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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com


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
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.

Write it for What it's Worth

© Norman Sperling, October 13, 2011

For many years, I assigned my college students to write a 5- to 10-page term paper as part of their course. I wouldn't approve any topic unless I thought there were good enough sources to produce that much content.

After doing their research, some students had a lot of information and a lot to say about it. They often found rich resources I didn't know about, and sometimes contacted scientists directly. These students often wrote very thorough papers, but to cram everything into a mere 10 pages they used type so narrow it was hard to read, a point-size too small to read, and the thinnest margins their printer would allow. They also edited out not only fat but meat, and the resulting paper suffered.

Other students didn't find much, and had only a little to say. Sometimes they found 8 books but they all quoted the same original research. Such students padded their narratives beyond reason, used the fattest, biggest type they could get away with, with very wide margins and only a thin column of type down the middle, just barely dripping a couple of lines onto page 5. The resulting paper suffered.

So I changed my directive. While 5 to 10 pages was the initial target, when they had finished diligent research, I told them to "write it for what it's worth": include everything that ought to be included, and then stop. Don't leave out anything useful, but don't pad either.

The result is papers of a far wider range of quantity, but a significantly higher quality. These papers aren't artificially stretched or compressed. They feel comfortable because the writers weren't compelled to distort them out of all proportion. The average grade went up noticeably simply because all the papers could be right-sized for whatever the writers found. The students are happier because they aren't squeezed, and get better grades. And I'm much happier because the papers I read are well-proportioned, which makes for better reading.

So, when I took over JIR, I made this the rule for the magazine, too. We receive submissions in an extreme variety of lengths, from one-liners up. I only rejected one submission purely for length (it was 54 pages long, and our whole magazine is just 36 pages per issue). But all the others are pretty much the right length for what they attempt, and don't feel cramped or puffed out. That improves the quality of the magazine for readers, eases the constraints on the writers, and improves my reading and editing. Win-win-win.

So I recommend that the same rule be adapted as widely as practical. Try it, you'll like it.

Develop Your Own Product

© Norman Sperling, October 9, 2011

Develop and sell your own product or service. This little sideline can help in everything
* from venting frustration ("I'll show THEM!")
* to opening doors (I earned even more from contracts facilitated by being author of my first book, than I earned from selling the book itself)
* to actually producing decent income on its own.
Running your own business gets you a high, different, and useful status, and the potential to build something bigger.

Start with something you can do distinctively, even if it's a very small enterprise. Keep it affordable under your circumstances. The very exercise of taking something from idea all the way through the practicalities of production, sales, and distribution is a huge education and a huge accomplishment. The techniques it teaches you can help a wide array of your other activities. And the people it introduces you to can open more doors.

Then spread the word. Set up a website, and maybe a blog. Show your expertise and how distinctive your product or service is. Tell leaders in the field about your stuff. Encourage up-and-coming leaders to use it.

Career-long, full-time jobs scarcely exist any more. There are times when conventional employment may let you down: cutbacks, layoffs, firings, expirations, disqualifying circumstances, whatever. When that happens, you're still a "somebody" because you run your own business. You'll always have your current business card, not merely a card from where you used to work. The status of "business owner" is way better than the status of "unemployed". How little your business is, is no one else's business (except the tax authorities). If you have time on your hands, put some of it into developing your little business into something a little less little. That'll feel good, and earn a bit more money in tight times.

Once in a while, a little business can take off and turn quite profitable. When ideas occur, and/or pathways open to bigger things, you'll already be established. Scaling up is way easier than newly establishing everything. Be poised so that could happen to you.

Essential Reading on Your Own Business:
Bernard Kamoroff: Small Time Operator.
Claude Whitmyer & Salli Rasberry: Running a One Person Business. Ten Speed.

Michael Phillips & Salli Rasberry: Marketing Without Advertising. Nolo Press.
Michael Phillips & Salli Rasberry: The Seven Laws of Money.
Michael Phillips & Salli Rasberry: Honest Business.
The Briarpatch Book.
Rafi Mohammed: The Art of Pricing. Crown 2005.

Great Guidebooks for Scientific Travelers

Reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, October 3, 2011

Duane S. Nickell: Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2010. Paperback $19.95. 978-0-8135-4730-5.

and Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Astronomy and Space Exploration Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2008. Paperback $21.95. 978-0-8135-4374-1.

Most of the travel books I've filtered through in planning my Great Science Trek specialize in factories, oddities, architecture, history, pop culture, technology, and politics. Travel books for scientists are rare - just a few on geology and observatories. Do you know any others? Duane S. Nickell is starting a series to fill this niche. Rutgers University Press has set up "The Scientific Traveler" series, and Nickell has written its first 2 volumes.

Each chapter begins with a gem-quality tutorial. To understand gigantic particle accelerators, start with the essay on particle physics. To get why you should examine meteorite collections, start with the essay on meteorites.

Taking advantage of his modern, tech-savvy audience, Nickell wastes no space on maps or directions. He gives addresses, phone numbers, and websites, from which visitors can get all they need. He cites admission fees as of presstime, which everybody knows can change.

Nickell found a whole lot of chemistry places I'd never heard of, and points out aspects of astronomy and physics places that I never thought of - such as rooms where important things occurred on the campus where I teach (certainly not my room). He has chapters on the scientists themselves plus their universities, labs, accelerators, museums, and monuments. "Chemicals in Industry", for example, features places that make glass, borax, paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, beer, and whiskey.

Some kinds of technology lie in plain sight but go uninterpreted. Wind farms, for example, occupy impressive stretches of hills and deserts, but none has a visitor center or even a gift counter. A display of varieties of windmills, a demonstration of a generator, and a few relevant models and publications for sale, would make a respectable roadside stop. Other energy forms with sites-to-see include oil, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and solar.

Astronomers flock to places with the darkest skies, and buy up all the land to prevent disturbing lights from encroaching. Several such astronomy villages have sprung up. I can only think of one other place where followers of a science build their vacation homes together: Scientist's Cliffs, Maryland. Are there others?

The books are well-produced, well-illustrated, and reasonably priced. The rare misspellings won't cause any problems. But use an actual map rather than trust a statement like "15 miles southeast" because it might not be southeast.

Science people should consult these both for novel day-trips in their own areas, and for sights to visit while traveling. I tallied the listings I've visited so far: 36 of 57 in the Astronomy/Space volume, but only 25 of 92 in Physics/Chemistry. I'm going to enjoy some more sights!

With a Pinch of Salt

© Norman Sperling, September 10, 2011

Reuters has a new report on the salt controversy that has been simmering for decades.

The conventional wisdom that people in general should reduce their salt intake looks suspicious. Because everyone in my family loves rather a lot of salt, and none of us has high blood pressure, nor related heart disease, I've kept my antennae up for a large, convincing scientific study that showed that people with normal blood pressure need to reduce salt. I never spotted one, so I haven't urged my family to cut back.

The Reuters report even undercuts the high-blood-pressure link: reducing salt to reduce blood pressure may not lengthen life span anyway.

The sides in the Reuters report are way too polarized. The effect is clearly smaller than claimed. A definitive study should be ethical and affordable for our culture. Take the money presently being spent by reduced-salt advocates, plus contributions from the salt industry. Have 3 highest-reputation organizations run a large, impeccable study, and get a trustworthy recommendation for the safest range of salt intake for conventional humans, and those with assorted risks. The same study might update the optimum dose for iodine. Settle the issue with Science, not shouting.

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

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