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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
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.


Teaching to the Test Kills Your Dog

© Norman Sperling, March 17, 2012

When passing a test makes a big difference, instead of teaching a whole subject and its importance, teachers often focus on "teaching to the test": teaching students to pass the test. If the test accurately represents what it's supposed to, that's close to OK. But tests often don't test what they're supposed to. Sometimes it's a portion of the intended material, in which case the students learn part but not enough to make it all stick together as the intended whole.

And sometimes the test just tests a proxy. The test for protein content of dog food is such a test. It doesn't actually test for protein. Instead, it tests for the amine radical, which is abundant in protein. But that's also found in cheaper substances. Twice now, without looking for it, I've come across instances where the protein test was faked by major, large-scale, planned substitution of harmful, cheap amine-bearing materials.

In the mid-1980s I was told of a dog-food manufacturer which drenched its food in ammonia to pass this test. Ammonia is a smelly poison. The dog food passed the test, though it lacked much protein. Maybe the ammonia dissipated by the time the product got to the dogs, so maybe they weren't poisoned, but they weren't fed the intended, test-certified protein, either.

And in 2007-2008, the big melamine bulk-up turned out to have been deliberate. The "amine" in "melamine" would be measured as if it were an indicator of protein, instead of an indicator of polymer. Melamine is largely inert, which is why it's so popular for dishes. But in doses large enough to substitute for protein, it poisons dogs' kidneys.

Who would do such a thing? One whose ethics see only as far as passing the immediate test, and not as far as the long-range, overall purpose. One who only teaches to the test.

It's way past time to update the protein test.

Remembering Norman Edmund

© Norman Sperling, January 25, 2012

Norman W. Edmund founded Edmund Scientific Company on a card table in his home in 1942. When he retired in the mid-1970s, it had over 200 employees. He died at the age of 95 last week in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to which he had retired.

I vividly remember devouring every new issue of the Edmund catalog while I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s. The catalog always had a lot of "tutorial" segments - several paragraphs each, usually with diagrams, so the users could understand the technicalities of the equipment. They weren't particularly slanted toward Edmund products, and they taught a great many people a lot about their hobby and its hardware. Only a few catalogs (like Orion) continue to do that, though it's absolutely the best policy and should be fostered. Tutorials are NOT waste-space, and they foster brand loyalty: I trust the company that makes the effort to tell me the straight information.

I met Norm several times in the 1970s, while I consulted for his son Robert. In those years Norm kept his desk in the main office, kept a bunch of neat science-thingies around, and had appropriate input. But I also sensed that he kept his distance from daily operations, carefully avoiding stepping on toes.

What always impressed me was how nice he was. Plain, no affectations, no flaunting. And he passed all that on to the rest of his family, several of whom I met. They're all nice. They treat people well. They treated me very well. It wasn't just a put-on performance, it was genuine.

To Norman and Robert, "treating people nicely" is business policy as well as personal. While it's true that being nice to people is good customer service and good business, I think they are nice to people simply because they think that is the right way to be. I learned a lot from that.

They didn't outsource service. Callers were transferred to people who knew the technicalities they needed. Customers could get replacements and refunds.

Robert once told me "Customers will always complain. They'll complain about price, or they'll complain about quality. As long as I'm president, they aren't going to complain about quality." Which is to say, the stuff he designed, produced, and marketed would actually work well. And it did. Sure, humans aren't perfect and hardware isn't perfect, but when problems cropped up, the company tried hard to fix them, and usually succeeded.

Norman Edmund was well-respected as a leader in science business, an advocate of science education, a business leader of Greater Philadelphia, an expert fisherman, and a gentleman who "lived long and prospered". I'm really glad I knew him.

My Students, Yo Mama, and Chuck Norris

© Norman Sperling, December 22, 2011

I finally finished finals, that mad dash to pay careful attention to 60 handwritten exams in a little over 5 days. As usual, most of my students learned their material well. But the ~350 pages also harbored a few bloopers:

* Quasi-Stellar Radio Sources ... were discovered after World War II by radiologists.

* Cepheids are an example of a galaxy cluster that experiences meteor showers.

* Mars' atmosphere is too thin for gravity to hold Hydrogen to the surface. That is why we are on Earth.

* Now the Earth has a carbon atmosphere. Since there was life, it changed carbon into oxygen and nitrogen.

* A cluster of galaxies form gobular clusters. A a cluster of gobular clusters form the Universe.


For the last 2 years, I've asked my classes to regard the extremes of astronomy in current-culture terms, by turning them into "Yo Mama" and "Chuck Norris" jokes. Their offerings:

in orbital mechanics:
* Yo Mama's so fat that when we played baseball, the ball got stuck orbiting her.
* Yo Mama's so fat that she has other fat mamas orbiting around her.
* Yo Mama's so fat that she has a Roche Limit.
* Yo Mama's so fat that she has rings of her own.
* Ancients thought the Earth was the center of the Universe. They were close: Yo Mama's so fat that the whole Universe orbits her.

in Cratering:
* The real reason for impact craters is that Chuck Norris uses the solar system as his punching bag.

on the H-R Diagram:
* Yo Mama's so fat that she's spectral type W.

in black holes:
* Yo Mama's so fat that she caused a singularity and created a black hole.
* Yo Mama's so fat that she would consume a singularity.
* Yo Mama's so fat that when she throws up, she makes a white hole.
* A black hole is the region of a singularity from which nothing can escape, not even light ... except for Chuck Norris.
* Chuck Norris uses worm holes to get to work.

in the Milky Way:
* That's not actually a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, that's just where Chuck Norris sets his barbells: right next to Yo Mama.

in Cosmology:
* although it is known how hydrogen, the stars and planets, and even how *we* were formed, it is still unknown how Chuck Norris was formed.
* Creation occurred when Chuck Norris round-house kicked in a vacuum, creating the Big Bang.
* The Universe exists so that Chuck Norris can exist.
* As long as Chuck Norris allows the Universe to function, we will continue to make new discoveries every day.

Telescope Triplets

© Norman Sperling, November 25, 2011
Part of a series on Educational Star Parties:
Star Parties Designed for Students (July 7, 2012)
7 Spectral Types in 1 Big Loop (April 15, 2012)
Trading Cards for Telescopes and Celestial Objects (September 20, 2012)

For decades, I have been proclaiming that focal ratio is one of the most important characteristics in choosing a telescope. Most authorities tout aperture instead. But none of us has ever conducted a true visual test, isolating the variables of focal ratio, aperture, and eyepieces.

I propose that 3 triplets of Newtonian telescopes be made to demonstrate the effects of focal ratio, aperture, and eyepiece. They can be used for classes and at star parties to teach about the properties of the telescopes themselves. Mount each triplet so that viewers can easily shift among all 3 eyepieces to instantly compare views.

The "focal ratio" triplet should consist of 3 telescopes, all with the same aperture and eyepiece. Make one f/5, another f/10, and another f/20. For this triplet, I think 3-inch (76 mm) apertures are best: even the f/20 would be a manageable 5 feet (1.52 m) long. Users will see that Jupiter looks best at f/20, and the Great Andromeda Galaxy best at f/5. Trying this battery of telescopes on the sky's enormous variety of targets will probably reveal very few objects that look best at f/10.

A second application of this same telescope set will use different eyepieces that all result in the same magnification: a long eyepiece on the long scope, a short eyepieces on the short scope, and a middling eyepiece on the middling scope. How different are the views of different targets?

The "aperture" triplet should consist of 3 telescopes, all with the same focal length (perhaps 4 feet = 1.22 m) and eyepiece. Make one 3 inches (76 mm) aperture, the second 6 inches (152 mm), and the third 12 inches (304 mm). Users may be surprised how much even the 3-inch shows.

The "eyepiece" triplet should consist of 3 identical middling telescopes, perhaps 4-inch (102 mm) f/8. Insert eyepieces of equal focal length but different optical designs (such as Huygens versus orthoscopic versus Nagler). A second application of this same telescope array will use eyepieces of equal design but different focal lengths (perhaps Plossls of 6 mm, 12 mm, and 25 mm ...).

Make each triplet so the scopes, and their eyepieces, can also swivel to allow 2, or even 3, different people to watch through one of the scopes at a time. This is because, perhaps once a decade, some sky event brings out throngs, and the host needs to move a whole lot of eyeballs through the scopes in minimal time.

These triplets could be built by amateur-telescope-making workshops, such as several clubs run, or perhaps by a veteran scope-maker. Most are quite small, only one is large. Try hard to hold all but one factor constant so they really test that single variable.

A whole metropolitan area probably needs only one set. Telescope triplets can be passed around among nearby colleges, astronomy clubs, planetaria, etc., to use at their classes, star parties, and member-events.

Roll-Playing Games

© Norman Sperling, August 28, 2011

"Calling the Roll" has been a standard part of class in practically every school, worldwide, for centuries. But someone with an awful sense of proportion now fantasizes it to be an "invasion of privacy". It never was and still isn't. Nevertheless, an education system has recently prohibited its instructors from using students' names in class - calling the roll, handing back tests, and so on. This inhibits the actual conduct of classes, and reduces teachers' opportunities for learning students' names.

Privacy for students' names inside the classroom is a bizarre concept. I can picture some instructors resorting to student numbers or row-and-seat numbers. Treating people as numbers instead of names would be far more offensive. In all my decades as a classmate and instructor of thousands of students, the only problems I've seen with student names stem from pronunciation, never privacy. (My son heard of a student with a name so exotic that, when he saw a teacher squint and stall while calling the roll, he responded "present" before they even tried to pronounce it.)

Privacy for students' grades is desirable and achievable. Mark the grade on a part of the paper that is concealed, perhaps by folding, when handing the paper back. Students often react loudly, saying "Hey, I got a B+!" but let it be the student who tells it out loud, not the instructor.

Decades ago, Steve Wozniak dropped out of college because he was gaining fame and fortune with Apple Computer. Years later he wanted to switch to school teaching, which required a college degree. He returned to the University of California, Berkeley, under a pseudonym, with the administration's approval. He blended in well, made friends by being friendly instead of rich, earned his degree, and enjoyed his new profession. Colleges may not even know which names aren't genuine. To achieve privacy in the exceedingly rare cases where using a true name would violate it, use pseudonyms.

To cope with the situation, I tell my students to "Pick your 'public name' to be called by in class. You may use some version of your real name if you wish. You may create a pseudonym for any reason, such as privacy or humor (and you don't have to tell why). Use that 'public name' on your quizzes. If it doesn't obviously relate to a name on my official roster, privately tell me what 'public name' corresponds to what 'roster name'."

So far, no student has shown any need for privacy. One made up a different amusing name each week (like "Ty Gur"). Another assumed the name of a fiction hero but soon switched to his own. What will students do this semester?

Classification Made Droll

Reviewed by © Norman Sperling, July 21, 2011. Published in The Journal of Irreproducible Results, v51 #4, August 2011.

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, by Julian Montague. Published by Abrams Image, New York, 2006. www.hnabooks.com . 0-8109-5520-2. $17.95

Scientific classification principles can be applied very widely. Artist Julian Montague applies them, with droll irony, to the situations in which stray shopping carts are found around Buffalo. He classifies their condition, their origin and distance from it, and how they apparently came to the places where he found them. Montague's shopping carts progress through categories as weather, vandals, and snowplows batter them. Every example is photographed, with the author's classifications and occasional brief comment.

Shopping carts typically stray to the grimier parts of town, so the setting is often along railroad tracks and creeks, amid graffiti-covered walls, tires, underbrush, trash, and snow. Montague systematically excludes humans from his photos - only 1 or 2 can be discerned in distant backgrounds. This casts an "abandoned" feel over Buffalo.

Montague does not classify or give any taxonomy to the carts themselves. His classification deals with where they are found, not their inherent characteristics. In doing so, the book resembles astronomer J. Allen Hynek's attempt to categorize reports of encounters with extraterrestrials. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" made a splendid title for a good movie. But it was never scientifically useful because it did not classify extraterrestrials, which was what we wanted to learn about, but rather how far they were from humans at the time of encounter, which is far less interesting and often accidental.

Montague's book can be used to demonstrate principles of classification in an amusing way, without getting tangled in Latin, Greek, or scientific technicalities.

The Textbook League Closes its Books, Stays Online

© Norman Sperling, June 9, 2011

The Textbook League fought pseudoscience and other idiocy in pre-college textbooks for the last few decades. The human part of the League is disbanding, but stalwart ichthyologist Bill Bennetta is personally keeping their website online: www.textbookleague.org . Their reference material remains available even though they no longer send experts galloping to assorted rescues.

Early Astronomy Days

© Norman Sperling, May 6, 2011

May 7th is Astronomy Day. Astronomy clubs and institutions across and beyond the US invite the public to look through their telescopes, and explain assorted astronomical things to them. That brings back memories of the 1970s.

The Idea
The context included converting the Astronomical League (the US federation of astronomy clubs) from a do-little social group run by its aging founders, into a do-something group run by "young Turks", of whom I was one.

We activists knew there was a lot to do, but very few suggestions of just what to do gained wide support. Nobody thought the BAA or RASC systems were appropriate here. Our situation was unprecedented so there were no models to copy. That was just when I was running Sky &Telescope's amateur department. I joined S&T in September 1976, shortly after the AL convention. Some activists were elected that year, along with some holdover traditionalists. By 1977 Bob Young of Harrisburg, the new president, really wanted to accomplish things. We spoke by phone rather often, and corresponded a lot.

I already knew a couple of the Astronomy Day founders. Irene Sacks hosted the first Astronomy Day I heard about, at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ. I went to a couple of her yearly events (Novembers?) while planetarium director in Princeton, NJ, not too far away. On my 1974 and 1976 drives to California I met Doug Berger, Frank Miller, and others in the Astronomical Association of Northern California, who were running Bay-Area-wide observances.

Bob Young enthusiastically agreed that the League should foster participation. Frank Miller and Doug Berger of AANC were enthusiastic about spreading the idea, as long as AANC was treated as an equal of AL. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada quickly joined in, making Astronomy Day international (obviously with a date later in Spring), and soon a number of other places joined the fun, making it very international, which it remains today.

One problem that cropped up immediately was climate. There is no time when the whole USA all enjoys the most favorable weather all at once. At all dates, somewhere's too cold, somewhere's too hot, and somewhere's too rainy. Winter was obviously out despite the clear skies following cold fronts; the public wouldn't come. Summer had many similar problems, including the ridiculously late arrival of darkness around solstice. That left Spring and Fall. So I talked it over with meteorologist Ed Brooks of Boston College. Brooks immediately pointed out that Fall had a problem that Spring didn't have: "thunderstorms in the MidWest" was his terse veto - I still remember him speaking those exact words, and marveled at how succinct and relevant they were. True, thunderstorms come in thin squall lines that pass quickly, but they're an afternoon-and-evening phenomenon that would ruin events in large swaths of the country.

That left Spring. And here we met some very narrow constraints. AANC wouldn't hear of anything too early in Spring, because the rainy season doesn't end here till well into April. Northern states also plugged for later dates. The South didn't seem to mind that. But the advent of Daylight Time in most of the country would push skywatching to too late an hour to attract many crowds. A consensus emerged for a Saturday in Spring, just before Daylight Time started.

We also found consensus that a First Quarter Moon is a highly desirable attraction - it is easy to see, shows lots of details, but isn't so bright as to wipe out deep sky objects that we also want to show.

Of course, First Quarter doesn't always occur on Saturdays, and doesn't always occur immediately before the switch to Daylight Time. So we agreed that every year we'd talk to one another about the best date, rather than invent a formula akin to that for determining the date of Easter. While I was at S&T, I was the one who did the phoning, on the pretext of preparing the amateur events calendar for the magazine. The news I heard from the participants fully justified the magazine's investment in my time, postage, and phone bills. After I left S&T in 1981, Gary Tomlinson of Grand Rapids, the AL's Astronomy Day Coordinator, had a long talk with Doug Berger, established dates for many years at once, and published them all in the AL's Astronomy Day Handbook.

Another issue that we handled correctly from the beginning was the primacy of the local sponsor. Everyone feared some big impersonal "other" ordering them to do something that wasn't appropriate in their own local circumstances. So, right from the beginning, we wrote into the principles that while Astronomy Day was recommended, and the League would facilitate events and suggest things as best it could, every club should do exactly what it pleased. For many clubs, that was "doing nothing". Other clubs adapted their own observances. We got this idea by extension of the way President Ford handled the 1976 US BiCentennial celebrations. Political bickering persisted so long (partly distracted by Watergate) that no big national effort to accomplish any major celebration could be arranged. So Ford let necessity be the mother of invention, and declared that each community should observe the BiCentennial however it wanted - there was still enough time for local planning. Practically everybody seemed delighted with this - it wasn't merely coping with a political messup, it was a positive good. Making this an Astronomy Day principle meant that places that needed or wanted a different date would do what they needed, places that couldn't get an act together could skip it, no one felt hassled by anyone else, and everyone did what they felt best.

The wisdom of local primacy was immediately apparent when I suggested that the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston run an Astronomy Day. General agreement was reached on when and where (Boston Common). But that first event turned out to be on a frigid evening just after a late-season snowstorm, and a LOT of ATMoB people ribbed me for getting them into something that was not a good show. After that, ATMoB shifted to later dates with higher probabilities of pleasant weather.

Saying So Made It So: Sky & Telescope Articles
At S&T I read over 100 astronomy club newsletters a month. Snippets about somewhat-related events in a few other places could be put together and called local versions of "Astronomy Day". My first article on all this was the first time that most people ever heard of Astronomy Day: "'Astronomy Day' Sprouts Nationwide", v56 #1, July 1978, p35-39. The various participants mentioned had no idea that anyone else was doing anything, and absolutely no idea that it was a national movement, until my article told them it was. Saying so made it so. Adding official participation by the League, the following year I put together "Astronomy Day 1979: The Biggest Yet", v58 #2, August 1979, p167-169. Then "The Resounding Success of Astronomy Day 1980", v60 #2, August 1980, p149-153. And even after leaving the staff I was asked to compile "Astronomy Day 1981", v62 #3, September 1981, p265-267.

In those same years I was consulting for Edmund Scientific, and triggered their "Norman W. Edmund Award" for the best observance. I also chaired the judging, and even picked the other judges, all on the pretext of getting the information early to put into the S&T articles. The award for Astronomy Day observances disappeared for several years and then reappeared.


J. Kelly Beatty comments: FWIW, I think Ed Brooks blew it. IMHO the likelihood of clear skies and widespread temperate weather in the fall trumps the chance of sporadic thunderstorms. In late April or early May it's still way too cold and damp in lots of places. I brought up the spring-fall debate with the League's council a few years ago, and on the basis of that an alternate fall A-Day date has been added.

Taking Up SLAC

© Norman Sperling, April 10, 2011

A group of sharp high school physics students let me join their tour of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in nearby Menlo Park. Public tours have recently resumed, overcoming budget cuts and administrative decisions. We got a very nice tour led by a very nice, enthusiastic, and articulate physics graduate student. He wisely assured the students that a great deal of particle physics was not known or understood yet, and the way he emphasized those unknowns was one of the best features of our tour.

This was certainly the best of the 3 or 4 tours I've had there. We saw the linear accelerator itself, and some of its targets. We saw large scale, highly technical stuff, being done by world-class scientists and engineers.

In the linear accelerator's 3-km-long klystron gallery, we went into the visitor's alcove, with views up and down the whole 3 km. I thought, "to determine the technicalities of all the fittings, they must have used linear algebra". Many of the students were better-rounded than some of the SLAC staff, because they spotted the bold capital letters misspelling "RADIOGICALLY CONTROLLECD AREA". Well, they did spell "area" right.

SLAC is a good place, using good people to do good work. The tour left the high school students quite inspired about the facility and the Science. Mission accomplished.

Some other things we saw inspired whimsy ... and disappointment.

Close by, we saw a small car labeled "SLAC Library". I pictured the whole length of the accelerator having one continuous shelf ... but no, they have a more conventional library, in a more conventional building. Not hopelessly conventional, though, because they do subscribe to JIR.

The huge Collider Experimental Hall sits mostly unused, its detectors now out of date. The enormous tank marked "Argon refrigerated liquid" is also marked "empty" (Mason said "Argon are gone"). When telescopes fall behind the forefront, students and amateurs get to use them; no such thing appears to happen at this accelerator. Is there any such thing as amateur particle physicists?

Standard tours miss quite a number of possibilities. I raised several of these with officials a few years ago and got nowhere.

The whole experience would be better if re-conceived as a "show" rather than a "tour". We were shown place 1, then place 2, then place 3. Much more meaningful would be to start with a tutorial on zooming down scales to subatomic particles. Then take an animation-ride down the linear accelerator and storage rings, followed by an actual bus-ride along the accelerator's whole 3 km.

My previous tours didn't even mention that the linear accelerator was for decades the world's longest building. This tour did mention that, and named the Beijing airport passenger terminal as the only bigger one now, though they didn't make a big deal out of it. I think it IS a big deal. It will impress kids - and adults - who can tell friends and neighbors "Hey, I just toured the world's second-longest building!"

The present neglect of Building 750 - whose dust particles now draw more attention than subatomic particles - foreshadows what may be in store for the linear accelerator itself. While its contents are the height of 1960s-2010s technology, the long building itself is a sheet-metal shed. What happens in a few decades when the technical stuff inside is superseded elsewhere and left to gather dust, while the building shell degrades seriously? It'll be way too expensive to preserve, yet way too historic not to. Is anyone planning for SLAC's future as a white elephant?

The Visitor Center is a "cabinet of curiosities" displaying interesting items from construction, devices, pictures of physics objects, Nobel Prize citations, and a cast of a fossilized marine mammal dug up when the accelerator was built half a century ago. They're helter-skelter, not fitting into any story or context.

There used to be a little store there, now reduced to an exhibit case of logo items available a couple buildings away (which I didn't visit). They feature conventional water bottles and coffee mugs and T-shirts, even though their signature item ought to be SLACks. They also ought to sell a scale model of the linear accelerator that kids could put together.

The SLAC visit was a good experience, but it could be a whole lot better if the host thought more planning would be worth it. Ticket and goods sales should earn back whatever it cost to improve.

I expect to pursue several of these themes as I tour other Big Science facilities in my cross-country trek.

Picture-rich, ad-rich websites

© Norman Sperling, March 13, 2011

Setting up this blog not only lets me give my take on various issues, it lets me air a 30-year accumulation of writings that should still be read. Search engines find them for readers who are interested in their topics. Otherwise, they'll turn up only rarely when someone digs through the old magazines they originally appeared in. Sure enough, the "hit-counter" shows that my old essays already have hundreds of hits, and while some of those are from the spiders that crawl the web to construct the search engines, I'm confident that quite a lot are from real humans who read and consider my writings.

In addition to writing those essays, I've spent decades taking pictures, largely of Science-related scenes. A few of my photos have artistic merit, many have scientific value, and a lot could help teachers teach. For now, however, my pictures sit in their binders, dark and silent, helping nobody.

Not just me! My friend Carl photographs sundials and sky phenomena. My friend John photographs celestial objects. My artist-friend Guy draws and paints beautiful and useful perspectives. My late friend Lu took hundreds of the best sunset pictures I know - where are they now? My late friend Carter photographed tens of thousands of great astronomical scenes, a trove too big for his heirs to organize yet. Thousands and thousands of people have such troves of useful pictures sitting unused.

Here's what we should do:

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

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