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Weird Astronomy: Tales of Unusual, Bizarre, and Other Hard to Explain Observations

Weird Astronomy: Tales of Unusual, Bizarre, and Other Hard to Explain Observations, by David A. J. Seargent. 317p. Springer 2010. $39.95. 978-1-4419-6423-6.

reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, April 26, 2012

Australian astronomy writer David Seargent knows sky-watching - a long-time amateur astronomer, he discovered a comet in 1978. He has been telling about these curiosities in a long string of articles for Southern Astronomy, which became Sky & Space magazine. He has integrated and smoothed them out well for this book. But one standard that may have been OK in the magazine grates on me! He uses exclamation points way too much!

Between exclamation points, Seargent tells these neat stories with an easy flow and a light touch. He explains things in a clear, friendly way that teaches accurately but painlessly. Collectively, they form good lessons on scientific reasoning, the importance of data quality, and understanding how the sky works. The Universe seems to show more phenomena than humans have so far commanded. The stories are very enjoyable for readers who haven't heard them before. They will certainly entertain readers interested in any science.

Seargent also inserts suggestions for projects. Every reader, from novice through expert, can find some interesting possibilities to work on.

Some items from the main chapters:
* Our Weird Moon: William Herschel noticed 3 red glowing spots on the dark part of the Moon on April 19, 1787. He thought they were erupting volcanoes, but that would have left evidence that we would now see, and we don't. Seargent points out that that very same night had intense aurora as far south as Italy, and asks if the same flow of high-energy particles hitting Earth might trigger glows on the Moon.
* Odd but Interesting Events Near the Sun, including transits and comets.
* Planetary Weirdness dwells mostly on Mars, and wonders if microbes do, too.
* Weird Meteors: Curving, zigzagging, and black meteors have been reported.
* Strange Stars and Star-Like Objects: including assorted flashes and blinks.
* Moving Mysteries and Wandering Stars: several tiny comets have been spotted close to Earth.
* Facts, Fallacies, Unusual Observations, and Other Miscellaneous Gleanings: planets and stars by daylight, the thinnest crescent Moon, odd meteorites, and the "potassium flare" star whose spectrum actually measured a smoker striking a match.

The publisher's contributions to this book aren't as good as the author's. There are several typos, though none of them interferes with understanding. While the text is printed very clearly, many of the pictures are too dark and murky, and hard to distinguish. The color pictures lack resolution. The publisher appears to have trusted a new printing technology, which seems not ready for prime time yet.

Defining any book project requires many decisions to be made. They decided this one would be "popular" rather than scholarly, so they left out all references. But this subject matter is deliberately obscure, and they give no hint as to where to chase down any item that attracts your fancy. There were many items that I could not even guess where to pursue, beyond a web-search.

But many of them I do know where to look for: Mysterious Universe by the late William R. Corliss. (Sourcebook Project, 1979). When I started wondering about those Earth-approaching comets, I checked the Corliss compendium and found 2 of Seargent's 3, plus several others, all with full quotations from the original literature. Corliss has quite a number of Seargent's phenomena. More on the personalities and places can be found in Joe Ashbrook's Astronomical Scrapbook (Cambridge University Press), a compilation of his articles in Sky & Telescope magazine. So readers have a choice: the simplest pleasure-read is Seargent's. Ashbrook's is more scholarly. Corliss reprints the original sources verbatim, retaining all the original information and flavor ... sometimes stuffy. Also, Corliss never tells how a story came out: were the observations flawed? Did they start a new paradigm? Seargent can solve scholars' problems by posting his references on a website.

As expected, Seargent finds more articles in the British heritage, Ashbrook in the American. This leads me to wonder how badly culture and language still inhibit communication. What curiosities have observers logged in other languages? Can we get those correctly translated, compiled, indexed, and entertainingly narrated? What percentage of the total do these English-language sources contain? How can readers of lots of other languages become familiar with these?

Corliss compendia cover most sciences. Seargent has now published one on meteorology. Do other sciences have corresponding light-reading books of curiosities like Seargent's or Ashbrook's?

The Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, by Robert Neuwirth. Pantheon 2011.

review © Norman Sperling, February 7, 2012

This new book tells nothing new, and offers many examples of no value. Ostensibly celebrating the pirate economy, the author neither self-publishes nor finds street sellers. Instead, he contracts with a name-brand publisher, copyrights his tales of piracy, and repeatedly invalidates his own premises.

The underground and pirate economy is not rising, it's always been around. This "informal economy" is older and far more entrenched than the formal one. In several places the book admits that, but immediately reverts to the fantasy that working "off the books", on the street, on the margins, or not fully licensed, is new, or increasing.

What's newer, and growing far more vigorously, is the formal economy that earns confidence, enforces inspections, builds brands, and does things right. Several times, the narrative brushes up against the roughly-direct relationship between an enterprise's degree of formality (for which the author selects the odd proxies of being licensed, registered, and taxpaying) and its degree of trustworthiness. Trust and confidence are critical in transactions.

That's why customers graduate to more formal levels of the economy as soon as they can. They get better quality and therefore better value: the things they buy are closer to "real" and "working" and "sturdy" and "supported", and therefore worth the higher price. This generates valuable repeat-business, compared to street-hawkers who always need to drum up yet more new customers. Of this, the book gives only the slightest mention.

The author offers several sighs over capitalist misbehavior, while citing far more examples (without sighs) of pirate misbehavior. Almost all the misbehavior is just plain short-sighted: taking an immediate advantage and ignoring its (bigger) long-term consequences. Undermining value, as several chapters on piracy celebrate, undermines confidence. Folks who can't afford the most-trustworthy goods, and therefore take less-trustworthy, discounted street-goods, often live to regret it. Frequently-cheated customers are less eager to buy, which slows the 'speed of money', whose rate tracks the health of economies.

Save your time and money: skip this book. To improve the economy, earn as much confidence as you can (in reality, not just "licenses and registrations"), and do business with others who also earn confidence.

Great Guidebooks for Scientific Travelers

Reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, October 3, 2011

Duane S. Nickell: Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2010. Paperback $19.95. 978-0-8135-4730-5.

and Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Astronomy and Space Exploration Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2008. Paperback $21.95. 978-0-8135-4374-1.

Most of the travel books I've filtered through in planning my Great Science Trek specialize in factories, oddities, architecture, history, pop culture, technology, and politics. Travel books for scientists are rare - just a few on geology and observatories. Do you know any others? Duane S. Nickell is starting a series to fill this niche. Rutgers University Press has set up "The Scientific Traveler" series, and Nickell has written its first 2 volumes.

Each chapter begins with a gem-quality tutorial. To understand gigantic particle accelerators, start with the essay on particle physics. To get why you should examine meteorite collections, start with the essay on meteorites.

Taking advantage of his modern, tech-savvy audience, Nickell wastes no space on maps or directions. He gives addresses, phone numbers, and websites, from which visitors can get all they need. He cites admission fees as of presstime, which everybody knows can change.

Nickell found a whole lot of chemistry places I'd never heard of, and points out aspects of astronomy and physics places that I never thought of - such as rooms where important things occurred on the campus where I teach (certainly not my room). He has chapters on the scientists themselves plus their universities, labs, accelerators, museums, and monuments. "Chemicals in Industry", for example, features places that make glass, borax, paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, beer, and whiskey.

Some kinds of technology lie in plain sight but go uninterpreted. Wind farms, for example, occupy impressive stretches of hills and deserts, but none has a visitor center or even a gift counter. A display of varieties of windmills, a demonstration of a generator, and a few relevant models and publications for sale, would make a respectable roadside stop. Other energy forms with sites-to-see include oil, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and solar.

Astronomers flock to places with the darkest skies, and buy up all the land to prevent disturbing lights from encroaching. Several such astronomy villages have sprung up. I can only think of one other place where followers of a science build their vacation homes together: Scientist's Cliffs, Maryland. Are there others?

The books are well-produced, well-illustrated, and reasonably priced. The rare misspellings won't cause any problems. But use an actual map rather than trust a statement like "15 miles southeast" because it might not be southeast.

Science people should consult these both for novel day-trips in their own areas, and for sights to visit while traveling. I tallied the listings I've visited so far: 36 of 57 in the Astronomy/Space volume, but only 25 of 92 in Physics/Chemistry. I'm going to enjoy some more sights!

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 Shape-Shifting, Mind-Bending, Out-Loud Laughing Inventions of Steve Johnson

Book review © Norman Sperling, June 6, 2011

Have Fun Inventing: Learn to Think up Products and Create Future Inventions Easily, by Steven M. Johnson. Patent Depending Press, Torrance, California. www.patentdepending.com. paperback. Written and printed in USA. $24.95 +$4 shipping.

I knew I was going to have fun with these humorous inventions, and I sure did. Johnson combines plausible components in whimsical new ways. I've always liked loony inventions simply because they're fun. But Johnson sets his in a social context where they make sense, and comments on how they fit in.

Or how they don't. I've hated neckties since childhood. Johnson agrees that they're entirely useless - and shows such bizarre elaborations that even the most thick-headed boss should realize how silly they are. (At the Maker Faire I saw the first necktie clothing that I ever thought actually looked good: A lady had sewn dozens of them side-by-side to make a colorful skirt.)

Johnson monkeys around with cars, shoes, offices, sleeping bags, bikes, underwear, chairs, and exercise equipment. The vast majority of these inventions could actually be built, and some already have been. Most would be tolerably economical, and several niches he serves really could use something like his ideas, such as homeless shelters. A society that builds Johnson's bridges and houses will greatly surpass even the glorious architecture of Dubai ("sheikh chic").

Some of his vehicle mashups caught my eye because they address my own needs. On the Great Science Trek that I embark upon in 2013, I'll need aspects of an office, store, and workroom built into a camper trailer and an SUV. Johnson already thought about that, and shows how they could work. I'd love a witty Johnson design that has all the working parts, but which would also be practical to build and use - it would "work".

Johnson's invention names are often as witty as the cartoons:
* Parka Place
* Nod Office
* Kitchen Counterpart
* Neckotine Fit
* Wash Cycle
* Car-B-Q
* Trampo-Lean
* Street FUNiture
* Cardiac Coupe
* PushMaster
* Motorless Home
* Clam Shell-ter
* Remote Patrol
* Powered Pants

I enjoyed Johnson's previous 2 books, What the World Needs Now and Public Therapy Buses. This one is better because Johnson provides much richer background and reasoning, sets scenes, crows about successful predictions, and tells what went wrong with others.

If you're looking for some fun and a novel "take" on current culture, this book will amuse you for many hours. If you want to invent things, this book definitely will uncork a lot of ideas.

Typos are few and minor. None would interfere with understanding any of the contents.

I like this book so much that I got some autographed copies from Johnson to retail to my own customers @$24.95 +$4 shipping. I can accept checks, PayPal, or credit cards. eMail me at normsperling [at] gmail.com.

Berenice's Hair, by Guy Ottewell.

Universal Workshop 2009. Paperback, 6 x 9 inches, 255 pages. ISBN 978-0-934546-55-3. $18.00 http://www.universalworkshop.com/BERE.htm
Reviewed and © by Norm Sperling, November 8, 2010

The constellation of Berenice's Hair is subtle, complex, and beautiful. Generations of astronomy popularizers have retold the 2200-year-old story of Queen Berenice II, her cut hair missing from the temple it was supposed to be in, the authorities placated by being shown the hair in the sky.

This book is the action epic behind that gloss.

Ottewell has a strong voice, sharp wit, and a splendid eye for telling details. He makes the whole story flow remarkably well.

The book, too, is subtle, complex, and beautiful. As a telescope reveals far richer detail about the stars, this book tells far richer detail about the characters, setting, and action. It follows Berenice's royal heritage and parents, 2 royal husbands, court intrigues, and adventures in running Cyrenaica and Egypt.

These tales are far more plausible, and a lot less gory, than classical Greek myths set centuries earlier. This is a modern book for modern readers, including issues our own time cares more about than they did back then. Ottewell tells me that maybe 1/8 of the book comes from historical references, more from his visits to the scenes, and perhaps half is pure fiction.

Exquisitely rare among works of fiction that include astronomy, every single technicality is right - where, when, what can be seen, how things look, and so on. They're integral to the story, not awkwardly pasted on for show, the way non-astronomical writers often do it. We expect this from the author of the popular Astronomical Calendars and Astronomical Companion, and we aren't disappointed.

The illustrations in my copy are placed at the end. Newer versions give the map a full page up front, and place the other pictures where they occur in the tale. More pictures would be better - Ottewell is a fine artist.

The printing and binding are good. Many readers would not even notice that it's a "print-on-demand" volume, their quality has improved so much lately. The text is virtually free of typos.

The scholar in me wants a list of references, and the astronomer in me wants a follow-up for observing the constellation itself. But the latter would be out of place in this book, and easily obtainable on line and in many other books. Perhaps the references could be posted on the book's web page, plus links to observing guides.

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.

Science Askew: A light-hearted look at the scientific world

By Donald E. Simanek and John C. Holden
Bristol, UK: Institute of Physics Publishing, 2002. 0-7503-0714-5. xii + 310 pages. Hardbound.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48 #4, November 2004, p34.

If you like JIR, you'll love Science Askew. Science satires, cartoons, puns, and parodies range from chapter-long tales down to punchy 1-liners.

Among the rules of the lab:
Experiments must be reproducible; they should fail the same way each time.
Experience is directly proportional to equipment ruined.
Teamwork is essential; it allows you to blame someone else.

My reaction upon reading most of the articles was "we should run this item in JIR!". But we reprinted an entire chapter in the last issue, and we published 2 of the articles (by the illustrator, retired geologist John C. Holden) in the 1970s, and the whole thing is already in a nifty package – this book.

From the computer expert's glossary:
On-line: The idea that a human being should always be accessible to a computer.
Machine-Independent Program: A program that will not run on any machine.
Documentation: Instructions translated from Swedish by Japanese for English-speaking people.

Simanek and Holden include fuel for debunking pseudoscience, and teaching students the distinctions. Ever the teacher, Simanek takes several opportunities to "talk straight" and point out legitimate science lessons. The pair of articles arguing opposing sides of the DHMO "controversy" afford chuckles, as well as stimulation for student exercises. "Di-Hydrogen Monoxide", of course, is H2O.

What engineers say and what they mean by it:
"Test results were extremely gratifying": It works, and are we ever surprised!
"The entire concept will have to be abandoned": The only guy who understood the thing quit.
"The designs are well within allowable limits": We just barely made it, by stretching a point or 2.

Holden contributes many clever and witty illustrations. Several other authors appear too, along with some items that have circulated worldwide on the Web which could not be traced to their original authors.

Some of Simanek's Laws of Statistics:
Anyone who trusts in statistics is taking a chance.
When 2 lines of a graph cross, that must be significant.
Once human subjects find out what you have discovered about their behavior, they begin to behave differently.

There are no important typos, and the trivial ones won't distract or confuse anyone. An illustration is mis-numbered, as is a footnote, but context makes the meanings clear. The illustration on page 110 misspells innumeracy and misperception. Page 273 gives the wrong dates for astrophysicist Thornton Page; they should be 1913-1996 instead of 1884-1952, which are the dates of physicist Leigh Page. At the time I found these little errors, none of them was posted on Science Askew's website, www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/askewcom.htm. All the tiny errors posted there, I missed.

Among the "do-it" 1-liners:
Professors do it absent-mindedly
Cosmologists do it with a bang
Logicians do it symbolically

Institute of Physics Publishing produced this book extremely well. The type is clear, the illustrations crisp, and all the parts are where they ought to be, except that there is no index. The paper is very high quality. The binding is excellent, comfortable, tight, and ought to last a long time. That's essential for this book, because the owner, friends, students, visitors, and everyone else lucky enough to happen upon it will dip into it time after time.

Despite excellent achievements by the authors and producers, this book has not been reviewed or advertised as much as it merits because the publisher refuses to send out many review copies, advertises very little outside its own periodicals, and discourages retailers. It took JIR considerable extra effort to wrest copies from the publisher, but this book is positively worth it.

Science Askew belongs in academic libraries, both for amusement and to stimulate classwork. Scientists, doctors, and educators will love this book. And it makes a splendid gift for anyone with technical knowledge and a sense of – or need for – humor.

Medically Speaking: A Dictionary of Quotations on Dentistry, Medicine and Nursing.

Selected and arranged by Carl C. Gaither and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither. Illustrated by Andrew Slocombe. Bristol and Philadelphia: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. xv + 481 pages. Paperback. 0-7503-0635-1. $29.99.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #3, May 2005, p31.

Only a fraction of the quotations in this entertaining compendium are humorous, but quite a lot of them are witty, and most are wise. You can dip into it anywhere, and never fail to be diverted for however long you want, from seconds to hours.

"A drug is a substance which when injected into a guinea pig produces a scientific paper."

This book is meant not only for amusement but for scholarly reference. Anyone wanting to include a relevant quotation (famous or not) in their own writings can use this volume to find the best quotation. The Gaithers provide an index of subjects, by author. They also provide a separate index of authors, by subject. Whichever you have, and whichever you want, this book helps you get the right thing, and get it right. The compilers have scrupulously traced quotations to their sources, listed in an exhaustive 26-page bibliography. Readers finding gems from a source they never heard of can easily track down the whole book. Equally, it can remind you of an old favorite that's worth looking up again.

Max Planck: "An Experiment is a question which Science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature's answer."

The cartoons by Andrew Slocombe fill out pages in good humor. Most are located near the topic of the cartoon.

Dr. Leonard McCoy: "I'm a doctor, not an escalator."
"I'm a doctor, not a brick layer."
"I'm a doctor, not a mechanic."
"I'm a doctor, not a coal miner."
"I'm a doctor, not an engineer."

This book has extremely few proofing errors. The repetition of quotes from page 249 on page 250 are the worst – and trivial. Typography, printing, and binding, are all excellent, as expected from Institute of Physics Publishing. Other quotation books in the Gaithers' series from the same publisher, in similar bindings, cover most sciences and engineering.

John Allen Paulos: "Consider a precise number that is well known to generations of parents and doctors: the normal human body temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit. Recent investigations involving millions of measurements reveal that this number is wrong; normal human body temperature is actually 98.2° Fahrenheit. The fault, however, lies not with Dr. Wunderlich's original measurements – they were averaged and sensibly rounded to the nearest degree: 37° Celsius. When this temperature was converted to Fahrenheit, however, the rounding was forgotten and 98.6° was taken to be accurate to the nearest tenth of a degree. Had the original interval between 36.5° and 37.5° Celsius been translated, the equivalent Fahrenheit temperatures would have ranged from 97.7° to 99.5°. Apparently, discalulia can even cause fevers."

Even in such a fine resource, I can quibble with a few choices. I wish the dates were included, where known. A lot of medicine has changed from dangerous, a few hundred years ago, to comparatively safe. Quotations of wisdom vary by the realities of the times, and those times are not noted.
A few items are parody songs – meant to be sung to the tune of a well-known song. But that isn't noted till the end of each item, by which time the reader has already read it unmusically. When an item should be sung to a certain tune, tell the reader before starting the lyrics.

"Cold: A curious ailment that only people who are not doctors know how to cure."

The decision to start each section on a new page means that the many sections with one or a few entries leave lots of white space.
This book belongs in many of the same places that JIR belongs: in all medical libraries and staff lounges, and with professionals who could use a diversion. It would make a good gift, and a good award.

Will Rogers: "We were primitive people when I was a kid. There were only a mighty few known diseases. Gunshot wounds, broken legs, toothache, fits, and anything that hurt you from the lower end of your neck down was known as a bellyache."

Romping Among the Turds

Merde: Excursions in scientific, cultural, and socio-historical coprology. By Ralph A. Lewin. New York: Random House, 1999. xvi + 187 pages. Hardbound. 0-375-50198-3. $19.95.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 49, no. 3, May 2005, p30.

Get the real shit on shit in this endlessly fascinating exploration. Witty and entertaining factoids and minutiae cover everything from toilet paper to the ocean bottom, just as their topic does.
The author, a retired marine biologist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is a long-time contributor to JIR with diverse interests.

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

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