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Book Club: The Martian by Andy Wier Our June book is The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir. It's a science fiction story of Mark Watney, an astronaut abandoned on Mars by the rest of the crew (they were certain, for many good reasons, that...

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Book Club: Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why... Isaac Asimov famously wrote: The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny...” Ha! isn't really about that, though....

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SitP: Pub Hangout Please join us for another Skeptics in the Pub beer tasting and skeptical inquiry into the science of fermentation on Monday, April 28 at 7:00 PM as we conduct a Phase 2 study of Meadhall in Kendall Square,...

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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: “The Martian” by Andy Wier

Posted on : Jun-01-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our June book is The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir.

It’s a science fiction story of Mark Watney, an astronaut abandoned on Mars by the rest of the crew (they were certain, for many good reasons, that he was dead, and if they had delayed their launch by even a few seconds, all the rest of the crew would have been marooned or killed as well.) Mark, who is also a botanist and engineer, takes stock of his situation, and discovers his most critical problem is he only has enough food to last about a year, but rescue isn’t possible for well over two years. That is, assuming he can somehow restore communications with Earth and tell NASA he is still alive.

He has other problems as well, but at least a vague idea how to solve them: not enough water; cold; not enough pressurized area to attempt to grow food (the potatoes intended for their Thanksgiving dinner are still viable); broken airlocks; cold; bad luck; and his own, almost fatal, mistakes.

As he struggles to survive, he (and we) learn a number of important lessons, principally:

  1. Duct tape can fix anything.
  2. Duct tape is magic
  3. Duct tape can fix anything.

I realize, technically, this is only one lesson, but it is such and important lesson I think it bears repeating.  (Bonus points for recognizing the reference.)

Also:

  1. Just when you think everything is going well, the worst might happen.
  2. Martian coffee is aweful.
  3. Rust never sleeps.

The book is written as a series of log entries that were obviously recovered later, so I’m not certain at this point if Mark survives, or what happens to the crew attempting to rescue him.  Interspersed are short chapters describing events and people on Earth, including the NASA administrator (whose initial CYA attempts are thwarted by Venkat Kapoor, the director of the Mars program), Venkat, who needs to know what really happened at the landing site (a dust storm far more intense than any they planned for precipitated the events) thus involving Mindy Park, the young rocket scientist who discovers Mark is still alive. The crew of Mark’s ship, the Hermes, volunteer to participate in a daring rescue attempt, delaying their own safe return to Earth by almost two years. Also there is the obsessive mathematician who invents a radical new scheme for rescuing Mark and the Chinese scientists who abandon their most ambitious scientific space mission to date in order to launch desperately needed supplies to the Hermes after NASA’s original attempt goes horribly pear-shaped.  (There’s a reason why space missions take so long to design, construct and test.)

We’ll be meeting in a week, but if you haven’t started it yet, it is a fairly quick read (unless you read it as an Orbital Mechanics text book and treat the various mission plans and rescue attempts as exercises left for the reader.) I started 3 days ago and I am about 3/4′s of the way through it.

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, June 7 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 phaser blast. (Set to stun if you’re lucky.) I’ll be bringing a supply of duct tape and a special surprise: something better than duct tape!

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (June 8) 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!)

Book Club: “Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why” by Scott Weems

Posted on : Apr-23-2014 | By : John | In : audio, Blog Post

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Isaac Asimov famously wrote:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”

Ha! isn’t really about that, though. Scott Weems has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from U.C.L.A. In keeping with our tradition of books featuring horrible things happening to small children, he once made a little girl cry by telling her that some people go to school until the 26th grade. In this book, he shows us what our brains look like and what our brains look like on jokes.

Actually, the first chapter starts out describing the death of the joke. It passed away during a bitter New York blizzard in the winter of 1961, when Lenny Bruce in a seminal performance perfected a stand-up comedy routine containing no jokes at all, just pure comic genius.

The chapter continues, touching on why some jokes are not funny to some people while being particularly hilarious to others. It’s not that some people have no sense of humor. Rather, a good joke has an edginess: the closer it brings the listener to discomfort, the funnier, unless it goes over the edge, when it fails catastrophically. Since everyone’s edge of discomfort is in a different place, good jokes to some people will always be horribly unfunny* to others. For example, shortly after 9/11, Gilbert Gottfried told a hijacking joke at a comedy roast in New York. It was disastrous. However, as a pro, he recovered by pushing the audience’s boundary in an entirely different direction, telling what is generally regarded as the filthiest joke ever thought up. (Weems doesn’t tell us the joke, just the punchline which is “We are the Aristocrats.” Apparently, you can find the joke online, but given the setup, I don’t really want to…)

The chapter also provides a brief introduction to the brain structures and biochemistry involved in recognizing and responding to humor (dopamine release is key), humor in animals (rats giggle at 50KHz and their brains release dopamine when their bellies are tickled, but not when they are held nor when their backs are stroked), and the funniest joke in the world, courtesy of old friend of the Book Club Richard Wiseman. (He does tell this joke, but we were spoiled last month by someone** telling it.)

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, May 3 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, set to stun, phaser blast.

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (May 4) 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!)

[*] Personal opinion, I don’t know if Weems discusses this subject later in the book. This has nothing to do with a joke not being funny because it attacks a less powerful or privileged person (punches down.) Actually, those jokes can (sometimes) be funny, but they are also cruel and malignant, and only a cruel and malignant person would revel in them.

[**] I think it was Mary but it might have been Kevin? Short-term memory is the 2nd thing to go. I don’t remember what was the first thing to go.

SitP: Pub Hangout

Posted on : Apr-23-2014 | By : John | In : Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Please join us for another Skeptics in the Pub beer tasting and skeptical inquiry into the science of fermentation on Monday, April 28 at 7:00 PM as we conduct a Phase 2 study of Meadhall in Kendall Square, Cambridge. According to our spies, various online reviews and our Phase 1 trial, it has a vast selection of very good beers and is a good candidate for future events, but I’m still skeptical, so we need as many independent assessments as possible. Please join us!

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

RSVP on Facebook.

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.