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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.

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.

3 Stories That WERE Too Good To Be True

© Norman Sperling, August 4, 2011

3 articles in 3 days have exposed hoaxes and scams.

A bizarre story claiming that users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser are a lot dumber than users of Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, was unmasked in a day or 2. Wired's Epicenter reveals the hoax and sparks its perpetrator to claim it was a joke.

The horrifying "collar bomb" in Sydney, Australia, was a hoax. Who concocted it?

For 140 years, Scots have been proud of their unbelievably-loyal dog, Greyfriars Bobby. Reuters reports that it was a "scam to lure tourists".

Do the media you read tell you the initial claim, but not that it was a hoax? Time to smarten your news sources.

Not So Hot

© Norman Sperling, July 30, 2011

Reference books and websites copy one another. Hardly anybody digs back into the original records to find out what really happened.

With global warming attracting so much attention, the Weather Underground's weather historian, Chris Burt, is exploring the actual original reports of record high temperatures. He's been passionate about weather records for 40 years. I know, because 40 years ago he was a student of mine at Princeton Day School. Mostly I taught astronomy, but there was a panel of weather instruments alongside the planetarium, and Chris wanted to do things with their information. He tended the instruments and recorded the data and noticed patterns (the barograph showed a "noon hump") and posted findings on the bulletin board.

Chris also haunted the Princeton office of Weatherwise magazine, and went on to study meteorology at the University of Wisconsin. More recently he has published 2 editions of the book Extreme Weather.

He finds that a lot of the equipment was not just old but primitive, used in non-standard ways, and/or reported in substandard ways. The highest temperature that stands up to modern scientific standards is 129 degrees Fahrenheit, at Death Valley. All reports of higher temperatures have problems, and many are probably or clearly erroneous. In other words, don't rely on those old reports.

Global-warming-critics cite the ultra-high records to say that it used to be hotter, so there's no problem. Chris shows that they are probably wrong on historical counts. They also seem to be wrong on scientific issues, judging from the private remarks I hear from the overwhelming majority of scientists at American Geophysical Union conventions over many years. Politically, they appear to be little short of craven stooges, as revealed in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published by Bloomsbury in 2010.

Chris posted his preliminary report at Weather Underground. Now, he's on a United Nations committee to scientifically examine the reports of highest temperatures. Look for their official results in Spring 2012.

Classification Made Droll

Reviewed by © Norman Sperling, July 21, 2011. Published in The Journal of Irreproducible Results, v51 #4, August 2011.

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, by Julian Montague. Published by Abrams Image, New York, 2006. www.hnabooks.com . 0-8109-5520-2. $17.95

Scientific classification principles can be applied very widely. Artist Julian Montague applies them, with droll irony, to the situations in which stray shopping carts are found around Buffalo. He classifies their condition, their origin and distance from it, and how they apparently came to the places where he found them. Montague's shopping carts progress through categories as weather, vandals, and snowplows batter them. Every example is photographed, with the author's classifications and occasional brief comment.

Shopping carts typically stray to the grimier parts of town, so the setting is often along railroad tracks and creeks, amid graffiti-covered walls, tires, underbrush, trash, and snow. Montague systematically excludes humans from his photos - only 1 or 2 can be discerned in distant backgrounds. This casts an "abandoned" feel over Buffalo.

Montague does not classify or give any taxonomy to the carts themselves. His classification deals with where they are found, not their inherent characteristics. In doing so, the book resembles astronomer J. Allen Hynek's attempt to categorize reports of encounters with extraterrestrials. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" made a splendid title for a good movie. But it was never scientifically useful because it did not classify extraterrestrials, which was what we wanted to learn about, but rather how far they were from humans at the time of encounter, which is far less interesting and often accidental.

Montague's book can be used to demonstrate principles of classification in an amusing way, without getting tangled in Latin, Greek, or scientific technicalities.

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

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