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Re: Recruiting Science / Physics Students

Leigh Palmer <palmer@SFU.CA> wrote:

"It was not clear from Bill's posting where the science left off and the fiction began in his "Dark Visitor" story. If it was intended that the discovery of Pluto was achieved because of supposed unattributed perturbations in Neptune's orbit, that is not the case. ..." (His full message is at end.)

Bill’s reply to Leigh:

SUMMARY: I don’t agree, but even if planetary perturbations and Lowell’s predictions had nothing to do with Pluto’s discovery, I would still shamelessly exploit this widely held belief. Also without shame, the large headline of my Drexel University newspaper article (reproduced at ) intentionally has an extremely vulgar interpretation, in the hope that students will cut it out, tell others about it, etc. That article tells the same early-universe physics given below and explains how large stars form black holes, etc. but its vulgar title is why it may attract Dark Visitor’s target readers (people not currently interested in science.) The Asian challenge (outlined in my original post) is so strong that substantially more science students must recruited.

DETAILS: I give two brief quotes (From hits 4 & 6 of a Google search on: Pluto + Discovery) to support my view about Pluto’s discovery:

(1)"The story of Pluto's discovery begins with Percival Lowell. ... Lowell founded an observatory and funded three separate searches for the mysterious "Planet X." ..."


(2)"In January 1929 Clyde W Tombaugh ... joined the staff at Flagstaff, with the task of finding Planet X. ... The mass of Pluto is now known accurately since a satellite Charon has been discovered. Pluto's mass is 0.002 Earth masses, while Lowell required Planet X to have seven Earth masses to produce the effects on the other planets. The mystery remains as to how Lowell was able to predict the orbit so accurately. ..."

From: HistTopics/Neptune_and_Pluto.html

I don’t really think a small black hole passed our solar in the late 1920s and perturbed Neptune, nor that one will pass in 2008 and throw Earth into an ice age, as Dark Visitor suggests. I used improbable, but physical possible, events to scare my target readers, hoping to awaken an interest in physics. I exploited the fact that early universe was denser; typical stars were larger, often formed in pairs, aged rapidly, and produced several generations of paired black holes before our sun was even born. I also exploited the common belief that Lowell observed perturbations and predicted Pluto’s location. (As additional proof, note that Pluto’s symbol in the 1930s is a superposition of the letters P&L.) Percival Lowell was lucky - Dark Visitor gives a short proof, which non-technical high-school students can follow, that Earth moves the sun 6.5 times more than Pluto can move Neptune, even when they are at their minimum separation (17AU). All this in an effort to make an ice age
beginning in 2008 seem plausible, and to provide a scary vehicle to explain some astrophysics and climate mechanisms, without teaching in the conventional style. (Dark Visitor is a recruiting tool. – my target reader is smart, but currently has no interest in science.)

With regard to other science / fiction in Dark Visitor:

I believe I have been accurate (usually – see next paragraph) with physical facts; however, speculations, which may be wrong, are included. For example, in view of the above early-universe facts, Dark Visitor speculates: "that there may be more small, stellar-core, black-hole pairs than all the current stars." It also notes that there are more stars than grains of sand on Earth’s beaches, but this is plagiarized. (More efforts to make it plausible that the second black hole of a pair is arriving in 2008.) I would be interested if others think "more paired black holes than stars" is reasonable as this is an original speculation.

The "usually" above is necessary because I intentionally placed some physics errors in Dark Visitor, which I call "Easter Eggs." One resembles a typographical error, but most are plausible false statements in sections where the physics gets boring (to my target reader). I did this, against my better nature and without shame, because the book often gives brief digests and then encourages the reader to skip the longer sections that follow. Skipping all of Chapter 10 during the first reading is strongly recommended. (I don’t want to lose my target reader in astronomical coordinate system details.)

Dark Visitor has a postscript that gives hints about most, but not all, of these Easter Eggs to encourage a second, more detailed reading. It offers the "World Class Egg Hunter" certificate for anyone finding five or more Easter Eggs. If there are unintentional errors in Dark Visitor, they are (of course) just "Easter Eggs" for which I gave no hints.

; ^ )

In addition to the postscript hints, the Easter Eggs usually contradict more detailed discussion elsewhere in Dark Visitor. An example of a "plausible false statement" is the back-cover statement: "The dark visitor will never be seen in telescopes because black holes do not reflect sun light." This is explicitly contradicted in the text by a discussion of Hawking’s radiation. This Easter Egg also is contradicted by the fact that, when closer (currently the dark visitor is 130AU from the sun), in-falling solar wind may become denser and luminous - a "mini-quasar" effect. Easter Eggs may encourage students to carry the book around on campus, exposing it to others. (Some may do this to fill idle moments by searching for hidden Easter Eggs.)

Asian pressure (more than 15 times US production of science degree graduates) has made me completely shameless in my recruiting efforts. Do your part. Sponsor a science fair, egg dropping contest, etc. Get the English teachers to require a science fiction story that does not violate any physics. (Your physics students can read for errors.) Help the coach / biology teacher measure nerve conduction speeds, reaction times. etc. - anything for reaching out to the general student. Organize to get textbook companies to offer prizes / awards. Teaching students already interested in science is no longer enough!

Sincerely, Bill

Leigh Palmer <palmer@SFU.CA> wrote:It was not clear from Bill's posting where the science left off and the
fiction began in his "Dark Visitor" story. If it was intended that the
discovery of Pluto was achieved because of supposed unattributed
perturbations in Neptune's orbit, that is not the case. Pluto was
discovered by hard work, observing the sky all the way around the
ecliptic photographically over a long period of time. That story is
utterly unlike the discovery of Neptune based on unattributed
perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. Neptune was discovered by Galle
after an hour's visual search, about one degree from where it was
predicted to be by Leverrier based upon those perturbations.

Supposed anomalies in Neptune's orbit, unattributable to the known
planets, led to speculation (and some search effort) that a tenth
planet of significant mass lay beyond Neptune. Such speculation was put
to rest, however, when a more accurate historical ephemeris for Neptune
was established. The story behind that is one I love to tell, and none
the less significant because it led to a null result rather than the
discovery of another planet.

Johann Galle discovered Neptune in 1846. The period of Neptune's orbit
is about 165 years. By the 1970's it hadn't even gone around the Sun
once since its discovery, hence its orbit was somewhat imprecisely
determined. The supposed anomalies in its ephemeris that led to the
tenth planet speculation were near the uncertainty limit; they were not
robust. In 1979 a Caltech astronomer, Charles Kowal wanted to know if
there were prediscovery data on Neptune that might aid in refining its
ephemeris, a technique that is frequently employed when refining the
orbit of a near Earth asteroids near the time of its discovery by
searching astronomical photographic archives. He noted that Neptune had
appeared very near the apparent position of Jupiter on 23 January 1613,
a phenomenon called an "appulse". Kowal contacted Stillman Drake, a
Galileo scholar at University of Toronto. He asked Drake to have a look
at Galileo's notebooks for the period around that time and report
anything unusual he might find therein. Drake did so, and it seems that
Galileo did see and record the presence and position of Neptune! (1,2)

This is the best example I know to illustrate the value of a well kept


1 C. T. Kowal and S. Drake, "Galileo's Observations of Neptune",
Nature, 28, 311 (1980)
2 S. Drake and C. T. Kowal, "Galileo's Sighting of Neptune", Scientific
American 243 (6) (1980) 52-59

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