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Norman Sperling
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Welcome

Welcome to "Everything in the Universe", my blog on Science, Nature, and the Public. I often explore their intertwinings. New posts should appear
roughly weekly, so if you want to check regularly for new items, every Monday or Tuesday you ought to find something.

I don't try to be literary, but I do think before I write, and write only when I have something to say. When news spurs a reaction, mine aren't the
fastest knee-jerk comments, they're more often a considered reflection.

Some entries are full-blown essays, others are ideas that can be presented briefly. I don't yak and I don't blather. When I don't have anything to
say, I don't say it. If my message needs 2 paragraphs, you don’t have to slog through 10 paragraphs to get to it. I try to get things right.

Please also enjoy my previously-published articles posted here.

Comments and suggestions are welcome: eMail me at normsperling [at] gmail.com. I read them all, but don't always post them. To prevent descent into
harsh put-downs, political stabbings, rancor, advertising, and irrelevancy, I squelch those.

The Issues of the Issue, JIR v51 #3

© Norman Sperling, December 5, 2010

The Journal of Irreproducible Results that I just took to the printer - volume 51 #3 - features a number of wonderful takeoffs on new and old themes. A brilliant article solves the puzzle of how to make Cold Fusion work: use polywater!

Cold Fusion, as reported in 1989, was clearly a bust. That's not how nature works. There is, however, an underground mumble from quite a number of scientists that when related experiments are done to the most scrupulous standards, the results are not strictly according to textbooks. The version we make fun of is explicitly the 1989 junk. Good Science done since then deserves a closer look.

JIR often prints real science which is amusing. Our title attracts articles on the reproducibility of results. We've got another one this issue, and it ties in with an article due very soon from a major, main-stream scientific journal.

We also have takeoffs on:

personnel reviews ... for a fax machine
psychological "faces" scales ... for symposia
folie a deux ... for "word salad"
math exams ... describe a tea pot
New Age Kundalini ... for demography
husband training ... in the manner of canine training
and faculty evaluation ... divide citations by years since PhD.
We have a poem about traffic jams
and a song about thermodynamics.

We also have a recent-high of pseudonymous authors: 4. JIR has published articles under pseudonyms since it began in the 1950s. 2 or 3 of this issue's pseudonyms appear to be parts of the wit of their articles. The other(s) conceal submitters who may have professional reasons to not be identified. Yes, that still happens, and it isn't just because "serious" bosses might frown on "humorous" writing. Some doings that JIR snickers at really aren't the way quality professionals ought to work. If all professional institutions would shape up, we would happily do without that type of article.

For authors we can identify with confidence, the Americans come from Maryland, Colorado, California, Texas, Maine, Iowa, and Tennessee. Other authors come from Hungary, India, Canada, and Australia.

To JIR's Past Authors:

Media are changing a lot, and JIR's old copyright/permission forms didn't anticipate today's situation any better than anybody else's did. Certain articles could be transformed into online postings, audio podcasts, videos, performances, anthologies, and/or posters. We appeal to past authors to tell us their current addresses, because, unless they're current subscribers, we don't know where to find them. For deceased authors, we would like to find their heirs or literary executors. Anyone knowing the true authorship of pseudonymous articles before 2004, please tell us.

If you're not a subscriber, your copy is not in the mail. Fix that by clicking on the magazine shown at top right, and subscribing.

Skipping Transit Stops

© Norman Sperling, November 29, 2010

Transit ridership soars when the ride speeds up. Here on the peninsula south of San Francisco, CalTrain's "Baby Bullet" doesn't actually go faster than other trains, but it does skip a lot of stops, including the slowing down for them. Ridership is up importantly because it's so fast. It's the preferred transit ... even though it's not cheap, and the San Francisco terminal isn't particularly close to all the sky-scrapers.

The speeding up comes from skipping stops. How about EVERY rush-hour train skipping every other station? First send an "Odds" train that only stops at odd-numbered stations, then an "Evens" train. Every station gets served, and all the trains get to the other end much faster.

Memories of Brian Marsden

© Norman Sperling, November 21, 2010

My friend Brian Marsden, longtime director of the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams and the Minor Planet Center, died on November 18th, age 73.

In addition to being a world-class celestial mechanic and puzzle solver, he was one of the very nicest people I ever met. Always cheerful, quick to laugh, happy to talk good astronomy with anybody (amateur or professional, young or old), always trying to get the science right. He was everybody else's friend, too. That's a splendid attitude to emulate!

Brian was not an observer. At all. When a bright comet came by, he wouldn't even consider strolling to a telescope in the same complex to see it.

I remember hearing Brian say "Pluto is a comet" several times in the 1970s and '80s. He cited evidence from its orbital characteristics, and never changed his mind: it is too different from anything else called a "planet" to be covered under the same label. To Brian, that made Pluto more interesting rather than less, because he was most interested in asteroids and comets.

Bright and Not So Bright

The Central Bureau is astronomy's alert service: it evaluates and spreads the word about any new discovery that astronomers ought to look at. Once in a while somebody makes a false claim, and they have to avoid diverting astronomers from reality to track it down. Almost all of the discoveries are conventional like comets or novae or supernovae, but they've also announced sudden storms on Saturn and much more.

Brian announced many fast-breaking stories, and inevitably he misjudged a few. While he was tops at predicting positions, he was not very good at predicting comet brightnesses. Neither was everybody else in the 1970s, when so little was yet known about comets' physical structures. Unfortunately, Brian was very slow to realize how poor his brightness formulae were. Fortunately, a lot of amateur and professional astronomers learned skepticism much faster.

His biggest blunder - politely neglected in the flurry of laudatory obituaries and blogs - was predicting that Comet Kohoutek would reach the stupendous brightness of minus-tenth magnitude in January 1974. Later down-gradings of the predicted brightness never caught up with the initial extreme hype. That comet never got bright enough for most urban people to see at all, and the public and media were VERY turned off. That, in turn, cut deeply into the audience for Comet West on March mornings of 1976, when it was truly gaudy but largely ignored.

Decades later, when "potentially hazardous objects" were discovered with orbits that might endanger Earth, Brian again provided the best early calculations to the public. He labeled the uncertainties, but certain irresponsible and incompetent media failed to explain those uncertainties to the public. Other astronomers criticized Brian for stirring up needless alarm, but all Brian was doing was fully informing the public. Re-aim that criticism to the media who don't explain uncertainties. (Now some of them do, but, curiously, only with opinion polls.)

When I worked at Sky & Telescope, I pointed out that not only was Brian an indispensible source, month in, month out, he was also a splendid article topic himself. Other editors agreed, but didn't give me the assignment. Instead, they assigned it to another assistant editor, Dennis Overbye, who has been with the New York Times for many years now. His article "Life in the Hot Seat" (S&T, August 1980, pp 92-96) is far better than what I had in mind.

Finding Lost Asteroids

"Brian found Adonis" sounded like gossip, but to astronomers concerned with asteroids and history, it meant that the foremost celestial mechanic had cleaned up yet another decades-old mystery.

In the late 1970s, more than 20 numbered asteroids remained "lost" - about 1% of all numbered asteroids at that time. They had been issued their numbers too hastily, before sufficient data firmly pinned down their orbits. One of Brian's ambitions was to patrol the inflooding observations from bigger and more sensitive telescopes for new sightings of those lost asteroids. That would enable accurate orbits to be computed, securing them for the future.

1862 Apollo was recovered in 1973, and 2101 Adonis in 1977. By 1981, 9 numbered asteroids remained lost, and Brian really wanted them found.

The last 2 were finally mopped up by his son-in-law Gareth Williams: 878 Mildred in 1991, and 719 Albert in 2000. Mildred, by the way, was named for co-discoverer Harlow Shapley's infant daughter when it was discovered in 1916; when her asteroid was recovered she was an editor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.

Though Brian put tremendous energy into tidying up the solar system, he never managed to accomplish the same with his office. It had nearly as many paper piles as mine.

Naming Asteroids

Officially, discoverers have the right to name their asteroids, but some observers never get around to naming all the asteroids they discover. Some identifications emerge from computer analyses instead of observers. Many confusions were cleared up decades later. So, many asteroids that earned numbers have no names.

3 times, I came up with names of living (though old) astronomers who obviously merited asteroids. Not being an observer, I never discovered any myself, so I suggested the names to Brian. He liked them and cleared them through his IAU committee. That committee almost never disagreed - not because they were a rubber stamp, but because Brian made good cases for his proposals. That's how asteroids 2157 Ashbrook and 2637 Bobrovnikoff got their names. He relayed the other to a likely astronomer who had some asteroids "available", which is why Ted Bowell named 2421 Nininger.

A Project for You

Now, way over 100,000 asteroids have earned numbers but haven't been named. Names don't have to be astronomers, or even people. Places and instruments, for example, have lent their names to space rocks. A few have been named for events. What names do you think asteroids should carry? Scientists, historians, and others should propose serious names to prolific discoverers who hold naming rights. Wags who concoct names to suggest in jest should send them to me (normsperling@gmail.com) for possible use in The Journal of Irreproducible Results.

What a life Brian led! Friends everywhere, widely respected, a very successful career at the top of his profession. We're all going to miss Brian Marsden.

Ghostwriting Busters

© Norman Sperling, November 14, 2010

Medical ethicists are in an uproar over misleading medical research articles and presentations being "ghost-written". They're confusing 2 different activities, and blaming the wrong one.

One thing that's going on is ghost writing. That is often good.

The other thing that's going on is distorting results. That is bad.

Experts with talent and training in research can be wonderful at that, but often don't write well. And people who write well are rarely talented or trained in research. In your own experience, you know several people who are great at doing something but poor at expressing it, and several people who are great at expressing things but not so great at originating all of them.

So people who aren't so great at writing, who need to write something for publication, enlist help. They can ask friends, they can hire writers, or their sponsors can hire writers. As long as the output is correct, nobody is deceived about the scholarly content. While literary sleuths dispute "true" authorship of literary gems, that never happens with these reports.

I've done some of this. Here's an example from when I was an editor at Sky & Telescope magazine: An interesting article arrived with a turgid title something like "Thermoluminescence and Cathodoluminescence in Chondritic Meteorites". I changed the title to "Meteorites that Glow". I bet a lot more people read the article than would have with the stilted, stuffy title. That time I was paid by the publisher rather than the writer or the writer's sponsor, so that could be called "editing" instead of "ghost writing", but it's doing the same thing.

Turning ineffective writing into something people actually like to read takes talent and training that is rarely part of researchers' education. It's fair to have a ghostwriter as long as the meaning doesn't change, and the researcher approves everything the ghostwriter did before it's published. It doesn't matter who pays the ghostwriter, though it's cleanest if the money is laundered through the researcher.

Changing the meaning is entirely different. Someone thinks that by lying about reality, they can make quick money. The original author may have at least as much motivation as a hired writer. Warping can be done by ghostwriters, editors, publishers, and others. Of course reality must always win in the end. Concealed harm grows too blatant to hide. Legal settlements for causing harm can bankrupt corporations. Even the accusation can cripple a researcher's career.

The flap over ghostwriters is mis-aimed. Attack liars and cheaters for lying and cheating. Don't attack people who are good at expressing things for being good at expressing things.

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

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