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Book Club: The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum Our March book is The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. The book tells the story of how corruption and incompetence in the New York...

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Book Club: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by... Snow! We've postponed to next Saturday, Feb 22. Same Book Club time, same Book Club place.   For February, we are reading awesome  Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's "An Astronaut's Guide...

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Book Club: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by... Snow! We've postponed to next Saturday, Feb 22. Same Book Club time, same Book Club place.   For February, we are reading awesome  Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's "An Astronaut's Guide...

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SitP: Beer Tasting in the Pub As many of you may know, our usual location for Skeptics in the Pub, Tommy Doyle's in Harvard Square, has closed.  :-[ Join us on Tuesday, January 28 at 7:00 PM as we check out a potential new location,...

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Book Club: “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum

Posted on : Mar-11-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our March book is The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

The book tells the story of how corruption and incompetence in the New York City coroner’s office lead, during a brief period of reformist state and city government, to appointment of a qualified, scientifically trained chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles Norris, head of pathology at Bellevue Hospital. Tammany Hall soon regained control of the city government, but not before Norris hired a competent staff, including forensic chemist Alexander Gettler. Norris and Gettler had very different backgrounds, Norris being a descendent of wealth and privilege, Gettler the child of poor Hungarian immigrants who worked his way through college, but they worked together to establish criminal forensics as a scientific discipline.

They fought constant battles with criminals (mostly poisoners), corrupt politicians (who tried to regain control and starved the Medical Examiner’s Office of resources), overzealous and ignorant police and prosecutors (who sometimes ignored the evidence to go with their hunches and charged innocent people while ignoring real crimes), corrupt industries (which added lead to gasoline and poisoned their customers and employees with leaky gas pipes, radium and worse), and the biggest public health crisis of the 1920s, Prohibition.

The Poisoner’s Handbook tells the story of Norris and Gettler, organized around the various poisons they detected and dealt with. The popularity of poisons seemed to come in waves, as detection methods became more sensitive and reliable, poisoners would move on to other, less detectable poisons. (Or maybe this perception is just an artifact of the way the book is organized.)

The work of Norris and Gettler ultimately led to the vast array of forensic techniques used by the technicians on the various CSI programs, NCIS‘s Abby Sciuto, Law and Order‘s Drs. Rogers and Warner (both New York City Assistant Chief Medical Examiners), and the staff of the Jeffersonian Forensic Anthropology unit on Bones. Important as prime time entertainment is, their work also lead to modern real-world forensics.

Several prominent reviews of the book on Amazon downgrade it due to very poor chemistry. Two of the first 3 reviews (as Amazon listed them for me, YMMV) gave it one star and the reviewers claim to be chemists. Each gives a long bullet list of errors. Several commenters say those errors do not appear in their versions of the book; I checked my recent Kindle edition and most do not appear in my book either. Some of the rest appear to be quibbles about style rather than substance, or willful misreading of slightly ambiguous statements. Can you find any substantive errors in the science or history?

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, March 22 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary, non-violent, phaser blast.

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (March 23) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live too far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)

I apologize for being very late with this post, but you still have time to read it before the meeting. It’s fairly quick paced, and should only take 3 or 4 hours to read. It’s well worth it if you enjoyed The Killer of Little Shepherds”, or like science history or the Borgia family or murder mysteries!

Book Club: “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield

Posted on : Feb-10-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Snow! We’ve postponed to next Saturday, Feb 22. Same Book Club time, same Book Club place.

 

For February, we are reading awesome  Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything”, latest contender in the ongoing Longest Title contest.

Chris Hadfield is a veteran of 3 space flights, the first Canadian to walk in space, two weeks living under the ocean in a deep-sea habitat and is the author of 2 books and the creator of a slew of space-related videos.

In his latest book, Hadfield tells the story of his third space flight, his 5-month stay aboard the International Space Station last year, and the events leading up to and following that flight. It is organized into 3 sections, training and preparation, the space flight itself, and his return to Earth. In keeping with the realities of space flight, the first section, about preparation and training, is by far the longest. That in fact is one of Hadfield’s major points: that thorough preparation and planning makes any difficult part of a person’s life far more manageable and with much greater chance of success, even when everything goes wrong and all one’s plans need to be promptly abandoned.

The title of the book makes it sound like a self-help book, and indeed in some sense it is. Each chapter is loosely organized around a principle that Hadfield found useful, many of them contrary to conventional self-help advice, such as “Sweat the Small Stuff” and “The Power of Negative Thinking”. But unlike most self-help books, Hadfield makes no promises and seldom even gives advice (except maybe Plait’s Law, “Don’t be a Jerk”.) He just relates these ideas as things that helped him in the highly competitive, high-stress world of becoming and being an astronaut. All this is presented in a very low-key manner, and the book can easily be read as a series of anecdotes, mostly on the human side of spaceflight.

I am almost finished reading the book (sorry this post is so late!), and found it quite enjoyable and a fairly quick read. If you haven’t started it yet, I think you still have time to read it before Saturday!

By the way, if you get the Kindle edition and are disappointed by the pictures, much better images are available on the Internet.

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, February 15 22 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Our meeting place can also be found near the exact center of

Nightime picture of our meeting place, taken by Chris Hadfield from the International Space Stationthis image. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary, non-violent, phaser blast.

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (February 23) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live to far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)

SitP: Beer Tasting in the Pub

Posted on : Jan-20-2014 | By : John | In : Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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As many of you may know, our usual location for Skeptics in the Pub, Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, has closed.  :-[

Join us on Tuesday, January 28 at 7:00 PM as we check out a potential new location, Meadhall in Kendall Square, Cambridge. According to our spies and various online reviews, it has a vast selection of very good beers and is a good candidate for future events, but I’m skeptical. I think we need as many independent assessments as possible, so please join us!

Location: Meadhall, 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge
3 minute walk from Kendall T stop
Date: Tuesday, Jan 28, 2014, 7:00 PM

Please RSVP on Facebook.

SitP: Dan Hart

Posted on : Nov-14-2013 | By : John | In : Skeptics in the Pub

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Update: We’ve had to reschedule Dan Hart’s appearance to the following Monday, December 16, 2013. Same time, same place

Dan Hart playing his guitar and grimacing at a microphoneWe’re having an early* Skeptics in the Pub in December with old friend, hilarious singer/songwriter Dan Hart. We had a great time last time he visited us.

Dan will entertain us with such holiday classics as Santa God, Misanthrope Christmas, Christmas in the Nude, and Lobotomy for Christmas.

We’ll also have the traditional Boston Skeptics Yankee Swap!** Bring a small, geeky, nerdy, scientific, blasphemous, cheap (under $10), wrapped*** gift and join in the fun!

Monday evening, December 16 at 7:30 PM at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge.

RSVP on our Facebook event page.

[*] Early in the month, that is… Unless it’s really, really late November:-)

[**] I’ll trade you two Derek Jeters, an A-Rod and a Phil Hughes for a bag of dead skunks. Oh, no, that’s not how it works.

[***] All attributes optional except the wrapping (to make it hard to guess what’s inside.) For those of us suffering from Holiday Procrastination Panic Anxiety, a brown paper bag suffices for the wrapping.

P.S. Francois has posted the video of the video of Dan’s performance. Enjoy!

Book Club: “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker

Posted on : Nov-10-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Update: We’ve decided to postpone due to very dicey weather. New date is Saturday, January 11, same time and place.

Steven Pinker caricature

Our Author

Our next book is Steven Pinker’s recent The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It is a fairly long, immensely detailed look at violence in human history. It is longer than our usual book but fortunately (at least for me!) we have extra time to read it due to the holidays.

Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard, a skeptic, and a Humanist. Anyone who attended the presentation of the Harvard Humanist Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Book Club Favorite Author Mary Roach will remember him as the host of that event.

This book seems an excellent subject for skeptical analysis. Are the trends toward declining violence real, or is there some subtle or not so subtle selection effect? Many people have noted the horrific violence of the 20th century with two world wars, innumerable smaller conflicts, the invention of genocide and weapons of mass destruction. Is violence really declining despite these events? Is World War II just an outlier, like 1998 in climate change?

Are motivated reasoning and confirmation bias involved? Do humanists simply want to believe in our own better (human) angels and that the long-term consequences of the Enlightenment, democracy, modern medicine, the industrial and green revolutions, widely available public secular education, the removal of barriers to the advancement of poor people, oppressed minorities, and especially women, and other historical trends are a metaphorical rising tide that raises all boats? Are these the factors to which Pinker attributes the decline of violence, or are other things involved?

Are the trends Pinker describes confined to Western or the more developed countries or do they occur world-wide?

I spent most of my life, like everyone over the age of thirty or so, living under the nuclear sword of Damocles of the Cold War. It seems we were all one Big Red Button away from the utter demolition of Pinker’s conclusion. Was it really not as unlikely as it seems that we would survive?

I’m really looking forward to reading this book and seeing which of these questions he answers, and discussing it all with you.

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, December 14 January 11 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary, non-violent, phaser blast.

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (December 15 January 12) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live to far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)

P.S. Our next book will be astronaut Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

Book Club: “Sybil Exposed” by Debbie Nathan

Posted on : Oct-10-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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Our October book is “Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case” by Debbie Nathan

Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber was a huge best seller in the 1970s which brought public attention to an extraordinary case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or colloquially as “split personalities”.) It was made into a very popular, Emmy award winning, made-for-TV movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward. It told the story of Sybil (real name Shirley Ardell Mason), a young woman suffering from blackouts. She went to a therapist who discovered had multiple personalities (as many as 16) and was repressing memories of horrific abuse as a child.

Someone once said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.* Debbie Nathan has examined these claims and found them profoundly lacking. In fact, it appears that Mason, Schreiber and the psychiatrist, Dr Cornelia Wilbur may have invented the whole thing. Quite possibly, it was a case of mutually reinforced self-deception on the part of Mason (Sybil) and Dr. Wilbur, but many of the incidents in the book appear to have been fabricated by Dr. Wilbur and Schreiber. (Having not read the details yet, I suspect this could be a case of pious fraud.)

Read the book, get the full story and join us to discuss it on Saturday, October 26 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Remember to bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

As always, Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (October 27) at the Skepchick Book Club.

[*] Actually, lots of someones, including (most famously) Carl Sagan, who stole it from Marcello Truzzi, Théodore Flournoy, Pierre-Simon LaPlace, David Hume, and probably many others.

Book Club: “The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

Posted on : Sep-05-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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Our book for September is “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan.

This book is recently published and received mostly 5 star reviews on Amazon. A few of the 4-star reviews that I skimmed complained that it was too technical, but I think for most of us, that would be a plus!

I expect the subjects of this book will be similar in many ways to the “computers” of the Harvard Observatory in The Madame Curie Complex and other books we’ve read, people who are long overdue recognition for their achievements.

Mostly off-topic, but one of my favorite current TV series is The Bletchley Circle, which I think is about to begin its second season on PBS (Channel 44, WGBH in Boston.) It is the (fictional) story of 4 women who worked at Bletchley Park under Alan Turing, doing sophisticated analysis of German military codes, predicting troop movements and deriving other important intelligence. (Even after you’ve cracked the enemy’s codes, understanding the messages is far from trivial given their lack of context.) After the war, the women go their separate ways, until one of them, now a bored housewife with a fantastic ability at puzzle-solving (my hero), starts tracking a serial killer. She joins up with her friends, who all have important complementary skills, to discover his pattern, a killing the police missed, predict the location of his next victim and that he has actually killed over a dozen times (and framed other people, some of whom were executed), not just the 4 victims the police are aware of.

I don’t know if this book will discuss amazing but unheralded achievements by these women after the war, or if most of them are just ordinary people who go back to ordinary lives, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy the recreation of a time not so long ago when things were very different yet surprisingly similar to today.

We’ll be meeting at our usual time and place, at 3:00 PM in Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, on Saturday, September 28. Remember to bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack (I’m considering a Steak Bomb from the pizza shop on the corner.) Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

As always, Mary will be leading the discussion of the book the next day (September 29) at the Skepchick Book Club.

SitP: Pub Hangout

Posted on : Jul-06-2013 | By : John | In : Blog Post, local, Skeptics in the Pub

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This month we don’t have a formal program or speaker, so we can get down to the serious business of being skeptical about drinking. Is beer a drink or a food? If (for fans of Mary Roach), you run your shepherd’s pie through a blender, fletcherizing it, does it become a drink? Should you chew Guinness?

Answers to all these questions, or anything else you care to discuss, can be had at the July Boston Skeptics in the Pub, Monday, July 15 at 7:00 PM in Tommy Doyle’s Pub, 65 Winthrop St (Harvard Square) in Cambridge. You can RSVP or comment on Facebook if you wish.

Book Club: “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

Posted on : May-26-2013 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Book Club, local

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Our next book is the story of a horrible Cholera outbreak in London, England in the late summer of 1854, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson. It tells the story of a deadly outbreak of cholera in the late summer of 1854, and how careful gathering of information and analysis of the data led to an understanding of its mode of transmission and effective public health measures to prevent it. The result was the creation of the science of epidemiology.

The book focuses on two men. Dr. John Snow, who help found the Epidemiological Society of London 4 years previously, and was a pioneer in anesthesiology. Snow lived about 5 blocks from the epicenter of the epidemic. Rev. Henry Whitehead was the 28 year old assistant curate of the local C of E church. They both spent every available minute, independently, visiting the victims and gathering information about their circumstances, until the epidemic had run its course. Later, they were both appointed by the local health board to a committee to investigate the epidemic. Initially, they supported rival theories of the spread of cholera, but Whitehead was a nascent skeptic and eventually came to support Snow’s evidence and reasoning, which fit perfectly with his own disproving of the conventional theories of the day, principally the miasma theory of disease.

Both Snow and Whitehead showed great courage and concern for the victims during the outbreak, although we now know they were actually in little real danger. Whitehead did drink some of the water, which many people thought was actually a cure for cholera, and drank in large quantities. Most likely by that time, the cholera in the well had all died since the well contained little of the plankton cholera normally thrives on in the wild, but no one knew that at the time. (The germ theory of disease lay about a decade in the future.)

Snow had been gathering evidence to support his hypothesis that cholera was waterborne to explain earlier outbreaks when the 1854 Soho epidemic occurred. Snow’s map of the location of victims and his investigations, especially of the outlying cases, convinced him his theory was correct. The local council wasn’t convinced, rightly pointing out that it didn’t account for people who drank the suspect water but didn’t get sick. However, in a spirit of caution, they had the handle removed from the pump of the suspect Broad Street well, which while probably too late to stop the current outbreak, did prevent a second outbreak when the father of the first victim, patient zero, became one of the last people to die and almost certainly recontaminated the well. (The cesspool in the cellar of his house was only a few feet from the well.)

Whitehead had been gathering evidence to disprove all the various versions of the conventional miasma theory, and rightly pointed out some logical gaps in Snow’s theory. Together, Snow and Whitehead gathered the needed data and, much to Whitehead’s surprise, made further maps that showed beyond any doubt that cholera was waterborne and the Broad Street well was the culprit. For example, they measured the actual walking distance between the homes or workplaces of the victims and all the nearby public wells, and showed that in almost every case, the Broad Street well was the closest. They also showed the distribution of the cases did not support other hypotheses, such as that the air near the ground or the social class of the victims or the newly built sewer system or the recently disturbed pit containing the remains of many of the 100,000 victims of the London Plague of 1665.

The Kindle version of the book only contains one of the maps, in a very small, almost unreadable format. I don’t know if the print version is better. Anyway, a much bigger version of his original map is here.

Steven Johnson has written 8 books on the history of science, technology and innovation.

We will be meeting at our usual time and location, at 3:00 PM in Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, on Saturday, June 22. Remember to bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack, preferably one made with boiled water. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

As always, Mary will be leading the discussion of the book the next day (June 23) at tbe Skepchick Book Club.

Book Club: “Gulp” by Mary Roach

Posted on : Apr-29-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club

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The cover of the book

Our port of departure

This month’s book is the latest by Book Club’s favorite author Mary Roach, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

So far, I’m about half way through the journey and it is every bit as disgusting (and informative) as I’ve expected. And, except for a brief side-trip into the realm of prison contraband smuggling, we haven’t even gotten to the worst bits yet.

Charlie and Rosie had their leach-infested river. I hope we get to intestinal parasites soon.

I don’t even want to think about what people will regard as appropriate snacks for the meeting. (Well, yes, I do.) If you are curious, come and find out. You don’t have to bring a snack (though more are always welcome), just your appetite (or what’s left of it.)

Notice that I didn’t make any fart jokes; Mary would be proud disappointed.

We will be meeting at the usual time and place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building at 3:00 PM on Saturday, May 18. You can RSVP on our Facebook event page if you wish.

As always, Mary will be leading the discussion of the book the next day (May 19) on Skepchick.