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This is the fifth and last part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4.

This is my final write-up from QED 2016. I know I’ve left out a ton of stuff – inevitable given that there were so many simultaneous tracks. I also realise I haven’t written much about the awards or the Saturday evening activities, but as I wasn’t taking any notes, my writings would be purely from memory, which is highly dodgy at the best of times. I will note however that the QED Award to Crispian Jago was thoroughly well deserved. Crispian has been a force of nature over the past years, bringing satire to a whole new level and crystallising how so many of us felt about pseudoscience. This has not been an easy time, as he has been afflicted by cancer in the last year. He was inundated by well-wishers throughout the conference. I wish him the very best in the months ahead.

Of Mousetraps and Men

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The penultimate speaker on the main stage was broadcaster Michael Blastland, with a talk about how seemingly trivial things may form the most important part of life for all of us. We are brought up to believe in simple stories, that A causes B, and so if we implement seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, the outcome will be predictable. Of course this is not what happens. Life is more like a Heath Robinson machine with things constantly going wrong and taking different paths. Just because A happens, B might not.

We are lazy storytelling machines.

He talked about great artists and great achievers – Darwin and Lennon for example – who might not have achieved greatness were it not for serendipity. He looked at chain smokers and red meat eaters who lived to a hundred years old, despite the odds. He discussed studies where teenage delinquents from similar backgrounds had massively different life outcomes.

Science is all about the average, the aggregate, the loss of individuality. But what if it’s the particular that drive the cause?

He talked then about prescription drugs, such as statins and heartburn medications, where the lifetime benefit to people on the medications vs those not taking additional medications, while scientifically significant, is somewhat marginal. What we know at a global level may often tell us little at a local level.

Some big effects will almost certainly never affect you. But some little fuckers almost certainly will.

So what? Well, apart from some suggestions on getting into the details, adapting and experimenting, we are left with far more questions than answers. We all know that life is hugely complex and that chaos and complexity dominate our lives. We all know that we cannot predict our individual futures, but we can extrapolate some general trends, and these trends are important, no matter how chaotic the raw data. The fact that some people will beat the smoking lottery is not an argument for telling people to keep smoking. The fact that some unvaccinated kids will be mildly affected by measles if they get it, is not an argument for telling everyone not to get immunised. The fact that we can’t predict next week’s weather over Slough or Cleethorpes is not an argument against climate change. Is his argument that science is shit just because it cannot predict individual outcomes in every situation? But then again, when did science ever make such claims?

Here’s Michael Blastland talking to the RSA on a related topic.

The Deadly Dowsing Rod

If you were asked what the most dangerous pseudoscience is, the answer is unlikely to be water divining. It’s first cousin, however, is certainly way up there. When the art of water divining is extended to bomb detection the cost in human lives is enormous, as the people of Iraq unfortunately discovered.

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Meirion Jones is an investigative journalist who reported this incredible story to the world.  He handed us a small, cheaply made dowsing rod that looks eerily similar to a retractable antenna on old TV sets attached to a hand-grip. During the Iraq War, this device  – the ADE 651 – got approved by armies around the world without a shred of evidence that it actually worked. The mastermind behind the device was Jim McCormick, a small time crook who became fabulously wealthy as the devices, costing up to 40,000 dollars each, sold in staggeringly large quantities.

It does exactly what it’s designed to do. It makes money.

Jim McCormick

Meirion asked around, and eventually found a whistleblower who was able to provide parts for the device. The device was tested by scientists and was shown to be completely inert, unable to detect anything. It turned out that the British military had a role in facilitating its distribution, so they were disinclined to help the BBC investigation.

Speaking as a professional, I would say that’s an empty plastic case.

Sydney Alford, engineer who tested the device.

McCormick and his accomplices were arrested and tried. McCormick was convicted of fraud in 2013 and is currently serving a 10 year sentence. The device has been withdrawn from most militaries, but clones and similar devices that claim to detect HIV and other diseases continue to pop up on a regular basis.

 

And that was it!

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All that was left were the many thanks to everyone involved – the organisers, speakers, volunteers and panelists who did such a good job over the weekend. Hopefully see you all again next year.

Further Reading

David Gamble discusses Susan Blackmore’s talk on Out of Body Experiences. 

Dr Marieanne reviews QED

Clairewitchfiles review of QED

Britt Hermes recaps some of the best moments of the conference

Hayley shares her thoughts on the conference

Caroline Watt’s recap of the conference. 

Some further notes from David Gamble. 

 
 

 

 

 

This is the fourth part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

The March of Unreason

Taking a break from the formal talks (and I am sorry I could not see Paul Zenon), I went to a panel discussion discussing the forthcoming British exit from the EU and the “post factual” age we are now apparently in.

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The discussion featured NHS Campaigner Emma Runswick,  journalist Hugo Dixon, Max Goldman from Sense About Science, broadcaster Michael Blastland and law professor Michael Dougan. The panel was chaired by Geoff Whelan of Manchester Skeptics.

“A lie can run around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boot on.”

Emma observed that on complex political issues people tend to follow the advice of friends over experts.

People are more likely to trust their friends over experts, because they think that experts don’t have their interests at heart.

Michael Dougan broke the Brexit lies down into four parts –

  1. Telling lies about the here and now: According to the media now, the referendum was won by the working class of northern England. This is not true. The southern English middle class vote was by far the most important.
  2. Fantasies about the future: Boris Johnson is still being dishonest about “special deals” that Britain will get upon exit.
  3. Rubbishing anybody who disagrees. The message being put out at the moment is that anyone who disagrees is anti democratic.
  4. Debasement of parliamentary democracy. A referendum only used when you can’t get what you want in parliament.

Max observed that fact-checking was relatively new to UK politics.

Are we in a “post truth society”?

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Hugo Dixon made the point that demagoguery was a direct result of the financial crisis. When politicians don’t seem to be up to the job, voters start looking elsewhere.

In the land of the liars, the authentic liar is king.

Michael Dougan expressed a concern that once people find a way to get their views accepted in the mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before they seek a new target. What next? Global warming? Women’s rights?

Michael Blastland felt that a lot of the post factual talk was a direct result of scandals within the expert community.

There is nothing so damaging to the domain of evidence than the preacher who sins.

 

The conversation could easily have gone on for a few more hours. It was a packed room and at one stage, about thirty hands went up when the moderator asked for question from the floor. As was clearly evident from the panel discussion, Brexit is causing considerable anxiety to skeptics, scientists and rationalists in Britain and everywhere. This story has a long way to run yet.

Last piece coming up.

This is the third part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1 and Part 2.

This post covers some of the talks on Sunday. Matt Parker did a fantastic job as MC for the QED conference. Matt, who did a talk on maths some years ago, was uncannily witty and able to manage any situation effortlessly. Who knew that a maths training could lead to such important skills?

That video

Hot off the presses is the video of the event. It was shown for a second time on Sunday morning with a very subtle modification for the second day.

Mermaids and Crappy Science TV

The headline speaker on Sunday Morning was Cara Santa Maria. Cara is known to many in the skeptical movement as a new co-host on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She talked about her upbringing into a Mormon family, and her mental health challenges during her early career in media.

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It’s clear from her presentation that she is passionate about science and science communication. She has huge experience negotiating the American media landscape and  has a few thoughts on it’s merits and downsides.

The Discovery Channel has really shit the bed recently.

The American science media landscape is very different to Europe. There is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and there are few incentives from government to provide quality, honest programming. In the past, news programs and factual programs, though not profitable in themselves, were funded from game-shows. Nowadays everything has to show a profit. This has lead to a race to the bottom: and lowest common denominator programming is the result with ratings beating truth each time. Recent examples include speculations about the continued existence of mermaids and megalodons on popular science channels.

Would you be opposed to dinosaurs still being alive in the Amazon?

Unnamed Discovery Channel executive after pitching a science show.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but Cara believes that it can be tackled through strong science role models such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, fighting back against the worst excesses of bad programming, creating popular DIY content, financial supports for good content and demanding change in the industry. It will be a long war.

Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart.

Cara has some thoughts on good science communication:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but always underestimate their vocabulary.
  3. A big effort in communicating science should be put into the process of thinking, not the spouting of facts. Teach people to think critically for themselves.
  4. Be yourself. If you are pretending to be someone you’re not, people will disengage.
  5. Meet people where they are. We need to understand the cultural background and unchallenged assumptions that people have before we can talk to them meaningfully.
  6. Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart. The best science communicators talk to people in their language.

Here’s Cara talking about GMOs on the Dave Rubin show.

Duck Vaginas? Yes. Duck Vaginas.

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You had to be there. Sally LePage’s presentation was mind-blowing. Sally is an evolutionary biologist doing a PhD in sexual selection in Oxford. In a marvellously entertaining talk, she talked about the history of study into animal sex organs, noting that Darwin was really the first person in two millennia to take an academic interest in the field.

When a male has lots of sex it’s called sex. When females have sex, it’s called promiscuity.

She contrasted the research done on male animal genitalia to female animal genitalia, noting that the former category had been studied much more than the latter. Which is a pity, because without understanding the female reproductive organs, it’s difficult to come to conclusions on the variety of male sex organs. The duck is a case in point. Everyone knows that the duck has a corkscrew penis, but far less people (at least until this weekend) would have been aware that the duck vagina is even more elaborately shaped, allowing the female to decide which of the prospective males will become the father.

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A beetle’s penis. Just in case you were asking.

Even eggs are much less passive than sperms. Where conventional wisdom has the active sperm penetrating the egg, recent research shows that chemicals in on the surface of the egg actively collude in accepting the male DNA inside.

Sally delivered a master-class presentation here. She is a clear, entertaining presenter with a marvellous sense of humour and timing. Great work.

Here’s Sally talking about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Not done yet…

This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.

The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.

The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.

Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.

He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams

We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology  maturing rapidly.

Here’s the video, by the way

He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.

He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.

If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?

He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.

The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.

Sheikh Zaki Yamani

He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.

He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.

He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.

The environment is starting to send back invoices.

He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.

Then he ran out of time.

Whew!

Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.

Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.

Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!

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Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).

The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.

On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.

Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.

He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.

He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.

Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.

For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.

Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.

Now on to Part 3

I only started watching Game of Thrones a few months ago. Having finally brought myself up to date, I am converted. Here are some of the reasons why. Lots of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, my apologies.

The Geography

I was originally attracted to Game of Thrones when I discovered that southern Westeros was just a slightly modified, upturned and greatly enlarged version of the island of Ireland. King’s Landing is Galway, Casterly Rock is Dublin, and Oldtown is Belfast. Sort of.

There are also interesting similarities with Britain, with King’s Landing not so different, geographically, to London; and Lannister and Stark not echoing Lancaster and York. The Great Wall is clearly a nod in the direction of Hadrian’s Wall, just south of the Scottish borders.

Imprinted over this is a greater European picture. Game of Thrones is set in a region far greater than the UK and Ireland, reaching all the way from Scandinavia to North Africa. You can see traces of cultures throughout the series. The primary focus is English, with Northern and Southern accents plainly evident. Dorne is Spain and Essos is Middle Eastern.

The History

The Game of Thrones borrows nearly everything from the Middle Ages. These were violent times, and nothing is left to the imagination. The castles and keeps are from that period, as is the weaponry and clothing. The tortures, murders and battles are brutally medieval and fights for supremacy are truly Machiavellian.

While the North is a gloomy, dreary place, full of capricious attacks and Viking rampages, Kings Landing is altogether more Byzantine. The slave-kingdoms of the East echo an Islamic caliphate, with “Khaleesi” Daenerys married to the Khan of a Mongol-like horde. The celibate Night Watch watchers are a semi-religious cast: monks of a bygone age.

The Characters

The landscape and historical setting is greatly enhanced by its cast of heroes, pawns and villains. Foremost among them is Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage. Tyrion is wonderful – delightfully intelligent, cunning, debauched, humorous and empathic, while suffering damaging abuse and ridicule often from those closest to him. You can’t help but root for him.

Empathy with the misfits and marginalised is a common theme throughout the series. The girl Arya, who would be a boy; Brienne of Tarth, a grown up in the same vein; Bran the crippled boy on his mission to the north; the devious eunuch Varys; John Snow, the illegitimate son of Ned Stark – none of these are minor roles.

Then there are the shades of light and dark. While there are a few unredeemable monsters, many characters are more complex. Few heroes are whiter than white. Catelyn Stark’s treatment of John Snow is one example, as are the motivations of Littlefinger and Sansa Stark in the last series – both people stepping outside their assigned characters when events demand it.

The Stories

The older I get, the more I detest the straightforward story, because nothing in life is straightforward. Most of the time, it’s all incidental mayhem. The creators of Game of Thrones capture this perfectly. There is often an aimlessness about the journeys and unexpected tragedies are alarmingly commonplace.

But the stories, as they are, are compelling. John Snow’s seduction by Ygritte and his subsequent betrayal is heartbreaking, as is Ned Stark’s treatment by Cersei and Joffrey. Tyrion competently defends Kings Landing only to be disgraced by his father. The comeuppance of Theon Greyjoy, a man deserving of his fate, is almost too much to bear.

And you think the stories are going in a certain direction when – BAM – they turn into something altogether more ghastly. The Red Wedding, anyone?

A link to today?

Many science fiction and fantasy stories tell us more about today than they do about the times they were written. Game of Thrones is no different. It’s a modern tale in that it speaks to contemporary gender roles, despite an official insistence (by the likes of Tywin Lannister) on traditionalism. Arya and Brienne want more as women in a largely patriarchal culture. Homosexual relationships are seen as normal, if still somewhat secretive.

Ravens and the little birds of Lord Varys serve as a rudimentary Internet, and Varys’ character speaks to achievement by merit as opposed to noble background.

Unlike the Lord of the Rings, there is less racism. There is bad and good in all cultures. This is clearest with the Wildlings, as they flee from the terror to their north. The Night Watch acknowledge them as humans like themselves, with the misfortune of living on the wrong side of the Wall.

There is also an interplay between religion and atheism taking place that mirrors the outside world. Stanis Baratheon represents a world of religious fanaticism while other characters are more agnostic in their outlook. This, of course, is not an issue of this age alone, but in a world threatened by ISIS and Islamist fanaticism it rings a bitter note.

Final note?

I cannot wait until the start of series 5. I just can’t.

Nothing much to report about my last day in Singapore as it was all a big rush to make a police statement about the phone, then pack and get to the airport. As ever, people were super friendly. I’m missing it already.

I saw three movies on board:

World War Z: I wasn’t gone on the first part of the film (any horror flick involving kids always seems dreadfully manipulative), but I got hugely into it. Stunning scenes, particularly the wall breach in Jerusalem. This being an airplane movie, Singapore Airlines cut the scene on the jet. Aww.

Red 2: Awful shite. Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Anthony Hopkins, how could you? Did you need the money to pay off a drug debt? Did you even read the script in advance?

Man of Steel: So it’s 2013, and the saviour of the human race is still a tall good looking white American guy with great pecks and great teeth. Plus ça change. A rehash of the 1980s’ Superman 2 film, now with whizz bang graphics and Dolby sound effects. Visually spectacular – particularly the spacecraft scenes – but the endless fighting and boo-hoo nostalgia ruined it for me.

Is may be just me, but I think CGI has ruined Hollywood.

I’ve just finished reading a marvellous historical book: Thomas Asbridge’s “The Crusades – The War for the Holy Land”. There are many things to love about this work. It presents a very coherent narrative all the way through, explaining the key events and the important sequences clearly, without relying on military jargon. It brings many of the protagonists to life, giving you a sense of their inner workings, motivations and weaknesses. It also presents a picture of life through the eyes of the different combatants, providing explanations for sometimes inexplicable actions. Covering almost 200 years of history and a host of different characters, this is no easy thing. I would thoroughly recommend it.

In some ways, the book is not really about the Crusades at all. The book’s focus is the Crusader states of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem; from their establishment to their demise in the late 1200’s. Some Crusades, such as the Second and Fourth Crusades, are barely mentioned and the machinations of popes and princes in Europe take secondary place to the key events in the Levant.  A large section of the book is taken up with the events from 1100 to 1192, when crusading was a relatively minor aspect of life in the “Outremer”.

The role of religion is explored in the book. Unquestionably, religious devotion inspired legions of Crusaders to travel to the Holy Land, provoking a reciprocal commitment to jihad within the Muslim population. It was secular pragmatism, however, that sustained the Crusader states over much of their lifespans. Christian princes formed treaties and alliances with their erstwhile enemies, while cross-cultural trade and commerce flourished in the Near East during this time. Political changes were often a function of practical concerns, brought about by shifting alliances and crises of leadership. Religious idealism, as a force for change, was markedly less effective. Attempts by the clergy to organise their own expeditions usually ended in abject failure, costing the lives of many Crusaders while meriting barely a footnote in the history of the region.

Most of the people in this story lived short, brutal lives. If battle didn’t kill them, illnesses such as cholera and dysentery did the job. Irrespective of whether you were Christian or Muslim, you would have been lucky indeed to reach the age of forty. Children grew up quickly, if they made it to their teens at all. From the many massacres detailed in the book, life was cheap in the extreme. The inhabitants of a besieged city, once fallen, could expect no mercy. Even the elite did not have it easy. Kings and sultans at the height of their powers often succumbed to illnesses or murderous intrigues at a comparatively young age, prompting vicious power struggles amongst remaining family members. Slavery was rife and punishments were exceedingly cruel. How these conditions motivated people to live their lives, sacrificing all for the dreams of salvation, we can only guess.

Although Asbridge was eager not to make connections between the Islamic / Christian culture wars of today, I feel that an altogether different, more enduring parallel can be made between then and now. I was struck by a sense of familiarity reading about characters such as Baldwin I, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart and Louis IX. Despite a gap of nearly one millennium, these individuals came across as surprisingly modern to me. It struck me that they were not unlike modern businessmen, with interests to protect, opportunities to exploit and competitors to fend off. The elites operated in a relatively lawless world, similar to the modern corporate landscape, differing only in the amount of blood spilled. Their levels of strategic insight would put many an MBA to shame. These leaders benefitted greatly from advances in technology such as trebuchets, crossbows, navies and Greek Fire, while setting up information systems using messengers, homing pigeons, spies and an elaborate network of express couriers, in the case of later Malmuk rulers. I can’t help but think, were you to transport Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch or Steve Jobs back to these times they would have readily donned a suit of armour, leading their armies into battle. When it comes to business, some things never change.

(via NASA HQ)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is unquestionably one of the best communicators that the scientific community has at the moment. He is an astronomy wonk and all of his talks on the subject are bursting with enthusiasm and passion for his chosen subject. When it comes to public outreach and inspiring new generations of scientists and science fans, I put him up there with Carl Sagan.

He was recently a guest on the Rationally Speaking podcast with Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galaf, and he did not disappoint. In the podcast, Neil talks about Obama’s recent NASA announcement, and how it will shape space exploration in the coming decades.

Tyson states that no humans will be going to Mars any time soon. Major expeditions need major, sustained funding and this can only happen if at least one of three fundamental drivers are in place: the glorification of a deity or king, the search for wealth and the need for self-preservation. In essence, power, money and war. None of these driving reasons can currently be used to justify the landing of humans on the Red Planet.

I would note two honorable exceptions to Tyson’s rule: the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider. Both projects were monumentally expensive, but nevertheless none of the reasons outlined above were in place. Tyson notes that the end of the Cold War caused the US superconducting collider project to be cancelled in 1989, but this doesn’t explain why the EU persisted with the LHC as the end of the Cold War affected Europe to just as great a degree.

At the end of the podcast, Tyson discusses the recent movie Avatar and some of the movie’s more badly executed concepts. It’s a delightful discussion. I had to laugh when he talked about the creatures with their own USB ports..

This is a top-class podcast from a top-class communicator so if you get a chance, have a listen.

Rationally Speaking : Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Need For a Space Program

The Greatest Show on Earth

I’m currently reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth“. The premise of the book is simple. Dawkins presents the case for evolution in the face of those who fervently believe that is it isn’t so. His thesis uses the metaphor of a crime scene to tie together all the clues, and Dawkins comprehensively shows that there is only one suspect in town – evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, with numerous sources such as comparative anatomy, molecular biology, fossil evidence and continental drift, all pointing to evolution through natural selection as the only reasonable explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. Evolution has even been witnessed in numerous laboratory experiments. Dawkins leaves no stone unturned in presenting the case for evolution. It’s delivered with the enthusiasm of a child, the simplicity of a teacher and the forcefulness of a barrister who knows he has an open-and-shut case on his hands.

I can’t praise Dawkins’ book highly enough. It’s full of fascinating digressions and factoids and it takes the reader on a rollercoaster trip through space and time as it presents the evidence, often in considerable detail. I don’t personally believe it will matter a jot to the beliefs of ardent creationists, but to the interested layman it will help to explain how intellectually bankrupt their beliefs are.

It was with this frame of mind that I read the transcripts of the Richard Dawkins interview on the Late Late Show (a top chat show on Irish television). I was astounded. As most people know, Dawkins authored a best-selling book on religion in 2006 called The God Delusion. It was a full frontal attack on religion, calling out the nonsense within and attempting to put religion under the microscope and into the sphere of public debate. Ryan Tubridy, the Late Late Show host, interviewed Dawkins a few times about it on radio and it always lead to some lively back-and-forth battles between Dawkins and his detractors. That was in 2006 and 2007. Now in 2009, Dawkins has published a new book on an altogether different subject, yet Tubridy could not resist the temptation to bring the discourse back to his atheism, and to inject sensationalism wherever possible – (“So what is the Vatican then? Toy Town?”, “Do you see God as believable as the Easter Bunny?”, etc.). None of these issues are discussed in Dawkins’ latest book, leading me to the conclusion that Ryan Tubridy didn’t even bother to read it.

Personally, I loved Dawkins’ clear, no nonsense answers but I couldn’t help feeling that, on Tubridy’s part, it was an opportunity missed. Is Richard Dawkins so one-dimensional that the only issue worth talking to him about is his atheism? Dawkins has much to say on the subject of evolution and why it is so important that we understand it. He is deeply passionate about science education, about the philosophy of science, about the promotion of science, about legal challenges to science, about critical thinking. In brief, we could have learned something but instead we were treated to a charade, deliberately intended to scandalise the Irish churchgoing public. This is a huge pity. By conflating Dawkins’ views on evolution with his atheism in this way, Ryan Tubridy may have muddied the waters concerning evolution, a topic that is critical to understand as we rehabilitate science and technology within the Irish education system.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” is only controversial if you are a creationist who has been vaccinated from reality. For the rest of us, it’s a rollicking good read on a vitally relevant subject.

It’s been some time since I’ve written about particularly good books for small kids, and I must apologise (especially to Kim) for being somewhat remiss in this area during the last few months.

For me, there is something very gratifying about sharing a compelling book with my kids. It quickly brings me back to my own childhood years by helping me relate to my children on their level. This book ticks all these boxes.

There’s No Such Thing as a Ghostie (Cressida Cowell and Holly Swain)

“But when they turned round… THERE WAS NOBODY THERE”

In this book, a young queen and her best friend do battle with the arrogant Sergeant Rock-Hard of Her Majesty’s Guard as he leads them through the castle in an effort to convince them that there’s no such thing as a ghostie. Little does he know… It’s full of delightfully poetic snippets: a Prime Minister that bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain 1980’s British PM; regular alliteration – “ghostly, ghastly feet”, “creepy, creaky staircase”, very accessible colourful drawings, and (of course) plenty of ghosties hanging around in the background. Near the end of the book, the reader is enjoined to open a trunk bearing an alarming secret. It’s one of those books in which you and your kids discover something new every time you re-read it for them.

If you know of other children’s books that really deserve a read, please let me know.

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