What I did this summer
This summer I had a life-changing (life-evolving?) experience. One that did not involve anyone dying, which was nice. I went to The Amazing Meeting 6, held this year in Las Vegas. For many of you who’ve been to multiple TAMs, you already know what I found out when I got there… that this meeting of skeptics, freethinkers, doubters and godless liberal heathen ivory-tower intellectual Prius drivers is a total blast.
As a professional academic scientist, I’ve long since gotten used to conferences as things of tedium; four, maybe five days of listening to a steady stream of 15 minute talks, polite friendliness to people who work on the same things you do but whom you only see once a year, emerging from talks at 11:45 am to go searching for lunch alongside 3,000 other lost scientists in a strange city (and needing to get back by 1:30 pm), feeling that you just ate 10 minutes ago when suddenly it’s time for the next too-heavy meal to more-than-replace the 12 calories you’ve burnt that day, and, happily, running into longtime colleagues and friends from across the world, catching up, chatting about science and your lives since the last conference. I’d long since gotten used to that as my expectation of what a conference is supposed to be like. I’m happy to say that at TAM6, all those expectations were shattered.
For about two years now I’ve been listening to skeptical podcasts, including The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Skepticality, and The Atheist Experience, among others. I teach courses on environmental issues and the evolution of life, so confronting wrongheaded ideologies about the natural world is a big part of my job. I also grew up in Alabama, where ignorance is pretty much required by law. So I got an early start with the whole science versus pseudoscience thing. Nevertheless, as I listened to my favorite podcasts discuss TAM, and how fun it was, I resisted. If I went, would I encounter people in Klingon costumes? Would the Flat Earth Society set up a protest which I’d have to walk through to attend the talks? Would Ayn Randers and libertarians get all up in my business about how the US should privatize the interstate highway system? I was skeptical of putting myself in a situation where any of the above could happen.
But none of the above happened. Instead, fun happened. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the keynote speech, and he was hilarious. Adam Savage from Mythbusters spoke at Skalosian velocity about his personal quest to build an exact duplicate of the Maltese Falcon. Dr. Stephen Novella exposed the nonsense of alternative medicine (which, as the chestnut goes, is neither alternative nor medicine). Dr. P. Z. Myers gave a scientific talk on developmental biology. Dr. Phil Plait listed all the things we don’t know about the solar system. Dr. Michael Shermer talked about some of his upcoming projects in skeptical writing. Newsweek science editor Sharon Begley gave some sobering statistics on how stupid most Americans are when it comes to science. Penn & Teller spoke (yes, both of them). And of course the Great One himself was there to preside; James Randi. I remember seeing Mr. Randi on the Tonight Show, debunking Uri Geller and Peter Popov. It was an amazing experience to sit in the same room with Mr. Randi and bask in the collective intellectual star power who’d come to TAM 6 in his honor. I listened to every talk, I never got bored, and I went away wishing for more. I didn’t do the fanboi thing; I didn’t go up and talk to any of the speakers, expressing my admiration in breathless tones. But I thought a lot about what they were saying.
To be truthful, it was my realization that there might not be too many more opportunities to see Mr. Randi at a TAM that made my decision to attend. He looked to be in great health for a man of 80, but a man of 80 he remains, and we all are so stupidly designed that we wear out far too quickly. I hope I get to attend at least 20 more TAMs where Mr. Randi opens the show in person. Because attending more TAMs is my intent. I plan to be there, laptop in lap, as TAM 7 begins next summer.
Back to the life-changing part. Actually, you’re reading it. I’d considered writing my own science blog for a couple of years now, but a combination of laziness and lack of confidence formed an effective kinetic barrier to my actually doing so. Those are still qualities I possess in 40 full measures, but TAM 6 gave me a little bit of activation energy. I’m just one scientist working at medium-sized Midwestern university, but I care about the kind of civilization I live in, and it matters to me when the hard work that my scientific betters have sweated their lives away to unearth can be so casually thrown away by idiots and zealots who prefer life in the Bronze Age, and who cling to the childish fantasy that a giant invisible alien is their own personal bodyguard. I’ve had enough of living in a society where a person is effectively disqualified for public office if she questions the existence of her parents’ imaginary friend. We’ve begun to decode the machine language of life, but the nice lady who checks you out at the grocery believes that a cracker can turn into a living, sentient flesh sample from a Judean woodworker who died 2,000 years ago. My nation is arguably the most powerful and potentially destructive the planet has ever supported, and its Decider in Chief thinks your entire life is just a disposable practice run.
So, this blog. Mostly I intend to talk about earth and planetary science; evolution, environmental issues, discoveries in space. But also I intend to rant. I intend to rant quite a bit, actually. What else are blogs for, after all?