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Monday, October 19, 2009

Fringe events: Natural History Museum Tour

Getting up to get to the Natural History Museum on Monday morning was rough, but definately worth it. We were introduced to Karen James, the director of the HMS Beagle Project, and she walked us through the Darwin Centre and showed us what the specimens and collections look like when they're not on display.

We met Sid and Karen under the tail of the dinosaur in the main hall of the museum. I've just read Richard Fortey's wonderful book "Dry Store Room nr. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum" (review to come soon), so I was looking for all the wonderful details he described, like the painted plants in the ceilings, the columns shaped as replicas of extinct species of palm-like trees, and my pal Charlie Darwin sitting in his chair at the landing in the majestic stairs leading to the next floor.

Naturally, I was wearing my Darwin T-shirt. Like Church Clothing for me. The building is quite impressive, with massive domes and arched hallways, and I certainly felt serene and in awe of the place and the "holiness" of the science behind every stone and all the building contains.

In fact, Richard Owen, the founder of the museum and the regular holder of the eyecatching spot on top of the main stairwell where Darwin sits this year, was inspired by cathedrals in the design of the musem. Sadly, he was also one friend of Darwin who ended up not being a friend over the matter of evolution.

We joined the latest group of visitors to the Darwin Centre, so before it was our turn, we had a walk through the Dinosaur Exhibit. Man, there are a lot of great fossils there! The exhibit was very clear and focused on major concepts, like when roosting on eggs evolved, how to tell from teeth what animals eat, what mammals looked like at that time, and so on. We spotted another rare specimen in the collection; George Hrab. Right then, we were standing by some dinosaur eggs, and I relayed the tale of how when Oviraptors were discovered, their bodies were right by some eggs, and the researchers assumed they had discovered an egg-eating predator. They named it the Oviraptor, latin for egg-thief. However, after a few years, they've discovered more and more of these dinosaurs by nests, and even some lying directly on top of nests. Turns out, they were not thieves, but mothers. It's always interesting to note how these things are discovered, and to realize that even though there are some assumptions in natural history, usually over time, you can be pretty sure you've drawn the right conclusion.

Outside of the Dinosaur exhibit, there was a mirror with some pictures of typical monkey grimaces, and an encouragement to look at yourself in the mirror and make monkey faces. Bendik and I then went through a nearby exhibit called "After Darwin: Contemporary Expressions", which was a mix of art and science. One section had pictures from Darwin's book "The expression of emotions in man and animals", coupled with texts written by Mark Haddon describing the emotion. Informative and entertaining. The pictures were actually part of Darwin's own research for "The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals" where he makes the argument that all our emotions are generally the same as in simpler animals, and that this is a universal among men. Some of the pictures were generated by sending electrical impulses through certain facial muscles, and seeing which muscles were active in which expressions. (By the way, have you thought about the fact that your facial muscles are the only muscles that are connected directly to skin?)

SPOILER ALERT! If you're going to the museum soon, skip this next part.
From there we noticed Richard Wiseman's name on a wall, and the text along with the other two names said that we were about to view an examination of primate research and observation. We followed a few dark corridors to reach what looked like a window into the main hallway. We saw people walking by and some stopped and stared right at us, and started making monkey faces! At first I figured they had the same text on the outside, but then I realized that we had just walked by that mirror.. Where they asked to see your monkey face! I'll admit I stood making monkey faces a bit at the girl on the other side (she was returning the favor) before I realized that it was a one-way mirror. Typical Wiseman! We ended up staring at people walking by for some time. It's kind of fun and feels a little criminal to watch people who are completely unaware of you.

Finally, we went to meet up with Karen James, and she walked us through the restricted access area down to the spirit zoology department. She said that when all the specimens were housed in a separate building, it was just known as the "Spirit House", which doesn't sound very scientific at all. But the reason is apparent as soon as you get close. The smell of alcohol and preservatives pervades the whole place.

Map of one room with rows of lockers.

She took us through a series of fire doors into a chilled room with rows upon rows of lockers and shelves. On into the next room, where there were only shelves with large glass containers with yellowish liquid with animals in. Amazing! There was even a giant squid in the largest container I have seen. There were large tanks with lids too, with larger animals like dolphins and sharks, and a large sucking tube hung from the ceiling to remove the evaporated alcohol whenever one opened those containers. It was an amazing place.


There was also a glass locker with smaller specimens, some of which had been collected by Charles Darwin himself! *Swoon* The specimens with yellow markers on the lids are type specimens. That means that they are considered the "most typical" of a species, if there is such a thing. A more practical way of considering it, is the specimen which the species was described from. Like the bear'iest bear and so on.

Experiences like this really brings it home for me how much I love the natural sciences, and how much I want a life in these fields. Bendik enjoyed it too, but I have a feeling he got tired a bit faster than me, walking through there. I'm sure I would have loved to spend a week in there.

We also saw the poor dodo, stuffed and stuffed into a crowded exhibit of birds in the older part of the museum. In his book, Fortey reveals that the dodo is actually covered in swan feathers. The unfortunate swan was stolen from the Queen, as the Thames swans actually belong to her, and the two men on a mission were stopped in their vehicle on the way back to the museum, and one of them apparently coughed creatively every time the swan rustled in the back. Apparently, there is not a known complete specimen of a dodo left on earth. The one the Natural History Museum has is actually fashioned after a painting, and they cannot be sure if that was painted accurately from a live specimen.

After this, we went through the famous egg, where the new Darwin exhibition is. It was a wonderful exhibit, very interactive, and at certain checkpoints in the path, there were windows into offices and labs where *real* scientists were at work.

The exhibit focused on how we know what we know in natural history, how specimens are classified, the evidence for evolution, and how science proceeds. It was excellent, and even though it reminded me of my own fieldwork in biology, I'm sure Bendik learned a lot about how biology works, and I'm sure that this is the best way to combat ignorance in natural sciences. Show HOW IT IS DONE!

All our opposable thumbs up for the Natural History Museum.

Friday, October 16, 2009

UFO or sign from God?

That was the title of this article in norwegian tabloid Dagbladet today. They were reporting on this story of a strange cloud formation hanging over Moscow earlier this week.

Luckily, Dagbladet actually categorizes the article as being on natural phenomena, and they write that "experts" (uncited) tell us that it is a natural phenomenon, and that the ufo AND the religious bloggers have been all over it. Check out this photo:

I always find it funny how both ufologists and religious people can claim the same phenomenon as proof of their own stance.

Here is another sign from God, which I think is a little easier to interpret:

Woo by phone (action skepticism!)

This morning I got a rude awakening. I got a call from a swedish telemarketer, who started out by saying she was not trying to sell me anything. Yeah, that was convincing.

She asked if I had heard of Aloe Vera, in gel or in cream, and if I'd tried it when I had a sunburn or otherwise. Sure, I said. I've tried cooling lotions.
- Good right? she said. Well, now I'm calling to let you try, absolutely free, Nature****** , which is like aloe vera, only for your insides!
- ORLY? I said.
- Yes, our product will regulate the acid balance in your intestines, rid your intestines of gas completely, rinse through your system, and that sounds nice, doesn't it?
- Not really, I said. My body is perfectly capable of ridding itself of crap, and balancing whatever needs balancing, didn't you know that?
- (pause) Well, she said, I also want to offer you blueberry-extract, have you heard of that?
- Not really, I said.
- (Encouraged again) , Oh, then, basically it's extract from blueberries, which contains lots of antioxidants, and it makes your vision MUCH better, and strengthens your immunesystem, and helps prevent cancer!
- OOORREEEALLLYY?? I said. Do you even know how the immune system works? It cannot be "boosted" or bettered any other way than exposing your body to the pathogen or a reduced form of it, so an immune response will be quicker next time. Being not exhausted and properly nourished is also helpful, but other than that, I am convinced you're wrong in your claim.
- Well, you should have more antioxidants to help prevent cancer!
- Hmm.. no, I'm not so sure about that either. Actually, antioxidants have been shown to be harmful in large doses.
- Ok, sure, she says, too much of anything is bad. But blueberry extract is nice!
- Well, actually, the amount of antioxidants most people consume daily is enough without any form of supplement. (Sadly, I forgot to mention the question of if the antioxidants are biologically accessible for your body in blueberry form. )
- (Getting frustrated now) Well, most people would still benefit from taking blueberry extract!
- I believe in evidence. As far as I know, there is no evidence for any of the things you are claiming.

Sadly, she accepted my rebuttal and wished me a nice day and hung up before I had the time to give her my own super special offer.

One copy of Ben Goldacre's wonderful book Bad Science, absolutely free, for the price of shipping only. I would happily send it to her, knowing that the reading of that book will slowly rid the world of telemarketers trying to sell me miracles in a bottle.

Better vision! Less cancer! No gas in your intestines!


So here is my plea to you:
- Get informed: Read a book, like the aforementioned Bad Science, or Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh, and maybe even subscribe to a blog or two, or listen to a science/skepticism podcast.
- When someone offers you magic pills on the street, or by phone, or while standing in line buying coughsyrup, fight back! Ask for evidence that is
. unbiased
. not funded by the people selling it
. has mechanisms of operation that seem slightly plausible
. does not claim to give miraculous results. Miracles are not ordinary!
- Try to explain to the assailants what is wrong with what they are saying, and offer them free resources to find out more (blogs, science and skepticism podcasts or even books)

It was pretty fun to have a telemarketer hang up on me. I don't think they're usually allowed to do that.

Skepticism FTW!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Astrology and Compatibility

I'm a Sagittarius. This means that I am incompatible with Pisces and Taurus, but extra compatible with Capricorns...

Or something. Astrology being bull should not come as any surprise to the readers of this blog, and the proofs are numerous. Still, I liked this graph from dating site OK Cupid. OK Cupid is a huge matchmaking site, and have loads of interesting data to plot. Here is their graph of how well the different astrological signs match up with each other, based on 500,000 random samples from their pool.

I love this graph. It demonstrates exactly what it is supposed to - that astrological signs have absolutely no impact on compatibility. Like we said it would.

But this won't stop astrologers from making that claim. Though now we have yet another point to refute it with.

(OK Cupid blog)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

This is Why We're Called Hugs and Science. Fringe events: Sunday Funday!

The following is the reason we're called hugs and science. I'll happily admit that the thought of the gimmick of having to hug people for our blog pleased me very much.

Bendik and I arrived friday evening, too late to join the informal start of TAM London, represented by a show with George Hrab. However, we did meet plenty of wonderful people Sunday and Monday nights, and in between talks. Also, we joined two fringe events on Monday, a trip to the Natural History Museum behind the scenes, and "The Amaz!ng Panel"(separate post).

As Bendik mentioned in his recap of Saturday, we had trouble finding an open pub after the Robin Ince and friends show, but we still managed to meet some fine young skeptics. After lunch, George Hrab joined us in the audience, and he even shared his performer TAM jelly beans with us!

We were both kind of swooning any time we saw some of the great speakers in the hallway, and we managed to meet and greet Simon Singh and Adam Savage in between punches. The line for meeting Adam Savage was longer than the cue for the lunch table, and confused conference center employees were desperately trying to make us line up for other food-filled tables than the one Adam was standing close to.

Before Adam Savages talk, Richard Wiseman was introducing someone on stage, and Adam sneaked in to have a seat in front. All eyes wandered to his charismatic character, and Richard said "Don't worry, you'll all get to see Jamie speaking really soon." Whups! and haha!

We were A LOT of Norwegians at TAM, and we managed to gather quite a few of us after the last talk on Sunday. We caught up with Phil for a nice group photo, before we all went to the Black Friar. Also, I got a hug!

The Black Friar also happened to be the same bar as all the stars had gone to: Phil Plait, Rebecca Watson, Brian Cox, Simon Singh, George Hrab, Richard Wiseman, Chris Cox, Chris French, and some less famous, but just as fabulous people.

It was great just to be in the same place as these superhumans. It's not that we worship them or anything(Ok, maybe a little), but one inevitably gets a bit excited when meeting talented people that we respect for their stances and the work they do. Also, who doesn't enjoy talking to smart, funny, people that you know share your stance on several important issues?

I talked to Phil about the photos he took of George Hrab and me in New York in April, and Rebecca about her forthcoming trip to Norway (early next year, probably! Hooray!), and when I ran into Brian Cox we talked about science funding, and we got him to join us for a group photo with the Norwegians at the bar.

After the picture, we chatted a bit, before all the guys got all starry-eyed and pretty much just stared and smiled at Brian Cox. I leaned over and whispered that the guys had gotten a bit shy, seeing as how he's pretty much everyone's mancrush, and he quietly receded to the bar and smiled.

We all continued to another bar, since Phil's lovely wife Marcella had a craving for a certain pie. (Whaddaya know, superhumans have families and need food too!) When we got there, things started to get more rowdy, and the following series of pictures is representative of the fun we had!

Hugging Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman, Tim Minchin, and me!

George Hrab and I

Milton Mermikides and I

Milton and George

Phil is looking skeptical!

Rebecca Watson with skepchick.

TAM London Recap: Day 2 (Sunday)

Sunday started much easier than saturday for us. Arrival at 9:30 instead of 7:45, we had time to both sleep a little longer to charge up, and have breakfast. When we arrived, the doors were just opening to let people in. We went in and found the same seats we had had the day before, excellent.


George Hrab started the day for us. George is a musician, comedian and all-round great skeptic, who is also responsible for the Geologic Podcast, which you all should listen to every week. He sang some songs for us, and at one point he was joined by the two other bald guys with glasses to do a song. With George Hrab, Richard Wiseman and Phil Plait all on stage at once, it was not easy to tell who was who!


Following George was another gentleman, Glenn Hill this time. If that name is not familiar to you, I will admit I was not familiar with it before the conference myself. Glenn is the son of Elsie Wright, who was behind the hoax of the Cottingley Fairies. Once I heard that topic I immediately perked up, because the Cottingley Fairies have been of interest to me earlier. Glenn's talk was very interesting, and I recommend those of you who have not heard of the Cottingley Fairies before to look them up, their story is quite interesting.


After we broke for lunch, it was time for the man apparently everyone had been waiting for: Adam Savage of Mythbusters! Adam talked about the process of examining one particular myth on the show ("Can you swim through syrup as fast as water?") and all the surroundings about doing that. After his talk, Adam's Q&A had the most people wanting to ask questions amongst all the speakers, surpassing even Randi! This bunch sure love their Mythbusters!


Adam Savage then left the stage to Tim Minchin, who entertained us with several songs and a reading of his now-viral poem, Storm. Personally I had been able to avoid seeing Storm before, but I loved it. Storm will become an animation sometime in 2010 and we got to see a short trailer. Looking forward to it.


Phil Plait took the last talk, giving a talk from his latest book, Death from the Skies! (With a little smattering from Bad Astronomy). Asteroids, comets and meteors were the main talk, of just one of the many many ways the universe is actively trying to kill us all.


Phil's talk was the last one. It ended at a little past 3 o' clock on sunday, after what had then been a day and a half of wonderful, fantastic people. Our big thanks and respect go out to all the speakers who took the time to talk with us in the breaks between the talks, to the organizers especially Tracy King, who did a bang-up job despite all their uphill struggles, and to all the people who attended and also talked to us.

For us though, the real stuff was just starting, as we would end up at afterparties, after-afterparties, and after-after-after-afterparties before the event would properly end. We have a separate writeup on the way for all the social events that took place, and all the fascinating people we got to meet. Looking forward to next year!

Monday, October 05, 2009

TAM London Recap: Day 1 (Saturday)

Marit and I travelled to London on Friday the 2nd of October in order to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting: London, from here on referred to as TAM London or just TAM.

Our story starts on Saturday at 7:30 AM...

The show was to start at 9 AM. However, we had been informed that those who had not yet received their badge due to a postal strike in London the previous weeks, could show up at 7:45 to pick up one. Marit had received hers, but not I. So we got up reeeal early to navigate a foreign city. When we arrived at The Mermaid conference centre, we were greeted by this...


A crowd of a couple hundred people who also had not received their badges. Joy.

After a while though, I had gotten to pick up my badge, so we patiently waited and mingled until the main doors opened into the hall. We were pleasantly surprised when Phil Plait himself stopped by us to say hi to Marit, who had had the good fortune of meeting him in a more private setting earlier. What a champ, stopping to say hi even while he was hosting a major event like this one! We both swooned for a while after that.

Marit and I found ourselves some seats almost way at the front, off to the side. Excellent seats, really. We took a look around to scope out the crowd:


We were very delighted to see the diversity in both age and gender in the crowd! No offense to The American TAM-Vegas crowd, but from the pictures I have seen from those (without having been there to see for myself) it looks like an old sausagefest. The European crowd averaged much younger and a much better gender split. Still some ways to go, but it made me very optimistic for the future of Science and Skepticism in Europe.

Richard Wiseman introduced our Emcee for the show, Richard Wiseman. He did a tremendous job keeping us all entertained in between the talks, with his own mix of magic, science, humor and psychology. Wiseman then introduced Phil Plait, Bad Astronomer and President of the JREF, for the opening words.

Phil talked about how great it was to finally have a TAM in Europe as well, and that the crowd (that's us!) would be a great future for Europe. We agree. :)


There was supposed to be a prerecorded message from Randi, who could not attend himself due to a doctor's order, but technical problems delayed that until later.

After a few minutes he left the microphone back to Wiseman, who introduced our first real speaker, Brian Cox.

Brian Cox managed something incredible: At 9 AM on a Saturday morning, when most of the audience had been up traveling late, or at the TAM pre-party at The Black Friar the night before, he kept us all enraptured with his talk about particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider. We will have more details on this and all the other talks in later posts.


After Cox, our next speaker was author Jon Ronson, famous for his books such as The Men Who Stare at Goats (soon to be released as a feature film featuring George Clooney)and Them: Adventures with Extremists. Both of us were familiar with Ronson's work ahead of time, and the talk did not disappoint. We are very much looking forward to seeing the movie and his next books.


Ronson led the way to Simon Singh. Singh talked mostly about chiropractic, and his lawsuit where the British Chiropractic Association has sued him personally for libel against them. Singh wrote an article about chiropractic for his newspaper, and the BCA took offense to that and rather than trying to disprove his claims, they just sued him for libel. In the UK, libel laws are different from the rest of the world, in that it is now Singh's job to prove his claims, rather than the burden being on the BCA to disprove them. He is guilty until proven innocent. The rest of the talk was about libel laws in the UK, and how they need to change. We of course support Simon Singh's struggle against the BCA and libel laws in general in the UK.


After Singh we broke for lunch, which was a simple affair culinary-wise, but more complicated when 500 people all wanted food and there were no tables to sit at. Standing is better for mingling, sure, but leaves a bit to be desired when trying to use both a knife and fork...

After lunch we got our introduction from Randi, and when his (pre-recorded) message about how he was sure all the technical problems would be handled, we had a good laugh. It was sad that he could not come, but we expect to see him here for the next TAM London in 2010...


Ariane Sherie was next. Ariane was responsible for starting and organizing the whole "Atheist Bus Ads" campaign in London this year. You would not believe the amount of attention she and the campaign got for just wanting to put up a couple of ads on a bus.


Ben Goldacre was next. His talk was about the scares about the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism, and an MRSA scare that swept Britain a couple of years back. Our father was diagnosed with MRSA a couple of months ago while he was at a hospital, so hearing Goldacre talk about other scares of MRSA was very interesting to us.


James Randi came on next, via a live Internet link. Yay for technology! It was of course not as good as having him there in person, but them's the breaks. We were very happy to see him, he is a hero and inspiration to us all. Next year he said, they will defintly try to have another TAM London, and he will hope that his doctors allow him to be there in person then.

Randi led into an award. It was a new award, the James Randi Award for Outstanding Continuation of Scepticism in the UK. There was not much surprise as to who received it for his efforts and troubles in the last year: Simon Singh. Well deserved, Mr. Singh. He also took the opportunity to announce that he was going to be a father in 2010, congratulations there too!


Later in the evening there was a comedy show for us, it was named An Evening with Robin Ince and Friends. Robin Ince and his friends put on a fantastic show, tuned to our tastes. As he said in his introduction, this was "A gig where I can mention Richard Feynman and get a round of applause."


The show ended at 23:00. Afterward we tried to go out for some drinks with about half the Norwegian crew, but there was not an open pub in sight. This was very unusual for our expectations and presuppositions of Britain being a pub-happy country. So we just went back to our hotel instead and prepared for the next day, which would be just as packed with excitement and awesome people...