Home

Contact:

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

Human Behavior

What Don't You Know, That You Should?

© Norman Sperling, February 21, 2014

I display at a lot of fairs and club meetings. Most prospective customers are pretty close to what I expect: people of similar interests and varying expertise.

But I also meet people, often running other booths, who got shortchanged in their education and don’t know how to move forward.

I recently encountered an eager man who bubbled over about the service he was selling. I immediately recognized it as pseudoscience. When he started reciting details, I several times shook my head and said, no, that’s NOT the way things work. That’s not so.

He was stunned.

From what he said and what he asked, I guessed his science education never went past middle school, so I sold him a high-school textbook with a chapter on what he needed to know. He dove in like he’d been starved. He’ll learn an awful lot from that book.

There are scads of reasons for education not to “take”.
* Unfavorable home situations that prevent or distract.
* Competing pulls.
* Not knowing the local language well enough.
* Belief systems that block out reality.
* An earlier experience, such as a bad teacher, “turned them off”.
* Immaturity.
* Illness: I met a student who had an ear infection when her class studied division in grade school. She didn’t hear the lessons, and still couldn’t divide 6 years later. She was sensational at covering up.
* Cultural hangups that prevent using resources.
* Personal hangups. I know a person who was telling me some pretty wise things, so I recommended that he “tell it to a piece of paper” -- write it down. He replied “If I could do that, my whole life would be different” -- that’s one of his hangups.
These are nothing to feel guilty about, just bad luck.

But our society also excels at ways to learn what you didn’t learn before.
* The public library.
* Educational TV.
* Online encyclopedias, animations, lectures, lessons, and so on.
* Public lectures.
* Informal education like museums, and parks with rangers and signage.
* Adult school.
* Community college courses.
These are free or cheap. People can take them in any amount at any pace, whenever it suits them.

A whole lot of people do. When I was giving planetarium shows, it was not rare for a person to come up to the console afterward and ask basic questions. In teaching at community colleges, and night courses at universities, I’ve met people who are trying to better themselves, and get more satisfying careers. (Not necessarily better-paying! 2 of my most-memorable students were a truck driver and a plumber, who made more money than I did, but with dramatically less satisfaction.)

But many people don’t think of all the resources available to them; I have to push the recommendations. That applies even more to folks like the first guy mentioned above. He could have learned the folly of his spiel in a library, in an encyclopedia, from a used-book store, a new-book store, a GED course, a community college course, or from a thousand on-line resources. It never occurred to him to do so.

As a purveyor of pseudoscience, he’s not evil, he’s just ignorant. Maybe the folks who promote the program he bought into might be evil, or maybe they’re just ignorant too.

Our culture would be enormously improved by folks of all ages patching the holes in their knowledge. Many will probably choose their favorite entertainment instead. But many will eventually, as it suits them, learn up on their weaknesses. That would decrease the market for pseudoscience as well as the number of its pushers. It will also improve the overall functioning of Society. We’ve already got the stuff in place. All we need is to effectively recommend it to folks who need it.

What don’t you know, that you should?

What's the best way to meet?

January 30, 2014
Dear Friends,

I’m passing through a number of cities and want to meet people like local JIR subscribers and astronomers. Someone suggested simply circulating an announcement that I’ll be in a certain place at a certain time, like a student union lobby or coffee house. This seems way easier and cheaper than renting a meeting room. What sort of times and places do you think would, and would not work?
weekday midmorning
weekday midafternoon
weekday evening
weekend midmorning
weekend midafternoon
weekend evening

The next several are probably Las Cruces, NM, and the Texas cities of El Paso, Fort Worth, and Dallas. In late February, Florida, then a bit northward from there.

Thank you for your thoughts!

Best wishes,
Norm
normsperling [at] gmail.com

Uncertainty Done Right

(c) Norman Sperling, January 21, 2014

We astronomers KNEW we didn't know what Comet ISON was going to do. We knew its brightness was extremely unpredictable. We knew that fizzling was one major possibility.

This time, as if in a unified front, practically all astronomers told practically all media the same thing. They told it so emphatically and so uniformly that the media had no choice but to tell that to the public, though the media strongly prefer concrete certainties. The public was well served.

So this time there's no backlash against Science, no criticism, praise for the correctness, and praise for the videos and graphics.

What a stunning contrast to the Kohoutek debacle of 1973. Initial computations - wildly optimistic - predicted brilliance, which the media trumpeted. So telescope companies ramped up production, especially because maximum brightness coincided with the holiday season. The media largely ignored later cautions, and the comet's dimness left Science seeming "wrong", and companies with expensive warehouses full of every scope they expected to sell for the next *year*.

Long Lines and Gotchas

©Norman Sperling, August 4, 2013

Several times I’ve waited in long slow lines at some government facility, only to learn at the front that they consider the area to be a security zone so I have to lose my little pocket knife. And there’s no locker just outside to stow it in. And my turn for the thing I want will take another x hours. And I can’t leave the area without forfeiting my place and having to start over.

What really annoys me is the blatant lack of communication. Electronic signs could be posted along the line, clear to the far end, telling the terms and the waiting times. The same information could be posted online for the hordes who now use smartphones. A whole lot of people would be able to handle the situation a whole lot better.

Big Ball of Twine: Cawker City, Kansas

© Norman Sperling, July 16, 2013

On the main street one of the few signs of life is the Ball of Twine, and especially the very clever artworks up and down the block.

I’ll defer to Guinness and Wikipedia to decide which town’s ball of twine really is biggest. This one certainly is awfully big.

Cooler than the twine is the series of paintings. Local artist Cher Olson copied famous paintings, cleverly adding a ball of twine to each.

This could easily adapt to other small attractions. They could be more paintings, or they could be something else -- practically anything, like photoshopping, songs, familiar sayings -- that can adapt to the local feature subject. Folks are very creative, especially online. Adapting online-style humor to points of civic pride shouldn’t be a problem.

Go for it!

Big Ball of Twine: Cawker City, Kansas

© Norman Sperling, July 6, 2013

On the main street one of the few signs of life is the Ball of Twine, and especially the very clever artworks up and down the block.

I’ll defer to Guinness and Wikipedia to decide which town’s ball of twine really is biggest. This one certainly is awfully big.

Cooler than the twine is the series of paintings. Local artist Cher Olson copied famous paintings, cleverly adding a ball of twine to each.

This could easily adapt to other small attractions. They could be more paintings, or they could be something else -- practically anything, like photoshopping -- that allows for adapting to the local feature subject. Folks are very creative, especially online. Adapting online-style humor to points of civic pride shouldn’t be a problem.

Go for it!

A Splendid Way to Grow Up and a Splendid Way to Portray It: John Glenn’s Boyhood Home

© Norman Sperling, June 6, 2013

The John Glenn boyhood home illustrates the Norman-Rockwell-style youth that shaped the great astronaut, who was later a senator.

Glenn grew up in the gnawing Depression, with its relentless financial drag. But he grew up in New Concord, Ohio, with its strong community fabric. The benefit of the community far outweighed the hassle of the economy. Glenn grew up with a storybook childhood and sterling character. Setting a young person on that path doesn’t take a lot of money. Actually, too much money often distracts from that path.

A tourguide at the rear introduced the home and its setting. Then she knocked on the back door, where a sign said "Today is May 3, 1937". The lady who answered the knock introduced herself as John Glenn's mother! That took me completely by surprise. She told all about her son. She took us all around the house and explained how everything we saw fit into their life - every ordinary product in the pantry, every ordinary toy and furnishing. She was completely immersed in motherhood, family, the Depression, the things they had … and the things they couldn't afford. This was one of the most realistic performances I've ever seen. The actress is Bev Allen, a volunteer.

Upstairs, a conventional tourguide resumed. Altogether we saw a great many true-to-the-times furnishings. It wasn't hard to note what we have that they didn't. But they had community, loyalty, freedom, and hard work. That's what shaped "The Greatest Generation", as Tom Brokaw called them.

Afterward, I heard that the actresses who portray Mrs. Glenn started wearing out, so the museum introduced different portrayals on different days: Mr. Glenn, and the teenage John Glenn. Now nobody's worn out and the public has greater variety to see. Next time I get anywhere near New Concord, I'm going to phone ahead to get the schedule of characters.

Debbie Allender, Director of Operations for The John & Annie Glenn Museum Foundation, tells more: "Our living history presentations are the day you visit only in 1937 - "The Life of an American Family during the Great Depression".  So if you visited on May 3, the day would have been May 3, 1937.  We also do 1944 - "Life on the Home Front during WWII", and we alternate the 2 years every other year.  So say you come next summer on June 5, the living history presentation would be June 5, 1944.  The actor or actress who takes our visitors through the main floor of the home is simply whoever is working that day.  We mostly have students during the summer but our adult volunteers help our until they are out of school in the spring and when they return in the fall.

This is a splendid example of impersonators as a form of acting that merits more use, and as a means to convey a strong feeling for a personality, a time, and a place. Nobody on the tour knew what John Glenn's mother really looked like, so any motherly actress, wearing an apron, sufficed. Someone portraying a known face with known characteristics should resemble those more closely - a tougher acting job.

An awful lot of museums and significant sites could benefit from this approach. There are scads of understaffed museums and blah tours. There are also scads of former thespians who long to return to acting, if only a little. Impersonation could be just the way to rekindle the thespian flames of onetime actors. And it can spark new life in a wide variety of cultural sites.

Enthusiastic former thespians seeking a venue in which to thesp should propose acts at local historical sites and museums.

Crash and Recovery

Norman Sperling, May 5, 2013

On April 19th, driving north through Virginia, I swerved a little to avoid an obstacle. My trailer, which had been swaying annoyingly the whole trip, swayed out of control and dragged me across 4 lanes of traffic, where the SUV sideswiped a pickup truck. SUV and trailer both ended up on their sides. NOBODY WAS HURT! Seatbelts and airbags DO work. Use them.

But both my SUV and my trailer were declared total losses. I spent 2 weeks coping with the attendant hassles, including replacing the camper. This time I chose a much more compact “Class C” RV. Thanks to insurance, I’ll end up nearly cash-neutral.

I have resumed my trek. I’m writing this from Indiana.

Heroes:

More than a dozen people of Fredericksburg, caught behind my wreck, instantly jumped out of their cars and ran to help me and the guy I sideswiped. There was a nurse and a medic. A forest of hands helped me climb out of the side window.

My brother, Barry, picked me up and set me back on my feet. He accomplished a lot that would have taken ever so much longer without him. He’s JIR’s mathematics editor, and I sure counted on him.

AAA insurance: fully competent and understanding. A bit slow, 3,000 miles outside their range, but highly effective.

Stick It on a Ridge

© Norman Sperling, April 13, 2013

In lots of places, traffic has a view of a ridge. That’s a fabulous place to stick something with an interesting silhouette. Antique farm equipment looks neat. Try a scarecrow. A sculpture. A cairn. A saguaro. A dramatic tree. Anything that a passing driver can take in with a quick glance – not distracting them for dangerously long.

The Rule of 3 Strange Terms

© Norman Sperling, January 9, 2013

In teaching astronomy, I not only have to teach many very strange concepts, I also have to deal with the very strange terms that Science uses for them. Over the years, I've learned that students find it harder to learn the words than the concepts.

When confronted by a strange term, a student will learn its definition and keep that in mind.

When confronted by a second strange term in the same field, the student will learn that definition, too, and keep it in mind.

Sharp students can even keep in mind the definition of a third strange term.

But that's the practical maximum. If you try to teach them a fourth strange term, their circuits go on "overload", they freeze, dump all 4 definitions, and regard your subject as "confusing" and therefore "too hard to learn".

So I minimize strange terms. The students benefit any time I can substitute plain English for a technical term.

Some are avoidable. Some are not. I can talk plain-English around a lot of astronomy. "Cliffs shaped like curlicues" works way better than "lobate escarpments" on Mars. "Layering" works better than "stratification" on many solid objects. "Mindset" works well enough for "paradigm". But I still use "nebula" because neither "space cloud" nor "hydrogen-helium cloud" conjure up the right concept in students' heads.

Where the astronomical term describes something entirely beyond human-level experience, no conventional term does well enough. "Nuclear fusion" is NOT "burning" - burning is much weaker, a chemical reaction in electron shells.

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.