much faster.
His biggest blunder - politely neglected in the flurry of laudatory obituaries and blogs - was predicting that Comet Kohoutek would reach the stupendous brightness of minus-tenth magnitude in January 1974. Later down-gradings of the predicted brightness never caught up with the initial extreme hype. That comet never got bright enough for most urban people to see at all, and the public and media were VERY turned off. That, in turn, cut deeply into the audience for Comet West on March mornings of 1976, when it was truly gaudy but largely ignored.
Decades later, when "potentially hazardous objects" were discovered with orbits that might endanger Earth, Brian again provided the best early calculations to the public. He labeled the uncertainties, but certain irresponsible and incompetent media failed to explain those uncertainties to the public. Other astronomers criticized Brian for stirring up needless alarm, but all Brian was doing was fully informing the public. Re-aim that criticism to the media who don't explain uncertainties. (Now some of them do, but, curiously, only with opinion polls.)
When I worked at Sky & Telescope, I pointed out that not only was Brian an indispensible source, month in, month out, he was also a splendid article topic himself. Other editors agreed, but didn't give me the assignment. Instead, they assigned it to another assistant editor, Dennis Overbye, who has been with the New York Times for many years now. His article "Life in the Hot Seat" (S&T, August 1980, pp 92-96) is far better than what I had in mind.
Finding Lost Asteroids
"Brian found Adonis" sounded like gossip, but to astronomers concerned with asteroids and history, it meant that the foremost celestial mechanic had cleaned up yet another decades-old mystery.
In the late 1970s, more than 20 numbered asteroids remained "lost" - about 1% of all numbered asteroids at that time. They had been issued their numbers too hastily, before sufficient data firmly pinned down their orbits. One of Brian's ambitions was to patrol the inflooding observations from bigger and more sensitive telescopes for new sightings of those lost asteroids. That would enable accurate orbits to be computed, securing them for the future.
1862 Apollo was recovered in 1973, and 2101 Adonis in 1977. By 1981, 9 numbered asteroids remained lost, and Brian really wanted them found.
The last 2 were finally mopped up by his son-in-law Gareth Williams: 878 Mildred in 1991, and 719 Albert in 2000. Mildred, by the way, was named for co-discoverer Harlow Shapley's infant daughter when it was discovered in 1916; when her asteroid was recovered she was an editor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.
Though Brian put tremendous energy into tidying up the solar system, he never managed to accomplish the same with his office. It had nearly as many paper piles as mine.
Officially, discoverers have the right to name their asteroids, but some observers never get around to naming all the asteroids they discover. Some identifications emerge from computer analyses instead of observers. Many confusions were cleared up decades later. So, many asteroids that earned numbers have no names.
3 times, I came up with names of living (though old) astronomers who obviously merited asteroids. Not being an observer, I never discovered any myself, so I suggested the names to Brian. He liked them and cleared them through his IAU committee. That committee almost never disagreed - not because they were a rubber stamp, but because Brian made good cases for his proposals. That's how asteroids 2157 Ashbrook and 2637 Bobrovnikoff got their names. He relayed the other to a likely astronomer who had some asteroids "available", which is why Ted Bowell named 2421 Nininger.
A Project for You
Now, way over 100,000 asteroids have earned numbers but haven't been named. Names don't have to be astronomers, or even people. Places and instruments, for example, have lent their names to space rocks. A few have been named for events. What names do you think asteroids should carry? Scientists, historians, and others should propose serious names to prolific discoverers who hold naming rights. Wags who concoct names to suggest in jest should send them to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for possible use in The Journal of Irreproducible Results.
What a life Brian led! Friends everywhere, widely respected, a very successful career at the top of his profession. We're all going to miss Brian Marsden.