© Norman Sperling, November 13, 2014
The main message of “Interstellar” is true. Parents do anything they can, and go anywhere they can, for the good of their children. Except for a few uncommitted losers, this holds across all cultures and times. My astronomy students told me to see this movie, but didn’t warn me about this theme, and I didn’t bring anywhere near enough handkerchiefs.
The setting is what makes this movie spectacularly memorable. Certainly the special effects are Hollywood’s best. Nebulae and planet surfaces should look like those. Saturn looks like that. I didn’t notice any specific starfields; the background at the beginning looked like a random scatter instead of a real starfield, and the narrow range of brightnesses was fakey: no bright stars, no faint stars.
I really liked the robots.
The black hole and wormhole effects are imaginary. The view inside a black hole is based on Kip Thorne’s best equations but it’s still speculation. The experience there was more a salute to “2001 A Space Odyssey” than a scientific rendition.
Wormholes don’t seem to exist. I remember when they were hot topics. Black holes had come up at the end of the 1960s and, though bizarre, resisted all attempts at disproof. After a few decades, most astronomers accepted that black holes are part of reality.
In the 1960s and 1970s another extremely puzzling phenomenon challenged astrophysics: quasars. They looked like bluish dots (“quasi-stellar”). They have indistinct spectra with a few absorption lines that bore no resemblance to anything recognized in the 90 years of astronomical spectroscopy until then.
Quasars couldn’t be isolated blue stars because all blue stars are young, so remnants of the nebulae they formed from should still hang around. Also, blue stars don’t live long enough to wander far from their original nebulae, but quasars appeared quite isolated.
If they were as far as galaxies, they were impossibly bright. Anything that tiny, that energetic, held too much energy in too small a volume, and must instantly explode itself.
For these and many more reasons, quasars didn’t make sense as objects like stars in our galaxy, nor as objects related to far-away galaxies.
In the 1970s, some scholars tried linking the 2 mysteries. If black holes take in fantastic amounts of energy, and quasars give out fantastic amounts of energy, maybe quasars are “white holes”: outlets for energy that black holes take in. To transport that energy from the black holes to the while holes, they pushed the “wormhole” idea from the 1950s to extremes.
By the 1980s data built up to show that quasars (and their lower-power cousins, BL Lacertae objects and Seyfert galaxies) were powered by ejections from the neighborhoods of supermassive black holes. If quasars aren’t white holes, there’s no need for wormholes to transport energy to them. The wormhole idea fizzled.
Except in one cultural niche, a favorite of mine. Science fiction often tells stories in astronomical settings. That poses plotting problems: planets and stars are so far apart that action would have to pause for decades or even millennia between scenes. Invoking wormholes lets a story move along briskly by simply declaring transportation to be nearly instantaneous.
“Interstellar” depends on wormholes to travel way faster than light.
A glance at reviews online shows a split. Reviewers who didn’t understand the science therefore thought the movie didn’t hang together, and parts were silly, and their minds wandered. Reviewers who did get the science granted the willful suspension of disbelief, and thought the story more credible. The distinction is in the education of the beholders. The *eyes* of the beholders were nearly unanimous: they loved the space and spacecraft scenery. To enjoy more spectacular, out-of-this-world scenery, any day, in any quantity, browse through astrophotos and spacecraft pictures.
© Norman Sperling, September 2, 2014
A friend tipped me off that this science fiction book features the Astroscan telescope, which I co-designed, so I knew I’d read at least enough to see how my scope fared. I dove right in and, because it’s a really neat book, I read the whole thing. I was so involved that a few times I’d pause, think “hey, it brought up the Astroscan again” so I’d page back to the reference, mark it, and then plow straight on to see how the story went.
The premise asks what would happen if enormous earthquakes hit Missouri’s New Madrid fault now, as they did in 1811-12. My travels have recently taken me to St. Louis, Memphis, New Madrid, and Reelfoot Lake, and most of the other places in the book. Williams portrays the flavors, weather, accents, and scenery much as I saw them.
Mix in a flooded Mississippi River, failure of the electric grid and most communications, and isolated power-abusing authorities. Detailing the major chaos takes Williams’s expertly-developed characters along paths twisting through hundreds of pages to converge in the mop-up.
The science is quite good. The seismology is excellent, as far as I can tell. So is the hydrology. So is the technology -- from helicopters to nuclear reactors to guns. The major issue of reactionary Whites repressing Blacks has, I hope, diminished since this story was published 15 years ago … I hope.
Also improved today are communications and smartphones and multiple ways to access the www. Most wouldn’t work -- I’ve been in plenty of “no service” areas on this trek -- but there would also be places where you could get through.
One factor that didn’t ring true was radio. Old fashioned AM radio travels thousands of miles at night. Surely someone in this novel could have used a car radio, or scrounged up a battery-powered transistor radio, and listened to outside news. It wouldn’t get a message out, but at least it would get news in, tell that St. Louis and Memphis were flattened, and warn of impending storms and flooding.
Into this stew Williams tossed the Astroscan telescope. He must have asked his astronomical consultant for a portable telescope that could take rough handling. I can tell that the author actually handled one and looked through it. Most of the astronomical objects would look about as described. But he waxed overenthusiastic about galaxies - the ones he listed show up just as grey fuzzblobs. To notice the details he cites requires much larger scopes.
Terrestrial viewing, important to the plot, would work just as described. Characters’ reactions to Astroscan's odd looks sound pretty good. The shoulder strap is meant for exactly the kind of carrying that the hero used it for. The casing is indeed tough enough to withstand being knocked around (and no other beginner scope could). So the scope earned its way into the book, the author understood its special characteristics, and it sparked enough interest that its teenage user could think of going into astronomy. For the Astroscan, this novel is a huge success. And if that teenager enrolls where I teach, I want him in my class.
as of May 9, 2012
May 19-20: Maker Faire. Visit my sales booth. They usually put me in the largest building, most often halfway between its center and its east corner. Introducing: manual mechanical analog tetris! Topical sets of JIR. And important parts of my personal library, which I must now sell because of impending lack of space.
May 25-28: BayCon 2012
Friday, May 25
Irreproducible Results 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM in San Tomas room (with Berry Kercheval, Jay Reynolds Freeman, Allison Lonsdale) Panelists discuss the fun and foibles of the scientific world.
Is the Patent System Broken? 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM in San Tomas room (with Vickie Brewster, Scott Beckstead, Hugh Daniel) The Patent Law Reform Act of 2011 made many significant changes, including making it first to file, not first to invent. Is this an improvement, or are their still fundamental flaws?
Saturday, May 26
How the Style of Writing Can Make a Book Readable 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM in Winchester room (with Brandon Sanderson, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Diana L. Paxson, Dario Ciriello) First person? Omniscient? First person smart aleck? A discussion of how and why does the point of view change our liking or disliking of a storyline. How does the way authors convey their story, film noir, western, fairytale, tall tale, all come together or fall apart for the reader?
After the Space Shuttle: What's Next? 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM in Camino Real room (with Arthur Bozlee, Jay Reynolds Freeman, Mike Van Pelt) With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, what's happening with getting men and material into space? How about space tourism? Whither the mission to Mars?
The Science of Science Fiction 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM in Lafayette room (with Scott Beckstead, Kay Tracy, Dani Kollin) A discussion of the science behind the fiction, whether e=mc^2 or the warp drive of Star Trek, or the hyperdrive of Star Wars. How much science is needed? How much care do we need to take to avoid having our science come back and bite the author in the bum?
Sunday, May 27
Self Publishing: Where does it fit in the Literary Food Chain? 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM in Lawrence room (with Kyle Aisteach, Jon Cory, Marty Halpern) Between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, self-publishing has taken off; no longer the classical vanity press, often seen as the redheaded stepchild. Is it? Should it be? Where does this fit in the food chain, or is this about to become the Shark?
Travel is My Drug of Choice 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM in Camino Real room (with Chaz Brenchley, James Stanley Daugherty, Deirdre Saoirse Moen) Avid travelers travel for different reasons. Panelists discuss the motivations behind their enthusiasm.
"Hard Science" Science Fiction Doesn't have to be Hard 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM in Winchester room (with Arthur Bozlee, Scott Beckstead, Veronica Belmont, Kyle Aisteach, Eytan Kollin) What are some books, movies, comic books, etc. that have used GOOD science and still managed to be exciting? What was the bad science that made you howl in pain, could it have been modified to be better science and still keep the story intact?
Monday, May 28
What Do We Know About Mars? 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM in Camino Real room (with Arthur Bozlee, Paula Butler, Kyle Aisteach, Jay Reynolds Freeman) Past, present, and future explorations.
Wednesday, June 13: Speaking for Bay Area Skeptics: Skeptalk:
Tell Me Where to Go, and What to Do When I Get There
7:00 PM, Wednesday, June 13, 2012
La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley
After 20 years on Daddy-duty, I hit the road next January, towing my camper all over the US and Canada. "The Great Science Trek" will include:
* Touring "Big Science" places. I'm listing labs, space bases, important research institutes, ... How can I tour the Agriculture Lab in Albany?
* I plan to speak to groups of: skeptics, astronomers, science writers and bloggers, science cafes, ... Where can I get lists of these? What other types of audience should I seek?
* Amateur astronomers hold big "star parties". I'll observe the sky, and the kinds of telescopes now used, and how observers interact with their scopes. Do amateurs in other sciences have comparable gatherings? I'd love to sample some of those.
* I'll photograph myself at places with scientific names. When I lecture my students about Mars, I can show myself at Mars, Pa., and tell them "I know, because I've BEEN THERE." Any suggestions?
* "Don't Go There": where, and why not. Juarez, Mexico: not safe.
I'll gather input for book-like projects to publish by ~2016:
* Scientific white elephants: The Superconducting Super Collider left a big arc-shaped hole in Texas. Missile silos are being recycled for storage, housing, and a survivalist compound. Big observatories may turn into white elephants. What else might? (Mansions are often too expensive for families to keep. They often turn public, recycled as colleges, hospitals, or musea, and often aren't such great venues, very expensive to maintain.)
* I want to touch rocks deposited during every geological epoch (about 38 epochs in the last 542 million years). It's difficult to find listings of layers' ages because geologists prefer to describe their minerals and how they formed. To get all 38 epochs since the Cambrian will probably require visiting more than 10 sites. Please recommend multi-layer road cuts, cliffs, and other exposures.
* In entomology, I want to learn how locals cope with their pests. Some of those critters have specific behaviors and characteristics that locals have noticed.
* Especially, characteristics of infestations by Argentine ants. They absolutely LOVE my kitchen. They make fantastic supercolonies. Where edges of their supercolonies meet, they can wage perpetual ant-wars, where the front can move back and forth a hundred meters a year. Have you noticed anything about Argentine ants?
* Places rebuilding from disaster: The Bay Bridge was closed for a month after the 1989 earthquake, and its reconstruction should finish any generation now. The Oakland Hills burned in 1991 and now feature bigger homes and smaller trees. Greensburg, Kansas, was demolished by a tornado and rebuilt as a "green" city. Where did destruction defeat a town? Can I determine factors regarding type of disaster, degree of disaster, years since disaster?
* I'll photograph and measure giant pop-art sculptures of people, animals, objects, and so on. I intend to concoct a tongue-in-cheek satire, saying these are traces of giant critters and cultures. Can you suggest where I can find some of these giant figures?
* I'll visit places "Frozen in Time", like Plimouth Plantation, where it's always 1627. By arranging them by date, I can trace development through time. I can track technological evolution in kitchens, windows, chairs, etc. I've noticed that basic components of "comfortably furnished rooms" haven't changed hugely since the early 1700s, it's just that vastly more people can now afford them. Where do you know a place that's "frozen in time"?
I'll bring maps of places listed-so-far.
More detail on my blog.
Saturday, June 30: attending the Northern California Historical Astronomy Luncheon and Discussion Association, viewing 2 private antiquarian collections in Marin County. If you're interested, contact me for details.
AM: Of Beauties and Beasts: The Golden Age of Celestial Cartography. Hundreds of maps, frontispieces, memorabilia from a superb collection!
From 1600 to 1800, celestial cartography reached its peak in beauty and quality with the publication in Europe of a number of breathtaking atlases and prints related to the heavens. Some were maps of lunar or planetary surfaces, or diagrams of the solar system according to various cosmological theories (e.g., the Earth-centered universe of the classical Greeks, the Sun-centered system of Copernicus). But the most striking images were of the constellations. Classical Greek traditions abounded, with allegorical visual representations of heroes and heroines, real and imaginary animals, and scientific and artistic tools and instruments. But why were such constellation images used in star maps?
The 17th Century ushered in the Golden Age of celestial cartography in Europe. 4 individuals particularly advanced the field and influenced the work of other celestial cartographers: Johann Bayer, Johannes Hevelius, John Flansteed, and Johann Bode. Lesser contributions from Andreas Cellarius, Johann Doppelmayr, and John Bevis.
PM: A collection of detailed ship models. These are really big models at 1/4"= 1 ft scale so seeing the real things is really a shocking experience for the arts and craft lover. It is remarkable that so many such delicate creations have survived centuries of violence and accidents to come down to us intact to appreciate.
The ship models mostly are old models built in the 17th and 18th Centuries, mostly in Britain. They are often called Navy Board or Admiralty models. The practice of building very accurate and exquisitely decorated ship models in England appears to date from the time of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th Century. They are considered the pinnacle of the ship modelers' art and many advanced modelers copy the style or make modern replicas to show off their skills.
© Norman Sperling, July 13, 2011
Marty Halpern, another editor, has blogged in More Red Ink about a time when he and I disagreed about stylebooks, among other things, while serving on a panel at the BayCon science fiction convention. The Journal of Irreproducible Results does indeed use different styles than most other publications. Contributors don't have to conform; if we accept a contribution, we will handle that hassle.
Not following the Chicago Manual of Style is NOT an error! The Chicago Manual is hardly the best way to present humor - it's dull and sober and stuffy, the very antithesis of humor. Many editors detest that stuffy antique. Its followers seem like sheeple who mindlessly obey what emperors dictate, even though they can recognize clothing if they see it.
Here are some of our style standards, with some of the reasoning. We welcome other publications and writers adopting any parts of these that appeal to them.
Body type: 11-point Bookman Old Style.
Captions, By-lines, and Sub-heads: 16-point Century Gothic.
Our own advertising: Rockwell.
Bookman, Century Gothic, and Rockwell are the most-readable fonts we have. We use them because we want people to actually read our magazine. Semi-condensed fonts such as Times are harder to read. They cram more text onto the paper, but savings from the printer come at a cost to the reader, and we think the reader is more important. We particularly note that many readers are elderly, and as we age we sympathize with their vision difficulties more and more.
When there is just one table or figure, call it "the table" or "the figure", not "Table 1" or "Figure 1".
Digits are far easier to read than the words for them, and the principal point is ease of reading. Numbers are as tall as capital letters. Spell out "one" except when it is used mathematically as a digit. But all higher numbers should be expressed as digits, even if beginning a sentence.
0 can be ambiguous. If it's clearly the digit, use the digit. If in danger of being mis-read as the letter 'oh', would "zero" work more clearly?
"20th Century", "17th Century", and so on sound stilted, require a mental calculation to subtract to get the dates ... and are often misunderstood, especially by non-Western people. Almost always, they don't mean the specific, technical inventory of years starting with '01 and ending with '00. Almost always, they just handwavingly refer to a century-or-so. It's far clearer and simpler to say "the 1900s" or "the 1600s".
Punctuation in Quotation Marks
Punctuation that is part of what's being quoted goes inside quotation marks. Punctuation that is not part of what's being quoted goes outside of quotation marks. That way you know what's being quoted.
One contributor notes that JIR people seem to have more letters after their names than in them. For JIR's college-educated and technically-oriented audience, 100% understand "%" and are therefore slowed down by seeing it written out as "percent". For people with so many degrees, the same goes for the degree sign.
NASA, US, PM, etc.: full capitals, no periods. Styles that put them "down" were meant to save expensive labor on Mergenthaler linotype machines ... which nobody has used for decades. Instead, let's save clarity.
Cities which are very well known and unambiguous need not be followed by their state, province, or country.
Almost all capitals, and major-league cities (in major sports) are that well known and unambiguous: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, even Green Bay. Nobody thinks those are anywhere but the big place.
The same applies to intellectually-major-league towns: Ann Arbor, Bangalore, Berkeley, Boulder, Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Corvallis, Eugene, Evanston, Huntsville, Ithaca, Laramie, Lawrence, Leiden, Los Alamos, Norman, Oak Ridge, Palo Alto, Pasadena, Pune, Princeton, Provo, Rolla, Stony Brook, Tempe, Tucson, Uppsala. [How many have you visited? How many have you spoken at?]
Well-known unique names of smaller places, too, need not be followed by a state name: Albuquerque, Altoona, Amarillo, Bar Harbor, Baton Rouge, Bemidji, Cape Town, Castelgondolfo, Chattanooga, Des Moines, Duluth, El Paso, Fresno, Frobisher Bay, Galveston, Kalamazoo, Kokomo, Little Rock, Macon, Mobile, Muncie, Nairobi, Olduvai, Omaha, Oshkosh, Paducah, Perth, Sacramento, Santa Fe, Saskatoon, Schenectady, Spokane, Tallahassee, Terre Haute, Thule, Timbuktu, Tulsa, Walla Walla, Yakima.
Places that are not well-enough known, regardless of how distinctive, must stipulate the state, province, or country. Faaa, Iquique, Kamloops, Kano, Pismo Beach. [How many of those can you place?] When in doubt, add the state or country name.
When ambiguous, stipulate the state or country name: Alexandria, Athens, Austin, Berlin, Cambridge, Hyderabad, Kansas City, London, Macedonia, Manchester, Moscow, Oakland, Oxford, Peoria, Portland, Rochester, San Jose, Santiago, Springfield, Valparaiso, Wilmington. [How many of those have you been in 2 of? How many Springfields?]
Universities and other institutions which name their state should avoid repeating the state name after the city: "University of Oklahoma, Norman"; we don't need to say "Norman, Oklahoma" because we just said "Oklahoma".
For hyphenation at line breaks, the upper fragment of the word has to be pronounced pretty close to the way it is in the whole word. Fragments that are pronounced differently cause discordance in the reader, badly interrupting the content.
Usually capitalized, when meant as names of major, important fields: Science, Nature.
Usually capitalized, when meant as names of specific celestial places: Moon, Earth, Sun, Universe. Earth is the proper name of this planet, not merely a handful of dirt. Capitalize it the same way you must capitalize Venus and Mars, the planets on either side of it. I'm an astronomer so I can state that authoritatively. Lower-casing the name of this planet just because it's the home of the Chicago Manual of Style is a great insult to the 6 billion humans here, including all of our customers, most of whom have grown rather fond of Earth.
© Norman Sperling, May 26, 2011
The Maker Faire was a wall-to-wall joy. I got to roam a little and was boggled time and again. But mostly I was chained to my booth, which my son Mason dubbed as all about "smarts and smiles". As a "Commercial Maker" I could sell over-the-counter, and did quite well. Our new book Don't Try This in High School attracted lots of attention and good sales. Contributing author Jim Stanfield helped out at the booth and showed how his real-life ellipse compass works. Mason helped a lot both days. My son Lumin demonstrated how to solve a 6x6x6 Rubik's Cube, which therefore promptly sold, followed shortly by a 5x5x5. I also sold off a rich variety of old books (partly from my own library), and a hodgepodge of other stuff. I also had mobius strips and a klein bottle, which lots of parents excitedly explained to their children.
In addition to the much-appreciated greenbacks, I got another form of enrichment: hundreds of sharp and cool people telling how much they like my creations. Approval and endorsement does absolute wonders for the spirits. That heartened me tremendously the 3 previous times I was a Maker, too.
This time, I had a booth-mate, and it helped him just as much. Steve Johnson introduced his new book Have Fun Inventing, and delicious giclee art prints of humorous bicycles, clothes, and other inventions. He sold a lot on the spot. But the nonstop plaudits lifted his spirits even more than the money weighed down his wallet.
I've barely glanced into his new book and love it already. I'll review it in full when I get a chance, but I can tell you right now it's fabulous.
This coming weekend I'll serve on panels at BayCon, the science fiction convention, and sell at SkeptiCal, the Skeptics' convention. My BayCon panel topics are:
* "The New Propaganda" (Society's defenses against falsehoods) May 27, 5:30-7 PM
* "Irreproducible Results" (Science fun and foibles) May 28, 10-11:30 AM
* "Red Empire, or, Being Tide-Locked Isn't So Bad After All" (planets around red dwarves) May 28, 11:30 AM - 1 PM
* and "What's So Punk, Then?" (Past the "cyber" and the "steam", where's the "punk"?) May 30, 1-2:30 PM. I think they put me on this panel because I'm writing a Steampunk astronomy novel, The League of Farsighted Astronomers.
Universal Workshop 2009. Paperback, 6 x 9 inches, 255 pages. ISBN 978-0-934546-55-3. $18.00 http://www.universalworkshop.com/BERE.htm
Reviewed and © by Norm Sperling, November 8, 2010
The constellation of Berenice's Hair is subtle, complex, and beautiful. Generations of astronomy popularizers have retold the 2200-year-old story of Queen Berenice II, her cut hair missing from the temple it was supposed to be in, the authorities placated by being shown the hair in the sky.
This book is the action epic behind that gloss.
Ottewell has a strong voice, sharp wit, and a splendid eye for telling details. He makes the whole story flow remarkably well.
The book, too, is subtle, complex, and beautiful. As a telescope reveals far richer detail about the stars, this book tells far richer detail about the characters, setting, and action. It follows Berenice's royal heritage and parents, 2 royal husbands, court intrigues, and adventures in running Cyrenaica and Egypt.
These tales are far more plausible, and a lot less gory, than classical Greek myths set centuries earlier. This is a modern book for modern readers, including issues our own time cares more about than they did back then. Ottewell tells me that maybe 1/8 of the book comes from historical references, more from his visits to the scenes, and perhaps half is pure fiction.
Exquisitely rare among works of fiction that include astronomy, every single technicality is right - where, when, what can be seen, how things look, and so on. They're integral to the story, not awkwardly pasted on for show, the way non-astronomical writers often do it. We expect this from the author of the popular Astronomical Calendars and Astronomical Companion, and we aren't disappointed.
The illustrations in my copy are placed at the end. Newer versions give the map a full page up front, and place the other pictures where they occur in the tale. More pictures would be better - Ottewell is a fine artist.
The printing and binding are good. Many readers would not even notice that it's a "print-on-demand" volume, their quality has improved so much lately. The text is virtually free of typos.
The scholar in me wants a list of references, and the astronomer in me wants a follow-up for observing the constellation itself. But the latter would be out of place in this book, and easily obtainable on line and in many other books. Perhaps the references could be posted on the book's web page, plus links to observing guides.
by Robert W. Bly. BenBella 2005. $24.00
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 50, no. 1, 2006, p32.
Not all these predictions became reality, as the text explains; some are merely theoretically possible. But the stories open up many interesting avenues. Science fiction predicts so much, and so much of it is based on Science and written by people who understand Science, that there is no surprise in SF predictions becoming real.
No surprise, but lots of wonder, sometimes at how far-sighted writers were, sometimes at how near-sighted. Some advances were anticipated by centuries, some by just a few years, and quite a number of scientific advances caught the writers by surprise.