Tomorrow I am moving to London for most of December to concentrate full time on production for the Christmas Lectures. The production company Windfall Films are also setting up camp in the Royal Institute as the next two weeks are going to be frantic as we put the lectures together working with the Ri boys in the backroom, Andy and Melis. I am told that when we begin recording in 14 days, there will be about 30 people involved. It will be like the circus coming to town.
Last Thursday I had my baptism by fire with an almost full house preview for members and families of the Royal Institution. It was an opportunity to get a sense of what it is like to give a lecture in this august theatre where Faraday began the tradition of the public engagement of science. Where Huxley championed Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Where giants of public speaking like Attenborough, Dawkins and Sagan set the standards that other Christmas lecturers aspire to. To say that I am a bit nervous is an understatement. That said, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves at the preview last week. I met the director, David and I am working with a great producer, Leesa alongside science communicator expert Debbie. The team is great. However, the trouble with a topic like psychology is that while everyone is interested in how their brain and mind works, and we can all relate to psychological experiences, finding demonstrations that will reliably work with a teenage audience is proving very hard. To begin, people do not behave naturally in front of an audience. Teenagers can be acutely self-conscious in front of their peer group. Many of the classic psychological phenomena are implicit measures that are difficult to capture in a public arena. Other demonstrations are simply not visually compelling or make for interesting television. So I have my work cut out for me. However, I am pleased to say that I have recruited some excellent talent and experts to help me out in these final weeks putting the show together. I am very pleased that I will have the wonderful Billy Kidd who I specifically requested. As you can see, she is extremely talented.
I can’t give away much more but I can tell you that theme of the lectures is 1950’s B movies which is close to my heart as I used to collect original posters from these era and I have a fascination with the horror/sci-fi genre. We will meet the Locust Lady and take a boat trip to Zombie Island so I am hoping the teenage audience will like the sorts of things I loved as a kid. Anyway, I will be gone for some time and not blogging here during the event because there is an official Royal Institution Christmas Lecture website about to be launched on Dec 12th. But I will be back here after the circus has left town.
Today I learned the sad news that my friend and colleague Tom Troscianko died. Like many deaths of loved ones, the impact of the news takes time to sink in as a widening chasm of despair opens. Tom would have none of that. He was one of life’s rare individuals who brought happiness, warmth and friendship to everyone who met him. He always saw the positive side to everything and frankly it was impossible to be miserable in his presence. It seems only recently we mourned the loss of another great personality from my department, Richard Gregory who was also a vision scientist that Tom worked with. I have put up a selection of video clips of them to remind me what bon vivres they led.
And here is a young Tom when he worked in Richard’s lab sharing a drink and a joke and eventually waking up his infant daughter who was being looked after by another very young Sue Blackmore. Bristol was a magical place and the vision world is a little colder and darker now that they have gone.
As I noted in an earlier post, the apparent recent fad for tattooing and body modification is nothing new. A paper published in the Journal of Urology reports that the practice has been going on from at least the upper Paleolithic period as evidence from the portable stone and bone art that dates from between 38,000 to 11,000 years ago. Apparently ancient man was just as obsessed with his genitalia as he is today. Many of the phalluses or phalli represent piercing and tattoos as well as modification.
A selection of prehistoric phalluses representing the practice of modification
That ancient man was so obsessed with his penis that he wanted to show it to others is not particularly surprising – (remember Weinergate earlier this year?) but I was interested to read that many of the tattoos were geometric shapes – much like the images that have been found in the further recesses of the caves where it is believed individuals used to wedge themselves (the spaces were only big enough for one person).
One intriguing hypothesis put forward in his fascinating book, “The Mind in the Cave” by David Lewis-Williams, is that shaman would induce sensory deprivation in isolation in the recesses as a means of altering their states of consciousness – no doubt helped along by some herbs. These were not public ceremony or rituals but solitary events that he reckons may have been an attempt to return to the womb of mother earth. One of the perceptual experiences of various hallucinogens and sensory deprivation are vivid experience of geometric shapes! One hypothesis for this is that retino-cortical map of visual area V1 is aligned in geometric patterns similar to those observed during hallucination and becomes over-stimulated in altered states.
New Ph.D. graduate gets a double-helix tattoo with the guy who discovered it
Not so for the more recent fad for scientific tattoos that has recently been highlighted by Carl Zimmer in his amazing book, “Scientific Ink” which is a collection of scientifically-themed tattoos that he highlighted in his blog on this at the Discover Magazine (take a look). Many of the examples come from scientists so there are a fair selection of geometric patterns that are found in Nature from star systems, chemical structures and so on.
I do not have any tattoos at the moment but who knows? What would your scientific tattoo be?
I am currently trying to balance so many spinning plates at the moment that updating a blog is almost impossible. A number of you sent me the story about John Lennon’s rotten tooth selling for $30,000 and that would have been an easy one to post here, but I decided to ignore the usual weird memorabilia of the famous story and bring to your attention a bizzare thing I read in the Fortean Times book of Strange Deaths.
I was in Japan at a conference some years back and was introduced to karaoke. I have always been a bit of show-off but I never realized how much the karaoke beast can take over your brain. We had a blast that evening but it was in the confines of a private booth, surrounded by good friends, just having a laugh.
We recently tried to repeat the experience in the Philadelphia, US in a public bar where the whole event was controlled by the DJ – who frankly was a bit of a jerk. For the price of a drink, he offered to bump us up the pecking order of who sang next. It was really not a lot of fun as we had to listen to terrible singing from other people and then not even get a chance to have a go. This was a totally different experience which was much more confrontational. When people got up, it got ugly.
Still, we remained relatively convivial. Not so in the Philippines. According to the Fortean Times there are regular fights and murders associated with karaoke. No more so than with the way that people sing the Sinatra classic, “My Way” which leads to many deaths each year. Normally, I would think that such behavior was unreasonable, but after we had to endure listening to others murder songs, while thwarted from taking up the microphone ourselves, I now appreciate the killer instinct that can be triggered by karaoke – the need to be appreciated! This is a theme a develop in my new book, “The Self Illusion.’
A number of you sent me the link to a study just published on the effects on performance after telling golfers that the club they are using was previously owned by a pro-golfer. The study by Charles Lee & Sally Linkenauger, published in PLoS ONE asked students who were avid golfers to putt using a club they were told belonged to ace golfer Ben Curtis. Their performance was superior to a matched group of students who were told that the same club was simply “a really nice putter.” The article goes on to consider several issues related to confidence in sports performance and even mentions an interview with Paul Rozin who of course, brings up positive contagion effects.
I expect many readers are saying,”So what? It is simply association and positive thinking.” This is always a problem when discussing essentialism and contagion effects. Hopefully in the new year we should have some research ready for publication that speaks directly to the “So what, its association” put-down of these findings but for the moment, I am grateful to those of you who sent me this as I have very little time to scan the media for worthy stories at the moment. Must dash!