© Norman Sperling, June 6, 2013
The John Glenn boyhood home illustrates the Norman-Rockwell-style youth that shaped the great astronaut, who was later a senator.
Glenn grew up in the gnawing Depression, with its relentless financial drag. But he grew up in New Concord, Ohio, with its strong community fabric. The benefit of the community far outweighed the hassle of the economy. Glenn grew up with a storybook childhood and sterling character. Setting a young person on that path doesn’t take a lot of money. Actually, too much money often distracts from that path.
A tourguide at the rear introduced the home and its setting. Then she knocked on the back door, where a sign said "Today is May 3, 1937". The lady who answered the knock introduced herself as John Glenn's mother! That took me completely by surprise. She told all about her son. She took us all around the house and explained how everything we saw fit into their life - every ordinary product in the pantry, every ordinary toy and furnishing. She was completely immersed in motherhood, family, the Depression, the things they had … and the things they couldn't afford. This was one of the most realistic performances I've ever seen. The actress is Bev Allen, a volunteer.
Upstairs, a conventional tourguide resumed. Altogether we saw a great many true-to-the-times furnishings. It wasn't hard to note what we have that they didn't. But they had community, loyalty, freedom, and hard work. That's what shaped "The Greatest Generation", as Tom Brokaw called them.
Afterward, I heard that the actresses who portray Mrs. Glenn started wearing out, so the museum introduced different portrayals on different days: Mr. Glenn, and the teenage John Glenn. Now nobody's worn out and the public has greater variety to see. Next time I get anywhere near New Concord, I'm going to phone ahead to get the schedule of characters.
Debbie Allender, Director of Operations for The John & Annie Glenn Museum Foundation, tells more: "Our living history presentations are the day you visit only in 1937 - "The Life of an American Family during the Great Depression". So if you visited on May 3, the day would have been May 3, 1937. We also do 1944 - "Life on the Home Front during WWII", and we alternate the 2 years every other year. So say you come next summer on June 5, the living history presentation would be June 5, 1944. The actor or actress who takes our visitors through the main floor of the home is simply whoever is working that day. We mostly have students during the summer but our adult volunteers help our until they are out of school in the spring and when they return in the fall.
This is a splendid example of impersonators as a form of acting that merits more use, and as a means to convey a strong feeling for a personality, a time, and a place. Nobody on the tour knew what John Glenn's mother really looked like, so any motherly actress, wearing an apron, sufficed. Someone portraying a known face with known characteristics should resemble those more closely - a tougher acting job.
An awful lot of museums and significant sites could benefit from this approach. There are scads of understaffed museums and blah tours. There are also scads of former thespians who long to return to acting, if only a little. Impersonation could be just the way to rekindle the thespian flames of onetime actors. And it can spark new life in a wide variety of cultural sites.
Enthusiastic former thespians seeking a venue in which to thesp should propose acts at local historical sites and museums.
Vladimir Rubtsov: The Tunguska Mystery. 318 p. Springer 2009.
Review © Norman Sperling, February 22, 2013
The explosion of a large meteor above Chelyabinsk, on the same day as asteroid 2012 DA14 buzzed Earth, has brought back the riddle of the Tunguska event.
In 1908, far to the east of the Ural Mountains, over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in central Siberia, something - an icy, rocky asteroid or comet? - slammed into Earth's atmosphere, exploded in the air, flattened a forest, and triggered unusually bright and colorful skies over much of the world for many days.
The site is terribly remote. Communication and transportation were primitive in the terminal times of the tsarist empire. After World War I, the new Soviet regime clamped down on communications with non-Communists.
Very little news about the Tunguska explosion leaked out through the Iron Curtain. A few Soviet scientists explored, but hardly any of their data reached the West. Eyewitness reports were gathered, but we didn't see them. Important scientists declared solutions, but we only heard their answers, not their supporting data.
The absence of scientific data opened infinite possibilities for speculation. Creative minds responded by suggesting a colorful variety of explanations. Some of those caught the public imagination.
Unbeknownst to the West, much the same was happening in the Soviet Union. By selecting favorite reports, theorists put together plausible narratives which hung together only as long as all other data were ignored.
This grated on a lot of Soviet scientists. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev loosened the repression. Professional and amateur scientists responded creatively by founding the Independent Tunguska Exploration Group in 1958. These days the fashionable name for this centuries-old practice is "Citizen Science".
Investigators gathered information to plug holes in previous work. We hardly ever heard their results. In this book, an ITEG stalwart describes their research, findings, and speculations.
The story is FAR more complex than I had imagined. Exploration found a great deal more information than I had ever heard of, much of it scientifically strong. Practically all of it appears to contradict some theory or other. Several fairly strong solutions have been proposed, accounting for large portions of the observations. No solution, however, has yet accounted for all the credible data.
So this book is a superb example of exploratory science, and a superb example of a scientist who understands how much he doesn’t understand.
The most frequent suggestions are comets or meteoroids or asteroids. One huge problem is that our concepts of these have changed often, and radically, over the last 100 years, so the proposal means different things to different people at different times. Recent understandings relate comets to primitive chondrite meteoroids, which are extremely similar to asteroid types C, P, D, and K. Those meteoroids are probably chips of those asteroids. If they have surface ice, they appear as "comets". The Sun can vaporize surface ice while leaving ice inside.
Yet many details, from the exact pattern of the fallen trees, to eyewitnesses describing one object approaching from the south while a second one came from the east, to chemical traces (ytterbium!), don't seem to concur.
The suggestion that appears to satisfy the most data - still not all - posits 2 huge and powerful spacecraft, both turning to converge at the explosion site, and only one continuing westward from there. Science fiction fans like this scenario a lot better than most scientists do, but it satisfies more data than any other.
The comet concept satisfies the second-greatest quantity of data.
Now that this book has taught me a great deal more about Tunguska science, I am no longer confident about any one explanation. Rubtsov is right: we don't know enough. Previous such cases include:
• discovering the constancy of the speed of light, before Relativity;
• Auguste Comte's declaration that the composition of remote stars must remain forever unknown, before spectroscopy;
• noticing fundamental parallels in living things, like backbones, before Evolution.
Enjoy this book for its rich scientific and historical narrative, its scientific rigor, and its logical structure. The book is well written, well edited, and well produced. There's just enough Russian syntax to suggest local flavor. But if you want The Answer to what hit Tunguska, it's not here, nor anywhere else. Yet. Check back later.
J. Allan Danelek: The Great Airship of 1897: a Provocative Look at the Most Mysterious Aviation Event in History. Adventures Unlimited Press 2009.
review © Norman Sperling, February 10, 2013
A mysterious bright light in the night sky sparked this big flap at the end of the 1800s. It was unexpected and unexplained. Reports grossly contradict one another, so investigators can favor very different inferences, interpretations, and explanations simply by selecting different reports to prefer.
In the 1800s, no one considered the light to be a space ship from another planet. Paranormal boosters have made that case more recently. Since this book's author energetically investigates paranormal and Fortean matters, I was all prepared for the author to go Paranormal.
He never did. The one place where the paranormal is invoked by others, Danelek dismisses it tersely. This book has nothing at all to do with the paranormal. Every explanation is purely naturalistic. Danelek invokes real physics, real engineering, and common human nature. At every turn, Danelek reports what records show, and points out contradictions and gaping ignorance. He discusses assorted possibilities.
He selects reports that can be strung together into a consistent story, and says that's why he prefers those. The data are so sketchy that there is lots of room for speculation. Danelek offers several speculations, but clearly labels each one as it comes up. Danelek builds a case that it was a searchlight coming from a lighter-than-air dirigible-type airship.
Astronomer Charles Burckhalter, among others, said the "searchlight" was actually the brilliant planet Venus, which dominated the western sky in late 1896 and early 1897.
Danelek ties his case together in a fictionalized story, which he blatantly labels as fiction at both its start and its end. A few readers may deplore putting fiction in this book, but as long as the reader can tell what's fiction, that's fine. In fact, my motive to read this book was to see if I could adapt part of its story for astronomical fiction that I'm writing. I can.
The illustrations are quite clear and plausible. The editing is not as sharp as the writing. Several misspellings got into print. A sharper editor would have squelched several redundancies.
Overall, this is an interesting, entertaining, and rational book. It shines some light on a bright light of long ago.
© Norman Sperling, September 15, 2012
For all the guidebooks I've combed and all the historical technology I've plowed through, I should have known about the Collier Memorial State Park Logging Museum, but I didn't.
Tucked into a small state park on US-97 north of Klamath Falls in south-central Oregon, this is an absolute gem! They collect out-of-date equipment from the logging industry, and are re-arranging it into historical and thematic periods. Through their hardware, they can illustrate the progression from the muscle power of horses and oxen, to steam engines, to diesel engines. You can also see the progression from wood (which they used, as well as harvested), to iron, to steel. One of the excellent details in their signage was the slow fading in and out of the eras, rather than hard, sharp boundaries: each technology was kept as long as it was useful, and replaced when it wore out. A hundred diesels replaced a hundred steam engines over decades, not overnight.
Their knowledgeable volunteer guide showed me a great deal of detail, including how the 10-foot-high wheel haulers dragged logs, and how the steam donkeys could haul lumber, and themselves. The stronger the machines, the steeper the slopes on which they could work. An early horse-drawn road-grader sported a narrow blade, and the stronger the engines that pulled later ones, the bigger the blades could grow.
Most of the wooden equipment was handmade, of course. A lot of their gasoline and diesel equipment was made by Caterpillar and Case but they have several other makers too.
I've visited a lot of technology-through-time collections, but this one is decidedly different. Telescopes and microscopes operate in developed, protected environments, and look it. Cars interface with the great outdoors, but the outdoors are massively changed to accommodate them: we build smooth roads and service stations. Logging equipment is out in brutal nature, in the wild, coping with tough, heavy trees and boulders and canyons ... and they look it. No delicate fittings. No polish. No decoration. Enormous, strong wheels and treads. Fat, heavy cables and chains. Bulky, dented iron and steel housings. Heavily chipped paint. Repaired wheels. Patches and dings. Some equipment wasn't built strongly enough: all 3 tractors built by International/Mack have severely bent and dented hoods because that sheet-metal just couldn't stand up to logging in the wild.
The collection is obviously catch-as-catch-can. Logging companies donated 3 Caterpillar Thirty tractors, so they have 3, even though no story they tell requires that many. They have a big, complicated thresher because somebody donated it, not because farm equipment is part of their logging story. They should swap or sell such items to get more useful and relevant items or make improvements.
Norman Sperling, August 27, 2012
In my dozen years in San Mateo, I've encountered a lot of excellent people, places, and enterprises. Here are some I recommend:
Jeff Gilbert, Principal, and most of the faculty and staff of Hillsdale High School, 3115 Del Monte Street. When we first got to know Hillsdale High, their reputation and enrollment had sagged. By paying extra attention to students, and keeping them from falling anonymously through cracks, the school has earned favorable attention. Hillsdale is on its way up, in scores, in accomplishments, and in morale. Enrollment is bursting. In a lot of ways, they do things very well. Granted, they are part of a bureaucracy, they are obligated to do some stupid things, and not every employee is excellent, but our overall experiences there were very strongly positive and I enthusiastically recommend Hillsdale High. 650-558-2699, www.hhs.schoolloop.com/ .
Genella Williamson, Realtor. She helped us buy our home in 2000, kept in touch, and is masterminding the complex preparations to sell it. She is exercising a lot of the best connections with the best service people. She understands details and practicalities, and talks to a very wide variety of people on their own terms. Alain Pinel Realtors, 2930 Woodside Road, Woodside. 650-529-1111, firstname.lastname@example.org .
Mike Bruno and staff, Cal-West Home Loans, 569 Laurel Street, San Carlos. I didn't fit a bank's cookie-cutter mold. Mike Bruno treated me like an actual human, and arranged a mortgage that really worked. His office staff are excellent people. 650-591-7321.
Steve Dwyer, expert handyman, especially with electric things. email@example.com .
Yokto Subroto and staff, Copyman of Belmont, 740 El Camino Real, Belmont. Copying and Printing. They take the care to get it right. I switched JIR from a major industrial printer that got careless, to Yokto, and everything has been perfect since. Well, the printing aspects are perfect; it's still my editing and proofreading, so a few errors do creep in. 650-591-9893, firstname.lastname@example.org .
Mark Dahl's UPS Store (Mail Boxes Etc.) 7 West 41st Avenue. They take the care to get everything right, so every package makes it. They recheck sealing, verify every item on the waybill. Over the years I've shipped hundreds of packages there, and occasionally used their notary service, always with perfect satisfaction. 650-571-9089, email@example.com .
Sean Hudson, Hector Diaz, and staff, Hudson Automotive Repair, 186 South Blvd. Great expertise in car service. They take care in examining things. They clearly spell out all the options. They accept my choices of options, even when they recommend others. Exacting work done right. Also, the cleanest car-service business I ever saw. 650-344-4800.
Letty's Affordable Hair Care, 14 24th Avenue. Letty is the only barber I found who's willing to cut my hair the way I want, instead of her own way. 650-574-1196.
The Peninsula Library System has wonderful variety among its branches, and the computer catalog is very handy to use. www.plsinfo.org .
Both Trader Joe's in San Mateo have excellent, helpful staffs as well as distinctive groceries.
by Simon Quellen Field. Kinetic MicroScience 2011. $15. 978-0982210444
review by Norman Sperling, July 20, 2012
This fun murder mystery mixes private eyes, 2 police agencies who don’t get along with one another, a band, and a hospice. Las Vegas and Sacramento were both gambles.
Better than the physical settings are those in cyberspace. How to disappear. How to find people. How to earn money online. How to get attention. How to do more things, faster, better, and cheaper than mere casual websurfers know. It’s richly intertwined with the latest multimedia technology. That advancing technology will let the author update things as the forefront moves on – *using* the latest tech to *tell about* the latest tech.
Another advantage is that as soon as I finish this review, I’m going to tell the author about the 10 minor typos I found, and I bet he corrects them all before you can even buy your copy.
by Albert B. Dickas. Mountain Press, Missoula, 2012. 978-0-87842-587-7. $24 softcover
review © Norman Sperling, June 11, 2012
Both for sight-seeing and for tutorials, this is a wonderful new book. It illustrates a great many important geological principles while providing glorious sights to see. Almost all of the sites can been visited by road. You'll find many settings of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks (JIR spoofs those as ingenious, sentimental, and metaphoric).
Each selection has a 2-page spread: the left side tells coordinates, background, and what you can see. The right side presents 3 or 4 photos, cross-sections, maps, and/or development sequences. As in most cases where a publisher or designer dictates that all selections get equal space, both stories and typography may seem puffed or crammed.
Many places are within a half-day drive for most Americans. There's at least one in every state - one of the selection criteria. Just as in baseball's All-Star Game, where there has to be a player from every team, this promotes a number of less-important selections at the expense of better ones. Baseball depends on its fan-base, but people seeking superior geologic examples know perfectly well that they have to travel to see most of them. I hope the next edition abandons this criterion. Travelers will find concentrations of gem-quality sites easier to take in during reasonable excursions.
The author's illustrations and points are extremely clear. I found no typos, and only 5 minor mistakes.
The glossary, references, and index all have lots of entries, enabling a reader to pursue items. The glossary is a bit terse considering that many readers are novices. But it does distinguish, for example, between "terrain" ("A region of the Earth that is considered a physical feature, such as the Great Plains") and "terrane" ("A body of rock bounded by faults and characterized by a geologic history that differs from adjacent terranes"). It would be improved by listing all the examples in the book. The index probably doesn't list all occurrences of each term.
Whether you seek the newest or oldest rocks, or relics of ancient Gondwanaland or Rodinia, this book shows the way. These 101 geo-sites are well worth the trip for anyone interested in the more durable parts of Nature.
Weird Astronomy: Tales of Unusual, Bizarre, and Other Hard to Explain Observations, by David A. J. Seargent. 317p. Springer 2010. $39.95. 978-1-4419-6423-6.
reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, April 26, 2012
Australian astronomy writer David Seargent knows sky-watching - a long-time amateur astronomer, he discovered a comet in 1978. He has been telling about these curiosities in a long string of articles for Southern Astronomy, which became Sky & Space magazine. He has integrated and smoothed them out well for this book. But one standard that may have been OK in the magazine grates on me! He uses exclamation points way too much!
Between exclamation points, Seargent tells these neat stories with an easy flow and a light touch. He explains things in a clear, friendly way that teaches accurately but painlessly. Collectively, they form good lessons on scientific reasoning, the importance of data quality, and understanding how the sky works. The Universe seems to show more phenomena than humans have so far commanded. The stories are very enjoyable for readers who haven't heard them before. They will certainly entertain readers interested in any science.
Seargent also inserts suggestions for projects. Every reader, from novice through expert, can find some interesting possibilities to work on.
Some items from the main chapters:
* Our Weird Moon: William Herschel noticed 3 red glowing spots on the dark part of the Moon on April 19, 1787. He thought they were erupting volcanoes, but that would have left evidence that we would now see, and we don't. Seargent points out that that very same night had intense aurora as far south as Italy, and asks if the same flow of high-energy particles hitting Earth might trigger glows on the Moon.
* Odd but Interesting Events Near the Sun, including transits and comets.
* Planetary Weirdness dwells mostly on Mars, and wonders if microbes do, too.
* Weird Meteors: Curving, zigzagging, and black meteors have been reported.
* Strange Stars and Star-Like Objects: including assorted flashes and blinks.
* Moving Mysteries and Wandering Stars: several tiny comets have been spotted close to Earth.
* Facts, Fallacies, Unusual Observations, and Other Miscellaneous Gleanings: planets and stars by daylight, the thinnest crescent Moon, odd meteorites, and the "potassium flare" star whose spectrum actually measured a smoker striking a match.
The publisher's contributions to this book aren't as good as the author's. There are several typos, though none of them interferes with understanding. While the text is printed very clearly, many of the pictures are too dark and murky, and hard to distinguish. The color pictures lack resolution. The publisher appears to have trusted a new printing technology, which seems not ready for prime time yet.
Defining any book project requires many decisions to be made. They decided this one would be "popular" rather than scholarly, so they left out all references. But this subject matter is deliberately obscure, and they give no hint as to where to chase down any item that attracts your fancy. There were many items that I could not even guess where to pursue, beyond a web-search.
But many of them I do know where to look for: Mysterious Universe by the late William R. Corliss. (Sourcebook Project, 1979). When I started wondering about those Earth-approaching comets, I checked the Corliss compendium and found 2 of Seargent's 3, plus several others, all with full quotations from the original literature. Corliss has quite a number of Seargent's phenomena. More on the personalities and places can be found in Joe Ashbrook's Astronomical Scrapbook (Cambridge University Press), a compilation of his articles in Sky & Telescope magazine. So readers have a choice: the simplest pleasure-read is Seargent's. Ashbrook's is more scholarly. Corliss reprints the original sources verbatim, retaining all the original information and flavor ... sometimes stuffy. Also, Corliss never tells how a story came out: were the observations flawed? Did they start a new paradigm? Seargent can solve scholars' problems by posting his references on a website.
As expected, Seargent finds more articles in the British heritage, Ashbrook in the American. This leads me to wonder how badly culture and language still inhibit communication. What curiosities have observers logged in other languages? Can we get those correctly translated, compiled, indexed, and entertainingly narrated? What percentage of the total do these English-language sources contain? How can readers of lots of other languages become familiar with these?
Corliss compendia cover most sciences. Seargent has now published one on meteorology. Do other sciences have corresponding light-reading books of curiosities like Seargent's or Ashbrook's?
review © Norman Sperling, February 7, 2012
This new book tells nothing new, and offers many examples of no value. Ostensibly celebrating the pirate economy, the author neither self-publishes nor finds street sellers. Instead, he contracts with a name-brand publisher, copyrights his tales of piracy, and repeatedly invalidates his own premises.
The underground and pirate economy is not rising, it's always been around. This "informal economy" is older and far more entrenched than the formal one. In several places the book admits that, but immediately reverts to the fantasy that working "off the books", on the street, on the margins, or not fully licensed, is new, or increasing.
What's newer, and growing far more vigorously, is the formal economy that earns confidence, enforces inspections, builds brands, and does things right. Several times, the narrative brushes up against the roughly-direct relationship between an enterprise's degree of formality (for which the author selects the odd proxies of being licensed, registered, and taxpaying) and its degree of trustworthiness. Trust and confidence are critical in transactions.
That's why customers graduate to more formal levels of the economy as soon as they can. They get better quality and therefore better value: the things they buy are closer to "real" and "working" and "sturdy" and "supported", and therefore worth the higher price. This generates valuable repeat-business, compared to street-hawkers who always need to drum up yet more new customers. Of this, the book gives only the slightest mention.
The author offers several sighs over capitalist misbehavior, while citing far more examples (without sighs) of pirate misbehavior. Almost all the misbehavior is just plain short-sighted: taking an immediate advantage and ignoring its (bigger) long-term consequences. Undermining value, as several chapters on piracy celebrate, undermines confidence. Folks who can't afford the most-trustworthy goods, and therefore take less-trustworthy, discounted street-goods, often live to regret it. Frequently-cheated customers are less eager to buy, which slows the 'speed of money', whose rate tracks the health of economies.
Save your time and money: skip this book. To improve the economy, earn as much confidence as you can (in reality, not just "licenses and registrations"), and do business with others who also earn confidence.
Reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, October 3, 2011
Duane S. Nickell: Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Physics and Chemistry Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2010. Paperback $19.95. 978-0-8135-4730-5.
and Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler: Visiting Astronomy and Space Exploration Sites Across America. Rutgers U. Press 2008. Paperback $21.95. 978-0-8135-4374-1.
Most of the travel books I've filtered through in planning my Great Science Trek specialize in factories, oddities, architecture, history, pop culture, technology, and politics. Travel books for scientists are rare - just a few on geology and observatories. Do you know any others? Duane S. Nickell is starting a series to fill this niche. Rutgers University Press has set up "The Scientific Traveler" series, and Nickell has written its first 2 volumes.
Each chapter begins with a gem-quality tutorial. To understand gigantic particle accelerators, start with the essay on particle physics. To get why you should examine meteorite collections, start with the essay on meteorites.
Taking advantage of his modern, tech-savvy audience, Nickell wastes no space on maps or directions. He gives addresses, phone numbers, and websites, from which visitors can get all they need. He cites admission fees as of presstime, which everybody knows can change.
Nickell found a whole lot of chemistry places I'd never heard of, and points out aspects of astronomy and physics places that I never thought of - such as rooms where important things occurred on the campus where I teach (certainly not my room). He has chapters on the scientists themselves plus their universities, labs, accelerators, museums, and monuments. "Chemicals in Industry", for example, features places that make glass, borax, paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, beer, and whiskey.
Some kinds of technology lie in plain sight but go uninterpreted. Wind farms, for example, occupy impressive stretches of hills and deserts, but none has a visitor center or even a gift counter. A display of varieties of windmills, a demonstration of a generator, and a few relevant models and publications for sale, would make a respectable roadside stop. Other energy forms with sites-to-see include oil, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and solar.
Astronomers flock to places with the darkest skies, and buy up all the land to prevent disturbing lights from encroaching. Several such astronomy villages have sprung up. I can only think of one other place where followers of a science build their vacation homes together: Scientist's Cliffs, Maryland. Are there others?
The books are well-produced, well-illustrated, and reasonably priced. The rare misspellings won't cause any problems. But use an actual map rather than trust a statement like "15 miles southeast" because it might not be southeast.
Science people should consult these both for novel day-trips in their own areas, and for sights to visit while traveling. I tallied the listings I've visited so far: 36 of 57 in the Astronomy/Space volume, but only 25 of 92 in Physics/Chemistry. I'm going to enjoy some more sights!