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SitP: Heina Dadabhoy from Islam to Atheism. [caption id="attachment_2139" align="alignright" width="239"] A ninja warrior welcomes guests to Convergence/Skepchickcon[/caption]Boston Skeptics welcomes our January guest speaker, atheist feminist secular...

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Book Club: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha... [caption id="attachment_2131" align="alignright" width="197"] The Emperor of All Maladies[/caption]This month's book is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist...

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SitP: David Ropeik and the Risk Perception Gap Update! Thanks to Andrea and Francois, we now have a video of David Ropeik's talk available on our

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SitP: Larry Gilbertson on GMOs and Biotech [caption id="attachment_2117" align="alignright" width="300"] Feeding the world[/caption]The population of the earth will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Arable land is decreasing, dietary preferences...

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

Posted on : 05-09-2013 | 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.

Book Club: “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

Posted on : 26-05-2013 | 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 : 29-04-2013 | 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.

Book Club: “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright

Posted on : 05-03-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Everyone knows a little about Scientology, and has heard the horror stories: snakes* in mailboxes and people locked in rooms to starve, and we all know a smattering of their strange sci-fi and conspiracy-laden belief system, but how much of what we “know” is accurate? Especially since they keep many of their beliefs secret even from their adherents, what’s the straight dope? Is it even a religion (an attempt to make sense of an indifferent or hostile universe based on magical thinking), or is it just a scam?

Lawrence Wright has written Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief which promises to uncover the inner workings of Scientology. Wright is a Pulitzer winning writer for the New Yorker, who wrote the definitive history of Al Qaeda and the events leading up to 9/11.

I’ve read about 1 1/2 chapters of Going Clear so far. It is long, but engaging and well-written. The first chapter is the story of a typical recruit, Paul Haggis (later an Oscar-winning screen writer) who eventually became Scientology’s most famous recent apostate. (But I haven’t got to that part yet.) The second chapter tells the story of the hack writer L. Ron Hubbard, who failed up to become Scientology’s founder and principle prophet. Maybe if he knew about hypnagogic dreams and oxygen deprivation, it all never would have happened.

We will be meeting at our usual time and place, on Saturday March 30th at 3:00 PM at Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Ave, Cambridge. Be sure to bring a snack!

If you RSVP on Facebook, we can notify you of any late changes.

If you can’t make it to the meeting, or even if you can, Mary will be discussing the book the next day in the Skepchick Book Club, as always.

[*] That was Synanon, a different cult, but lots of people seem to make that mistake.

Book Club: “Because I Said So” by Ken Jennings

Posted on : 09-02-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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Our next book is Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, by former all time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings.

It is a skeptical examination of all the things our parents told us. Hundreds of tiny chapters examine such things as swimming 59 minutes after a meal (a complete myth) and running with scissors (generally a bad idea) and a lollipop in your mouth (injuries are extremely rare. Running with a pair of scissors in your mouth, straight into crocodile-infested waters, right after a heavy meal, well you work it out! The book seems to be fun, well written, well researched, and quite a quick read (I read about a third of it at one sitting.)

We will be meeting at our usual location in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard at 3 PM on Saturday, February 23. RSVP on Facebook, if that’s your thing.

Book Club: “Bonk” by Mary Roach

Posted on : 19-11-2012 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Book Club

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Book coverWhen my nephew was 5, his favorite board game was Trouble. (If you aren’t familiar with the game, each player has several peg-like markers that they move around the holes on the edge of the board. The winner is the first player to move all their markers completely around the board. If a player’s marker lands on a hole occupied by another player’s marker, the second marker is sent back to the start. In my family, traditionally when this happens, the player says “Bonky Bonk Bonk” and chortles maniacally.) My nephew loved getting bonked, and always played to lose. In contrast, his sister, then six, was ferociously competitive and always won, mostly due to the obscure rules she would make up on the spur of the moment that would guarantee her victory.

Mary Roach has written a book on Trouble, getting into it, staying out of it, game strategies, the history of the game, famous matches and so forth. At least, that’s what I assume is the topic of her book, Bonk, which is our next Book Club selection.

Oh, wait, never mind…

The actual subject of Bonk is “The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.” So, I was almost right.

In this book, Roach tackles yet another staid and boring scientific subject with “her outrageous curiosity and infectious wit” (according to the back cover.) I’m sure it will live up her three previous books we’ve read, Spook, Stiff and Packing For Mars.

We will be meeting at our usual location in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard at 3 PM on Saturday, December 8. RSVP on Facebook, if that’s your thing.

Book Club: “Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow

Posted on : 12-10-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our next book is Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow.

Mlodinow is a physicist and coauthor with Steven Hawking of The Grand Design and A Briefer History of Time.

This book is not Physics nor (snacks) is it Sci-Fi. Rather, it is “a startling and eye-opening examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world” (to quote the Amazon publisher’s blurb.) In a guest review on Amazon, Prof. V.S Ramachandran says:

“This delightfully accessible yet intellectually rigorous book transcends traditional (snacks) boundaries between neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, to tackle the riddle of the unconscious mind.”

This aligns closely with what one of our members said at the SitP yesterday. He described it as more rigorous (snacks) and data-driven than Carol Tavris’s Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, which covers similar topics. He said Subliminal is more readable despite being less anecdotal. I think we will all enjoy this one.

We’ll be meeting at our usual location at 3PM on Saturday, Nov 3. You can RSVP at our event page on Facebook, if it is working this month.

As usual, Mary will be hosting a discussion of Subliminal on Skepchick the day after our meeting.

[Subliminal hints about snacks courtesy of me. Remember to bring a snack or at least your appetite!]

Book Club: “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov

Posted on : 07-09-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our next book is Isaac Asimov’s SF classic I, Robot. This book is famous for introducing the Three Laws of Robotics, and most of the plots of the stories it comprises are about what happens when the laws break down.

Bender from Futurama

Typical evil robot


The book consists of a series of connected short stories about robots, mostly published separately in the 1940s. They are tied together as a series of historical anecdotes told to a reporter by the brilliant roboticist and robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin.

Most of us at the last book club meeting had read it, but not recently. (Except for the first two chapters, I last read it in college, way too long ago. By sheer coincidence, my Kindle died while I was visiting my sister two weeks ago, and I picked it up off her book shelf as bed time reading, and read the first two stories, about Robbie the Robot, a lumbering companion of the child of a techno-geek, and a story about the mining colony on Mercury, set in the distant, barely imaginable future of the of about 5 years ago.)

Asimov was one of the most prolific writers, ever, and was one of the founders of the skeptical and humanist movements. In addition to his clever and imaginative robot stories, he wrote literally hundreds of books and essays explicating science, history and reasoning.

We will be meeting at our usual location, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford St in Cambridge, on Saturday, October 6, 2012 from 3:00 to 5:00 PM. Bring a snack to share, or just your appetite.

You can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

Mary will be hosting a discussion of the book the next day (Sunday, October 7) on-line at the Skepchick Book Club, in case you want to share your thoughts about the book with the world. And remember, as always, there will be a special, relevant recipe for a super duper yummy snack to munch on while discussing the book.

Book Club: “The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean

Posted on : 04-08-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club, local

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Cover of our bookAs is the recent trend in our books, this one also has a very long subtitle. Its full name is The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. Sam Kean also wrote one of our previous books, The Disappearing Spoon

Kean writes the kinds of books Isaac Asimov used to produce, well-researched but fairly light and easy to read with a wealth of information on a wide variety of scientific topics. The last one was on chemistry and the periodic table. This one is about DNA and genetics. (Asimov wrote about one of these books a month. Other people take several years to write them. It takes dozens of writers to replace him. I really miss Isaac Asimov.)

Kean starts by telling the stories of Gregor Mendel, the discoverer of genes, and Johannes Friedrich Miescher, the discoverer of DNA. (I knew nothing previously about Miescher.) He explains the difference between the two concepts and how they were eventually linked into a full understanding of inheritance and how they explained one of the most important underpinnings of evolutionary theory, descent with modification. Based on the excerpt linked above, I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this book.

We will be meeting on Saturday, August 25 at 3 PM at our usual place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford St in Cambridge. Bring a snack to share, or just your appetite.

You can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

Mary will be hosting a discussion of the book the next day (Sunday August 26) on-line at the Skepchick Book Club, in case you want to share your thoughts about the book with the world. And remember, as always, there will be a special, relevant recipe for a super duper yummy snack to munch on while discussing the book.

Book Club: “The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards” by Jim Steinmeyer

Posted on : 01-07-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club

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7/6: See UPDATE below.

Our month of midsummer magic continues with the book with the longest title in Book Club history: “The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards” by Jim Steinmeyer.

Thurston poster holding Yorrick's skull, surrounded by Cotswald fairies

Proof that A. Conan Doyle was right!

Howard Thurston was the most prominent stage magician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much more popular than Houdini. He ran away to the circus as a child and soon started up a close-up magic act doing card tricks. At the peak of his career, he required an 8-car railroad train to move his show from city to city. He must have invented feature creep.

Jim Steinmeyer is a magician, a designer of magical tricks, a former imagineer for Walt Disney (possibly the best.job.ever) and the author of many books on magical practice and history. A real life Professor Cuthbert Binns, except he’s not a ghost and not at all boring. I’ve only read the 1st couple of chapters so far, but the book seems highly readable and Steinmeyer does a good job of transporting us to a time and place beyond our personal experiences. This book promises to be interesting and enjoyable.

We will be meeting at our usual time and place, on July 28 at 3 PM in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard. (We might move outside if the weather is nice, but our usual spot between the Science Center and Memorial Hall, in the shade of the huge green pepper, is currently a construction site. Stay tuned for updates.)

You can RSVP on Facebook if you are a member of the Boston Skeptics Facebook group (or maybe even if you are not, I’m not sure how this works, and they keep changing it, so there is no point in learning</end rant>.)

UPDATE:

Just a reminder that if you can’t make it to Book Club, you can still read the book and discuss it the next day on Skepchick, where Mary’s always wonderful summary and notes and recipe will appear.