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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.


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.

Mix Rube Goldberg's inventiveness with current culture

The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu. By Kenji Kawakami. Translated and additional text by Dan Papia: WW Norton, 2005. 0-393-32676-4.

reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #6, November 2005, p29.

Rube Goldberg founded the modern era of humorous inventions in the US, and Heath Robinson did the same in the UK, in the first half of the 1900s. Even now, "Rube Goldberg contraptions" call to mind not only his cartooning style but his inventive wit.

Songs With Good Chemistry

Parodies and Commentaries, by David Kritchevsky. AOCS Press, Champaign, Illinois, 2003. ISBN 1-893997-46-4. 46 pages. $5.00. Order through www.aocs.org/catalog/product.asp?ID=wdk&dept=90

reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #6, November 2005, p28.

Tucked away under a host of worthy technical volumes like Healthful Lipids and The Biodiesel Handbook, The American Oil Chemists' Society also publishes this songbook by a major scholar at Philadelphia's Wistar Institute.

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.

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

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