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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.

Puns in Nature Magazine

Stately, sober Nature magazine occasionally publishes some humor. Simon Quellen Field forwards this link to "Apoptotic gene therapy in the interdigital web" published on April Fool's Day 2005. Notice the delicious names:
* J. Nesis Way, Vatican
* Sum Ting Wong
* Hu Yu Hai Ding
* Wai So Dim
* Ai-Bang-Mai-Ni
* Ohmy God Ih Svimfast

Roll-Playing Games

© Norman Sperling, August 28, 2011

"Calling the Roll" has been a standard part of class in practically every school, worldwide, for centuries. But someone with an awful sense of proportion now fantasizes it to be an "invasion of privacy". It never was and still isn't. Nevertheless, an education system has recently prohibited its instructors from using students' names in class - calling the roll, handing back tests, and so on. This inhibits the actual conduct of classes, and reduces teachers' opportunities for learning students' names.

Privacy for students' names inside the classroom is a bizarre concept. I can picture some instructors resorting to student numbers or row-and-seat numbers. Treating people as numbers instead of names would be far more offensive. In all my decades as a classmate and instructor of thousands of students, the only problems I've seen with student names stem from pronunciation, never privacy. (My son heard of a student with a name so exotic that, when he saw a teacher squint and stall while calling the roll, he responded "present" before they even tried to pronounce it.)

Privacy for students' grades is desirable and achievable. Mark the grade on a part of the paper that is concealed, perhaps by folding, when handing the paper back. Students often react loudly, saying "Hey, I got a B+!" but let it be the student who tells it out loud, not the instructor.

Decades ago, Steve Wozniak dropped out of college because he was gaining fame and fortune with Apple Computer. Years later he wanted to switch to school teaching, which required a college degree. He returned to the University of California, Berkeley, under a pseudonym, with the administration's approval. He blended in well, made friends by being friendly instead of rich, earned his degree, and enjoyed his new profession. Colleges may not even know which names aren't genuine. To achieve privacy in the exceedingly rare cases where using a true name would violate it, use pseudonyms.

To cope with the situation, I tell my students to "Pick your 'public name' to be called by in class. You may use some version of your real name if you wish. You may create a pseudonym for any reason, such as privacy or humor (and you don't have to tell why). Use that 'public name' on your quizzes. If it doesn't obviously relate to a name on my official roster, privately tell me what 'public name' corresponds to what 'roster name'."

So far, no student has shown any need for privacy. One made up a different amusing name each week (like "Ty Gur"). Another assumed the name of a fiction hero but soon switched to his own. What will students do this semester?

William R. Corliss, Scientific Anomalist

© Norman Sperling, August 20, 2011

One of the most interesting and scientifically-important people I ever met was the independent scientist William R. Corliss. Since the 1970s, he was by far the world's finest collector, categorizer, and ranker of scientific anomalies. He made himself the world's greatest authority on things that don't fit the paradigms of the times.

I had a long meeting with him in 1988, and corresponded several times with him afterward. He was always a scrupulous scientist and a quiet, reserved, proper gentleman. Bill died of a heart attack on July 8th, age 84.

Science always notices a lot of things, and it takes time to fit these pieces into the puzzle - sometimes months, sometimes centuries. Until they fit, the odder pieces are anomalies. Narrow-minded swallowers of paradigms-they-are-taught ignore them whenever possible, and pooh-pooh them when they're brought up. Broader-minded investigators of Nature comb through them for items that might, now, fit; or items that now point more clearly in some novel direction. Yet others (including most astronomers who mentioned Corliss) browse through anomalies simply because they're neat, or fun, or inspiring, or awesome, or remind us that we don't know everything and may never.

Bill spent enormous numbers of hours combing scientific literature for such anomalies, often driving to Washington, DC, to use the Library of Congress and other scientific libraries. He was looking for evidence about how Nature works.

Just what constituted an anomaly changed with the times. Early on, when plate tectonics was the "challenger" paradigm, he sought out nuggets that supported it; later, when it became the "dominant" paradigm, he sought items to the contrary. He supported Chip Arp's challenge to interpreting galaxies' red shifts as distance markers. He was very slow to accept that Arp seems to be, simply, wrong ... but he always followed the evidence. Several items that Corliss plucked from scientific literature surely are mistaken, but more are valid, though (as with everything else in Science) subject to refinement and reinterpretation.

Bill compiled his findings into vast topical compendia. Most of the drawings were commissioned from geologist/illustrator Jack Holden, who is also a JIR contributor, though Corliss and Holden never met. A few of his books were marketed rather widely by large publishing companies. All the rest were published by The Sourcebook Project, which was Bill, his wife Virginia, and their barn. We retail several of his books.

Bill was best known as an "anomalist", most praised by the Society for Scientific Exploration, and bloggers of the "unknown". He had many fans among seekers of cryptids, UFOs, and other things beyond Science.

Bill experienced organized Skeptics as debunkers, enforcers for mainstream-paradigm-as-law, and thus enemies of anomalies. He definitely recognized that some claims are indeed bunk, deserving and needing debunking.

The scientific establishment usually ignored him. A few, like Joe Ashbrook, acted visibly uneasy at the mention of his compilations. That always confused me, because all Bill quoted were scientific publications.

He read JIR, and quoted it in his bimonthly newsletter, always with tongue pointedly in cheek.

Bill lived on a farm north of Baltimore. He was a man of his times: though he did commission a website for his wares, the torrent of spam scared him away from eMail. His website doesn't take credit cards, and directs customers to mail checks. Every communication I got from him over several decades was typed on a typewriter, not a word-processor.

I hope ways are found to preserve his files and keep his work available to the public.

The Issues of the Issue: JIR v51 #4

© Norman Sperling, August 9, 2011

The Journal of Irreproducible Results volume 51, #4, is now in the mail. As always, much of the humor connects to real-life issues.

One of our articles is about the Medical Narrative Essay, a form of scholarly publishing with a lower entry threshold than research papers. Dr. Katherine Chang Chretien makes a good point about the "crap-shoot" feeling authors get, because some essays may get rejected summarily by one publication, and accepted as-is by another. She's right! And it isn't only a matter of the article's quality, or the journal's. Sometimes we have too many submissions on some topic and too few on another, which changes what's welcome. Often a new editor wants to show a different face than the previous one. Sometimes an article is a perfect companion for something else that the author is unaware of. There can be lots of reasons in addition to whim - which also happens.

Our article "Science Blitz" by David Bartell and Paul Carlson was, according to Marty Halpern's blog More Red Ink, rejected by Analog as being too weird, crossing too many genre boundaries. Those factors worked in its favor for JIR, but we're happy to print it as a good, witty story that ties in science with a novel twist.

Colleges try to teach high-level information to students who aren't always prepared for it. The bullet-point list is one ubiquitous method to simplify and emphasize points. Prof. Lou Lippman points out that this can train students to take in information only in that format. I find myself teaching to standards that others seem to have left behind, such as requiring term papers of students who have never done any such thing before. A lot of employers will still want employees who can find relevant information and put it together coherently, and practically every employer will still need employees to take competent notes from oral instructions ( which are often much less coherent than professors' lectures!). We still need to engrain those skills in the students.

The ease and presumed anonymity of writing on the Internet spawns lots of new terms. Many of those are great puns, which we love. Others, however, earn their way into a glossary of neologisms, provided here by Doreen Dotan.

Lawns, and mowing them, are a cultural fad that too few question. A lawn that people actually use is fine with me. But most are for show, or for conformity. They suck up water and time. For usefulness, or for decoration, they deserve to be a lot rarer. Dr. Robert Haas couches the issue for the anthropologists of 1,000 years from now, but many of us already don't like lawn care here and now.

Opioid pain relievers remain wildly popular. Either an enormous number of people live in great pain (surely some do) or a lot just say so to get their opioid prescriptions renewed. This wide-spread, semi-legal zonking is rarely counted in studies of drug use. If scholars want to know the dimensions of drug use, they need to count this. They come up with statistics on illegal drugs, and it should be easier to add this factor. If specific doctors are "easy touches" or active over-prescribers, whoever licenses and certifies them needs to get serious about enforcement. But some patients try to get opioid prescriptions from Dr. Allan Zacher, and he rebels by writing for JIR.

We're publishing an English translation of a pair of articles that originally appeared, under pseudonyms, in a small publication in the USSR, 50 years ago. We have not found who actually wrote them, nor any previous translation into English. This translation is submitted by Sergey Makshinskiy. We always seek nuggets from other places and times, that our present readers would enjoy.

Our former publisher, George H. Scherr, PhD, has published another book! This one is on the history of fighting infections. Pasteur, he says, was following Agostino Bassi. Why Millions Died is being published by the University Press of America.

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

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