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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.

Norm Sperling’s Great Science Trek: 2014

San Luis Obispo
Santa Barbara
Palm Springs
Death Valley
Tucson
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Tampa
Everglades
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key
Miami

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard
mid-South

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.

Driver Food

© Norman Sperling, November 13, 2014

Drivers eat. We’re going to keep eating. It’s a fair co-use of time, often the only time available to snarf down a pseudo-meal. Eating can also re-spark wakefulness toward the end of a long day.

Yes, eating is infamously distracting, and distractions kill.

Some foods can be made minimally distracting, well within tolerable limits.

Non-distracting foods would sit in a non-spilling container, so you won’t worry about sudden stops and sharp turns. They’d be in a container easy to dip into. Stick a finger-depth cup in your cup-holder.

The food has to be dry, easy to grasp with 2 fingers, and a single piece should be enough to chew on but not too much.

Several such foods already exist, and more are adaptibly close.

* Marshmallows are nearly perfect for this, though scarcely nutritious.
* Pretzel nuggets, with or without fillings of peanut butter or cheese.
* Baby carrots.
* Wheat-thins and many other crackers.
* Dried apricots are almost too big, and a little sticky.
* Dried cherries are rather small but so tasty you don’t chew several at a time. Some brands are stickier than others.
* Cherry tomatoes.
* Donut holes.
* Spoon-size shredded wheat.
* Necco wafers unwrapped from their tube and sitting loosely in the cup.
* Plain or dry-roasted almonds and other large nuts. Peanuts are so small that a mouthful wants a few, which can be clumsy to pluck from the container.

Several other foods need only the most minimal, quick, low-tech handling to make them work:
* sour balls and Jolly Rancher hard candies are hard to unwrap while driving. Unwrap 3 or 4 in advance. But only enough for this stage of the trip; they get sticky in heat or humidity.
* Celery sticks are 2 bites long. Cut them into single-bite size in advance.
* Grapes need to be pulled off their stems in advance.

Don’t use raisins because they are definitely too small, and very sticky.

Dropped pieces could distract a driver. Grapes, tomatoes, hazelnuts, and sourballs roll around and get underfoot. Dry ones handle well enough to not get dropped.

How True is “Interstellar”?

© Norman Sperling, November 13, 2014

The main message of “Interstellar” is true. Parents do anything they can, and go anywhere they can, for the good of their children. Except for a few uncommitted losers, this holds across all cultures and times. My astronomy students told me to see this movie, but didn’t warn me about this theme, and I didn’t bring anywhere near enough handkerchiefs.

The setting is what makes this movie spectacularly memorable. Certainly the special effects are Hollywood’s best. Nebulae and planet surfaces should look like those. Saturn looks like that. I didn’t notice any specific starfields; the background at the beginning looked like a random scatter instead of a real starfield, and the narrow range of brightnesses was fakey: no bright stars, no faint stars.

I really liked the robots.

The black hole and wormhole effects are imaginary. The view inside a black hole is based on Kip Thorne’s best equations but it’s still speculation. The experience there was more a salute to “2001 A Space Odyssey” than a scientific rendition.

Wormholes don’t seem to exist. I remember when they were hot topics. Black holes had come up at the end of the 1960s and, though bizarre, resisted all attempts at disproof. After a few decades, most astronomers accepted that black holes are part of reality.

In the 1960s and 1970s another extremely puzzling phenomenon challenged astrophysics: quasars. They looked like bluish dots (“quasi-stellar”). They have indistinct spectra with a few absorption lines that bore no resemblance to anything recognized in the 90 years of astronomical spectroscopy until then.

Quasars couldn’t be isolated blue stars because all blue stars are young, so remnants of the nebulae they formed from should still hang around. Also, blue stars don’t live long enough to wander far from their original nebulae, but quasars appeared quite isolated.

If they were as far as galaxies, they were impossibly bright. Anything that tiny, that energetic, held too much energy in too small a volume, and must instantly explode itself.

For these and many more reasons, quasars didn’t make sense as objects like stars in our galaxy, nor as objects related to far-away galaxies.

In the 1970s, some scholars tried linking the 2 mysteries. If black holes take in fantastic amounts of energy, and quasars give out fantastic amounts of energy, maybe quasars are “white holes”: outlets for energy that black holes take in. To transport that energy from the black holes to the while holes, they pushed the “wormhole” idea from the 1950s to extremes.

By the 1980s data built up to show that quasars (and their lower-power cousins, BL Lacertae objects and Seyfert galaxies) were powered by ejections from the neighborhoods of supermassive black holes. If quasars aren’t white holes, there’s no need for wormholes to transport energy to them. The wormhole idea fizzled.

Except in one cultural niche, a favorite of mine. Science fiction often tells stories in astronomical settings. That poses plotting problems: planets and stars are so far apart that action would have to pause for decades or even millennia between scenes. Invoking wormholes lets a story move along briskly by simply declaring transportation to be nearly instantaneous.

“Interstellar” depends on wormholes to travel way faster than light.

A glance at reviews online shows a split. Reviewers who didn’t understand the science therefore thought the movie didn’t hang together, and parts were silly, and their minds wandered. Reviewers who did get the science granted the willful suspension of disbelief, and thought the story more credible. The distinction is in the education of the beholders. The *eyes* of the beholders were nearly unanimous: they loved the space and spacecraft scenery. To enjoy more spectacular, out-of-this-world scenery, any day, in any quantity, browse through astrophotos and spacecraft pictures.

A Decade of Books

© Norman Sperling, November 2, 2014

I read a lot. It sure beats TV. I read very broadly in magazines, as you would expect from a magazine editor, and a lot on websites. But mostly I read books, about 1 a week. They cover topics far more deeply, and contain a lot more information. Also, I sporadically delve into new subjects and need to “read up” about them.

In the 1990s I started listing books I wanted to borrow from libraries. Maintaining it on my word processor, I would print out selections to get from whichever library I was about to visit. Low-priority books would wait many months while I boned up on high-priority needs. When I got each book, I deleted it from the want-list. Right now that list is about 70 books long.

In Spring 2004, it occurred to me that instead of deleting listings, I should move them to a “finished it” section. Since then, I’ve logged in every book I read, usually noting the source, catalog number, month I read it, and a brief comment.

Almost all of the books fell into just a dozen categories. Of course there were clumps: how to set up a business when I was setting up a business, baseball when I coached Little League, and travel when planning my Great Science Trek.

Here are the totals, and a few outstanding exemplars, for the 488 books that I read from June 2004 to May 2014.

SCIENCE: 84 books. Among the best:
* David Harland & Ralph Lorenz: Space Systems Failures - Disasters and Rescues of Satellites, Rockets and Space Probes. Springer-Praxis 2005. Haste makes waste! (cf. Perrow) Remember lessons learned!
* Peter Jenniskens: Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets. Cambridge UP 2006. Meticulous, thorough; impossible before now.
* David E. H. Jones: The Inventions of Daedalus: Myth & Reality. W. H. Freeman 1982.
* David E. H. Jones: The Further Inventions of Daedalus: A Compendium of Plausible Schemes. Oxford UP 1999.
* Jeffrey A. Lockwood: Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier. Basic 2004. Splendid detective story.
* John Maddox: What Remains to be Discovered. Free Press 1998.
* W. Grant Thompson: The Placebo Effect and Health. Prometheus 2005.

SCIENCE HUMOR: 21 books. Among the best:
* Vincent Dethier: To Know a Fly. Holden Day 1963. Witty research.
* Leo Lionni: Parallel Botany. 1971.
* Donald E. Simanek & John C. Holden: Science Askew: A Light-Hearted Look at the Scientific World. IoP 2002.

OTHER HUMOR: 11 books. Among the best:
* Richard Lederer: The Revenge of Anguished English. 2005.

TRAVEL: 38 books. Among the best:
* Merritt Ierley: Traveling the National Road. Overlook 1990. Importance of US-40.

BASEBALL: 64 books. Among the best:
* Vincent Fortanasce: Life Lessons from Little League. Image 1995. Superb though preachy.
* Bill James: This Time Let’s Not Eat the Bones. Villard 1989. Great analyses at end.

DESIGN: 40 books. Among the best:
* Tom Kelley & J. Littman: The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm. Currency 2001. Productively stimulating!
* Charles Perrow: Normal Accidents. Basic Books 1999. Provocative, hugely important: minimize distraction.
* Edward R. Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2d ed 2001.

BUSINESS: 99 books, many light-weight. Almost no overlap between ‘how to run a business’ and ‘how we ran a business’ books. Among the best:
* Sam Decker, ed. 301 Do-It-Yourself Marketing Ideas. Inc 1997. Many adaptable idea-triggers.

PUBLISHING: 23 books. Among the best:
* Dan Poynter: The Self-Publishing Manual. 2002; + volume 2 later.
* Marilyn & Tom Ross: Jump Start Your Book Sales. Communication Creativity 1999.
* Tom & Marilyn Ross: The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 4th ed. Writer’s Digest 2002.

1900s PUBLIC AFFAIRS: 39 books. Among the best:
* Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway: Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury 2010. Singer & Seitz: doubt & denial.
* Peter Dale Scott: Drugs, Oil, and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina. Rowman & Littlefield 2003.
* Joseph J. Trento: Prelude to Terror. Carroll & Graf 2005. Privatized intelligence.

REALITY: 26 books that don’t fit elsewhere. Among the best:
* Russ Kick, ed: You Are Being Lied To. Disinformation 2001. Investigative, alternative.
* Harold McGee: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner 2004.

FICTION: 34 books, mostly science fiction. Among the best:
* Orson Scott Card: Ender’s Game. Tor 1991.
* William Gibson & Bruce Sterling: The Difference Engine. Bantam 1991. Cyber-punk, takes extreme liberties with history.
* J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Scholastic 2005.
* J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Scholastic 2007.

PLAY SCRIPTS: 8, always short, never the depth I like from books.

NONE OF THE ABOVE: 1 book.

The Free-est Man

© Norman Sperling, October 23, 2014

Along my route I check in with assorted acquaintances. One I visited struck me as the free-est man I know:
* His health is hale and hearty.
* His children have grown and lead their own lives.
* He has no significant-other at present.
* He can keep his current dwelling but doesn’t have to.
* He can stay in the same town but it has minuses as well as pluses and he could declare himself “ready to move on”.
* He has enough money to live adequately in many other places.
* He can keep his present professional employment but it has minuses as well as pluses and he doesn’t have to stay.
* He could find acceptable employment in several different kinds of interesting work.
* He could find acceptable employment in several other places.
* He has ideas for projects that he’s put off for many years.

In somewhat similar circumstances, I decided to travel and retain a teaching slot, one semester per year. When I check off the last target on my maps, perhaps around 2016, I hope to settle back down near Berkeley.

What would you do? Dream about it! Some ideas won’t be practical, or not presently desirable. Some things might be do-able in your near-future. Seriously consider doing those.

When I visited him, his freedom was pretty new and he hadn’t yet picked what he wanted to do. Privately, I guessed he’d pick a project to do and a new place to do it.

What do *you* think he’d do?

After many months, I inquired. He just wrote back. He decided not to decide. He’s still in the same place doing the same thing as before. All the potentials remain potential.

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

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