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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.

Taking Up SLAC

© Norman Sperling, April 10, 2011

A group of sharp high school physics students let me join their tour of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in nearby Menlo Park. Public tours have recently resumed, overcoming budget cuts and administrative decisions. We got a very nice tour led by a very nice, enthusiastic, and articulate physics graduate student. He wisely assured the students that a great deal of particle physics was not known or understood yet, and the way he emphasized those unknowns was one of the best features of our tour.

This was certainly the best of the 3 or 4 tours I've had there. We saw the linear accelerator itself, and some of its targets. We saw large scale, highly technical stuff, being done by world-class scientists and engineers.

In the linear accelerator's 3-km-long klystron gallery, we went into the visitor's alcove, with views up and down the whole 3 km. I thought, "to determine the technicalities of all the fittings, they must have used linear algebra". Many of the students were better-rounded than some of the SLAC staff, because they spotted the bold capital letters misspelling "RADIOGICALLY CONTROLLECD AREA". Well, they did spell "area" right.

SLAC is a good place, using good people to do good work. The tour left the high school students quite inspired about the facility and the Science. Mission accomplished.

Some other things we saw inspired whimsy ... and disappointment.

Close by, we saw a small car labeled "SLAC Library". I pictured the whole length of the accelerator having one continuous shelf ... but no, they have a more conventional library, in a more conventional building. Not hopelessly conventional, though, because they do subscribe to JIR.

The huge Collider Experimental Hall sits mostly unused, its detectors now out of date. The enormous tank marked "Argon refrigerated liquid" is also marked "empty" (Mason said "Argon are gone"). When telescopes fall behind the forefront, students and amateurs get to use them; no such thing appears to happen at this accelerator. Is there any such thing as amateur particle physicists?

Standard tours miss quite a number of possibilities. I raised several of these with officials a few years ago and got nowhere.

The whole experience would be better if re-conceived as a "show" rather than a "tour". We were shown place 1, then place 2, then place 3. Much more meaningful would be to start with a tutorial on zooming down scales to subatomic particles. Then take an animation-ride down the linear accelerator and storage rings, followed by an actual bus-ride along the accelerator's whole 3 km.

My previous tours didn't even mention that the linear accelerator was for decades the world's longest building. This tour did mention that, and named the Beijing airport passenger terminal as the only bigger one now, though they didn't make a big deal out of it. I think it IS a big deal. It will impress kids - and adults - who can tell friends and neighbors "Hey, I just toured the world's second-longest building!"

The present neglect of Building 750 - whose dust particles now draw more attention than subatomic particles - foreshadows what may be in store for the linear accelerator itself. While its contents are the height of 1960s-2010s technology, the long building itself is a sheet-metal shed. What happens in a few decades when the technical stuff inside is superseded elsewhere and left to gather dust, while the building shell degrades seriously? It'll be way too expensive to preserve, yet way too historic not to. Is anyone planning for SLAC's future as a white elephant?

The Visitor Center is a "cabinet of curiosities" displaying interesting items from construction, devices, pictures of physics objects, Nobel Prize citations, and a cast of a fossilized marine mammal dug up when the accelerator was built half a century ago. They're helter-skelter, not fitting into any story or context.

There used to be a little store there, now reduced to an exhibit case of logo items available a couple buildings away (which I didn't visit). They feature conventional water bottles and coffee mugs and T-shirts, even though their signature item ought to be SLACks. They also ought to sell a scale model of the linear accelerator that kids could put together.

The SLAC visit was a good experience, but it could be a whole lot better if the host thought more planning would be worth it. Ticket and goods sales should earn back whatever it cost to improve.

I expect to pursue several of these themes as I tour other Big Science facilities in my cross-country trek.

ER Clinics

© Norman Sperling, April 3, 2011

Hospital doctors and managers complain that their Emergency Rooms are deluged with patients who do not have regular doctors or health coverage, and whose less-severe problems are more properly cared for by clinics than Emergency Rooms. So many patients come that ERs are often diverted from their intended purpose. This problem has remained unfixed for decades.

A solution is not medical, but a matter of design.

Set up clinics adjacent to ERs. Put the triage nurse in front of both the ER and the clinic. Patients who really do need the ER get ushered right in. Patients not ailing enough to earn ER admission also get ushered right in ... to the clinic that is also right there. They would neither know nor care that the Emergency Room experts think they're not unhealthy enough.

Staff the clinics with cheaper clinician-type professionals and equipment. Bill clinic patients as a clinic would. Let the ER just handle severe emergencies.

Steampunk Style

© Norman Sperling, March 28, 2011

Last weekend's Steampunk convention really dazzled in style.

"Plain" and "Steampunk" don't intersect. Look at the details on the finest Queen Anne Victorian houses at images.google.com or flickr.com. I saw goggles with wonderful elaborate brasswork, the 2 sides assertively different. Steampunkers make fantastic corsetry, hats, featherware, gearworks, brassworks, glassworks ... shiny and colorful and intricate and brash. It was such a feast for the eyes that I wandered the dealers and halls agog.

Practically all of it came from handcrafters. A few smallish companies create T-shirts, and publish the fiction that drives the genre. No big corporations, no mass production.

Practically the only person who arrived there not wearing showy goggles (Steampunk's universal icon) was me. I'd intended to buy some anyway, but that made it imperative. I bought. Now they ride the brim of my pith helmet. Not that it matters in steampunkdom, but it's a real pith helmet, that is built out of pith (a natural styrofoam-like substance from certain reeds). I bought it in Nairobi in 1980 while chasing a solar eclipse.

Genuine Victorian stuff does not attract the Steampunkers. A dealer with antiquarian microscopes, books, rulers, and slide rules had very few customers. The dealers who sold a lot have fantastically elaborated, gaudy goods. Their late-1800s aesthetic is wildly embroidered; the real thing itself is way too sedate.

Enormous elaboration continued into the 1900s (think Duesenbergs in the 1920s and '30s). Then the tides of fashion flipped toward sleek, hiding detailed inner workings under shells of each year's favorite shapes.

Telescopes, microscopes, cars, appliances, and a host of other complex devices still hide all their intricacies. While electronic circuit boards remain ugly and static, pipes, chains, gears, belts, and other moving stuff can be made attractive and interesting. It's time to bring those out of hiding, shine them up, and celebrate the harmony of their workings. Dyson has led vacuum cleaners this way, and Harley-Davidson never left, so many more should follow.

Be an Expert

© Norman Sperling, March 20, 2011

Be a genuine expert in something. Something you really like, that you've read everything about, seen everything about, and talked to other experts about. Maybe part of your hobby. Maybe something you have collected and examined samples of. It need not connect with your profession, but it could.

Improve the Wikipedia articles on and around your subject. And DMOZ and About, etc. Review books on the subject for Amazon, newsletters, etc. Become one of the "names" to be included wherever the subject comes up.

Give a few talks about it, perhaps at hobby clubs and related conventions, as widely as your circumstances permit.

Develop a niche product, or market someone else's. Make it the very most useful for the people who care a lot about your topic. You can make a few dollars from selling it, but you'll make more on increased reputation.

Write a few articles about aspects of it. Publish them in hobbyist newsletters, blogs, magazines, or wherever you can. If you write a lot of things about it, such as having your own authoritative blog, gather up your accumulated writings, and figure out how they could be segments of a book. Figure out what other segments such a book would need, and write and publish those as articles and blog posts. Then self-publish your book using new print-on-demand or short-run printing services. You no longer need much capital, or a commercial publisher. (You DO still need a good editor and a good cover artist and a marketer, and they need to get paid professionally.) You'll sell some copies, but more importantly, you'll be an author. When I give a copy of a book I've written to a potential client, I almost always get the assignment. The copy costs me a few bucks, but I get back hundreds or thousands of times as much. I also get treated better: "author" is a wonderful status.

All this gets your name "out there". That's a great status to have, no matter how off-the-beaten-path your subject may be. If you're easy to find, such as via search engines, you may get queries about the topic. Answer them as an expert. Some of those answers can be reworked into blog posts, talks, and book segments.

Once in a while, a topic that's usually obscure hits the headlines. When it does, media scramble to find some expert to talk to. That's you. You'll get your 15 minutes of fame.

And once in a great while, some big operation needs your expertise, and therefore needs you. This can open up consulting and freelancing and even employment possibilities.

Good luck!

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

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