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

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.

Norman Sperling's blog

SkeptiCal's Coming May 29th

For Northern Californians who are skeptical of pseudoscience, the SkeptiCal conference returns bigger and better. It will be held at the Berkeley Marina Doubletree Hotel on May 29, 2011. Last year's conference sold out past capacity, so please buy your tickets as soon as possible to ensure a seat!

You can register, and find much more information, at www.skepticalcon.org.

Speakers this year:
* Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, who leads the struggle to teach Evolution, despite so-called "Creationists"
* Dr. Bob Carroll, creator of the Skeptic’s Dictionary
* Skeptologists Yau-Man Chan (a Survivor) and Mark Edward
* UC Santa Cruz Professor of Psychology Dr. Anthony Pratkanis
* Pacific Institute President Dr. Peter Gleick
and many more. Other activities include an on-site lunch and a Skeptics-in-the-Pub event.

Options this year include a T-shirt and an on-site lunch at the Doubletree. If you don't choose the on-site lunch, there are many great restaurants within a short drive.

For more information, and to purchase tickets and a SkeptiCal '11 T-shirt, please visit www.skepticalcon.org.

Ways to follow the SkeptiCal Conference online:


Skeptics Around the Bay
© Norman Sperling, May 1, 2011

SkeptiCal is a joint effort of the Sacramento and Bay Area Skeptics. I joined the Bay Area Skeptics about 1983, shortly after moving to California. I've served on the Board since 1988, and have been vice chair for about 20 years, except for a year and a half as chair in the early '90s.

BAS has used several modes to share and spread our views. We've done newsletters and a website (baskeptics.org). We've had lots of local meetings with speakers. Our people are active in TAM and CSI, and especially in online media like blogs and podcasts. We've joined some larger efforts, like the recent one pointing out the absence of medicine in the virtually pure water sold as homeopathic "medicine".

Trends over the last 3 decades:
* Harsh voices have left and the group is now very nice.
* Good meeting rooms are harder and harder to find, and attendance is irregular.
* Print media have declined, and online media have risen, at least as much in skepticism as elsewhere.
* Endless gobs of bunk keep befouling and fleecing the public, so there's always too much to address.

Our most successful recent enterprise came a year ago, when we teamed up with Sacramento's skeptics to run a daylong regional convention. It sold out, so we set up an overflow room with live video. We had great speakers and discussion leaders. Lots of folks met kindred spirits. Almost everybody had a wonderful time and said we should do it again. Hence this year's gathering, in a nicer venue with twice the capacity.

I'll be retailing from a table in the main event room. In addition to JIR and its newest anthologies, I'll also sell off part of my personal library on skeptical topics. Some are bunk and some debunk. Pretty soon I won't have much shelf space, so those books have to find new homes.

The Star Winked at Me

© Norman Sperling, April 24, 2011

Last New Year's Day I got an eMail with an old, familiar ring to it: "Spectacular graze in 98 days". A grazing occultation, a special kind of eclipse where the north or south pole of the Moon grazes by a star, can be really nifty to watch. The star is at full brightness, and then abruptly disappears as a mountain covers it up. It may reappear through a valley, disappear behind another mountain, and can do so several pairs of times.

In the 1960s, computers advanced enough to make worthwhile predictions, so astronomers learned how to make scientifically valuable observations of grazing occultations ... using portable telescopes and cassette recorders. An observer watches the star through a telescope, and tells the recorder the instant that the image turns off and on. Timing is maintained either by recording the shortwave signals of WWV or WWVH directly, or by recording a nearby clear-channel AM radio station that somebody else is recording simultaneously with WWV.

With such simple equipment, teams of observers, strung out perpendicular to the graze path, can determine the profiles of mountains and valleys on the Moon to an accuracy of a few tens of meters, from a distance of 400,000 km!

To organize the whole operation, Dr. David Dunham and others set up the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA). The last half century has seen marked improvements in computers, telescopes, eyepieces, voice recorders, video recorders, mapping, and communications, and IOTA has used each to refine its procedures. The leaders have stuck with it for many decades: Dunham, whom I met in the National Capital Astronomers in the 1960s, still leads it now, more than half a century after observing his first occultation!

Here in Northern California, Walt Morgan has organized expeditions for several decades. Walt's alert commented: "For many years IOTA classified grazes as Marginal, Favorable, or SPECTACULAR! There were mighty few of the latter, and now those labels are not used at all. Nevertheless, I think you will agree with me that it would be appropriate to apply the classification to the following:
- star: magnitude 3.5 eta Geminorum
- moon: 36% sunlit
- limb: northern
- cusp angle: +14 degrees (dark)
- lunar elevation: 42 degrees
- lunar azimuth: 266 degrees (west)
- when: 9:43 p.m. Saturday, April 9, 2011
- where: Vacaville, Dixon, Davis area

"If you have been waiting for just the right opportunity to break out your occultation tools, this is the one: as grazes go, it has everything going for it, including the time of day and day of week."

One of the brightest stars to occult (binoculars would suffice), the Moon not glaringly bright, in its best, easiest situation, at a convenient hour, on a weekend, in a place easy to reach from a freeway - wow!

It's been more than 20 years since the last graze I observed - Regulus, November 30, 1988, Fremont California. So I'm not exactly in practice. Devotees measure many per year.

But the timing was perfect, the weather was clear (though windy), I had most of the equipment I needed and could easily borrow the rest. So I went. Walt's long experience has led to immaculate preparations. I checked in with him at the appointed spot, south of Dixon, at dusk, a good 2 hours in advance, and also said hello to Derek Breit and several other veteran "grazers" I'd met at various astronomical gatherings. Our observing line was well populated with 9 observing stations, and another, near Stockton, had 11 more.

I brought my Astroscan telescope, 2 eyepieces, binoculars, a small portable table, a larger card table, and a few ways to keep warm. There was a streetlight just north of my assigned position, and wind coming from the southeast. I positioned my van to block both streetlight and wind, and set the telescope on the floor inside to look out the side door. I could close the door for warmth when I wasn't observing. That wasn't very much, since the whole glorious Winter Oval was there, deserving long looks with the Astroscan. With the car radio tuned to the right station, and the borrowed voice recorder turned on, there were no hassles, and I even kept pretty warm! I ended up not needing the binoculars, either table, or most of the warmth gear - but experience has long proven that it's better to bring too much than too little.

The star winked at me! 3 times!

Walt timed my voice on the audio. First, a peak hid the star for 3 seconds. Then the star was visible again through a valley for 15 seconds. A big mountain hid the star for 1 minutes and 42 seconds. Then the star shone through a valley for just 1 second till it was hidden by another peak for 3 seconds. After that the star was no longer occulted from my location.

Others took videos, whose results can be timed to individual frames, with no "reaction time" delay from going through a human. Derek Breit, who has way more experience and way better equipment than I have, has posted this page about the event, and at the bottom you can click on his spectacular video. You can easily see the result of wind shaking his telescope. But you can also see the star not merely blinking off and on, but dimming as edges of hills barely blocked part of the star! The timing is in "Universal Time" (Greenwich, with a few small corrections). His location was a few hundred meters north of me, closer to the Moon's edge, and obviously in the perfect position to take advantage of his experience and equipment.

One really neat effect I remember from that graze a couple decades ago has been outmoded by technology. These days, most observers make videos rather than voice timings. Back then, almost everybody used voice, and at that event we had so many observers we were very closely spaced. So as a disappearance or reappearance neared me, I could hear observers from up or down the line saying so into their recorders, then I saw it, then others farther down or up the line. I heard the profile of the mountains and valleys live, in stereo!

Make It To The Maker Faire

© Norman Sperling, April 17, 2011

If mass-produced, mass-marketed goods satisfy you, the Maker Faire will be merely amusing.

If, on the other hand, you think that things ought to be more personal, more witty, more tailored to you, then the Maker Faire will inspire and instruct you just how to make them so.

You'll find it imaginative, whimsical, and way, way more. I've gone to all 5 Bay Area Maker Faires and came away from each bursting with possibilities and new combinations. I absolutely LOVE that feeling, so I return again and again. It's at the San Mateo (California) Event Center, May 21-22.

The first time, I just looked around. I saw fantastic novelties and new applications. But unlike many specialist gatherings, where I feel I'd never climb high enough to be a worthy participant, Makers showed and explained all the workings so openly that I came away thinking "I could do that".

And I could! The next year I entered a little hack, was accepted, and showed it off to the crowds. And the next year and again for a third year! Instead of the words and graphics I usually work with, here I was putting together gizmos and thingies, and making things work.

This year I'm taking another big step. I'm running a Commercial maker booth: I make and sell things. In this case JIR and its newest anthology, Don't Try This in High School. Contributing authors Jim Stanfield and Norm Goldblatt are expected to join us in the booth. I'm selling a variety of other stuff that no big corporation would produce, plus a selection of antiquarian steampunky and science books from the 1800s that I need to sell off before I go on my cross-country tour.

Designer/cartoonist Steve Johnson is sharing my booth. He wrote the wonderful books What the World Needs Now and Public Therapy Buses, and is introducing his hilarious and inspiring Inventing for Fun book (title is tentative) and some artwork.

If you're coming to the Maker Faire, I will be happy to have your pre-order all ready for you to pick up - just eMail me (normsperling {at} gmail.com) what you want by May 15th. Whether you order anything or not, stop by my booth and say hello.

Maker Faires elsewhere this year:
April 30 - May 1, Linthicum, Maryland (mini)
May 7-8, Toronto (mini)
June 4, Ann Arbor (mini)
June 18, North Carolina fair grounds (mini)
June 24-25, Kansas City (mini)
June 25-26, Vancouver (mini)
July 30-31, Detroit
September 17-18, New York

Taking Up SLAC

© Norman Sperling, April 10, 2011

A group of sharp high school physics students let me join their tour of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in nearby Menlo Park. Public tours have recently resumed, overcoming budget cuts and administrative decisions. We got a very nice tour led by a very nice, enthusiastic, and articulate physics graduate student. He wisely assured the students that a great deal of particle physics was not known or understood yet, and the way he emphasized those unknowns was one of the best features of our tour.

This was certainly the best of the 3 or 4 tours I've had there. We saw the linear accelerator itself, and some of its targets. We saw large scale, highly technical stuff, being done by world-class scientists and engineers.

In the linear accelerator's 3-km-long klystron gallery, we went into the visitor's alcove, with views up and down the whole 3 km. I thought, "to determine the technicalities of all the fittings, they must have used linear algebra". Many of the students were better-rounded than some of the SLAC staff, because they spotted the bold capital letters misspelling "RADIOGICALLY CONTROLLECD AREA". Well, they did spell "area" right.

SLAC is a good place, using good people to do good work. The tour left the high school students quite inspired about the facility and the Science. Mission accomplished.

Some other things we saw inspired whimsy ... and disappointment.

Close by, we saw a small car labeled "SLAC Library". I pictured the whole length of the accelerator having one continuous shelf ... but no, they have a more conventional library, in a more conventional building. Not hopelessly conventional, though, because they do subscribe to JIR.

The huge Collider Experimental Hall sits mostly unused, its detectors now out of date. The enormous tank marked "Argon refrigerated liquid" is also marked "empty" (Mason said "Argon are gone"). When telescopes fall behind the forefront, students and amateurs get to use them; no such thing appears to happen at this accelerator. Is there any such thing as amateur particle physicists?

Standard tours miss quite a number of possibilities. I raised several of these with officials a few years ago and got nowhere.

The whole experience would be better if re-conceived as a "show" rather than a "tour". We were shown place 1, then place 2, then place 3. Much more meaningful would be to start with a tutorial on zooming down scales to subatomic particles. Then take an animation-ride down the linear accelerator and storage rings, followed by an actual bus-ride along the accelerator's whole 3 km.

My previous tours didn't even mention that the linear accelerator was for decades the world's longest building. This tour did mention that, and named the Beijing airport passenger terminal as the only bigger one now, though they didn't make a big deal out of it. I think it IS a big deal. It will impress kids - and adults - who can tell friends and neighbors "Hey, I just toured the world's second-longest building!"

The present neglect of Building 750 - whose dust particles now draw more attention than subatomic particles - foreshadows what may be in store for the linear accelerator itself. While its contents are the height of 1960s-2010s technology, the long building itself is a sheet-metal shed. What happens in a few decades when the technical stuff inside is superseded elsewhere and left to gather dust, while the building shell degrades seriously? It'll be way too expensive to preserve, yet way too historic not to. Is anyone planning for SLAC's future as a white elephant?

The Visitor Center is a "cabinet of curiosities" displaying interesting items from construction, devices, pictures of physics objects, Nobel Prize citations, and a cast of a fossilized marine mammal dug up when the accelerator was built half a century ago. They're helter-skelter, not fitting into any story or context.

There used to be a little store there, now reduced to an exhibit case of logo items available a couple buildings away (which I didn't visit). They feature conventional water bottles and coffee mugs and T-shirts, even though their signature item ought to be SLACks. They also ought to sell a scale model of the linear accelerator that kids could put together.

The SLAC visit was a good experience, but it could be a whole lot better if the host thought more planning would be worth it. Ticket and goods sales should earn back whatever it cost to improve.

I expect to pursue several of these themes as I tour other Big Science facilities in my cross-country trek.

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.