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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.

Don't Try This in High School

Don't Try This in High School

Good science in good humor! Sharp, science-minded high schoolers will love these spoofs and lampoons. Give them this book:
* for holidays, birthdays, graduation
* to tide them over a long trip or a boring recuperation
* or just to encourage thinking and laughing at the same time.

Witty twists open minds to exciting, refreshing new thoughts. Selected from the science humor magazine, The Journal of Irreproducible Results.

Yo Mama’s Physics
Frog dissection
Chocolate cake
Insect rights
Even prime numbers
Crossword puzzle from Hell
Triplets raised apart
Coin stacking
Marmite versus Vegemite
Cat hair

Free bonus! An invisible imaginary companion, as described inside.

Printed in USA. Autographed any way the buyer wants.


Early Astronomy Days

© Norman Sperling, May 6, 2011

May 7th is Astronomy Day. Astronomy clubs and institutions across and beyond the US invite the public to look through their telescopes, and explain assorted astronomical things to them. That brings back memories of the 1970s.

The Idea
The context included converting the Astronomical League (the US federation of astronomy clubs) from a do-little social group run by its aging founders, into a do-something group run by "young Turks", of whom I was one.

We activists knew there was a lot to do, but very few suggestions of just what to do gained wide support. Nobody thought the BAA or RASC systems were appropriate here. Our situation was unprecedented so there were no models to copy. That was just when I was running Sky &Telescope's amateur department. I joined S&T in September 1976, shortly after the AL convention. Some activists were elected that year, along with some holdover traditionalists. By 1977 Bob Young of Harrisburg, the new president, really wanted to accomplish things. We spoke by phone rather often, and corresponded a lot.

I already knew a couple of the Astronomy Day founders. Irene Sacks hosted the first Astronomy Day I heard about, at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ. I went to a couple of her yearly events (Novembers?) while planetarium director in Princeton, NJ, not too far away. On my 1974 and 1976 drives to California I met Doug Berger, Frank Miller, and others in the Astronomical Association of Northern California, who were running Bay-Area-wide observances.

Bob Young enthusiastically agreed that the League should foster participation. Frank Miller and Doug Berger of AANC were enthusiastic about spreading the idea, as long as AANC was treated as an equal of AL. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada quickly joined in, making Astronomy Day international (obviously with a date later in Spring), and soon a number of other places joined the fun, making it very international, which it remains today.

One problem that cropped up immediately was climate. There is no time when the whole USA all enjoys the most favorable weather all at once. At all dates, somewhere's too cold, somewhere's too hot, and somewhere's too rainy. Winter was obviously out despite the clear skies following cold fronts; the public wouldn't come. Summer had many similar problems, including the ridiculously late arrival of darkness around solstice. That left Spring and Fall. So I talked it over with meteorologist Ed Brooks of Boston College. Brooks immediately pointed out that Fall had a problem that Spring didn't have: "thunderstorms in the MidWest" was his terse veto - I still remember him speaking those exact words, and marveled at how succinct and relevant they were. True, thunderstorms come in thin squall lines that pass quickly, but they're an afternoon-and-evening phenomenon that would ruin events in large swaths of the country.

That left Spring. And here we met some very narrow constraints. AANC wouldn't hear of anything too early in Spring, because the rainy season doesn't end here till well into April. Northern states also plugged for later dates. The South didn't seem to mind that. But the advent of Daylight Time in most of the country would push skywatching to too late an hour to attract many crowds. A consensus emerged for a Saturday in Spring, just before Daylight Time started.

We also found consensus that a First Quarter Moon is a highly desirable attraction - it is easy to see, shows lots of details, but isn't so bright as to wipe out deep sky objects that we also want to show.

Of course, First Quarter doesn't always occur on Saturdays, and doesn't always occur immediately before the switch to Daylight Time. So we agreed that every year we'd talk to one another about the best date, rather than invent a formula akin to that for determining the date of Easter. While I was at S&T, I was the one who did the phoning, on the pretext of preparing the amateur events calendar for the magazine. The news I heard from the participants fully justified the magazine's investment in my time, postage, and phone bills. After I left S&T in 1981, Gary Tomlinson of Grand Rapids, the AL's Astronomy Day Coordinator, had a long talk with Doug Berger, established dates for many years at once, and published them all in the AL's Astronomy Day Handbook.

Another issue that we handled correctly from the beginning was the primacy of the local sponsor. Everyone feared some big impersonal "other" ordering them to do something that wasn't appropriate in their own local circumstances. So, right from the beginning, we wrote into the principles that while Astronomy Day was recommended, and the League would facilitate events and suggest things as best it could, every club should do exactly what it pleased. For many clubs, that was "doing nothing". Other clubs adapted their own observances. We got this idea by extension of the way President Ford handled the 1976 US BiCentennial celebrations. Political bickering persisted so long (partly distracted by Watergate) that no big national effort to accomplish any major celebration could be arranged. So Ford let necessity be the mother of invention, and declared that each community should observe the BiCentennial however it wanted - there was still enough time for local planning. Practically everybody seemed delighted with this - it wasn't merely coping with a political messup, it was a positive good. Making this an Astronomy Day principle meant that places that needed or wanted a different date would do what they needed, places that couldn't get an act together could skip it, no one felt hassled by anyone else, and everyone did what they felt best.

The wisdom of local primacy was immediately apparent when I suggested that the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston run an Astronomy Day. General agreement was reached on when and where (Boston Common). But that first event turned out to be on a frigid evening just after a late-season snowstorm, and a LOT of ATMoB people ribbed me for getting them into something that was not a good show. After that, ATMoB shifted to later dates with higher probabilities of pleasant weather.

Saying So Made It So: Sky & Telescope Articles
At S&T I read over 100 astronomy club newsletters a month. Snippets about somewhat-related events in a few other places could be put together and called local versions of "Astronomy Day". My first article on all this was the first time that most people ever heard of Astronomy Day: "'Astronomy Day' Sprouts Nationwide", v56 #1, July 1978, p35-39. The various participants mentioned had no idea that anyone else was doing anything, and absolutely no idea that it was a national movement, until my article told them it was. Saying so made it so. Adding official participation by the League, the following year I put together "Astronomy Day 1979: The Biggest Yet", v58 #2, August 1979, p167-169. Then "The Resounding Success of Astronomy Day 1980", v60 #2, August 1980, p149-153. And even after leaving the staff I was asked to compile "Astronomy Day 1981", v62 #3, September 1981, p265-267.

In those same years I was consulting for Edmund Scientific, and triggered their "Norman W. Edmund Award" for the best observance. I also chaired the judging, and even picked the other judges, all on the pretext of getting the information early to put into the S&T articles. The award for Astronomy Day observances disappeared for several years and then reappeared.


J. Kelly Beatty comments: FWIW, I think Ed Brooks blew it. IMHO the likelihood of clear skies and widespread temperate weather in the fall trumps the chance of sporadic thunderstorms. In late April or early May it's still way too cold and damp in lots of places. I brought up the spring-fall debate with the League's council a few years ago, and on the basis of that an alternate fall A-Day date has been added.

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!

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

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