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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.

The Issues of the Issue: JIR v51 #5

© Norman Sperling, December 23, 2011

The noticeable uptick in the national economy, encouraging though insufficient, is mirrored by JIR subscriptions. We're getting a few more than before, though not enough for prosperity. Part of this comes from general interest in recent scientific-press studies of (truly) irreproducible reports. Science-media critic Charlie Petit even used JIR in his lead when he commented on that - thanks Charlie!

Now in the postal system is JIR v51 #5. It's full, as always, of science humor. An MD using the pseudonym "Fizzy McFizz" wrote "All Research is Actually Made Up", supporting a conclusion that some draw from the reproducibility challenges. Burlesquing expansion on small-number statistics, Paul Monach of Boston University compares a category in which he can find 2 examples, to a huge population surrounding them.

While the Zen approach continues to interest people, Eric Levy shows that the Un-Zen life - seeking immediate gratification - seems closer to what they actually do.

Our cover article is "Ants are Superbeings!" by Australian researchers Elaine Foster and R. A. J. Reynolds. It points out many of ants' superior abilities, including their social behavior which acts in some cases like a super-organism. Serious entomologists ("ant"omologists?) are considering this, too. For one take, read Mark W. Moffett's spectacularly illustrated 2010 book Adventures Among Ants, from University of California Press.

We thank the talented young artist Marlin Peterson of Washington state for our cover art. He's a scientific illustrator who seeks to reproduce the results of Science that can't be photographed. Enjoy his website at www.marlinpeterson.com. The picture shows Argentine ants colonizing new ecological niches. The Argentine ant, Linepithema humile, is very remarkable indeed, and I'm sure we haven't heard the last of it. What remarkable things do the ants around you do?

Conferencemanship occupied some of JIR's earliest contributors, and still concerns our authors and readers. In this issue, P. Alexandre tells "How to Answer Questions" while maintaining (an illusion of) superiority.

Comedian Norm Goldblatt ties up beer, pi, the Higgs Boson, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, ET, and religion while having "Beer With An Alien". I've had a meal with Norm myself, but we didn't get to any of those issues.

Trevor Kitson, our most prolific contributor from New Zealand, apologizes to Rudyard Kipling for his chemistry takeoff on "If".

What is the proper opposite of the Vulcan Blessing, "Live Long and Prosper"? Logician John Mariani of Lancaster University, UK, explores the possibilities. "Fail And Die Soon" stops agony too soon to be a big curse. "Die Soon Or Fail" goes in the right direction, but "Live Long Or Prosper" is "far more elegant, far more logical, and much, much nastier."

Our friend Larry Lesser of UTEP is back with a new song. Taking his cue from James Taylor's excellent Fire & Rain, Lesser talks technical in Combustion & Precipitation. And I pun right back at him in an Editor's Note.

2 contributors send up dysfunctional bureaucracies: Harry Stern of Kennesaw State University in Georgia satirizes social work's "community disorganization", while R. L. Zimdahl critiques university administration, having been part of one for many years. I'll stick to my own standards: when there's good will and good management, any system works; where there isn't, no system can work.

A question for you: experience has taught that I catch a lot more errors when I proofread paper printouts, rather than the computer screen. A little is due to the screen's less-accurate renditions of character spacing, but that doesn't explain most of my "catches". Do others experience this too? Or the reverse? Why does this happen?

My Students, Yo Mama, and Chuck Norris

© Norman Sperling, December 22, 2011

I finally finished finals, that mad dash to pay careful attention to 60 handwritten exams in a little over 5 days. As usual, most of my students learned their material well. But the ~350 pages also harbored a few bloopers:

* Quasi-Stellar Radio Sources ... were discovered after World War II by radiologists.

* Cepheids are an example of a galaxy cluster that experiences meteor showers.

* Mars' atmosphere is too thin for gravity to hold Hydrogen to the surface. That is why we are on Earth.

* Now the Earth has a carbon atmosphere. Since there was life, it changed carbon into oxygen and nitrogen.

* A cluster of galaxies form gobular clusters. A a cluster of gobular clusters form the Universe.

...:::...

For the last 2 years, I've asked my classes to regard the extremes of astronomy in current-culture terms, by turning them into "Yo Mama" and "Chuck Norris" jokes. Their offerings:

in orbital mechanics:
* Yo Mama's so fat that when we played baseball, the ball got stuck orbiting her.
* Yo Mama's so fat that she has other fat mamas orbiting around her.
* Yo Mama's so fat that she has a Roche Limit.
* Yo Mama's so fat that she has rings of her own.
* Ancients thought the Earth was the center of the Universe. They were close: Yo Mama's so fat that the whole Universe orbits her.

in Cratering:
* The real reason for impact craters is that Chuck Norris uses the solar system as his punching bag.

on the H-R Diagram:
* Yo Mama's so fat that she's spectral type W.

in black holes:
* Yo Mama's so fat that she caused a singularity and created a black hole.
* Yo Mama's so fat that she would consume a singularity.
* Yo Mama's so fat that when she throws up, she makes a white hole.
* A black hole is the region of a singularity from which nothing can escape, not even light ... except for Chuck Norris.
* Chuck Norris uses worm holes to get to work.

in the Milky Way:
* That's not actually a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, that's just where Chuck Norris sets his barbells: right next to Yo Mama.

in Cosmology:
* although it is known how hydrogen, the stars and planets, and even how *we* were formed, it is still unknown how Chuck Norris was formed.
* Creation occurred when Chuck Norris round-house kicked in a vacuum, creating the Big Bang.
* The Universe exists so that Chuck Norris can exist.
* As long as Chuck Norris allows the Universe to function, we will continue to make new discoveries every day.

Going, Going, Gone

© Norman Sperling, December 12, 2011

The total lunar eclipse on December 10th gave me an experience I have only had once before, even though this was not an especially dark eclipse as seen from the Pacific and Asia.

On December 30, 1963, the eclipsed Moon practically disappeared. From the roof of my apartment house in Silver Spring, Maryland, I could see stars as dim as 5th magnitude, but the Moon turned that dark, and I had trouble spotting it with my naked eye. Through the telescope the Moon was a dark and featureless grey-blue disc.

I watched the December 10, 2011, eclipse from San Mateo, California, through a slightly hazy sky. While most of the Moon looked pretty dark about 6:20 AM, the southern fringe was quite noticeably bright. The northern edge was almost invisible, and the area in between graduated in dull reds. Within a few minutes, the lighting pattern changed quite noticeably (in total lunar eclipses, the tints always change every few minutes), with the Moon fading appreciably in the gathering dawn. The sky didn't look all that bright, but the Moon was now so dim that it was harder and harder to notice much about it. By 6:37, only the slightly-bright lower-left edge could still be found, fading like the grin of a Cheshire cat. By 6:42, I couldn't even see that any more. The sky was brightening so much that the Moon was no longer visible with the unaided eye. The Full Moon disappeared from me again!

Puncture Works, Acu Doesn't

© Norman Sperling, December 8, 2011

In tradition and much testing, the practice of "acupuncture" includes the principle of "meridians". The same is true, unsurprisingly, of skeptics' analyses. A lot of those analyses end up confused, because, skeptical magazines report, they find a weak positive correlation for acupuncture, though strictly negative for meridians.

Skeptics conventionally address "claims". If they can discredit a component of the claim - like meridians - they consider the claim rejected. They consider "acupuncture" as a single claim.

But if you scrupulously separate out the components of tests, as reported in skeptical magazines, acupuncture appears to have some positive pain-killing effects, whereas meridians don't seem to mean anything. So, puncture works, acu doesn't.

I don't care what's claimed. I care how Nature works. The claims and their testing merely serve to supply more evidence of that. If "puncture" appears to be a mild analgesic, investigate if that can be used medically. If "meridians" are nonsense, say just that, without smearing something real and potentially useful.

If skeptics could swallow evidence contrary to their expectation, they'd demonstrate that Science is the standard, rather than rhetoric. The public would view skeptics as far more reasonable.

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

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