Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Happy 40th, Celestron 5

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What is "doing research"?

[Previously posted on Facebook.]

A short note about science. I keep hearing people say "I've done my own research" when they mean they've looked at summaries of two or three papers.

When I do that, I don't call it research. I say "I've glanced at a little of the research literature" or something like that.

Doing research means not just finding a few papers, but finding all the papers that bear upon what you are researching, whether you agree with them or not, and then working through every word of all of them in detail, checking the logic, the mathematics, the experimental design, and the underlying science.

I am not qualified to do that in most fields. I wonder how many people "doing their own research" about COVID understand PCR, RNA, antibodies, statistical significance testing, Bayesian vs. Fisherian methods, and a lot of applicable medicine and physiology that is completely beyond my ken.

While it's good that people are learning how to look things up in scholarly journals, taking a quick look at things is not the same as doing what scientists do. Specific qualifications are needed, as well as lots of hard work.

A safety net for students from failed colleges

[Originally posted on Facebook.]

As colleges reopen — especially about a year from now — I urge them to consider the plight of people who had almost finished their degrees and then couldn't continue, either because their college collapsed, or because it changed radically, or because of personal circumstances.

Some colleges are going out of business simply because demand is down. The college-age population has leveled off, but many colleges were accustomed to 1970s-style growth. Mid-size state colleges are delivering a lot of affordable education and are cutting into the demand for more expensive colleges.

Traditionally, a college won't grant a degree unless at least the final half of the course work was done there. We may need to rethink that. Perhaps the diploma and the name of the degree could be a little different if more than 50% of the work was transfer credit — but let people finish their degrees at institutions that are functioning and affordable.

I'll even suggest a pair of degree inscriptions, BAT and BST, Bachelor of Arts Transferred and Bachelor of Science Transferred, or in Latin (we must have Latin), Baccalaureus Artium Translatus and Baccalaureus Scientiae Translatus. These would be degrees based mostly on course work done elsewhere, but completed at the institution that grants the degree.


Did I have COVID-19?

Some of you know that I've been out sick for a couple of weeks (which is why so little was written in the Daily Notebook). Specifically, I've had an illness with irritable bowel symptoms, fever, headache, and cough. My COVID test came back negative, but the PCR test has a high false negative rate, and mine was given relatively late (on the 7th day of symptoms), further raising the risk of a false negative. The result came back on day 14, when my quarantine would in any case have been over.

So I still suspect I may have had a skirmish with COVID. The symptoms fit, and influenza (the leading alternative) is out of season. In my case, days 1 and 2 were prodromal, with mild symptoms that I thought wouldn't amount to much. On days 3 and 4 I had fever around 102.5 F, with some headache and cough. The bowel symptoms abated by the end of the first week, leaving a pesky dry cough that is still with me.

Whatever it was, I survived! Still coughing and tired, though.

Kodak, the company where it was always 1955

The other day, while listening to a speech on how a business needs to have a vision for the future, I realized what went wrong with Kodak: they had no vision for the future. They wanted photography to always be what it was around 1955.

In fact, if you took a photographer from 1955 and propelled him to 1995, all he would see in the Kodak product line would be higher-performance versions of familiar products. Everything worked better, but nothing had changed radically.

George Eastman's original vision was precisely what Kodak had become by 1955: People with inexpensive cameras and no specific training, able to take pictures of their families and vacations and get them developed and printed. Kodak made its money on the consumables (film and the supplies for developing and printing). Kodak only made low-end cameras, leaving it to others to make cameras for professionals.

Kodak lost its grip on consumer cameras first. Instead of a Box Brownie or Instamatic, the casual photographer of the late 1960s was likely to use a 35-mm compact camera from Canon or Minolta, with rangefinder focusing and auto exposure — much better pictures with just a little extra cost and effort. The film and processing cost the same.

But more to the point, Kodak ignored the digital revolution. The biggest change in casual photography in the 2000s has been that we use computers to view pictures and send them to each other. The print on photographic paper is no longer the end product. And there goes Kodak's market for printing services and supplies.

The fact that we take pictures digitally is a bigger technical change, but less of a lifestyle change. One could imagine taking pictures on film and getting them digitized (in fact, you can do that today). But when digital sensors matured, Kodak's market fell away because there was no demand for film.

Kodak experimented with digital sensors, made some good ones for scientific markets, and even made the first DSLR, but didn't pursue the idea because their vision was too narrow. They had already abdicated from the camera market, and now the camera was the whole thing! The names most synonymous with photography today are not Kodak and Ilford but Canon and Nikon. Kodak didn't even make particularly good inkjet printers, the ongoing product nearest to their original vision.

Kodak wanted to sell you film and processing. They had no vision for a different world.

One of our secrets for a long and happy marriage

Because I was sick at the time, I didn't write a Notebook entry wishing Melody a happy 38th Anniversary on July 25. Let me do that now, and incorporate by reference all the good things I've said about how we met and came to love each other.

I want to add something, an insight I've thought about this year.

The way we understood it, part of the marriage promise was not to turn into an unsuitable person.

By that I mean that we felt we had an obligation to know ourselves well enough at the time of marriage, and not to change ourselves into something unsuitable later.

"I gotta be me" cannot be the motive of a married person. That doesn't mean I'm not able to change my opinions — I'm not required to stop thinking and learning — but I can't adopt personal habits and values that are contrary to the pledge I've already made to Melody.

In the old days, we saw marriages break up because one of the spouses took to gambling, or drinking, or promiscuity, or some other vice. More recently, I've seen stranger things: middle-aged married people suddenly deciding to change their sexual orientation or even their gender. It is very hard for me to believe that such deep inborn traits are really subject to change at such an advanced age. "I was born this way" doesn't mix well with "I made this change as an act of freedom." And if you did it as an act of freedom, why did you think it got you out of promises previously made?


Happy 40th anniversary, Celestron 5


While setting up to do a test of some other equipment last night (August 1), I realized that it was 40 years, to the hour, since I received and first used my Celestron 5, right here at this house.

At the time, this was my mother's house, and I was home from graduate school for a month. I had been to Atlanta to take Melody to a dinner theatre performance of "Gigi," and when I got home, very late, the box containing the C5 was here.

The wooden tripod that I was building for it wasn't ready, so I quickly got it onto a camera tripod, took a look at Altair, and was glad to see a sharp star image.

This was my second venture into amateur astronomy, the one that didn't end. I got my first telescope in 1969 and a better telescope (an RV-6) in 1970. When I went to college I was too busy for astronomy, and I sold the RV-6 in 1975. Then, in the summer of 1979, as Melody and I looked at Venus while riding back from Watson's Mill, I was drawn back into it, and I got a small rich-field reflector and then, in 1980, the C5.

Now the C5 has a coated corrector plate and a much larger finderscope, as well as much better eyepieces. For this 40th-anniversary session, I put it on the pier that Melody's grandfather built for me around 1994, took a picture of the moon, and then viewed the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn with a Radian 14-mm eyepiece.


In the spirit of the occasion, I took the moon picture with minimal accessories and a somewhat older camera (Canon 40D, vintage 2007). I took the eyepiece and diagonal out of the telescope and inserted the oldest piece of astrophotography equipment I'm still using — an Edmund Scientific 1.25-inch T-thread nosepiece, from my early days, around 1970 — with a modern Canon T-ring. The picture is a single 1/1000-second exposure in Live View.

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