I still remember the moment I found out I was selected to attend the GRAIL launch NASA Tweetup. While driving home from the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, I found myself getting a little tired so I decided to stop off and grab a shot of sugar via a strawberry milkshake. As I sipped down my pink goo, I passed the time by reading my latest emails. That’s when I first saw the email inviting me to the Kennedy Space Center to participate in a NASA Tweetup! Naturally, my response was to tweet the news.
NASA Tweetups are outreach events in which the space agency invites selected twitter users to attend special events such as shuttle launches and festivities. The upcoming tweetup will be held the 25th hosted by NASA. To be selected all you need is an active twitter account and the ability to attend the scheduled events. If you satisfy these simple criteria, you can throw your name into a hat and hope it’s randomly picked. For the GRAIL tweetup there were over 825 entries, 150 of which were selected for attendance.
During a typical tweetup participants are given behind the scenes tours of facilities, in addition to formal and informal talks by mission scientists, engineers, and NASA officials. Some tweetups are as short as a few hours, while the longest last for a week in the case of the STS 133 shuttle launch tweetup.
Before a few days ago I couldn’t comment too much as to what the GRAIL tweetup would entail, mostly because the details hadn’t yet been finalized. Then, last Thursday we got our orders. The planned list of activities looks absolutely awesome. Before, I was excited just to be invited, now I’m absolutely ecstatic.
The GRAIL NASA Tweetup is a two day event. It starts first thing Wednesday morning (Sep 7) with tours of Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. After lunch we’ll be treated to talks by:
- Jim Adams — deputy director, Planetary Division, Science Mission Directorate
- Charles Bolden — NASA Administrator
- Sami Asmar — GRAIL deputy project scientist, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Maria Zuber — GRAIL principal investigator
- Neil de Grasse Tyson — Frederick P. Rose director at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History
And that’s just the first day, pre-launch activities. Day 2 starts with a trip to the causeway for viewing of the Delta II rocket launch that will carry the twin GRAIL satellites into space. After a successful launch (al fingers crossed here) we’ll head to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for talks by Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Nichelle Nichols (Lt Uhura from the original Star Trek series).
That’s it for the official GRAIL launch NASA Tweetup. However, that’s not the end of the fun. The second day will only be considered complete after the tweetup tradition of the Endless BBQ held at the Cocoa Beach Brewing Company.
When Carl Sagan’s miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage first aired in 1980 I was only three years old. Even though it has been replayed a number of times since then, I’ve admittedly not seen it. Unlike most of my colleagues who often site Carl Sagan as inspiration—and try to imitate his iconic mannerisms—I cannot say this show influenced my love of astronomy. What’s worst, I think (I’m not even positive) that I may have a copy of the thirteen part PBS miniseries sitting on a shelf in my office. I’m so ashamed.
I haven’t prioritized watching the Cosmos series because I know personally how fast astronomy changes. In the thirty plus years since the original airing, our views of the Universe have changed drastically. My (unfounded) expectations are that the outdated Cosmos episodes wouldn’t capture my CGI-needed imagination.
Luckily that will all change soon enough. Recently Fox Broadcasting Company (yes, that Fox) has announced that it will be remaking Cosmos. The updated version, which will be called Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, will in 2013.
As of right now, the show will air on Fox in a primetime slot. This is interesting in of itself. The original Cosmos aired on PBS which has a certain self-selected audience. Fox has its own audience and it’s one that I wouldn’t personally equate to PBS. So there is a possible concern here that maybe Fox will butcher a classic to align with its brand of entertainment.
However, there is some saving grace here. First off, two of the original three responsible for Sagan’s version of Cosmos will be involved in the production of the updated version (his widow and writer Ann Druyan, and astrophysicist Steven Soter). Second, although Sagan is not replaceable, Fox has gotten the next best option in Neil deGrasse Tyson to be the new host. In fact, it was from Tyson himself that I first heard this news when he recently announced it at the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Currently Tyson is the host of the largely successful NOVA scienceNOW show on PBS in addition to writing popular books and being the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.
Now for the last twist in this story. One of the executive producers of the new series is Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Fox shows Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show. As someone that watches each of these shows, and I follow MacFarlane on twitter, I can say that he does occasionally sneak in some great science geek jokes. In reading about the recent news for the Cosmos remake (see here and here for example) I’ve come to also realize that MacFarlane is a fan of science and he’s concerned about the direction the US is heading in. In fact, it was MacFarlane’s doing that got the new version on Fox where it will get primetime exposure and will hopefully hit an audience that traditional science shows miss.
Tomorrow marks the first launch window for the Juno mission, NASA’s latest New Frontiers space probe. After a five year trip through the inner Solar System, including an Earth flyby in 2013, Juno will arrive at Jupiter in 2016. While there the spacecraft will measure properties related to the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic field, and gravitational field. Ideally this information will lead to a more complete picture of how Jupiter formed, which in turn helps astronomers understand the Solar System formation as a whole.
Besides a multitude of instruments, the mission will also carry three very special stowaways, LEGO minifigures of the Roman god Jupiter, his sister/wife Juno, and the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei.
As the story goes, NASA scientists are big fans of LEGO and so they approached the company about doing something special for the mission. In response LEGO came up with these three, one of a kind minfigures. What makes these minifigs special is that while they’re the same size as normal LEGO figurines, these ones are made of aluminum so they won’t interfere with the instruments. The reported cost for each minifig, $5000 which was taken care by the LEGO corporation. Don’t worry American tax payers, NASA didn’t pay for these.
If LEGO stowaways aren’t cool enough, the final maneuver for the Juno mission is to plummet into Jupiter. This means that the final resting place for our three fearless minifigs will be in the belly of the king of gods.
The official NASA story, Juno Spacecraft to Carry Three Figurines to Jupiter Orbit.
The last day of The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) 9 had finally arrived. After three days of skeptical talks I was physically wearing down, but mentally I was still going strong. (See my accounts of thee first three days in my Prologue, Day 1, and Day 2 posts.) I decided to skip the previous night’s festivities in order to catch up on my sleep. From the gossip it sounds like the Max Maven – Thinking in Person show was interesting. Others were commenting on the Penn & Teller show they saw over at the Rio. For me, a good night of sleep felt great and worth skipping out on a few shows.
Day 3 of TAM started off a little different than the prior days. Up to this point the stage was given either to a panel of experts or an invited speaker. The third day began with a series of “papers” presented by a number of lesser known skeptics. Over the span of two hours, seven speakers were given the mic. Admittedly I did step out for one random speaker, so I only heard six of the speakers. Of those that I did listen to, it was interesting to hear the range of skeptical topics. One speaker covered paranormal investigations, another chiropractic practices in Los Angeles, and yet another on the use of Rogerian argumentation. (For a more complete report of the contributed papers see the Friendly Atheists‘ live blogging entries for TAM 9.) My favorite of the papers was given by Phil Ferguson from the blog Skeptic Money. His talk was on scams in guaranteed mutual funds investments. In short, they don’t work because of all the hidden fees. The main outcome of Ferguson’s talk is, don’t invest in anything you don’t understand ahead of time. Good advice indeed.
After the contributed papers, Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, authors of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, gave a joint talk on the relationship between magic tricks and neuroscience. It was interesting to see how easily our minds are fooled because our eyes only have the ability to focus on a very narrow portion of the world. Our limited visual stimulation allows magicians to use misdirection techniques to force our attention one way while performing a sleight of hand elsewhere. Although I’ve never been drawn to magic, as I watched the many talks at TAM, my interest in magic grew. This talk, which demonstrated links between magic and science, was the final straw. I now want to learn more about magic.
The next speaker, Sara Mayhew, turned out to be an unexpected surprise from my personal perspective. Mayhew is the author of a number of manga stories, which is why I wasn’t familiar with her work prior to TAM. As I listened to her speak it was clear that she is a very talented author and illustrator. She’s seems to be very careful to incorporate a number of skeptical elements into her stories. She also noted a number of faults with other famous fictional stories. For example, the central theme found in Star Wars is the concept of a Jedi. The problem is that Jedi skills are a bestowed property to a select few that are born with Jedi qualities. It’s very much a nobleman-like quality. No matter how much someone strives to be better, unless they’re born with Jedi abilities they will never acquire them. Conversely, the immensely popular Harry Potter series demonstrates that when confronted with an situation practice, studying, and critical thinking will lead to a desirable outcome. (Okay, you may argue that only certain individuals are born with magical powers in the Harry Potter series, but the point being made here is that JK Rowling uses standard skeptical tools to solve the characters’ problems.)
The afternoon session included a talk by Jennifer Ouellette. Ouellette is the author of a number of books (including The Calculus Diaries which I reviewed here) and blogs at Cocktail Party Physics. If you’re interested in the lighter side of physics, and even science in general, I would suggest reading Ouellette’s blog and following her on twitter (JenLucPiquant). Ouellete’s talk, The Universe Through the Looking Glass, was an intriguing overview of our place in the Universe. She used a mixture of scientific knowledge with cinematic interpretations and science fiction speculations about the future. The last example was particularly fun when she showed a clip from the 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon. It’s amazing to think how rapidly our view of the Universe has evolved in the last century, hell in the last ten years. Scientists are learning about Nature at an exponential rate.
The last speaker for TAM 9 was Sean Faircloth, the Executive Director for the Secular Coalition for America (SCA). Faircloth is a former legislature from Maine. His political background was more than evident, if from nothing else, his presentation style. Most skeptics are very humble, and are often hesitant to over extend their claims. Faircloth was the opposite. His speech was fiery, with a lot of promises about what the SCA will do in the coming years. I liked his talk. In short, the SCA has developed a list of measurable goals and plans on expanding to include more lobbyist in Washington.
So that was it for the formal part of TAM 9 from Outer Space, my first TAM experience. To close things out James Randi once again came to the stage and gave yet more inspiring words. Over the course of three days I learned a lot of new things, became interested in magic, spent a lot of money book sold by vendors, and had the chance to talk with other skeptics. I can’t wait to come back next year.
Epilogue for the Last Day
Although the main part of the meeting was over, there were two workshops offered in parallel after the closing remarks. Being a parent of two young boys, I found myself in the workshop on Raising Skeptics. My reaction: wow, nothing is sacred amongst skeptics. In less than two hours, the workshop covered how to speak to your kids about skepticism, how to handle non-skeptics’ attitudes toward your family, Santa Claus, and sex education. The last topic was more than I expected out of this workshop, but it was also the most helpful. If I’m going to call myself a skeptic, then I must be consistent and approach every topic on an evidence based approach, even if it’s a socially taboo topic. Besides sex education, I found this workshop helpful for the simple reason that it was nice to see other skeptical parents having to address the same issues that my wife and I struggle with at home. (I still say that we should have told our kids the truth about Santa Claus from day one, but Jamy Ian Swiss was convincing in arguing it may be worth lying to them, and let them enjoy the thrill of Christmas morning.)
The Raising Skeptics workshop was the last official TAM 9 event I attended. However, being in Las Vegas, and having never seen Penn & Teller in person (two celebrity skeptics), I thought it was worth heading over to the Rio and catching their show. Lucky for me, Penn & Teller offered a 2 for 1 deal to TAM participants. Also, lucky for me a fellow skeptic that I met at the meeting (Joshua Humphrey, host of the Twin Cities Theater Connection podcast) had a second ticket. So off I went to see Penn & Teller. The show was amazing and well worth it even if it meant I was only able to squeeze in three hours of sleep before my 6:00 am flight the next morning.
Check out my other reminisces about TAM 9:
In two prior posts (My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Prologue and My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 1) I covered the pre-meeting workshops and the first full day of The Amaz!ng Meeting, TAM 9 from Outer Space. Following in order (which seems like a natural thing to do), it’s time for day 2.
After a late night of eating doughnuts and bacon, chased down with Corona, and listening to the No God Band play rockn-roll, it was hard to get up for the 8:00 am panel on the Ethics of Paranormal Investigation. I’m not necessarily drawn to skepticism because of the paranormal, but it’s still interesting to listen to those that investigate paranormal claims using a scientific approach (I do love science after all). In the course of these investigations there are times where ethics needs to be addressed. For example, consider situations that involve kids with claimed psychic powers. In the end I’m glad to hear that unanimously these skeptics are always considering the emotions and sensitive feelings of those on the other end of the investigation.
A common theme for the morning talks was the mind and its ability to trick itself. The first talk on this was actually a panel discussion on Placebo Medicine: The Ethics and Mechanisms of the Mysterious Placebo. As I learn more and more about various topics that skeptics are actively discussing I find myself more interested in medical skepticism. While listening to the panel consisting of six doctors (counting Steven Novella, the moderator) it was interesting to learn that the effects of placebos depend on their application. One topic I found fascinating but I hadn’t considered before was how to test the placebo effect in extreme situation like birth control and cancer. For these situations, ethical standards step in and make it very difficult to directly measure the effects of placebos.
Next up was Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist that specializes in human memory. During her talk she gave fascinating examples in the use of the scientific method to demonstrate that it’s possible to plant a false memory into a person. It was amazing to see how simple and susceptiable people can be. For example, it possible to convince a person that the intersection they thought had a stop sign on the corner really had a yield sign. Of course, photographic evidence quickly demonstrates that there really was a stop sign there the whole time. Sometimes all it takes to plant a false memory is a set of leading questions. It seems just too easy. Scary!
Personally, I think the next talk was my absolute favorite for TAM 9. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, demonstrated how easily our mind can be fooled through visual stimulations. One of the best examples was a series of images that displayed how the mind will naturally fill in the blanks when certain parts of an image are removed. On the first slide he showed a picture with three beautiful women wearing bikinis. Then he showed that by using a pattern of circles to limit the visibility of seductive parts of the picture, the mind fills in the blanks so that you think the girls are naked. The next picture showed that it also works for an image of a man. And then the best part, he showed that using a similar pattern applied it’s possible to picture a naked Mickey Mouse in your head. Besides giving some very amusing examples, his personality and showmanship was outstanding. If there was ever a style of presentation I would like to mimic, it would be his.
Following a catered lunch that wasn’t all that bad, the hosts of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe returned to the main stage to complete their live podcast from the previous day. As I already mentioned in the My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 1 post, I was very impressed with the SGU and I’m going to make sure to start listing to their podcast.
The late afternoon found two highly anticipated speakers talking back-to-back. The first speaker was Bill Nye “The Science Guy”. Like many others in the audience I watched Bill Nye’s show as a kid. There’s no doubt that it influenced me toward becoming a professional scientist (along with the later shows of Mr Wizard). Recently Nye was made the Executive Director of the Planetary Society. The Planetary Society is an independent advocacy group with the vision of promoting future space exploration. During Nye’s talk he explained some of the current and future society missions. They do so much more than I expect. I guess this is why I became a member while at TAM. Most impressive about Nye was his emotional presentation. It was clearly evident in his tone and content that Bill Nye is passionate about science.
The second of highly anticipated afternoon speakers was Richard Dawkins. Having read some of his writings, and watched a number of his YouTube clips, I’ve been interested in hearing him speak in person. In short, I wasn’t disappointed. Dawkins’ talk centered around his upcoming young adult’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. The book looks amazing! Dawkins teamed up with artist David McKean to present big picture questions in a graphically inviting and intriguing manner. Chapter titles include, “What are things made of?”, “What is the Sun?”, “Who were the first man and woman?”, and “When did everything begin?”. What will be unique about this science book is that it will directly address our evolving (all pun intended) views of science. Each chapter begins with a overview of classical mythology and legends pertaining to the topic. This is followed by a scientific explanation given our current understanding of Nature. After giving an overview of the book, Dawkins focused specifically on chapter 9 (it was TAM 9 after all) which asks the daunting question “Are we alone?”. Following in a similar fashion to PZ Meyers’ talk the previous day, Dawkins outlined what we can glean from evolutionary biology to predict what an alien life-form may look like. At times, this part of his speech did get a bit technical and dry. After he was done, Dawkins presented James Randi a signed page from his new book. Below is my blurry attempt to capture the moment.
As Richard Dawkins took questions from the audience, it came to our attention that across the hall from the ballroom hosting TAM, was a karate competition banquet dinner. The guest of honor for the banquet was none other than Chuck Norris. (Richard Dawkins had no idea who that is.) Because of the large turnouts for both events, the organizer allowed Dawkins to spend extra time answering questions to prevent too many people being in the hall. A number of tweeters noted, “we’re trapped in here by Chuck Norris!” Although I didn’t see him personally, someone claims that Chuck Norris had body guards. WTF is up with that?
Check out my other reminisces about TAM 9:
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:
I know, I know, those LEGO trophies are awesome! But much more important than the trophies are why these three girls are holding them. They are the winners of the first Google Science Fair.
Earlier this year a panel of teachers reviewed over 7,500 entries from 90 countries into Google’s science competition. After identifying the top 60 semifinalist, voting was opened to the public to identify a People Choice Award. Simultaneously, the same 60 semifinalist were reduced to a field 15 by Google panel of judges. The finalist were then invited out to Google Headquarters in Mountain View, CA to be judged by a panel of science and technology experts. Although the competition was strong and vast, the three winners: Lauren Hodge, Naomi Shah, and Shree Bose were able to rise above the competition to wow the judges with their original scientific research.
From the NY Times article, First-Place Sweep by American Girls at First Google Science Fair,
Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist and one of the judges, said that gender did not play a role in deciding the winners. “This was a gender-neutral evaluation of all the work that was done,” he said. Nonetheless, “I was secretly very pleased to see that happen,” Dr. Cerf said. “This is just a reminder that women are fully capable of doing same or better quality work than men can.”
One of my biggest gripes with human history is how much certain ethnicities and one gender has been suppressed and often at times prohibited to contribute to the progress of society. Think how much further along we would be as a civilization if half the population—that being women—were always treated equal. Even of the half that have not been marginalized, only a smaller contingency has been granted the opportunities to play a role in progress because they were born on the right piece of land, of the right ethnicity, and even into the right socioeconomic status. The prevention of a proper education and equal opportunities to everyone, is an unfortunate black mark on human history.
This is why when I see stories like the results from the Google Science Fair I find a little comfort that things might be heading in a better direction. Science needs more women and minorities, not because they are women and minorities, but because they’re more minds working together for progress.
About eighteen months ago I started listening to the podcast Skepticality, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. The hosts of Skepticality would often begin a podcast by promoting the upcoming annual skeptics meeting known as The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM). At that time I had no idea how big TAM really is, so I made the mistake of not attending TAM 8. After the meeting came and went, it was clear from all the dedicated podcasts and blog posts that TAM was something special and needed to be witnessed in person, so this year I made the trek out to Las Vegas and experienced TAM for myself.
For those that haven’t been to a TAM, the meeting lasts four days and consists of a combination of workshops, talks, and activities. This year’s meeting was formally called TAM 9 from Outer Space as a homage to the classic(?) movie Plan 9 from Outer Space. Although the general theme was space, topics ranged from the paranormal to medicine and psychology to magic. The list of invited speakers was a who’s who of skepticism, which included the likes of Michael Shermer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eugenie Scott, Richard Wiseman, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins. This year’s meeting had a record attendance with over 1,600 participants, roughly half of which were experiencing TAM for the first time.
Originally I was going to write a single blog post on my personal retrospective of the meeting, then I began writing. It was quickly evident that this meeting had a large effect on me. That single post quickly grew into a monster, so I’ve decided to break apart my account into a sequence of posts each of which will represent a single day at TAM.
I will not be able to comment on everything. There simply was too much. Instead I’m going to describe what I personally found most memorable. For those speakers I don’t mention, my apologies. Every talk—and I mean this sincerely—was fascinating, but from my point of view certain talks piqued my interest more than others. For a more complete retelling of the events at TAM 9 see the live blogging at the Friendly Atheist.
TAM 9 started off with a full day of workshops. Unfortunately, because I flew in during that morning I missed the first set of workshops. From what I heard from other TAMers, the workshop on faking your own UFO pictures was interesting. Although I missed it, this workshop gave me an idea for a future Astro 101 assignment. More on that in a later post.
The first workshop I was able to attend was on Problems in Paranormal Investigation. After famed paranormal investigator Joe Nickell spoke (which was fun and interesting to hear), the guys from the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society spoke on their punking of a claimed ghost detective. Their talk was not only interesting, but it led into some very interesting questions and discussions on the ethical boundaries paranormal skeptics must work within. Is it justifiable to lie, work undercover, or blatantly deceive an individual to gather pertinent information about a supposed paranormal occurrence? There’s not a simple answer to this question. Sometimes it may be worth fighting
fire with fire ghosts with ghosts.
The second workshop was on Skepticism in the Classroom. While most of the discussion was not directly applicable to my own teaching, I was impressed with how effective the use of simple magic tricks could be in a physics/astronomy course as a gateway for discussing the scientific method. (The intersection of magic and skepticism was a common theme at TAM—well duh given it was hosted by the James Randi Education Foundation.) It seems I may need to learn a little magic before the start of the next semester.
It happened. It actually happened despite only a 30% chance of success due to weather. The final space shuttle mission ever began with a successful launch of Atlantis earlier today.
Thirty-six hours ago I never thought I would have the opportunity to witness this historic launch live, but after a sequence of events, a lot of help from my wife, my boys and I made an unexpected trip to watch the STS 135 launch.
Having never seen a shuttle in person before I had no idea what to expect. The day started out rough with a 2:45 am alarm sounding after only two hours of sleep. This was followed by a freezing cold, three hour bus ride from Orlando to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The trip took three times longer than normal because of the obnoxious amount of traffic flowing into Kennedy.
Despite such a difficult start, my boys (ages six and ten) and I arrived at the Visitor Complex in high spirits. Without a moment’s hesitation we were wandering through the rocket garden, playing with the various displays, and watching the Hubble 3D movie at the IMAX theatre. Even with all this to entertain us, we still had plenty of time for spending money in the gift shops.
Finally the time approached for the shuttle launch. Throughout the morning there seemed to be a weird feeling of trepidation floating throughout the air. In the days and even hours preceding the launch, news out of NASA was that everything was going as planned, except for the weather. The forecast for today called for rain and possible thunderstorms. The launch was only given a 30% chance of occurring as planned because of the weather.
All morning long clouds hung around, but no rain, no wind, and most importantly no lightning. Nevertheless, the weather could turn at any moment. So as we had our fun playing around at the Visitor Complex, there was always a worry about the launch being scrubbed.
Surprisingly the hour leading into the scheduled launch time flew by. Before we knew it the clock read 11:20, just a few minutes short of the 11:26 am launch time. From our viewing point, we couldn’t see the launch pad directly but there was a large, outdoor screen from which we could watch closeup views of what was occurring. The moment the engines fired up, the crowd erupted in cheers. It was such a great feeling, not unlike being at a major sporting event and witnessing a record being broken. Admittedly it brought a tear to my eye because I was able to share this moment with my boys.
Within seconds the shuttle came into view as it rose above the trees that blocked our view of the launch pad. I’ve watched plenty of shuttle launches televised online and on television before, but being there live, I noticed a few things:
- Even though we were situated over seven miles away, the glowing red hot exhaust was clearly visible.
- The speed of sound is noticeably much slower than the speed of light. It took many seconds between watching the shuttle launch and hearing the distinctly loud rumble of liftoff.
- It took very little time for the shuttle to reach an appreciable altitude. Of course, with the low lying clouds this observation is slightly skewed, but in comparing how long it takes an airplane to ascend, the shuttle took very little time to reach those clouds and to disappear high into the sky.
Seeing the shuttle successfully launch … Correct that … Seeing the last ever space shuttle launch today will be a memory I will always carry with me. More importantly, my boys enjoyed today’s events. Time will only tell if they also feel the same way as I do.
U should put the kids in the car and go see the shuttle launch.
I’ve thought about that.
I don’t think I can get tickets though.
Being an astronomer and just a general nut about science I’ve always wanted to see a shuttle launch in person. Now that we’re at the last launch EVER, I thought I had missed my opportunity.
After receiving my wife’s initial text I admittedly searched the internet trying to find out what it took to get tickets to view a shuttle launch. According to the site Space Shuttle Launch Viewing, it seems that it takes a lot of foresight and some luck (or a lot of money). Fortunately luck was on our side.
A short time after exchanging those texts messages with my wife I got a call from her, she had found tickets through the Florida Dolphin Tours, an authorized viewing tour operator. The shortcoming was that the tickets, were for viewing the launch from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex where the launch pad is not directly viewable. From the visitor complex the shuttle can be see shortly after liftoff and it’s close enough (at 7.4 miles form the launch pad) to experience the sound of the liftoff. The visitor complex does have the advantage of entertainment for the kids (six and ten years old in our case) while we wait for the launch.
That was at 10:00 am today. We live 480 miles from Orlando, where the Florida Dolphin Tours needs to pick us up. This would mean a nine hour that afternoon into the evening. In a
rash no brainer decision we decided to go.
We showered, packed, and were on the road in less than 90 minutes. Sadly my wife was not able to accompany us because of work, nor did we have someone to watch the dog. This road trip was going to be a father and sons adventure.
A short (it actually did feel short) nine hour drive later we find ourselves in an Orlando hotel. Although we have just a few hours to sleep—we have to be at the bus pickup at 4:00 am—we’re hardly able to sleep. Everyone is excited for tomorrow.