My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 1
The 2011 edition of the The Amaz!ng Meeting, TAM 9 from Outer Space, represented my first foray into a skepticism meeting. Having heard so much about TAM through podcasts, twitter, and the blogosphere I thought it was time to experience TAM for myself. In a prior blog post, My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Prologue, I described the general idea of TAM and the workshops leading into the meat of the meeting. Now for my retelling of day 1.
[Side note: I apologize for the length of this post. This was my favorite day at TAM 9 and a lot of what happened on this day I found so cool.]
Having flown in from the east coast the day before it wasn’t too hard to wake up for the 8:00 am live recording of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast. Admittedly I’ve never listened to SGU before. My podcast time is usually taken up with Skepticality, Monster Talk, and Skeptoid. I may have been the only person in the audience that hadn’t listen to SGU. They seem to have a cult following and now I see why. Even without a frame of reference to know what the usual SGU format is, I still found the podcast interesting and even a bit funny. I’m going to have to find time to listen to SGU.
Following the SGU recording, the first in a parade of invited speakers took the stage. Being my first TAM I was admittedly star struck to see the likes of James Randi and Michael Shermer right out of the gate. Throughout TAM my admiration for Randi grew. Not only has he dedicated his life to spreading skepticism, he has the absolute greatest, most welcoming personality. Unfortunately I was not able to talk with Randi personally, but I continually heard conversations about those lucky ones that were able to get a hug from him. It seems James Randi is big on hugs, which he repeatedly professed throughout the meeting.
After Michael Shermer spoke about his new book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, a panel discussion on skepticism on television ensued. There were some interesting points made, such as the unavoidable problem of producers editing out information skeptics would love to see on television. (I’ve even fallen victim to this in An Astrology Interview that gets Us Nowhere.) Avoiding the cutting room floor seems to be a losing battle, but all the same it seems better to get an ounce of skepticism on tv rather than letting woo-woo run unchallenged.
Next was Eugenie Scott, the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Dr Scott speak before on the NCSE’s original focus of combating the Intelligent Design’s movement to include creationism in school curricula. This time Dr Scott’s talk illustrated the parallels between Intelligent Design proponents and Anthropomorphic Global Warming deniers. It’s amazing to see how loud, but poorly supported rhetoric can be effective in persuading individuals to believe garbage. The most important outcome of Dr Scott’s talk is that the NCSE is now going to expand its already effective anti-Intelligent Design efforts to now include producing resources for addressing global warming deniers.
Immediately following Eugenie Scott was astronomer Lawrence Krauss. Dr Krauss’ talk was exclusively on one of my favorite physicists, Richard Feynman. I find Feynman fascinating for a number of reasons, including his seemingly superhuman intelligence coupled with his fun loving appreciation of life. Dr Krauss’ talk covered a number of stories from Feynman’s early years, one of which has now become my favorite Feynman tale: Early in Feynman’s career he found the love of his life, Arline Greenbaum. Despite knowing that his eventual wife was going to die of tuberculosis, Feynman married Arline all the same. Sadly she did die at a young age with Feynman at her side. At the time of her death Feynman notice that the clock in her hospital room had stopped. For many this would have been a sign of divine intervention, but to Feynman there was a simple, natural explanation. Despite watching his love die before him, through the grief he figured out the clock probably stopped because the nurse accidentally stopped the clock when she recorded the time of death.
Heading into lunch magician Jamy Ian Swiss interviewed James “The Amazing” Randi along with Steve Shaw (Banachek) and Michael Edwards on their involvement in the infamous Project Alpha. I cannot do the Project Alpha justice here so instead I’ll direct you to Wikipedia entry. Although I had heard the story before, it was still entertaining to hear directly from the participants. If there’s ever a case study in the proper use of ethics in a skeptical investigation, Project Alpha is it.
During the afternoon session, biologist, and author of the Pharyngula blog, PZ Myers spoke on A Skeptical Look at Aliens. Being an astronomer and Dr Meyers a biologist, I had never had the opportunity to hear him speak in person before. Although his topic covered some technical aspects of what we might expect out of how an alien life form may look, PZ’s eloquent presentation and simple explanation made his talk completely accessible. I’ve always respected PZ’s willingness to speak out against bad information and bad arguments on the sensitive topic of religion, but from one scientist watching another, I now have a new admiration for his professional work as well. (To be clear, Dr Myers’ credentials stand on their own, but witnessing him in person really put his talents into perspective.)
Following PZ was astronomer Pamela Gay. Dr Gay’s talk summarized our sad current state of space science. She noted how inspirational NASA has been and how the allure of space is so accessible and enticing to young kids. Yet as our government continually tightens its fiscal belts, it has repeatedly reduced funding for space exploration and science education. During this emotional speech she spoke about our country’s youth and how we were failing them, taking away their scientific aspirations. In the end, this was one of my favorite TAM talks.
Sticking with the space theme, following Dr Gay’s speech was a panel discussion on Our Future in Space. The panelist included Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss. The panel discussion was moderated by astronomer Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy fame. To state it simply, this panel
discussion fracas was pure entertainment. Between some very valid points about the financial cost, what has driven space exploration in the past, and the expected science returns of space exploration, was entertaining banter between the panelist. The coup de grâce of the discussion was when Dr Gay shushed Dr Tyson so she could speak. It was obvious that there was much mutual respect amongst the panelist but it was just as obvious that they truly have differing viewpoints on our future in space exploration. Although the panel consisted of only four individuals, their disagreement is reflective of the astronomy community as a whole. There really isn’t a clear consensus of what we should do, with the exception that all astronomers are in agreement that all of science is not receiving the appropriate financial government support.
The final talk of the day was the keynote address by Neil deGrasse Tyson. This was the third time I’ve heard him speak and some of the material was repetitive to earlier talks, but regardless, I was informed and entertained. The central theme of Dr Tyson’s talk was America’s drifting away from being a superpower in science innovation. Although we were the first country to put a person on the Moon, we have slipped away and allowed such nonsense as not labeling the thirteenth floor of skyscrapers, bad news reporting, and not recognizing scientists as public figures like other countries do. Most telling from Dr Tyson’s talk was a pair of maps that displayed the scientific output from all the countries. While the United States does produce a substantial amount of scientific findings, if you look at the change in output over the last ten years, countries like Japan and China are sky rocketing to the lead of scientific results. The finale of the keynote address was a reminder of how cosmically insignificant humans are, yet we have the ability to learn so much about the Universe, but only if we try.
I would feel remorse if I didn’t mentioned Penn Jillette’s Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon Party. Yes you read that right. Penn Jillette (from Penn & Teller) hosted a party for all TAM participants. At the party Krispy Kreme doughnuts were served along side bacon. Drinks were served through a cash bar. I can now say that Corona does a nice job of washing down Krispy Kreme’s famous glazed doughnuts. For entertainment, Penn’s band No God played original and cover songs.
While I found the party entertaining it was just as fun to watch how the skeptical audience members interacted with one another. Let’s face it, there’s a selection bias in that most people that are drawn to skepticism are not former high school jocks and cheerleaders. Most skeptics were probably, to put it gently, socially awkward growing up. Me included! (The rumor amongst my former students is that I am still socially awkward.)
So that was it for day 1 of TAM 9 from Outer Space.
Check out my other reminisces about TAM 9: