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New Books

A Starhopper’s Guide to Messier Objects
by Lenore Morales

Our first and best-selling publication.

This is the first book to feature how people really find deep-sky objects, and it took Lenore Morales to show you. Lenore marches to just as different a drummer as Norm does. For generations, conventional wisdom has told people to find deep-sky objects by their right ascension and declination. For even longer, what people actually did instead was to star-hop from bright stars, to nearby dimmer stars, then "2 stars left, and down a smidgen". Many thousands of copies have helped amateur astronomers and astronomy students to find and enjoy the hundred finest clusters, nebulæ, and galaxies in the sky.

ISBN 0-913399-57-4. $8.95.

[Make it MINE!]

Succeed in your astronomy course!
Clarify your textbook!
Understand astronomy better!
Do a better term project!

What Your Astronomy Textbook Won’t Tell You
by Norman Sperling
A new supplement to conventional textbooks.
Textbooks often neglect a lot that’s important to understand. Here it is!

$24.95. Add $2 for US "media mail" postage, or $3.85 for "Priority Mail" postage. Only in California, add $2.05 sales tax.

We also take Visa and MasterCard: eMail the numbers to nsperling@sfo.com. Include the expiration date, the 3-digit security code on the back, and the billing address. Tell us what postal address to mail it to. We also accept checks and money orders.

Textbooks don't tell all they should, and sometimes get in the way of learning. Norm Sperling teaches what textbooks won't tell:

  • Too much jargon? Clarify the terms.
  • Too many factoids? Fit them into their context.
  • Need to weed out bunk? Bigtime debunking explains why Science can tell how Nature works.
  • Too sure of things? Learn which Unknowns still stump astronomers.
  • Outdated viewpoints? Reset your mindset to the latest issues.
  • Too serious? Chuckle at boners, and learn to avoid committing them.
Add perspectives from many sides. Did you know that:
  • Galaxies that are usually pictured in textbooks are therefore not typical?
  • The debate about whether Pluto is a planet isn't about Pluto; experts don't agree on what "planet" means?
  • Horoscopes flunk tests?
  • Jupiter's "frozen gases" are either not frozen or not gases?
If you like a good detective story, read how the Northern Lights confounded evidence for the Loch Ness Monster. If you don't want to fall prey to a scam, read why you should beware of buying a star.

People who like astronomy, or read science magazines, or do amateur science, will love all the fresh, intriguing ideas and viewpoints, many of which apply to other sciences as well.

From the review in the October 2003 Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada:

… a rollicking read! It is fun! The language is down-to-earth and jargon-free. The writing style is straight-forward and friendly. … hard to put down because it just keeps going, like the Energizer bunny, with interesting topic after interesting topic.

Page 69 contains an interesting chart labeled "Take a Nebula, Condense and Stir," which is actually an H-R diagram extended from the stars back to the least massive and coolest objects in space: the comets and meteoroids. The chart demonstrates that everything out there is just one part of a larger continuum.

What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You is a gem. For those who teach introductory astronomy, it is filled with interesting perspectives on familiar subjects. For students of astronomy, it provides clear and helpful insights into what can be a confusing subject. … From first to last it is fun, informative and refreshing. Sperling knows and loves his subject. His book successfully serves the double purpose of clarifying confusion and making learning a pleasure.

Table of Contents

iv The Author
iv Contributors and Acknowledgements
vi The Universe According to My Least-Attentive Students


  • 1 Foreword: A Beautiful 4-Minute Universe, by David H. Levy
  • 4 Make Textbooks Make Sense
  • 6 Your Textbook
  • 15 How Does Nature Work? How Does Science Work?
  • 15 Some Scientific Processes, by Brad Schaefer
  • 21 Exploratory Science
  • 22 Coming to Terms With Astronomy
  • 23 12 Bad Words, by David Morrison
2:Sky Motions
    29 Boners: Sky Motions
  • 31 From Celestial Spheres to Armillaries, Astrolabes, and Clocks
  • 34 Wondering About Wandering
  • 36 Debunk: The Pull of the Planets
  • 38 Debunk: Horoscopes: Believe Them or Not, by Heather Leswing
  • 42 Debunk: Horoscopes Flunk Test
  • 46 Debunk: Planets Out of Nowhere
  • 50 Oxymoron: Quarter Moon, by Brad Schaefer
  • 51 Oxymoron: Waning Crescent
  • 52 Boners: Copernicus
  • 52 The Theory is Wrong, But Handy
  • 54 Boners: Figuring Out Planetary Motions
  • 54 Boners: Kepler's Laws
  • 56 Oxymoron: Laws of Planetary Motion
  • 56 Boners: "According to Newton, How Does Gravity Work?"
  • 61 Getting the Slant on Obliquity, by John Westfall
  • 62 Unknown: Venus Spins Backwards, Uranus Spins Sideways, and Triton Orbits Backwards
  • 63 Boners: Eclipses and Such
  • 63 Sperling's 8-Second Law
3:The Solar System
  • 67 Boners: Solar System
  • 68 Reset Mindset: Comparative Planetology
  • 72 Boners: Impacts
  • 72 Unknown: Central Peaks
  • 73 Boners: Surface Processes
  • 73 Reset Mindset: Types of Meteorites
  • 75 Heavy Metals in Planet Cores
  • 76 The Difference Between an Asteroid and a Meteoroid
  • 77 Boners: Venus
  • 78 Right/Wrong: The Hadley Vortex
  • 79 Boners: Planet Earth
  • 80 Boners: Mars
  • 80 Unknown: Mars's Spiral Polar Cap and Flashes
  • 81 Boner: Gas Giants
  • 81 Oxymoron: Frozen Gases
  • 81 Unknown: How Old is Jupiter's Great Red Spot?
  • 82 Unknown: The Gas Giants' Stripes
  • 83 Boner: Io
  • 83 Right/Wrong: Volcano Seen on Edge of Moon
  • 85 Boners: Comets
  • 86 Debunk: Putting Worlds in Collision in its Place
  • 87 Unknown: The Pingoes of Procellarum
  • 88 Boners: The Outer Planets
  • 89 Reset Mindset: Pluto and Planethood
  • 92 Reset Mindset: Apples, Oranges, Rocks, and Clouds
  • 93 Unknown: Planetary Magnetic Fields
  • 94 Debunk: Was the Loch Ness Monster an Aurora?
  • 99 Boners: Conditions Life Likes
  • 99 Reset Mindset: Habitats for ET
  • 101 Unknown: Inside Gas Balls
  • 103 The Meanings of "Metals"
4:The Stars
  • 105 Boners: The Sun
  • 106 How Prominences Come and Go
  • 106 Unknown: The Sun
  • 107 Oxymoron: The Solar Constant
  • 107 Oxymoron: Solar Cosmic Rays
  • 108 Boners: Stars
  • 110 Debunk: Buying a Star, by Bill McClain, Jim Craig, and Bob Martino
  • 118 The Dim, the Weak and the Ugly
  • 121 Graph: The Brightness Careers of Stars
  • 123 Giants, Dwarves, and White Main Sequence Stars
  • 124 As We Learn More About Variable Stars, Textbooks Tell Less
  • 125 Multiple Stars Pair Off
  • 126 Oxymoron: Atomic Fission
  • 127 Table: Where Elements Come From
  • 127 Fusion Confusion: A Burning Problem
  • 128 Reset Mindset: Quorbits, by Chris Anderson
  • 128 Oxymoron: Forbidden Lines
  • 129 Oxymoron: The Anomalous Zeeman Effect
  • 130 Unknown: Unidentified Spectral Lines
  • 131 Oxymoron: Black Body Radiation
  • 131 Boners: The Pillars in the Eagle Nebula, by Dale Cruikshank
  • 135 Table: Nebulæ Contain
  • 136 Reset Mindset: Nebulous Categories
  • 140 Boners: Stardeath
  • 141 Oxymoron: Nova
  • 142 Unknown: Magnetic Fields, by Brad Schaefer
  • 143 Boners: Black Holes
  • 143 Black Hole Momentum
  • 144 Unknown: Inside Black Holes
5:Galaxies and Cosmology
  • 145 Boners: The Milky Way
  • 146 The Meanings of the Milky Way
  • 146 Boners: Galaxies
  • 147 Hubble's Tuning Fork, by Brad Schaefer
  • 148 Reset Mindset: What Shape is M 31?
  • 150 Reset Mindset: What is a Galaxy "Spiral Arm"?
  • 152 Unknown: A Black Eye for Dust
  • 152 Unknown: Why No Giant Or Dwarf Spirals?
  • 153 Unknown: How Much are Giant Ellipticals Mergers?
  • 153 Unknown: Stellar Populations 3, 1.5, and 0
  • 154 Table: Galaxy Types and Populations
  • 155 FFNs, LBBs, and LBMs
  • 156 Oxymoron: The Missing-Mass Problem
  • 157 Boners: Active Galaxies
  • 158 Oxymoron: Radio-Quiet Quasars
  • 158 Boners: Cosmology
  • 160 Oxymoron: The Hubble Constant
  • 161 Unknown: Did the Big Bang Make Mini-Black Holes?
  • 163 Project Suggestions
  • 168 Projects That Address How Science Works, by Brad Schaefer
  • 175 Index

Sky Motions

Humans started off with using stones, like stone henge, to map where the stones would come up at the horrizon or at night.

[At Stonehenge] many of the rocks line up on the Summer Solstice.

The astronemers were able to recognize sun set and sun rise by the way it looked on the rocks. The reason why astronemers watched the sky is because they wanted to know how often the sky moved and for how long it was moving.

During the summer the sun rises overhead.

The sun rose and fell at the same time day after day.

The days were longer and lighter on one side of the universe while they were shorter and darker on the other side.

For the Egyptians, twelve moths were counted as one year.

A student of Liam McDaid called the Babylonians "Baby onions".

It was first thought that the stars revolved around earth but of course the opposite is true.

By watching how the ski moves, people can measure things such as time. … People could also learn about distance such as north, south, east and west by looking in the ski. Seasons could also be measured by the movement of the ski.

By finding out the coordinates of the stars, people have been able to circumvent the planet.

The sky's movement was also beneficial to mariners, who navigated by it, creating tools like sextets and octets.

Horoscopes Flunk Test

Volunteers from my astronomy course at Sonoma State University in Spring 1991 polled people to find out how appropriate their daily horoscopes were.

One student collected horoscope columns on the morning they appeared. We used popular columnists Jeane Dixon (Universal Press Syndicate) and Sydney Omarr (Los Angeles Times Syndicate). All indications of date and sign were carefully excised. From them we prepared a sheet of 8 choices for each sun sign. They included the 2 that were intended by Dixon and Omarr for that sign that day ("right sign"), and 6 others by the same columnists selected from elsewhere and elsewhen, mostly from previous days ("incorrect"). During the semester, the "correct" horoscopes were shuffled among all 8 positions to smooth out any effect that position might have.

Other students conducted the polling. Mostly they polled fellow students (average age: late 20s), but also some co-workers and the public. Late in the day, each respondent was given the sheet prepared for their astrological sign that day, with this request: "Considering how your day has gone, please tell how appropriate each of these predictions would have been for you this morning." People only needed to think back over the events of that same day, while those events were fresh and vivid, and test the published horoscopes against them. There was no need to recall events long past. And respondents could judge "appropriateness" by their own standard, just as they would judge horoscopes while reading their newspapers each morning.

The 8 horoscopes were in the first column. The other 4 columns contained blank boxes to check, headed "very appropriate", "somewhat appropriate", "somewhat inappropriate", and "very inappropriate". Respondents were asked to mark how they judged each horoscope.

A faculty specialist in polling thought that our method should produce sufficiently suggestive results, though to obtain statistically and sociologically unassailable results would demand resources far beyond ours - including pretesting several alternate polling forms in large samples, and controlling for many factors of age, gender, ethnicity, etc.

Results and Discussion

In all we got back about 700 sheets with 5,591 responses - usually 8 per sheet, though occasionally someone wouldn't finish.

Results and Discussion
In all we got back about 700 sheets with 5,591 responses - usually 8 per sheet, though occasionally someone wouldn't finish.

Here it is

"right sign"%18%28%26%28%
"right sign"#218327303333


Each night, as I filled out my own sign's sheet, I was annoyed when it had only 1 or 2 really pertinent items, and a whole bunch that weren't, since I expected the bulk of responses to be positive. Most other people thought the same: the only column that gleaned dramatically fewer than the other columns was for "very appropriate" horoscopes. So whether you read the horoscope intended for you, or different ones, the least likely result is that the horoscope you read will turn out to be very appropriate. Perhaps horoscopes are written to sound plausible in the morning, and to be forgettable when they fail. Actual experience demonstrates that the bulk of horoscopes are inappropriate, so to take guidance from a morning horoscope is to misguide your day. We all know what problems we spark by operating on false assumptions!

The results for the horoscopes intended for each date are about equal to those published for the other dates. Everybody else's horoscopes are about as appropriate for you today as the one that claims to be just for you, just for today. Therefore, your sign's horoscope for today is no more correct - and therefore no more valid - than any other sign's, or any previous day's. This means there's nothing special about the one labeled for your sign, so there is no validity to the date- or sign-labeling. Your time of birth does not make any significant difference, and neither does anybody else's, so a major premise of horoscopes - that your time of birth makes a significant difference - is wrong.

This supports the general condemnation of horoscopes by Science. Quite a lot of research has taken apart every allegedly scientific claim. The positions of the planets and stars do not influence individual humans on Earth. Only by regarding them as mystical lights in the heavens can you fantasize their influence on yourself.

In a situation familiar to scientists who work with large numbers that build up gradually, the greatest excursion from the overall trend (a mere 3%) is in the item with the smallest quantity: the tyranny of small-number statistics.

What You Should Do

If you like horoscopes, read them all, not just your own. The others are just as appropriate as your own, and you'll get 12 times as much fun from reading them all.

What you should not do is change what you'd do because of such a prediction. Most horoscopes are inappropriate for the day, so acting on them would misdirect your attention and energies.

What Newspapers Should Do

These tests demonstrated that newspapers that publish daily horoscopes grossly disserve their readers. What they publish is markedly inappropriate, since more than half of all responses to our poll evaluated them as "inappropriate", and the greatest quantity are "very inappropriate". Any newspaper that publishes such a column severely misguides its readers. Any newspaper that claims to serve its readers' best interests should not publish a horoscope column.

Newspaper horoscope columns, if continued at all, should omit all references to date and Science. As we have demonstrated, all the horoscopes of any day are just as appropriate to the readers as the ones intended for their sign that day, so it is grossly misleading to steer readers arbitrarily to one, compared to the others.

Newspapers that insist on keeping their horoscope column - inappropriate predictions, misleading dates and all - should at least use a disclaimer. "The following astrological forecasts should be read for entertainment value only. Such predictions have no reliable basis in scientific fact." is the warning propounded by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

The Theory is Wrong,
But Handy

Soon after Nicholas Copernicus published his great book De Revolutionibus in 1543, he died. This prevented the Catholic Inquisition from punishing him for his heresy in moving Earth out of the center, and making it merely one planet among many orbiting the Sun.

Copernicus's Sun-centered system came somewhat closer than anything Ptolemaic to predicting planet positions in the sky. While Copernican predictions were noticeably closer, they were still not exact. We now know the big problem was the shape of the orbits: Copernicus clung to the ancient presumption that orbits must be "perfect" circles. They aren't, but nobody knew that in the 1500s.

Though the Roman Catholic Church emphatically denied Copernican theory - even placing it on its Index of Prohibited Works from 1616 to 1835 - they did permit using it as a handy-dandy computing technique for improved results; it simply must not be taught as "true". 'Go ahead and compute that way to get the best results, but don't believe the system.'

With 20/20 hindsight, some academics have snickered at this, because we know the Earth is not the center of everything. But carry the story a few chapters further:

  • Tycho makes the sharpest positional measurements,
  • Kepler determines from those that orbits are ellipses, and
  • Newton derives Kepler's Laws from his own Law of Universal Gravitation.
  • Centuries later, Einstein overthrows Newton, regarding gravity as warps in space-time.

To calculate the path of anything moving many percent of the speed of light requires Einstein's equations; that's how they found out that Newton was wrong. But almost everything that astronomy deals with moves less than 1% of the speed of light. At such slow speeds, the numbers from calculating Einstein's formula are identical with the numbers from calculating Newton's simpler formula. So, even now, practically everybody calculates with Newton's formula, and reserves Einstein's more complicated version for the rare cases where things move really fast. They know Newton is physically wrong, they just use it as a simpler way to compute and get the same result.

What these modern astronomers do is little different from what the Church advocated centuries ago: go ahead and use the handiest formula that gives the best result, but don't believe that it is physically true. To be fair, they should stop snickering at that old Church policy, or start snickering at themselves.

Frozen Gases

The term (confusing): Since about the 1950s, books say the outer Solar System contains "frozen gases." But physics and chemistry courses teach that solids, liquids, and gases are DIFFERENT states of matter. So "frozen gas" is an oxymoron. If it's a gas, it isn't frozen; if it's frozen, it's a solid, not a gas.

The concept (easy): The outer Solar System abounds in solid water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia. The compounds are very simple. They almost always come jumbled up, sometimes patchy, sometimes smoothly mixed.

Solid water, everyone agrees, is called "ice". Solid carbon dioxide, everyone agrees, is called "dry ice". I don't know any common name for the solids of methane and ammonia. Collectively the solids of water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia can be understood as "ices."

Reset Mindset
Pluto and Planethood

Since the 1970s, a debate about Pluto's planethood has flared up sporadically. Various authorities opine that Pluto is, or isn't, a planet. The media usually calls this a debate about Pluto. It isn't. The debate is really about the word "planet".


The word comes from the ancient Greek "planetes", meaning "wanderers": the 7 bright lights that wandered, compared to the 3,000 stars that all circled in lock-step. The inventory of "planets", and the meaning of the classification itself, changes with new discoveries and understandings. Here is a historical table summarizing the changing statuses of various objects which have been called planets:

What Have Been Called "Planets"

      PlanetsAsteroids Asteroids Rocky
Uranus    PlanetPlanetPlanetPlanetGaseous
Neptune        PlanetPlanetGaseous
Pluto          PlanetIcy

Copernicus recategorized the 7 ancient planets by recognizing that the Sun is the center of the Solar System, and Earth is simply a planet orbiting the Sun. Since then, the term "planet" has only told how an object moves: it orbits around the Sun. The term does not tell about its physical nature, despite the impression you got in grade school.

William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781, calling it (for want of a better term) a "comet"; by the following year the world's astronomers had agreed, to their surprise, that it is a planet. When Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta were discovered between Mars and Jupiter, 1801-7, they were called planets, too - textbooks of the 1830s describe "the 11 planets". When Neptune and more little planets were discovered in the mid-1840s, the little ones got demoted to "minor planets" or "asteroids", reducing the number of "planets" to 8.

Each of the 9 objects currently called "planets" (based solely on how they move) can now be associated physically with objects listed another way:

  • Gas giants are akin to brown dwarves, "wanna-be stars" made of the same gasses as stars, but not containing enough of them to spark the stable fusion that marks true stardom.
  • Rocky planets are akin to the 7 big moons, all of which are more massive than Pluto. The term "moon" itself merely means "it orbits around a planet"; the word tells nothing about the objects' physical natures. (Many asteroids have moons, too.) Certain little moons like Phoebe and Nereid are probably captured icy objects, and Phobos and Deimos might be, too. Moons turn out to be largely rocky but most also have ices. The motion label "moon" can co-exist with the physical label "icy".


The "comet" category earned its label by looking "fuzzy" or "hairy"; if an object looked fuzzy, it was a comet. The same Greek root word operates in "coma" and "comb". Nobody knew how comets were physically constructed till a fleet of spacecraft visited Halley's Comet in 1986. The European Space Agency programmed its Giotto probe to point at the brightest thing in view because, as everybody "knew" from Fred Whipple's 1950 theory, the nucleus was a "dirty snowball" and therefore must be white. That remained conventional wisdom till the moment the images came back. The brightest thing in view was not the nucleus, it was gas jetting off the nucleus. The nucleus itself was black, not white. Surprise! A comet nucleus is very dirty.

(That cleared up a little problem from the spectacular 1858 passage of Comet Donati. Detailed drawings showed a black spot at its nucleus. At the time, they called that the "shadow of the nucleus", thinking the nucleus should be bright. We now understand that the black spot was not the shadow of the nucleus, but the nucleus itself.)

The fuzzy appearance of comets comes from gases and dust liberated when the Sun heats up the approaching nucleus. Now, we pay attention to the long-lived nucleus as well as to the fleeting vapors; to the dark object as well as the white veil; and to the physical components, a hodge-podge of ices, crumbly tarry goop, and rock bits. We now regard the nucleus as an "object", and the gaudy tails are more of a "temporary phenomenon when close to the Sun". So research has outmoded the old cultural description that comets "look fuzzy".


Pluto was labeled a "planet" for historical reasons, not physical reasons.

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, a wonderful person, at Lowell Observatory. He was searching for a planet beyond Neptune and found this object there. Since he found this object where he was seeking a planet, he called it a planet. Nobody knew Pluto's physical character till the 1970s and 1980s.

The planethood dispute is sparked by realizing that Pluto is so icy that resembles a comet - indeed, there is no known difference. Its orbit is so elliptical and tilted that some astronomers call it more cometary than planetary. Even its atmosphere is indistinguishable from a comet's coma. If astronomers had known, in 1930, what Pluto is physically like, and what comets are physically like, they would have called Pluto "a heck of a big comet".

"Planet" is just a motion label. Pluto could be "a comet-like icy body that is so big it is a planet" or "a planet that is physically like a giant comet nucleus".

Was the Loch Ness Monster an Aurora?

Astronomical effects influence a lot of fields. But specialists in those studies don't always know enough astronomy to recognize what's really happening. Here's an example on a famous topic that no one would expect to have an astronomical dimension.

The highly-publicized hunt for "Nessie", the Loch Ness Monster, interests scientists and skeptics as well as the "crypto-zoologists" who hope that, in addition to the millions of small species that (naturalists assure us) remain to be cataloged, there may also be some unusually big ones. Discovering big new animals wouldn't violate anything scientific, and it would definitely be cool.

Nessie's setting is well known. In Scotland there lies a long, narrow, deep lake, Loch Ness, famous for its opaque waters. Sporadic reports from locals and tourists suggest that a large aquatic animal lives there, only rarely surfacing. A few ambiguous photographs and a lot of folklore support Nessie. The local hotels hope the hype continues to draw even more tourists than the pleasant landscapes and local culture earn on their own. Similar phenomena include "Champ" in Lake Champlain, Vermont, and "Ogopogo" in Okanagan Lake, British Columbia.

Just what the creatures might be, if real, remains to be demonstrated. I often heard plesiosaurs suggested, though these large marine reptiles are thought to have met extinction at the same time as dinosaurs, the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago. No plesiosaur fossils have been found in any later rocks.

"Remember the coelacanth!", the advocates remind us. These large primitive fish were also thought to be extinct, and now we have specimens of 2 species caught live - one species near the Comoro Islands and South Africa in the Indian Ocean, and the other in Indonesia. But the main reason to suspect a plesiosaur was its similarity to the "surgeon's photo", now admitted to have been a 1930s hoax.

A number of expeditions have sought Nessie, using more or less technological devices, and techniques of varying sophistication and likelihood of success. The one that produced the strangest result - often cited as the best scientific evidence for Nessie - was conducted in the summer of 1972. A sonar transducer (which converts sounds into electrical signals) was submerged 35 feet in the dark waters, connected by a long wire to analytical equipment aboard a boat. The transducer's signal traveled along that wire to amplifying electronics aboard the ship. If Nessie swam by the sonar detector, it would say so, even if Nessie stayed out of sight of the nearby submerged cameras. That is objective and neutral: no large signals means no large object, no Nessie; large signals can mean Nessie is there.

An hour after midnight on August 9, 1972, the sonar produced the peculiar strip-chart recording which is most often cited as showing the Loch Ness Monster. Though published1, this strip-chart is so different from conventional sonar output that even pro-Nessie studies quote the opinions of authorities, and several of those hedge2. Items by Rikki Razdan and Alan Kielar in the Skeptical Inquirer have disputed the positioning of the transducer (free-swinging or stationary), the stimulus for looking there and then (a dowser's signal), and the interpretation of the strip-chart. The matter remains controversial.

Despite the decades since then, I remember vividly where I was and what I was doing that week. I was in Springfield, Vermont, at the most famous astronomical convention in America. "Stellafane" is intended for people who make telescopes, but every year thousands who don't grind their own flock there too. I was attending my first Stellafane that very weekend. The sky was clear and dark. The Milky Way shone prominently. But everybody's attention was on something else. Brilliant green aurora - "Northern Lights" - flitted all around the sky. This was the finest display I have ever seen - the longest, the brightest, the most detailed and the fastest flickering, covering the most sky, right down to the south horizon.

In fact, this was one of the strongest auroras in decades, occasioned by one of the strongest solar flare outbursts recorded to that time. The Sun had just spat out a lot of charged particles, and they whipped Earth's magnetic field around, causing quite a lot of havoc. The storm induced electric currents in long wires, with many reports of damaging voltage and amperage variations. There were surges in the Canadian electric power grid; a big transformer exploded; short-wave radio communications were gravely disrupted; and sensitive electronic equipment was subjected to surges and flutters and spikes of current. Sky & Telescope magazine covered the event with no less than 5 articles, and J. A. McKinnon compiled a whole monograph on the event.

Much of Europe reported aurora and other electromagnetic phenomena from this solar storm. Loch Ness lies closer to the zone of greatest auroral intensity, the "auroral oval", than most of Europe.

The peculiar sonar reading occurred at just the time of the second-greatest peak of magnetic intensity. But the Loch Ness investigators didn't report the aurora. Most likely it was cloudy there, as it is about 90% of the time. Even had it been clear, their attention would have been focused down toward the waters, and it would be entirely understandable if they didn't notice diffuse phenomena occurring behind them and apparently unrelated to their interests. They did, however, note that "the hair went up on the backs of their necks" - an effect well-known in electrical demonstrations - though they interpreted that as "primitive instincts" that "there was something ominous in the loch that night"3.

One sensitive electronic instrument, using a long wire, did give a peculiar reading just when an exceptionally strong gust of solar wind swept by Earth, just when hair rose on their necks. The least-strange interpretation is that this sonar recorded the magnetic storm, rather than the Loch Ness Monster. This might explain why the reading from the Loch Ness equipment is so strange that it requires expert interpretations, and why those say different things.

If so, the Loch Ness investigators may deserve a more charitable treatment than some skeptics have given them. They reported what their instrument told them, and that instrument gave a reading that is possible to interpret as data confirming an unusually large object or creature. The hair-raising clue alone was too little to pick up on. The aurora was probably hidden by clouds, and even if visible would not likely attract their attention, let alone their suspicion. And while atmospheric scientists and astronomers would connect the aurora to the strangeness of signals riding long wires, few other scientists would suspect their instruments of telling them anything beside what they're designed to tell.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so you can still root for Nessie. But the scientific evidence (with the sonar reading resulting from aurora, and the "surgeon's photo" an admitted hoax) is very meager.

Everything people deal with is embedded in a cosmic setting. The better people understand the cosmos, the better they can deal with it.


  1. Scott and Rines, 1975, p 466; Rines et al., 1976, p 31.
  2. Rines et al., 1976, pp 36-7.
  3. Rines et al., 1976, p 30.


  • Klein, M., and C. Finkelstein, Technology Review, vol. 79, no. 2, 1976, p. 3.
  • McKinnon, J[ohn] A[ngus], August 1972 Solar Activity and Related Geophysical Effects, Technical Memorandum ERL SEL-22, Space Environment Laboratory, Environmental Research Laboratories, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado, December 1972.
  • Razdan, Rikki, and Alan Kielar, "Sonar and Photographic Searches for the Loch Ness Monster: A Reassessment", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 2, Winter 1984-5, pp. 147-158.
  • -, "Loch Ness Reanalysis: Authors Reply", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 4, Summer 1985, pp. 387-9.
  • Rines, Robert H., Harold E. Edgerton, Charles W. Wickoff, and Martin Klein, "Search for the Loch Ness Monster", Technology Review, vol. 78, no. 5, March-April 1976, pp. 25-40.
  • Rines, Robert, et al., "Loch Ness Reanalysis: Rines Responds", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 4, Summer 1985, pp. 382-6.
  • Scott, Sir Peter, and Robert Rines, "Naming the Loch Ness monster", Nature, vol. 258, 11 December 1975, pp. 466-8. Sky & Telescope magazine articles on this magnetic storm appear in October 1972, pp. 214, 226, and 237; November 1972, p. 333; and February 1973, p. 130.

The Dim, the Weak
and the Ugly

How does a researcher select what to research? How does an editor select what to publish?

In both processes, the humans involved are often attracted to bright and beautiful objects. For the researcher, "bright" means plenty of light is available, making it practical to take detailed photographs and spectra. For the picture-editor who has to select some items and leave out others, bright and beautiful objects beat dim and ugly ones.

This means that the results reported in textbooks, the press and research journals are not a fair sample.

Red Dwarf Stars

The most abundant type of star seems to be the red dwarf. It's certainly the most abundant type within 25 light years. The very closest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is a red dwarf - but so dim that you need a telescope to see it. Even the brightest red dwarf is too dim to see without binoculars. Since red dwarves are very difficult to recognize, hardly any are known.

For all their abundance, they aren't studied by very many researchers. Compared to other types of stars, they're dimmer, so there is less light to study. They are generally thought to not do much, other than sporadic unpredictable flares, so there is little of interest to attract researchers.

If red dwarves were studied as intently as, say white dwarves or red giants, would more interesting things would be discovered about them?

Thin Nebulæ

Bright, thick nebulæ get lots of attention. For active nests of stars, for beautiful twists and knots, they look great. There are lots of thinner, dimmer nebulæ cataloged, but only a few observers track them down. Mostly, thin, dim nebulæ get ignored.

If thin nebulæ were studied as much as thick ones, would more interesting things be discovered about them?

Dwarf Elliptical Galaxies

In nearby clusters of galaxies, the most abundant galaxy type is the dwarf elliptical. To see even the brightest requires a significant telescope. Beyond 50,000,000 light years, dwarf ellipticals are very difficult to recognize. Because they are small and faint, not many are known.

For all their abundance, they aren't studied by very many researchers. Compared to other types of galaxies, they're dimmer, so there is less light to study. They are generally thought to not do much, having little nebulosity and no big powerful stars, so there is little of interest to attract researchers.

If dwarf ellipticals were studied as intently as, say, spirals or giant ellipticals, would more interesting things would be discovered about them?

With Galaxies, as With People,
Pictures Show the Most Attractive,
Not the Most Typical

People who select illustrations for books, slide sets, and other media naturally tend to pick the most attractive examples. This leads to some important misunderstandings. People looking at the examples tend to think they're typical, when actually they are not.

"Spiral" galaxies, which physically are disc galaxies, are prettiest to most humans. Therefore, the prettiest spirals show up in books and slide sets a lot more than others do. Ragged and less-symmetrical spirals, and elliptical and irregular galaxies, hardly ever get selected, even though ellipticals are very abundant.

Most textbooks include a photo of the beautiful galaxy M 51, the "Whirlpool". This is the galaxy with the most obvious spiral appearance; smaller telescopes (perhaps 35 cm) will reveal its arms than any other galaxy's. Many books call M 51 "a typical spiral galaxy". It is actually one of the least typical! Very few disc galaxies have continuous arms that can be traced so far around. Hardly any other bright galaxy has such vivid arms. Enjoy the beautiful view, but don't swallow the claim that it is "typical". It isn't, which is why so many books include it. More typical galaxies don't look as handsome. Editors select the nicest-looking pictures, therefore making the selections anything but "typical".

Barred spirals, too, rarely look like their "typical" case, NGC 1300. That one, again, looks prettier and cleaner than most. That's a good reason to publish its picture, but it's wrong-headed to call it "typical".

Much the same applies to planetary nebulæ, pre-stellar nebulæ, and surface features on planets. Editors (and often researchers) select the brightest and most attractive ones. Dimmer and less-attractive examples may be more typical, but they're less-often studied and shown.


Open to all! Identify the "blandest galaxy", "ugliest galaxy", "blandest nebula", "ugliest nebula", "blandest planetary surface feature", "ugliest planetary surface feature", etc. Winners may be published in later editions and on this website.

What Astronomy Doesn't Know:
Magnetic Fields
by Brad Schaefer

Much of all magnetic phenomena in astronomy is poorly known at best. For example, in gamma-ray bursts, we think we need magnetic fields to explain the (apparent) synchrotron emission, but we don't know the field strength to even a factor of a million, and we have no real idea of how such a field could be created. The same holds for magnetic fields in interstellar and intergalactic space. Also, when magnetic fields have a significant influence on a situation (as with pulsars), the calculation based on the plasma physics in 'high' magnetic fields is too incredibly complex to solve.

A classic question to flummox a colloquium speaker is "Exactly how do magnetic fields change your results?" Most topics harbor some effect due to magnetic fields, and this is almost always totally ignored. So this diabolical question will stump almost any speaker. It can be asked by anyone, from a wise-and-experienced professor to a beginning student.

Reset Mindset
What is a Galaxy
"Spiral Arm"?

The Milky Way, and many other disc-shaped galaxies, are said to have "spiral arms". The term comes from early drawings and photographs, which show an overall spiral impression in the bright parts.

Humans tend to "connect the dots". When you carefully inspect photos of real galaxies, hardly any have arms so smooth you can actually trace them all the way around.

The very few that do seem to result from recent galactic encounters. M 51 is currently encountering NGC 5195, and M 81 has just passed M 82.

Most other so-called "spirals" only show overall impressions of a spiral-like theme, but notice:

  • The "arms" look very patchy. It's easy to notice the bright spots, but make a point of noticing the faint spots and places where no arm appears at all. Only by connecting the bright patches do people perceive the continuous spiral arms. The actual "arms" are almost always very discontinuous.
  • Color photos reveal the bright patches to be blue, meaning they are OB associations. Of course, wherever O and B stars form, every other kind of main sequence star forms too, but the blue giant O and B stars outshine all the others, making the area look blue. O and B stars shine brilliantly but gobble up their fuel much faster than lower-mass types. No blue giant seems to live longer than a few million years. So, what the spiral-arc patches marked by blue giants show is where star-birth happened very recently, and often where it happens right now. Blue giants never live long enough to drift very far away.
  • Dimmer stars keep shining long after waves of star-birth sweep over their nests. They fill the disc, including the spaces between the "arms", with lots of stars. While the small patches that trace the "arms" are brighter than the big places between them, lots of light also comes from between arms, especially compared to places way beyond the galaxy. The disc's A, F, G, K, and M stars put out quite a lot of light.
  • Color photos reveal arcs of hydrogen-pink nebulæ, paralleling the blue tracery of OB associations. Arcs of dark, thick nebulosity parallel those, too. Radio-telescope traces of molecular clouds also reveal segments of spiral-like arcs.

However, each of those (blue, pink, black, etc.) lies in a different location! The disc is full of segments of spiral-like arcs, but no single one of them constitutes a physical arm, because they all lie in different places. Arms are not physical structures. Arms are illusions. The physical structure is a disc. On the disc, there are many segments of various sorts, mostly following overall spiral-like arcs.

Some galaxies have spiral segments that appear to be wound much looser or tighter than others. Sometimes the looser-wound segments are nicknamed "spurs". But in some galaxies, like NGC 7217 and NGC 1398, there are large zones where the spiral segments are wound much differently than elsewhere in those same galaxies.

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ISBN 0-913399-04-3



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