Category Archives: In the News

Renowned Academics Speaking About God

Well I don’t know what I am more flattered by?  Being regarded as a “renowned academic” or being squeezed in between Richard Dawkins and Marvin Minksy – two brilliant thinkers that have had a major impact on my own thinking. If you can’t be bothered with all the other great minds, I’m on around 11:50, but there are some very smart things being said worth listening to.

1. Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate in Physics, MIT
2. VS Ramachandran, World-Renowned Neuroscientist, UC San Diego
3. Bruce C. Murray, Caltech Professor Emeritus of Planetary Science
4. Sir Raymond Firth, World-Renowned Anthropologist, LSE
5. Alva Noë, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
6. Alan Dundes, World Expert in Folklore, Berkeley
7. Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy, CUNY
8. Bede Rundle, Oxford Professor of Philosophy
9. Sir Richard Friend, Cambridge Professor of Physics
10. George Lakoff, Berkeley Professor of Linguistics
11. Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine
12. Shelley Kagan, Yale Professor of Philosophy
13. Roy J. Glauber, Nobel Laureate in Physics
14. Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology, UCL
15. Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard Professor of Social Ethics
16. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke University
17. Richard Dawkins, Oxford Evolutionary Biologist
18. Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology, Bristol
19. Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence Research Pioneer, MIT
20. Herman Philipse, Professor of Philosophy, Utrecht University
21. Michio Kaku, CUNY Professor of Theoretical Physics
22. Dame Caroline Humphrey, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
23. Max Tegmark, World-Renowned Cosmologist, MIT
24. David Parkin, Oxford Professor of Anthropology
25. Robert Price, Professor of Theology and Biblical Criticism
26. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, Virginia
27. Max Perutz, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
28. Rodolfo Llinas, Professor of Neuroscience, New York
29. Dan McKenzie, World-Renowned Geophysicist, Cambridge
30. Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, UC San Diego
31. Sean Carroll, Caltech Theoretical Cosmologist
32. Alexander Vilenkin, World-Renowned Theoretical Physicist
33. PZ Myers, Professor of Biology, Minnesota
34. Haroon Ahmed, Prominent Cambridge Scientist (Microelectronics)
35. David Sloan Wilson, Professor of Biology and Anthropology, SUNY
36. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC
37. Seth Lloyd, Pioneer of Quantum Computing, MIT
38. Dan Brown, Fellow in Organic Chemistry, Cambridge
39. Victor Stenger, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Hawaii
40. Simon Schaffer, Cambridge Professor of the History of Science
41. Saul Perlmutter World-Renowned Astrophysicist, Berkeley
42. Lee Silver, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology
43. Barry Supple, Emeritus Professor of Economic History, Cambridge
44. Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Professor of Law
45. John Raymond Smythies, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatric Research
46. Chris Hann, Max Planck Institute For Social Anthropology
47. David Gross, Nobel Laureate in Physics
48. Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Toronto
49. Robert Hinde, Emeritus Professor of Zoology, Cambridge
50. Carolyn Porco, NASA Planetary Scientist


Filed under In the News

Cognitive Sewage

Americans use on average 24 gallons of water each day to flush their toilets—that’s approximately 5.8 billion gallons. Although billions are spent on treating this water to a level that is suitable for drinking less than 10% of recycled water ends up coming out of our taps.  Despite the best efforts of engineers to produce some of the cleanest water on the planet many people are repelled by the thought of drinking water that’s been in our toilets.This reminds of the recent episode when officials decided to empty the Lake Tabor reservoir coz someone took a leak in it.

Carol Nemeroff, a former student of that guru of gross, Paul Rozin, conducted a study of 2,000 people and established that our old friend of magical contagion was the culprit. As she put it, “It is quite difficult to get the cognitive sewage out of the water, even after the real sewage is gone.”

One way to combat contagion beliefs is to pair the thought of recycled water with more natural settings such as imaging it sitting in an underground reservoir. The problem is that Nature can be pretty filthy so you really are better off with the treated sewage.

With so many cities facing a water shortage crisis, it is about time we got over our contamination fears. San Diego is already drinking recycled water because it imports 85% of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River, into which upstream communities like Las Vegas discharge wastewater that is later treated for drinking purposes.

Thank you to those that sent me this item which appeared on this week’s National Public Radio website.


Filed under In the News

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.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News

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


Filed under book publicity, In the News

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.


Filed under In the News, Weird Story of the Week

What a Week Out of this World!

I am about to start off on my US trip but wanted to post a blog about this week because a) if you want people to read your blog (and who doesn’t ?) then you have to post regularly and b) this will be the oddest couple of weeks that I have had.

It started off on Monday when I went to London to record the BBC Radio 4 show, “The Infinite Monkey Cage” with resident hosts, Robin Ince & Brian Cox and guests Andy Nyman (the creative genius behind Derren Brown & the West-End hit, “Ghost Stories”) and Prof Richard Wiseman(Britain’s best known psychologist). We talked about the science of the supernatural, why do some people believe and I brought along a dowsing bombdetector. I am only going to say that I had great fun and you can hear the show broadcast on July 4th in the UK.

Robin, comforted by Brian, gives birth while Richard assists with the delivery

Me & Jon about to go on

Then on Thursday, I did a gig with Jon Ronson who is currently touring with his current book, “The Psychopath Test.” This book is now in its 4th week in the New York Times bestseller list and Jon was in fine form. I heard Jon’s talk at the Cheltenham Science festival but this time it was more of interview and discussion in front of the 400+ audience at St. George’s in Bristol . I think we really got a banter going and all seemed delighted. I didn’t stick around afterwards as I wanted to go to a party and Jon was headed for Glastonbury the next day. I knew that there was something big going down in my neighbourhood.

I can’t say more about who was hosting the party or where it was but it was star-studded event with the likes of Damian Hirst, a bunch of movie people and of course, if you haven’t worked out from my Tweets, megastars U2, who were headlining at Glastonbury. And yes, I schmoozed shamelessly. I was delighted to discover that the Edge is a science fan. Bono liked my Dundee colloquilism of “Twa bridies and an inning in and aw” (translation: “Two savoury pastries please and an onion one as well”). Anyway, I had a blast but could not, and frankly did not, want to take photographs. The next night they rocked the Pyramid stage at Glasto and I experienced a distorted delusion of pride by proxy. How sad am I? And how cool was it that they did a live link to the orbiting International Space Station?

So now I am off to the US to do a bunch of work/fun related stuff in NYC but heading off to be a minor star of my own as the keynote speaker alongside one of the greatest living legends, Dr. Buzz Aldrin at the Llamasoft conference. I thought you’d appreciate this clip of Buzz demonstrating he has a sense of humour.

Name dropping? Yes, absolutely – guilty as charged. I will be talking about this celebrity cult status and how some of us seek out association with other famous individuals to validate our self-worth in my next book. Am I nervous about meeting Buzz? Yes. of course, but somehow this week is just shaping up fine.


Filed under book publicity, General Thoughts, In the News

A Wee Pee

An expensive leak

If you have ever been to a public swimming pool then I am pretty certain that you will have swallowed water with a very diluted sample of someone’s else’s urine. People, and especially young children pee in swimming pools. Normally no one gives it a second thought but when a Portland 21-year-old man urinated in the Mount Tabor reservoir, administrators decided to dump the water supply at a cost of $36,000.

I reckon that he probably produced no more than a third of a gallon whereas the reservoir holds 7.8 million gallons. Urine is relatively sterile and even if he had hepatitis, I am reliably informed that the virus would not survive long. And of course, in some cultures, drinking urine is considered therapeutic. I am not advocating that practice but emptying the reservoir is somewhat of an over-reaction by the authorities. What’s more is that dead animal carcasses regularly turn up in the reservoir and yet, the authorities do not take any actions. When asked about the decision to drain the reservoir, administrator David Shaff said,”Do you want to drink pee?” When pushed further on the scientific rationale, he retorted, “Answer the question. It has nothing to do with scientifically. Most people are gonna be pretty damn squeamish about that.”

This incident reveals the strength of essentialism as well as scientific ignorance. No wonder homeopathy is perceived as being effective.


Filed under In the News, Weird Story of the Week

The Flying Dutchman’s Ark Royal

Add to Shopping Basket

You have only got one month left to put a bid in for HMS Ark Royal that has been put up for sale on the internet. According to the website, the  former aircraft carrier is currently “in stock” but the price estimate is not available. Potential buyers are invited to view the Ark Royal though if they make a bid, they have to provide a brief outline of your intentions for the massive warship. Apparently, restocking and embargoing Hong Kong is not appropriate. It is most likely to be chopped up for salvage. Shame, seems it could be the ultimate rich boy’s toy boat.

Maybe Johan Huibers, an old world Dutch Christian should have considered buying the Royal Ark rather than embarking on a folly to recreate the biblical Noah’s Ark. At 3,000 tons and 450 x 75 feet wide, it is much smaller than the 10,000 ton, 630 by 110 feet Ark Royal. It will also probably end up costing him more (£1,000,000) than the scrap value of aircraft carrier. Still he is a man driven by the conviction that building a replica Ark will inspire people to follow the Old Testament. I didn’t think that even Christians believed the Ark myth anymore.

The Dutchman's Noah's Ark

He plans to sail the Ark into London for the Olympics next year and has asked Mayor Boris Johnson for permission. Knowing the tactfulness of our Boris, I expect he’ll say yes and then blast the boat out of the water with the de-commissioned guns off the Ark Royal. At least there should be a pirate boarding raid.


Filed under In the News

New College of Humanities Set to Put the Cat Amongst the Pigeons

Today we learned of the launch of the New College of Humanities founded by 14 leading academics and to be headed up by AC Grayling who is the first master of NCH. From looking at the website, it appears that this landmark in higher education has been very much driven by the silver-maned philosopher as much of the publicity and some of the staff appear to come from Birkbeck. The roll call of the professorate is very impressive and I am amazed that this was organized without any hints or rumours reaching the rest of academia. They include

It is a shame that there was not a stronger diversity and representation of female academics.  It also seems that despite the claims that their student staff ratio is going to very low for tutorial-based teaching, I could only find three teaching staff (2/3 are female). From what I can understand, most of the superstar academic professorial positions are honorary but Dawkins for example will be delivering some of the lectures. In what is a very convincing video summary, AC Grayling explains that the degree (affiliated with the University of London) will be built around three core units, 1. Logic 2. Scientific Literacy & 3. Ethics. Each student will have to pass an entrance interview and the expectation is that these are going to be the best of the best.
Of course, what really grabbed the headlines in the press today is that the NCH will charge £18,000 per year – double the current cap on University fees. How is the UK government going to respond? What about the rest of the Russell group of British Universities? Maybe NCH can get away with this initiative as its running costs are going to be comparatively low as it does not require the infrastructure of traditional universities that teach very expensive science courses.
In any event, this appears to be a very clear finger in the eye for the higher education policy makers and a challenge to capping tuition fees. I will be watching this space very closely.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News

The Owlman of Mawnan

Leonora Carrington

On learning of the death this week of the last surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington at the ripe old age of 94, I did a little background research and was amazed to discover what a bizarre life she led. She hung out with Picasso, fled the Nazis and escaped from a psychiatric hospital but it was her love affair with Max Ernst that I thought would interest you.

Born into a very wealthy background in 1917, Leonora was expelled from several convents for her “eccentricity, usually a combination of anti-social tendencies and certain supernatural proclivities.” At the age of 19 she met and fell in love with the much older and married Max Ernst, one of the leaders of the Dada and Surrealist movements.

In 1937 Max and Leonora visited the village of Mawnan, Cornwall where they are said to have performed rituals to invoke the appearance of therianthorpes (half-man half-animal). One of these was said to be the Nightjarman a half bird, half human creature. The birdman was to become a recurrent iconic theme in Ernst’s artwork and also featured in some of Leonora’s work. Max and Leonora led a bizarre tempestuous life but eventually went their separate ways.

In 1976, Ernst died but a couple of weeks after his death, some peculiar sightings were reported in Mawnan. Don Melling had been visiting the area on holiday from Lancaster with his family when his two daughters, 12-year-old June and her 9-year-old sister, Vicky, were walking through the woods near the church. Suddenly the two girls saw a large winged creature hovering above the church tower.

Drawing of the Owlman based on girls sighting

Paranormal researcher Tony “Doc” Shiels who was in the area interviewed the girls and produced a sketch based on what the girls reported. The Owlman of Mawnan had been born. Soon there were other reports of the strange creature. The last sighting was in the 1990s but the Cornish Owlman has become established folklore.

Now that Leonora has also died, I wonder if we will now hear reports of two owls around the village?

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Filed under In the News, supernatural