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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.

How Much Pull?

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 21, no. 4, October-December 2004, p10.

Every few years, somebody makes up a claim that the arrangement of celestial bodies caused, or will cause, something big to happen. This stirs the ignorant among the public and the media, sells tons of books and tabloids, and fills airwaves with blather, all without benefit of actual factual content.

Half a century ago, the Austrian psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision. This book said Venus erupted out of Jupiter, flew close to Earth, and then settled into its present orbit.
This demonstrates utter ignorance of the physical nature of Jupiter – which is so massive that the power needed for such an eruption would demand causes and effects unlike anything witnessed in nature.
It contradicts what we understand about chemistry – how could the oxidizing atmosphere of Venus arise from the reducing atmosphere of Jupiter?
It demonstrates utter ignorance of gravitational interaction – how could a close approach of Venus part the Red Sea without causing many other massive tidal disruptions?
It demonstrates utter ignorance of celestial mechanics – changing to Venus's present orbit requires transferring huge amounts of energy to a very nearby object which, however, does not exist.
It claims Venus and Mars collided a few thousand years ago, which is absolutely contradicted by spacecraft observations of their surfaces, which show every sign that those surfaces are hundreds of millions of years old.

Worlds in Collision went through many printings, making a lot of money for its author. It inspired supporters who still claim that it is merely scientists, not Nature itself, who are against Velikovsky. Velikovsky's tale could only appeal to people who have very little knowledge of how those aspects of Nature really work, especially of the amounts of energy involved.

In 1974, John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann published The Jupiter Effect, claiming that an alignment of planets in 1982 would cause gravitational havoc, triggering, among other things, massive earthquakes in California. Though Gribbin earned a PhD in astronomy, he showed greater interest in earning money from a public who knew less than he did. Again, the amounts don't work out. The alignment was weak. The gravitational difference was trivial. Such alignments have occurred repeatedly in the past, and didn't trigger massive earthquakes or any other noticeable effect.

Real scientists debunked the claims immediately. Planetaria produced shows explaining why the book was bunk. Amateur astronomers held star parties around alignment time to show the planets to the public. As scientists predicted, contrary to Gribbin and Plagemann, none of the Jupiter Effects actually occurred. However, Gribbin and Plagemann earned quite a lot of money from book sales, media appearances, and so on.

Richard Noone pulled a similar stunt in his 1982 book 5/5/2000. Yet again, he claimed that planet alignments would gang up to pull on Earth, this time triggering rampant glaciation. Yet again, book buyers were fleeced (by the poor writing quality as well as the contents). Yet again, the public was deceived by gullible media, especially websites. Yet again, the date came and went and nothing they predicted happened.

In 1987, Jose Arguelles concocted a tale of "Harmonic Convergence" and published it as The Mayan Factor. Arguelles made up a "Mayan" calendar cycle that doesn't come from any archaeological record. He claimed that in 2012 a "galactic wave" would culminate in a new age, allowing Earth to join the Galactic Federation and its Council. This was a total fabrication from science fiction and New Age themes, not anything real.

Adherents claim earth's resonant frequency is changing from "8 Hertz per second" (a garbled term) to 13; I know of no geophysical measurement supporting this. They claim that this energy boost (is it?) accompanies the decrease of Earth's magnetic field to zero. That's also a mixture of garble and garbage.

The "Harmonic Convergence" played on the same ignorance of the same public – who don't know the Earth's structure, let alone the Galaxy's. It, too, enjoyed big, profitable sales. It, too, resulted in no geophysical effects. The public was deceived again, fleeced of its money and attention. Again, the media – ignorant of the realities of nature, and more eager to share circulation gains from spreading claims than to verify them with experts – fostered the public ignorance, thereby compounding it.

It's been a few years. Someone is going to concoct another fiction, and sell it.

But there's also another trend at work. The earlier books made much more stir than the later ones. They went through more printings, and probably made more money, than the later ones. While the media certainly still aren't science-literate, they've shown progressively less gullibility in this sequence; the 5/5/2000 event created only a minor stir, largely in the uncontrolled claims rampant on the WWW.

One contributing factor is the rising percentage of the public that has passed college science survey courses. A quarter of a million US college students take intro-astro courses every year. Throughout the developed world, education is providing the public with a better basis to judge claims with. Science hasn't won yet, but we're blunting the bunk a bit.
Astronomy Pseudoscience Public Policy Human Behavior

The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading

by Ian Rowland. 3rd edition, 2002. 237 pages. Published by the author exclusively through his website, www.ianrowland.com. The new 4th edition: £28 plus postage from England.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 50, no. 3, 2007, p30.

Ian Rowland knows what you're thinking. Now that I've read his book, so do I.
Ian Rowland is a British magician who has perfected the art of "Cold Reading" to tell clients amazing things.
Cold readings are also used in tarot, astrology, palmistry, graphology, clairvoyance, mediumship, psychometry, crystal balls, and auras. The clients are usually surprised at how accurate the readings are. Readings work largely because most people share the same kinds of experiences, including the same problems. If you bring up a characteristic that almost everybody has to some degree, and scrupulously don't say how much the subject has of it, the claim rings true.
Rowland has learned the common thoughts of common people. I noticed that many of my own thoughts are so conventional that I must be pretty "normal", despite what some people say.
I got tuned in to this situation by fighting astrology. Horoscope writers spin lots of statements that are true for most people most of the time. Therefore, readers think their horoscopes are "right!", and credit astrology, rather than psychology, with the "hits".
Till recently, however, the only compilation of cold readings that I could find was the article, "Cold Reading": How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them, by Ray Hyman in The Zetetic (which later became Skeptical Inquirer), vol. I, no. 2, Spring/Summer 1977, pp 18-37. The paragraphs there descended from astrological horoscopes. I wanted better, more complete information. I knew there had to be more, but I couldn't find it.
Looking up "cold reading" sent me down some wrong alleys. For example, the term is also used for the quite different skill of narrators and actors who read a script for the first time – "cold".
Then, I heard about the first edition of this book, which was published in 1998. But it's not available in stores, and no library I use – including some major academic research libraries – has a copy. The price tag gave me second thoughts, so I put it off.
Finally I decided to buy it. It was already in its third edition, after only 5 years! The exclusive source is the author's website. This keeps control – and profits, and customer contact – away from distributors who don't care enough about the book. Rowland uses a clever security method to take credit cards, so I committed to the full retail price, plus intercontinental postage, totaling $64.61. Before I could even start worrying about the book getting lost in the mail, it arrived in perfect condition.
What a gem! This book is a joy to read, a splendid blend of human insight and practical showmanship. It includes everything I was thinking of, tons more that hadn't occurred to me, provides huge resources, and stays interesting the whole time. I read it cover-to-cover.
The most common themes of readings are love and money. Other popular topics include career, health, travel, education, and ambitions. A person not concerned with those would be rare indeed.
The heart of the book is the 119-page unit explaining how cold reading works. It covers the setup, principal themes, elements of the reading, the win-win game, and presentation points. Laced with revealing examples and entertaining anecdotes, it explains the theory and practice behind each point.
One of the book's many delights is the titling of the subsections. Here is a sampler:
Fine Flattery
Sugar Lumps
Barnum Statements
The Fuzzy Fact
The Opposites Game
The Jargon Blitz
The Vanishing Negative
Pollyanna Pearls
The Neverwas Prediction
I am wrong now, but I will be right soon
Reprising with gold paint
New in this edition are applications of cold reading to sales, romance, and interrogating criminals. Rowland comments on the ethics and legality involved, but may not always be heeded.
The author has some quirks that are excusable, and arguably good. He puts into print the time-honored speaker's maxim of "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." Each segment's introduction clarifies what it is about and where it fits into the larger scheme. Each segment ends by saying some version of "this ends the segment on such-and-such, the fourth of seven elements of thus-and-so." The phrasing is stilted, but it's brief and keeps the logical structure obvious.
The book is so meticulously proofread that I found only 2 typos, both trivial, on pages 123 and 125.
Though the contents are witty and wonderful, the physical production of the book shows some choices that I wouldn't have made. I eMailed Rowland about them, and got his reasoning, but I still don't agree.
Throughout the book, most places that need a long "dash" use a short "hyphen" instead. That is just plain wrong.
The paperback format and binding are conventional and appropriate. The paper is certainly opaque, a helpful characteristic which Rowland wanted. But the paper is much heavier than it needs to be. It's also very glossy, which gives awkward, annoying reflections from lighting in some rooms. Lighter, matte-finish book paper would feel more appropriate, be easier to read, and probably cost the publisher less.
The author likes the look of the "Souvenir" type font he used. But it is not the most readable. When I publish a book, I really want people to read it, so I use the most-readable fonts – typically "book" types like Bookman and Century Schoolbook. They aren't as condensed as Times, nor as artsy as Souvenir – but they read better, and that's what I want most. I often felt this book's lower readability slowed me down, when the actual wording would have let me go faster.
OK, if you have to read slower, consider it "savoring". This is certainly a delicious book!

Cogwheels of the Mind: The Story of Venn Diagrams

By A. W. F. Edwards. Johns Hopkins University Press. xvi+110 pages. $25.00 hardbound. 0-8018-7434-3.

Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48#3, September 2004, p33

This pleasant little book tells a bit more about Venn Diagrams than most scientific people vould vant to know. In addition to the familiar 3-ring version, it revards the reader vit

beautiful new examples of many complexly intervoven curves. The matematics, the logic, und the graphics are all beautiful.

Bright Blues

Music CD Review
Approved But Not Funded. Composed, produced, arranged, mixed, and largely performed by Marc S. Abel. Musica Scientifica Esoterica, www.hippus.net, 2002. $12.99.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48 #4, November 2004, p31.

This disc offers a witty take on Science, featuring sympathetic lyrics, strong harmonies, and professional blues musicianship and production by Dr. Marc Abel and 18 colleagues, all from the Chicago area.

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

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