Monthly Archives: July 2011

2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures Announced!

Royal Institution Lecture Theatre

Finally, after a very long wait, I am pleased to announce that the Royal Institution of Great Britain has chosen yours truly to present the 2011 Christmas Lectures.The Christmas Lectures are demonstration-packed, fun-filled science events for young people. Started by Michael Faraday in 1825, they are now broadcast on UK television every Christmas and have formed part of the British Christmas tradition for generations. After some years on commerical television last year they made a triumphant return to the BBC.

Michael Faraday Presenting a Christmas Lecture in 1856

I grew up with the Christmas Lectures as a child and I am truly honoured to be following in the very large footsteps of Faraday, Bartlett, Huxley, Attenborough, Sagan and Dawkins. The last time they had a psychologist was back in 1967 when my late friend and colleague Richard Gregory presented, “The Intelligent Eye.” The only other psychologist to be given this honour was Sir Frederick Bartlett in 1948. As you can imagine I am both filled with pride but very nervous. This is great for me, great for Bristol University and great for the field of psychology.

The series is entitled “Meet Your Brain” with three separate lectures, “What’s in your head? Who’s in charge here anyway” and “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” These will cover the structure of the brain and how it operates, the organization and control of mental processes, and social perception and cognition. So a fairly broad territory to cover.  I hope I can rise to the occasion and be great for the Christmas Lectures. There is an announcement in today’s Times but you can find out more from the Curious Minds 9 August 2011 Royal Institution Newsletter that it sent to its members this weekend.

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Moon Dust

Don Hicks, Me, Buzz Aldrin & John Gattorna

Last month, I met Buzz Aldrin at the inaugural Llamasoft conference on supply chain management held on June 29th at Ann Arbor. This was the first time I had spoken at this type of corporate event and I must confess it was really due to both the charm and kindness of Llamasoft founder and director Don Hicks who gave me the opportunity to meet a living legend. Don is a space enthusiast and had also wanted to meet Aldrin. I, too, was thrilled to meet the moonwalker as I had a nostalgia for the  Apollo 11 landing as I remember watching it as a kid growing up in New Zealand.

I had told people months in advance that I was meeting Buzz Aldrin which seemed to give me some kudos. By pure chance, the night before I left, I met a member of one of the world’s biggest rock bands who just happened to be a space fan and told me that I should read the book, “Moon Dust” by Andrew Smith. In retrospect, that would have been fitting preparation for what was a surreal experience.

On turning up at Ann Arbor, Don told me that everything was in place but that Buzz had been in a bit of a domestic situation having just left the “love of his life,” in an acrimonious split. I told Don that I was really excited but also on a mission to get Buzz to sign a copy of his autobiography for someone I had just met that would really appreciate it. While walking to the bar, we passed the original Borders bookstore which started in Ann Arbor and Don told me that I could pick up a copy in the morning. I wondered whether Buzz would even turn up.

The following day, I made my way to the conference and started to prepare. At the registration desk, there was a copy of Buzz’s autobiography, “Magnificent Desolation,” awaiting me. What I did not know at the time was that Don had given me his own personal copy so that I could get the autograph – (he’s that kinda guy!). After the initial session had been opened by the first keynote speaker, supply chain guru John Gattarno, I headed to the green room to await my turn. And there, seated at the table working his way through a salad was the very dapper-dressed Dr. Buzz Aldrin with his personal assistant. There was no-one else in the room and I immediately felt awkward. The look on the assistant face as I entered was protective as I assume she thought I was an autograph collector. I introduced myself as a fellow speaker which was met with a little incredulity but I held my ground and attempted to make small talk with a man who has walked on the moon. I don’t think I have ever felt so self-conscious in the presence of another human being.

Buzz was not exactly in the most convivial of moods. I think he thought my dress code of black t-shirt and designer wear jacket was a bit too rock star. Still it was quite clear that he was the centre of attention – and frankly, why not? He wasn’t interested in how the brain works or the development of causal reasoning. I felt I was flailing. Then thankfully Don joined us and Buzz explained that he would not meet the delegates personally or do any signings. Basically he was off limits to the rest of the conference. I now understand that he does alot of these corporate events. I also remember the famous incident when some moon landing conspiracy theorist confronted the moonwalker and Buzz clocked him a right hook when he would not get out of the astronaut’s way and called him a liar.

Being a moonwalker in the public eye comes at a cost and contrary to what the general public think, NASA astronauts are not rich. During the missions they only earned the standard pilot salary during the program and none ended up being very wealthy afterwards. Buzz still has his NASA travel expenses claim voucher for the Apollo 11 mission from Houston to Pacific Ocean via the Moon. Total = $33.31. So many of them survive today on the fees from public appearances and corporate events. None so more than Buzz who has basically turned himself into a brand. I was completely unaware of this when I asked if he would do me the honor of signing his autobiography for someone I knew who would really appreciate it. Buzz did not look too forthcoming until Don explained that the person in question was a very famous musician. This did the trick and Buzz not only signed the book but wrote some enigmatic dedication. I was relieved but did not dare to ask for another for myself or give him a signed copy of my book – what was I thinking?

Buzz Aldrin (picture taken by Neil Armstrong reflected in the visor)

Anyway, when Buzz went onstage to give his keynote, he was the epitomé of the professional speaker. It was well orchestrated and timed to perfection. It began with the inevitable searing chords of  “Also Sparch Zarathustra,” and a 8 minute video montage of the Apollo 11 mission. When the multimedia experience came to an end, the great man walked onto the stage to thunderous applause. He then delivered a flawless, charming and frankly Jeykell & Hydian talk in comparison to the man I met backstage. Whatever one might say about Buzz, he commands the room and oozes charisma. Just hearing about the whole mission again certainly brought a lump to my throat.

Anyway that was my Buzz moment. Over the next week I marvelled at the autograph and began to read his autobiography. The beginning was great giving a real insight in that amazing day they landed on the moon. I was surprised to learn that Buzz performed a communion on landing – something that did not go down too well with Neil Armstrong. There was less about his fellow companions but I assumed that this was simply the perspective of an autobiography. Then the remainder of the book turned out to be a self-confessional about his depression on returning to Earth, the failure of his marriage to his first wife, his frustration of being “put on show” and the refusal of NASA to adopt his ideas for future space travel.

So I finished the book. I was impressed even though I was now seeing a different side to one of my childhood heroes. (If I had read more about the space program then I should not have been surprised as Buzz had had a difficult post-moon time). But then he was now only one of nine moonwalkers left and soon they will all be gone. For a moment I thought that I should hold onto this autographed relic. But then that was not why I wanted the book signed in the first place. So this week I sent the book to someone who I thought would really appreciate it.

Alan Bean Picture of Neil Armstrong Imbued with Moon Dust

In its place, I began to read “Moon Dust” – the book that had been recommended to me. In comparison, to Buzz’s autobiography, this book written by a British journalist Andrew Smith who tracked down the remaining astronauts, was an honest, even-handed account of the whole Apollo experience as seen from the different perspectives. We learn that unlike Buzz who courted publicity and self-promotion, Neil Armstrong decided to keep a low profile and maintain his privacy. In doing so he seems to have retained the gravitas that one would come to expect from the first man on the moon. However, of all the moonwalkers that Andrew Smith met, my favorite is 4th man on the moon,  Alan Bean from the Apollo 12 mission, who went on to become a highly collectible contemporary artist who depicts lunar events. The one here of Neil Armstrong is completely fictitious – according to Moon Dust, while Neil took the famous reflector visor picture of his companion Buzz Aldrin, Buzz was too busy to take Armstrong’s picture.

One of the things that tickles me pink is that in his works of art, he mixes in fragments of the badges and insignia that he wore on the moon to infuse each piece with some moon dust. Maybe I should send him a signed copy of SuperSense.

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Last of the SuperSense?

Last week, I gave my last public SuperSense lecture at the Frome Festival. It’s not that I am never going to talk about the natural origins of supernatural thinking again. In fact, we have some really cool research findings that will be coming out over the next year. But I wanted to draw a line under SuperSense because I have been giving this talk in one version or another for 3 years and now I have to move on.

In many ways, Frome was the suitable last venue as much of the impetus for writing the book was sparked by thinking about my own collecting behaviour, memorabilia and essentialism. This was fostered in the late Steve Bransgrove’s Collectibles shop that I used to frequent on Catherine Hill in Frome.

But I am moving on to fresh pastures. I have a textbook coming out and am finishing off my next book on the developmental neuroscience of the self. These and another major project coming up later in the year mean that I am going to be pretty busy.

Off course, I will still talk about supernatural thinking and I have a couple of TV appearances coming up soon. Here is an Italian film crew who came by my place to shoot a piece on cellular memories following organ transplantation.

They even brought me a copy of the Italian version of the book that has my favorite version of the cat cover.

I think I will keep blogging about the supernatural and I am reluctant to abandon the tagline in the banner for this site, but the content will change as I set about working on new projects. I have many exciting things coming up but for the moment I need to keep writing! Stay tuned and keep coming back for updates.

 

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Pimp My Book

I seem to have a fundamental disagreement with publishers when it comes to choosing covers. I did not particularly like the hardcover for SuperSense which to me suggested it was a book about superstition with black cats and all. In fact, I remember specifically requesting no superstitious tokens. So I was not particularly happy with the design – which by the way turns out to be photograph by Elizabeth Knox that was used on good luck greeting cards designed by Stephanie Dyment. I know coz I found one by chance for sale. Not exactly creative.

Izi will crease you up

Someone who is creative on the other hand is comedian Izi Lawrence, a rapidly rising lovely lady who makes me laugh. She recently started reworking copies of some books that she has enjoyed and I guffawed when I saw what she had done to my book on her new site, Pimp My Book. A colleague of mine, Andrew Shulman confirms that when he was reading Supersense, his wife referred to it as “That cat’s ass book.” Too true.

Anyway, take a look at Izi’s hilarious re-interpretations though Dawkins’s, “The Selfish Gene” gets a real roasting after his comments in the recent Elevatorgate affair. For those of you not following this story, it reveals that even the rational world of skeptics is populated with some very irrational attitudes. I am not attending TAM9 this year, but this incident is bound to be one of the hot topics at the meeting. As I tweeted earlier, there are always fireworks in Vegas, but somehow I think the ones at TAM are going to be extra special.

I thought exactly the same thing when I first saw it

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Bristol is Zombieland

One of the reasons that Bristolians love their city is because of the creative culture that thrives in this California of the British Isles. One of the things I tweeted about a couple of months back is 2.8 Hours Later, the city wide zombie chase game. It’s like tag for adults but much more scary. Check this video out

Those that have played it tell me it’s brilliant and sells out quickly. I didn’t make it this year and looking at the speed at which some of these undead move, I reckon that I would quickly become zombie chow. Anyway, a freedom of information request revealed that Bristol City Council does appear to be geared up for  possible zombie epidemics that could threaten the city. When asked what contingency plans existed for such an attack, the council wrote back with their top secret plan for how to respond and four alert states:

• Ambient zombie level – business as usual, but be on the lookout for telltale signs.

• Enhanced activity level – confirmed zombie attacks on the populous.

• Major outbreak – zombie infection level in excess of 1%, multiple sightings across the city.

• Zombie pandemic level – concentrated outbreak, with infection levels over 30%.

According to the article in the Guardian today, Peter Holt, service director of Bristol City Council communication and marketing said, “Under health and safety the document urges staff to remember the correct zombie-killing procedure: Fully disconnect the brain-stem from the body through either blunt force or full head removal.” The document also reveals that there is an annual training programme scheduled for designated officers who will also be able to distinguish the city’s famous attraction for hot air balloons and “evil, floaty space aliens.”

I love Bristol.

 

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Lardy Cake

Tis neither superstition not science, but it makes for a damn fine ghoulish story. Our beloved natural treasure, Sir David Attenboroug, he of Planet Earth fame, bought a piece of land that used to belong to the “Hole and Wall” pub adjacent to his London home with the intention of turning it into an orchard and garden. During the excavation, the builders discovered a skull that belonged to (or should I say was) Mrs Thomas, a widow in her 50’s who was murdered 132-years ago.

Mrs Thomas was murdered by Kate Webster who pushed her employer down the stairs, strangled her and chopped her body up and then boiled it down. That’s gruesome enough, but in true Sweeny Todd style, a few days after the murder, some boys said that Kate Webster had offered them some food and she said ‘ere you lads I’ve got some good pigs lard which you can have for free’. The boys ate two bowls of lard which was unfortunately Mrs Thomas. Eeeeuggh.

I recently tried Lardy Cake which originates from close by in Wiltshire. It is made from rendered lard, flour, sugar and spices. It was quite tasty but then I did not realize it was made with animal fat. Following the story of Mrs Thomas, I don’t think I will be eating it again.

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