Monthly Archives: April 2011

SETI Telescope Array Set to Close

Is there anybody out there who can help?

It was with great disappointment that I learned that due to diminished funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the state of California,  SETI Institute’s search for extraterrestrial life is facing financial problems.  The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) has been forced to close as SETI astronomers have been told that the the funding agencies can simply not afford the $1.5 million needed to continue their scientific work. The team had isolated 50 or 60 of those planets that looked promising for signs of life. The 42 radio dishes will now be turned off. The SETI have plans outlined on their website to raise the necessary funds to reinstate the ATA but it does seem tight-fisted to close down such an inspiring scientific project. Anyone wishing to donate can do so via here. No doubt the conspiracy theorists will come up with a good cover story to explain why the government that spends billions on defence is no longer supporting this endeavor.

I was there last summer when I popped into to say hello to Seth Shostak and Molly Bentley for an impromptu interview on their wonderful radio Seti podcast. I really hope this does not face closure as it is a really a topnotch podcast and Seth & Molly are fab.

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I Like Stovies Too.

Alan also likes stovies

Ok.. this is neither science nor superstition but just a really funny video. The reason I am posting it is that I have always thought that my colleague and collaborator Alan Leslie at Rutgers has more than a passing resemblance to Dustin Hoffman except that Alan has a charming Scottish burr that Hoffman cannot imitate.

When I posted this on Facebook, (yes I have gone back into that time sink), Alan commented that he was the same height, share the same birthday and yes he does enjoy stovies – which I am sure will be a mystery dish to my non-Scottish followers.

Anyway, this video cracks me up and distracts me from the mountain of work that I am wading through.

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Watering the Flowers

watering the flowers?

I just got back from Dobbies Garden World in Shepton Mallet, Somerset which is amazing … and I am not one for frequenting gardening centres.

This is chain of mega garden stores that started up in Midloathian, Scotland from what I can tell and even though it has spread across the UK opening branches everywhere (well it is a garden centre after all) I think they have maintained a Scottish sense of humour.

Imagine my surprise when I visited the gents and saw the urinals! As you can see they are fashioned into the shape of flowers.

There is something deeply unsettling about urinating into a giant flower and as you can probably see, some previous male visitors clearly had a problem with the daffodil in the middle. It just didn’t seem right!

Maybe they were Welsh. Happy Easter

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Soar Like An Eagleman

Every spring the Festival of Ideas in Bristol brings some of the finest thinkers and writers to our fair city. Last week it was Sam Harris. The week before it  was another neuroscientist, David Eagleman who came to talk about his new book, “Incognito.” David works in Austin, Texas and is one of the most talented and yet, humble young writers around. His first book, “Sum” was an international best-seller that attracted praise from all corners, including Stephen Fry and über creative maestro, Brian Eno, who set the ideas of Sum to music that played in concerts in Sydney – you don’t get much cooler than that.

David Eagleman Attracts a Following

Incognito is brilliant. It’s basically about how we are our brains and that the majority of the mechanisms of the mind are unconscious. So nothing too new really but delivered with wonderful examples from the implicit learning of Chinese chicken sexers to Charles Whitman and the tumor in his brain that may have contributed to him shooting dead 14 innocent bystanders from the University of Texas’s tower building at Austin. What I did find incredibly interesting and novel is David’s discussion of culpability and why we are asking the wrong questions when we are dealing with the brain basis of criminality.

David is a master of the delivery and I will be pinching many of his examples. Actually, I did not know that he was publishing Incognito when I heard him speak about Charles Whitman at the SciFoo meeting last July. I had already written about this same case in my new book but I guess that’s the way good stories travel. At least I am not mentioning Phineas Gage – especially after I had read a paper by Malcolm Macmillan claiming that the reports of his change of character following the tamping iron incident were greatly exaggerated.

Anyway, I read “Incognito” in one sitting and can thoroughly recommend it. I snapped this picture of David before his talk, when a complete stranger came up and put her arm around him for the photograph. They are very friendly out here in Bristol – almost like Texans!

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Sam the Man

I have just come back from Sam Harris’s talk in Bristol abut his new book, “The Moral Landscape.” Apart from admiring Sam for his eloquent writing and brilliance at debate and argument, he name-checked me and SuperSense in the latest book  – so I just had to say hello.

His talk was great even though I don’t actually agree entirely with his argument that morality can be studied scientifically. I have a number of concerns. First science is a method but one that is driven by incompatible theories and perspectives. Also some levels of scientific enquiry are incommensurate. For example, as the great vision scientist David Marr pointed out, you can study bird flight from a number of different levels of analysis which have nothing to do with each other but are all perfectly valid. You could study the molecular level of what makes wings and feathers. You could study the aerodynamics of flight. You could study the evolution of flight. You could study migration etc and so on and so on. So my point is that even if you agree that there is some ideal of what is a moral good, there are so many ways you could arrive at some form of analysis.

Anyway enough of that. I do agree that we should challenge moral dogma for the sake of trying to challenge practices that seek to curtail the freedoms of the rest of us. I’m just not sure that this is a “scientific” endeavour.

What had me really surprised during the evening was the level of security that surrounds Sam. There were two very intimidating security guards who stared menacingly at the audience from the side of the stage throughout the talk and at one point, bundled a young man out of the audience for filming with a miniature camera. Even when I was hosting Dawkins the last time he was in Bristol, he did not have this level of protection.

"You Looking at Me?" Minders at the Sam Harris book signing

I admire Sam Harris and I think he is incredibly talented. He deserves his success and fame but I don’t think I would swap places if I had to travel with the level of security he does. It is a real shame because when we met later at the book signing he seemed a genuinely warm guy.

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How to Create a Storm

Here is a wonderful labour of love. Apparently when Tracy King and Dan Turner first heard Tim Minchin perform his beat poem “Storm” they were both struck with the clarity and simplicity of how it conveyed their skeptics frustration of trying to deal with people who reject rationality. It took ages in the making but I hope you’ll agree that this Bafta-nominated animation is worth sharing. After all, its the message that is important.

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Seize the Moment

Today at the Sunday Times Literary Festival in Oxford, something very unusual happened for the very first time. I have been giving the same old SuperSense talk for about two years now and have pretty much got used to all the wacky questions and members of the audience who have had strange experiences. I have even encountered my own bizarre episodes of déjà vu where I suddenly felt that I had been in the situation before as well as the related déjà vécu where I was sure I had the memory of being there. No doubt repeating myself over and over again, led me to experience the familiarity of situations without keeping track of the source. As anyone who has every lectured knows, I got that depersonalized experience where I was listening to myself as an external speaker.

These are all tricks that the brain can play on us, as I hammered home my same old message, “You are your brain, nothing more, nothing less. Any weird experiences are just your brain playing up.”

I was getting towards the end of my presentation when I was saying that there was no scientific evidence for mediums or possession when a lady in the front row, probably in her late 50’s grasped her arm and started shaking. I thought, “Oh here we go, someone is going to trying and persuade us that she is possessed.”

But if she was acting, then she was doing a fine job. She had turned ashen white with that bluish tinge to the lips indicating anoxia. Oh no, I thought, she’s having a heart attack. But then she started convulsing and I realized she was having a seizure. Her convulsions became increasingly violent and I really thought she was going to drop dead. The audience and organizers did not know what to do. Some wanted to clear the room, or remove her but I explained she was having a seizure and that there was nothing to do but to let it pass.

I surprised myself in my calmness – when the seizure started to subside, I asked her if she was epileptic. She nodded. I asked if she wanted to stay. She said yes. Had my talk or demonstrations triggered her fit? She said no – “phew” but I could not help thinking that in my efforts to stir the audience with mind-bending demonstrations, I had gone a little too far.

If that event had happened 400 years ago, it would have probably been interpreted as something demonic but we now understand these behaviours as the cascading misfiring of the brain in a storm of neuroelectrical activity.

Upon reflection, I realized I had missed an opportunity to make a point, but it would have been extremely callous at the time to point out the significance of this lady’s misfortune. In that one moment, she had demonstrated in a way that I never could, that all our thoughts and behaviours are the outputs of a biological machine. She had no control over her brain because she was her brain and when it went on the blink, so did she. A sobering thought.

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Sacred Sport

One of the ideas I have for another book down the road is one on superstition and sport. After religion, sport comes pretty high up on the list of human activities that evoke magical thinking. We all know about all the superstitious rituals that various players engage in prior to matches. I have already covered David Beckham’s OCD and the habit of his AC milan teammates patting his bottom for good luck. But I think that the sports fan is a peculiar species.

Nick Hornby famously wrote about his pre-match ritual of buying a sugar mouse on his way to the football match.  He would bite the head off and then lob the remainder into the road as a way of ensuring that his beloved Arsenal would win.

Not much of view from here

I recently had the rare opportunity to go to an Arsenal game – the first match that I have been to in over 25 years and there is something fanatical about fans. So I was not too surprised to read this week about the corpse of a fan that was smuggled into a Colombia match between Cúcuta Deportivo and Envigado. Cristopher Alexander Jácome Sanguino, a 17-year-old supporter, had been gunned down the day before but his friends decide to take him to the match last sunday anyway.

We always think of the South Americans being somewhat loco when it comes to football but you find similar sports fever across the globe.

Hamburg SV soccer team in Germany is building a cemetery as part of a new stadium so that fans can be buried next to the playing fields. Apparently this is because it is illegal in Germany  to scatter human remains in pubic places. Other clubs are a bit more liberal with many die-hard fans ending their days on the pitch. The singer/actor Meatloaf is such a fanatical baseball supporter, that he plans to have his ashes scattered over the Yankees stadium in New York by helicopter.

These stadiums are the new sacred sites that must not be violated. When a construction worker recently buried a Boston Red Sox jersey in the concrete foundation of the Yankees stadium as a curse, team owners paid $50,000 dollars to have the offending garment excavated in a five-hour operation. The jersey later sold for $175,000 to a Red Sox fan.

So when it comes to sport, people display some very strange beliefs and behaviour. As Bill Shankley, the former manager of Liverpool Football Club quipped,

‘football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that’

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