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.
© Norman Sperling, June 9, 2011
The Textbook League fought pseudoscience and other idiocy in pre-college textbooks for the last few decades. The human part of the League is disbanding, but stalwart ichthyologist Bill Bennetta is personally keeping their website online: www.textbookleague.org . Their reference material remains available even though they no longer send experts galloping to assorted rescues.
© 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 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.
© 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.
© Norman Sperling, March 13, 2011
Setting up this blog not only lets me give my take on various issues, it lets me air a 30-year accumulation of writings that should still be read. Search engines find them for readers who are interested in their topics. Otherwise, they'll turn up only rarely when someone digs through the old magazines they originally appeared in. Sure enough, the "hit-counter" shows that my old essays already have hundreds of hits, and while some of those are from the spiders that crawl the web to construct the search engines, I'm confident that quite a lot are from real humans who read and consider my writings.
In addition to writing those essays, I've spent decades taking pictures, largely of Science-related scenes. A few of my photos have artistic merit, many have scientific value, and a lot could help teachers teach. For now, however, my pictures sit in their binders, dark and silent, helping nobody.
Not just me! My friend Carl photographs sundials and sky phenomena. My friend John photographs celestial objects. My artist-friend Guy draws and paints beautiful and useful perspectives. My late friend Lu took hundreds of the best sunset pictures I know - where are they now? My late friend Carter photographed tens of thousands of great astronomical scenes, a trove too big for his heirs to organize yet. Thousands and thousands of people have such troves of useful pictures sitting unused.
Here's what we should do:
© Norman Sperling, March 8, 2011; updated May 10, 2011
JIR's newest anthology (our 12th!) selects articles for sharp, science-minded high school students.
* ISBN 0-913399-12-4
* ISBN 13: 978-0-913399-12-5
* 8.375 x 5.375 x 0.52 inches
* 10.85 ounces = 307 grams
* 222 pages
* Orders received by May 20, 2011: $14.95
* publication May 2011
Over 3/4 of JIR articles assume longer life-experiences, or higher scientific education, than high school. So we have very few high school subscribers. But over the decades we have published more than enough articles to occupy ... amuse ... and captivate high schoolers. Give them this book:
* for holidays, birthdays, graduation
* to tide them over a long trip or a boring recuperation
* and to encourage thinking and laughing at the same time.
To sample the flavor, here are a few of the topics:
Yo Mama jokes
Physicist MacDonald's Farm
Watched pot never boils
Budgies as weapons
Even prime numbers
The largest integer
Rebuttal to Multiplication
Suplurals and zero-order terms
Crossword puzzle from Hell
Nature versus Nurture:
Triplets raised apart
Rock - Paper - Scissors
Ben Franklin was twins
Marmite® versus Vegemite®
Deep space hand salutes
and several cool songs
If you assemble a kit to give along with the book, include:
* Tootsie® pops
* cat hair
* and Jell-O®
Yes, a lot of articles are really sweet.
The imaginary invisible companion described in one article is supplied free with the book.
Don't Try This in High School has only a few molecules of overlap with our other current anthology, This Book Warps Space and Time, published by Andrews McMeel. Warps Space selects short, quick, inoffensive, and easy items. Don't Try This includes much longer articles, assumes understanding high school science courses, and - appealing to high schoolers - can't be totally inoffensive. But people who like either, and want more, should dive right into the other.
Dewey: 502.07 science humor
Library of Congress: Q167 science humor
British Library: Q167 science humour
Dental: nitrous oxide
Epidemiology: highly infectious
Gilbert & Sullivan: Major General
Lux: brilliant, sparkling
Ottewell: 8 3/8 inches
Stratigraphy: Upper Anthropocene
© Norman Sperling, December 25, 2010
What if your club, institution, or company gets access to a lot of the Science-interested public for a few days? What if they come to you, or meet you in a nice venue? What messages would you most want to get across? What could those contacts be best used for? What if you had 10 months to prepare?
Around San Francisco, the Bay Area Science Festival is planned for October 29 - November 6, 2011. But hardly anyone I talk to has heard about it yet!
One indication that the planning's cast in Jell-O® rather than concrete is that they say it's going to be a 10-day event, but the days they list total 9. So it's not too late to get involved. If you're in the Bay Area, think through your optimum result from such a festival. Think through how to achieve it. Then contact the Festival folks to make sure you get included. I'd guess that the more self-contained your package, the easier it should be for them to include.
Here's what I've gleaned so far:
© Norman Sperling, December 19, 2010
Exam week holds terrors for teachers as well as students. This week, I wallowed in eye-strain by reading 61 3-hour intro-astro essay finals on the prompt: Starting with hydrogen and time, narrate how the Universe began and evolved to us, here, now.
We had a record number of A+ essays, and not a single F. I expected their bloopers to fill a big post, but only found these 5:
* [Newton's Law of Gravity described] why we are orbitting the moon.
* Neuron stars are created by supernovas. They are made entirely of neurons.
* In the "oscillating universe" theory, there will be a Big Bang and then a Big Crunch (where everything comes back together) every 140 years.
* [Kepler's Third Law] No matter where in orbit the area formed by the diameter of the planet to the sun will always be equal.
* Along with gas giants, black holes are also observed on Earth.
+ + +
Here are cosmology bloopers from classes longer ago:
© Norman Sperling, December 12, 2010
Instant-A Alert! Any student who solves this problem, to the satisfaction of experts in this specialty, gets an instant A for this entire course, regardless of anything else.
My astronomy students see this message 20 or 30 times a semester. I use it whenever a topic isn't resolved, whenever something remains unknown or not understood - such as magnetic fields. Textbooks' traditional "positivist" style systematically tells what IS known, and determinedly leaves out what ISN'T known. This gives students the false impression that Science is all about stuff that's already securely known. Textbooks usually neglect the thrill of the chase, and systematically avoid mentioning what isn't known.
So I make quite a point of it. I even emphasize it with this offer of an "Instant A".
Students I re-encounter many years after they took my course still remember the offer and its point.
Of course, this is not just a surface issue.