I'm LinkedIn and Google-Plussed.

Mail and packages, use maildrop:
Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

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

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.

Historical Science

Mackinac Island

(c) Norman Sperling
visited July 11, 2013

A wonderful way to spend a day! The weather was perfect. The little island is famous for banning motor vehicles (since 1898!). It has other quaintnesses and individualities too.

I took the ferry from St. Ignace. I was looking forward to the lack of cars, but my mind’s ear extrapolated that into a near-silence. Not quite quiet. Lawn mowers were in full throttle, ferry boats came and went frequently, and noisy airplanes landed at the airport. But all that is only in town. Away, on the bike loop, silence is golden. The world sure could use a lot more havens like this.

This island was the site of a bad injury with fortunate consequences. An unlucky man, Alexis St. Martin, was shot, leaving a hole from his stomach to the outside, The fort surgeon, the only doctor around, William Beaumont, brought him back to health, and then researched digestion, running a whole lot of experiments over many years with this unfortunate victim. He wrote a book describing his findings about digestion, many results of which advanced anatomical understanding.

I expected all those horses, but had forgotten how bad their manure smells. Those droppings litter the town. Outside of town, on the 8-mile-long shoreline loop road, I only noticed about 2 piles per mile. The book “The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible” by Otto Bettman points out the selective blindness of nostalgia. Horses were hardly a great mode, and as soon as people had a viable alternative, they stopped using their horses.

Bicycles are Mackinac Island’s major mode by far. Many visitors bring their own, but most rent from numerous shops near the ferry slips. Rental bikes include a lot of retro-style cruisers, and a huge number of tandems for couples and parent/child pairs. No racers. My Brompton got less attention than usual for such an odd folder. I rode the entire circumferential road, stopping to take in sights and to snack. There are a few gentle rises but the road is almost all flat and extremely easy to bike. The route is very peaceful and scenic, a joy to stroll through. As long as I was on my bike, things were fine. But I was nervous every time I had to chain it to a stand. A local policeman said they had 3 or 4 bike thefts a day in tourist season.

Without motor vehicles, porters need some alternative to carry baggage between hotels and ferries. I saw a few improvised wheelbarrows-for-luggage, using bike wheels. Some trikes were clumsily refitted for cargo, and a couple bikes pulled small trailers. What I expected and did NOT see were the many types of cargo and work bikes I saw throughout China. They featured husky frames, huge cargo capacity, and very low gearing. Maybe the hotels just haven’t heard about them.

This island has a thing for cairns. These piles of rocks are found everywhere along the shore where suitable rocks can be found. A lot of angular riprap stabilizes beaches, and those rocks stack very well. My bike map brochure says cairns mark trails, memorialize having been somewhere, or are simply art. No mention of newage hocus pocus. I noticed only a few cairns that I could call artistic. Facilitating and suggesting cairns is another good idea that other locales should adopt.

Up at the fort, built by the British, and then American for a century, seasonal performers ran through a long series of short tours, demonstrations, and narratives. They fired a cannon, shot muskets, sang songs, and told the fort’s story in the fur trade, the War of 1812, and regional development. In most roles, the performers did fine. With musical instruments, the snare drummer was quite adequate, in contrast to the fifer and bugler.

Fudge is the most popular local product, famous for over a century. I bought a slice, and it is indeed very good. It’s also dangerously loaded with lactose from a whole lot of milk and butter.

A great many of the tourists are over 50.

The Twin Towers

© Norman Sperling, July 6, 2013

My son Lumin wanted to see the tallest artificial structures in the US. They’re a pair of TV masts near Blanchard, North Dakota, each over 2000 feet tall, higher than any buildings except the Birj Khalifa and the Tokyo Sky Tree, both in Asia.

The 2 are visible from many miles away. Though tall, they’re very slender frameworks, largely supported by guy wires. So the problem in spotting them at a distance is not their height but their thinness. Also, the day we went, the air was a bit hazy.

We drove pretty close to the southern tower, which is a few feet shorter than its older neighbor. Then we drove to the northern one. Right up to it on its dirt road. Wow, that’s WAY tall, over 800 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

The big surprise for me was to read the little sign on the lonely tower. It was built in 1963! It’s been the tallest artificial structure in America for half a century, and the sources I read scarcely mentioned it. I’m sure glad my son paid more attention to that record than I did. This is a very impressive structure, and it has been for 50 years, and people don’t pay it much attention. We should be prouder of it.

Tunguska is Still a Mystery

Vladimir Rubtsov: The Tunguska Mystery. 318 p. Springer 2009.
Review © Norman Sperling, February 22, 2013

The explosion of a large meteor above Chelyabinsk, on the same day as asteroid 2012 DA14 buzzed Earth, has brought back the riddle of the Tunguska event.

In 1908, far to the east of the Ural Mountains, over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in central Siberia, something - an icy, rocky asteroid or comet? - slammed into Earth's atmosphere, exploded in the air, flattened a forest, and triggered unusually bright and colorful skies over much of the world for many days.

The site is terribly remote. Communication and transportation were primitive in the terminal times of the tsarist empire. After World War I, the new Soviet regime clamped down on communications with non-Communists.

Very little news about the Tunguska explosion leaked out through the Iron Curtain. A few Soviet scientists explored, but hardly any of their data reached the West. Eyewitness reports were gathered, but we didn't see them. Important scientists declared solutions, but we only heard their answers, not their supporting data.

The absence of scientific data opened infinite possibilities for speculation. Creative minds responded by suggesting a colorful variety of explanations. Some of those caught the public imagination.

Unbeknownst to the West, much the same was happening in the Soviet Union. By selecting favorite reports, theorists put together plausible narratives which hung together only as long as all other data were ignored.

This grated on a lot of Soviet scientists. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev loosened the repression. Professional and amateur scientists responded creatively by founding the Independent Tunguska Exploration Group in 1958. These days the fashionable name for this centuries-old practice is "Citizen Science".

Investigators gathered information to plug holes in previous work. We hardly ever heard their results. In this book, an ITEG stalwart describes their research, findings, and speculations.

The story is FAR more complex than I had imagined. Exploration found a great deal more information than I had ever heard of, much of it scientifically strong. Practically all of it appears to contradict some theory or other. Several fairly strong solutions have been proposed, accounting for large portions of the observations. No solution, however, has yet accounted for all the credible data.

So this book is a superb example of exploratory science, and a superb example of a scientist who understands how much he doesn’t understand.

The most frequent suggestions are comets or meteoroids or asteroids. One huge problem is that our concepts of these have changed often, and radically, over the last 100 years, so the proposal means different things to different people at different times. Recent understandings relate comets to primitive chondrite meteoroids, which are extremely similar to asteroid types C, P, D, and K. Those meteoroids are probably chips of those asteroids. If they have surface ice, they appear as "comets". The Sun can vaporize surface ice while leaving ice inside.

Yet many details, from the exact pattern of the fallen trees, to eyewitnesses describing one object approaching from the south while a second one came from the east, to chemical traces (ytterbium!), don't seem to concur.

The suggestion that appears to satisfy the most data - still not all - posits 2 huge and powerful spacecraft, both turning to converge at the explosion site, and only one continuing westward from there. Science fiction fans like this scenario a lot better than most scientists do, but it satisfies more data than any other.

The comet concept satisfies the second-greatest quantity of data.

Now that this book has taught me a great deal more about Tunguska science, I am no longer confident about any one explanation. Rubtsov is right: we don't know enough. Previous such cases include:
• discovering the constancy of the speed of light, before Relativity;
• Auguste Comte's declaration that the composition of remote stars must remain forever unknown, before spectroscopy;
• noticing fundamental parallels in living things, like backbones, before Evolution.

Enjoy this book for its rich scientific and historical narrative, its scientific rigor, and its logical structure. The book is well written, well edited, and well produced. There's just enough Russian syntax to suggest local flavor. But if you want The Answer to what hit Tunguska, it's not here, nor anywhere else. Yet. Check back later.

Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript?

© Norman Sperling, December 29, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone? December 28, 2012

There is said to be a published version, but unavailable, and cropped so much that people complain. There's an eBook version, a CD ROM version, and an online version. But how about a book you can hold in your hands?

I queried my audience and found 5 who said they'd consider buying a printed copy. I presumed using modern acid-free document paper instead of vellum, and a binding that opens flat. I surveyed their preferences:

For margins, they preferred either the original amounts, or 10-12 mm. (I expected them to want much wider margins, for making their own notes.)

Then I posited 2 potential versions:
* a Replica, reproducing the manuscript in its present form as faithfully as technology allows;
* and a Restoration, with the page-order rearranged as sensibly as possible, with blank pages left for the missing leaves, with script printed black-on-white for ease of reading, and with colors restored to original tones.

Along a continuum from Replica to Restoration, nobody wanted the ink contrast or illustration colors as faded as presently. Preferences ranged smoothly from "fully restored to our best guess of original", to halfway to the present fading.

Everybody wanted the paper color roughly halfway between white, and as-brown-as-present.

With electronic reproduction now making pages and printing so selectable, I wondered if people might want to custom-enhance unreality by inventing a new page order, and rendering lettering and illustrations in user-selected colors, including psychedelic. (About a mile from where I spoke, and about 4 blocks from where I teach, psychedelic tie-dye shirts are still sold by street-vendors on Telegraph Avenue.) But these 5 customers were way more sober than that, and wanted no such thing. They also wanted no enlargement, or just a little.

I suggested 3 kinds of binding. They strongly preferred "quality cloth-covered hardback" and "quality paperback". My imagined "custom vellum-covered hardback" found no favor.

Then I asked them to forecast "In the long run, per 100 copies sold, estimate the number picking:
* replica: 30%
* restoration: 42%
* psychedelic: 5%
* their own custom settings: 30%.
Yes, those don't add up to 100%, but that's what the folks wrote.

Averages of estimates for the proper prices:
* replica: $30
* restoration: $53
* psychedelic: $47
* custom settings: $70.

If you could tailor a copy to your preferences, what characteristics would you want? What would you pay? Compare that to Emperor Rudolph's 600 ducats, or the $160,000 that Voynich never got.

Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone?

© Norman Sperling, December 28, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012

The book The Voynich Manuscript by Kennedy and Churchill (Orion, 2004), and some websites, repeatedly accuse Wilfrid Voynich of unethical dealing because the religious books he traded to the Catholics of Mondragone in return for 30 old manuscripts including this odd one, didn't cost a lot. Voynich, Kennedy, and Churchill all valued antiquarian things unusually highly. They didn't value those new books very much. The accusation makes several faulty assumptions.

From all we are told, nobody was forced into a deal. Nobody lied. They all had what they had, wanted what they wanted, and reached agreements. This is the principle of "a willing buyer and a willing seller": it just needs to make sense to the people involved in their own circumstances right then. How it would be regarded by others, elsewhen, with different circumstances, is not relevant.

I have experienced quite a number of things that I valued, selling for low prices, or not selling at all. In hurriedly clearing out our old house in preparing to sell it, we ended up giving away several thousand dollars worth of stuff. And I have experienced items fetching surprisingly high prices because they were worth a whole lot to someone else in their particular situation. Our house sold for a handsome profit that dwarfed the losses described 2 sentences ago.

Mondragone made no use of what they had, had no use for it, and had not even touched it for centuries. They did their religious duties, for which those 30 manuscripts were actually a drag. They also had no means to find out their specialty value (the antiquarian book dealers Voynich and Kraus didn't know, either: they speculated and lost). Mondragone had no experience in selling through specialists anyway, and no means to find and deal with dealers or collectors of antiquarian books, or they would already have done so.

Wilfrid Voynich acquired the knowledge to find Mondragone, exercised the energy and paid the cost to actually journey there, and took the risk to invest money with no surety of earning a profit. Voynich listened to them - what other merchant would? They wanted certain uncommon books they could actually use, but they didn't have money to get them, nor the knowhow to find and purchase them. We worldly people of 2012 could do that in a snap (well, a click), but buying their wants was beyond the abilities and resources of isolated members of a religious order in 1912, or they would already have done so.

Voynich took considerable trouble to fill Mondragone's shopping list and deliver to them what they really wanted - "concierge" service. Nobody else had, or would. Voynich performed several services that required his expertise and attitude, including the age-old commercial one of taking things from where they have low value to where they have high value.

A strongly parallel experience happened to me about 1990. A little, isolated college had an antique telescope. The occasional astronomy course was taught by a professor of something else. He saw an ad for a modern telescope, which would help him teach his course much better than the awkward old thing could. He was worldly enough to know how to buy the new one, but far from knowing how to sell the old one for enough money to pay for it. From a friend of a friend, he heard that I had studied antique telescopes. So he invited me to examine the old scope, appraise it, and sell it so he could buy the new one. Unfortunately, its lens was badly chipped, devastating its value. I never found a customer, no deal occurred, and I never heard from them again. I lost the value of that time and travel.

If I had succeeded in fulfilling that college's wants, Kennedy and Churchill would regard me as an unethical swindler for doing so. I regard Voynich as an enterprising, risk-taking expert bringing added value and new possibilities wherever he reached agreements.

Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out?

© Norman Sperling, December 27, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone? December 28, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012

* There are no corrections anywhere; and
* a lot of words repeat, sometimes 2 or 3 or 4 times, sometimes with the final version differing by 1 glyph from the previous ones.

Could some of those repetitions be the "corrections"? The scribe got something wrong, and so wrote it again. Sometimes 3 or 4 tries before getting it right. Occasionally restarting a few words after the mistake.

In current times we cross off an error. I don't recall seeing that in the few other manuscripts I looked at. A common "delete" symbolism back then was to underscore an error with small dots. Maybe the Voynich scribe had his own different graphic method for handling errors, just as his glyphs were so different. Instead of under-dotting, he just repeated, or inserted "un-do" glyphs that we mistake for letters.

If the 'oddity of no corrections' is the same as the 'oddity of repetitions', neither one is odd any more.

Voynich: Spiraling into Folly

© Norman Sperling, December 26, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone? December 28, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012

William R. Newbold's 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk. The spiral nebula concept was suggested to Newbold by astronomer Eric Doolittle, who really should have known much better. Doolittle was a diligent and much-appreciated expert on double stars, but at f/20 his telescope gave some of the poorest, faintest, least-contrasty views of nebulae (the category from which galaxies had not yet been separated). To be blunt, Doolittle was out of his specialty and didn't know what he was talking about.

While the Great Galaxy in Andromeda is visible to the naked eye as an oval smudge, it does not look spiral through even today's visual telescopes. It doesn't even appear face-on, but is strongly tilted to our view. It was first recognized as a spiral in 1899, by pioneering astrophotographer Isaac Roberts: "[the object is] a left-handed spiral, and not annular as I at first suspected". Photographs of Stars II, p63. Newbold's own book says as much (William Romaine Newbold, edited by Roland Grubb Kent: The Cipher of Roger Bacon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928, Chapter XI, p 123).

The very first time any celestial object was recognized as a spiral was 1843, using the world's then-largest telescope, Lord Rosse's new 72-inch-wide "Leviathan of Parsonstown". Even with highly improved telescopes in the 2010s, visual observers are hard-put to distinguish spirality in the highest-contrast, most-vivid spiral - the Whirlpool galaxy in Canes Venatici, M51 - with any telescope narrower than 12 inches. Even then, the focal ratio must be f/8 or less to concentrate light enough. Early-1600s telescopes by Lippershey, Galileo, and others were less than 2 inches wide, and typically f/20-f/40, with notoriously imperfect lenses that smeared light around. For a deeper explanation of focal ratio and surface-brightness, read my essay Of Pupils & Brightness. NO primitive telescope of the Renaissance, let alone some speculated pioneer of the Middle Ages, had the slightest chance of revealing spirality in any object, to any observer, under any conditions.

Newbold speculated about the changes a nebula might show over the 650 years from Roger Bacon's time to his own. We now know that the spirals are galaxies, so wide that light takes tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to traverse them. The sharpest photographs of the last century have not revealed any measurable rotation. The only changes are sudden appearances of supernovae, which fade back down. The spiral in 68r is NOT a galaxy.

Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings?

© Norman Sperling, December 25, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone? December 28, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012

Prescott Currier contended that 2 different handwritings are detectable. Some scholars find distinctions among as many as 6 hands. These marginally-detectable differences in glyphs DO NOT imply different writers. I grade large numbers of handwritten quizzes and exams - last semester, from 55 students. The differences between people are vastly greater than those visible in the Voynich Manuscript. Far more likely, an individual's penmanship might vary when segments are written:
* at different times: hands get tired or cramped, people age, eyes change.
* at different temperatures: try writing with frozen fingers in thickly gloved hands.
* on tables of different heights, from benches of different heights: not just how uncomfortable the scribe is, but how the hands have to reach.
* by light of different brightness or coming from different angles: the scribe may write bigger if the hand shadows the candle, or if the candle is flickery and faint. Writing might get smaller when clouds give way to bright sunlight.
* sometimes with the elbow supported by the tabletop and sometimes not: I write neater with my elbow on the desk.

Voynich: Turkish?

© Norman Sperling, December 24, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone? December 28, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012

The books about the Voynich cipher list many languages that codebreakers, including the famous William and Elizebeth Friedman, have checked Voynich against for linguistic patterns, never matching one. The lists never mention Turkish, so I suggest to check that next. Turkish is extremely un-European. Back then, it was usually written in Arabic letters, so a comparison would have to be made to the mediaeval Arabic-letter version of Turkish. Wikipedia says Turkish was also written with Greek, Latin, Cyrillic, and "some other Asiatic writing systems", each of which would yield different letter combinations that need to be checked. Writing Turkish in Latin letters was a modernization imposed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1929.

Ottoman culture remained strikingly different from Europeans. Turkish rule and trade stretched across many Asian lands whose plants wouldn't be recognized by Western scholars.

The Ottomans whittled down the Byzantine (Eastern) Roman Empire and snuffed it in 1453. When they conquered Constantinople, the emperor gave his army 3 days to sack everything they wanted from it, after which the city itself was his. Had the Voynich Manuscript or its progenitors either been in Constantinople or brought from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, it could have followed the Turks far up the Balkans, a short sail from Venice, or along trade routes to Vienna.

Great Stories From a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript

© Norman Sperling, December 23, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Did Voynich Swindle Mondragone? December 28, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012

The Voynich Manuscript is just as good a story now as when I first read about it 50 years ago. If you're not familiar with it, Wikipedia's article hits the highlights, and its bibliography gives a number of ways to dig deeper.

The Voynich Manuscript was probably written in the early 1400s, probably in Europe, possibly in Northern Italy. Most of it resembles an herbal (though the plants are unrecognizable), plus sections whose pictures suggest astrology and pharmacy, plus lots of naked and clothed women (only the naked ones get mentioned much), and less-understandable illustrations and pure-text pages. The text appears to be written in a cipher, which has tantalized and taunted people since the 1500s. No one has ever cracked it. Is it too late to call this enciphered language "Voynish"?

Not only is this book truly, deeply weird, so are several of the people and institutions associated with it. Certainly including Roger Bacon, Emperor Rudolph II (who sought weirdos, and found them), John Dee, Wilfrid Voynich, and William R. Newbold. Possibly Yale's Beinecke Library, where marble panels substitute for clear windows. Maybe even me - Yale let me look through and photograph the Voynich Manuscript in 1980, and I thank them again for the privilege.

I told the Bay Area Skeptics about the Voynich Manuscript at its meeting on December 12, 2012, in Berkeley. The room was packed, and even the venue manager listened intently.

Psychology prof Sheldon Helms was not the only audience member who questioned if the manuscript's characteristics could be matched to a psychological condition. Some people concoct private writing, some of it meaningful at least to them, some of it not even that.

Spelling in ANY phonetic language was loose and approximate through the 1700s. Among my university students, even in 2012 some hand in papers with the same word spelled 2 different ways. Cryptanalysts may assume an unrealistically high standard of perfect consistency in writing.

One wag quipped that the missing leaves are the ones with the decipherment keys.

The audience regarded Hoax and Fraud as quite likely explanations for the Voynich Manuscript, echoing more and more investigators.

I'll post several ideas about the Voynich Manuscript in coming days.

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

Your Cart

View your shopping cart.