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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 Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Posted on : 17-07-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies

This month’s book is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist at the CU/NYU Presbytarian Hospital and a wonderful writer. He is also assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University A former Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Stanford University, University of Oxford (where he received a PhD studying cancer-causing viruses) and from Harvard Medical School.[*]

This is quite a long and deep book, as it must be for such a vast subject. Cancer is not one disease, but hundreds of related diseases, with disparate causes, and the story of how it afflicts humanity and the long search for prevention, treatment and cures requires in depth discussion. Fortunately, we’ve had two months to read it, but if you’re just starting it now, you’re really going to have to cram for the examdiscussion! Still more fortunately, Dr. Mukherjee is a wonderful writer, able to explain complicated scientific concepts with great facility, explore history without getting bogged down in tedious lists of names and dates, and always keeping his deep sympathy for the doctors and researchers struggling to treat a disease that was once invariably fatal, and most especially their and his patients and their families.

Book Club: “Bright-sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Posted on : 06-05-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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book cover

Our next book

Our book for May is Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The first chapter describes Ehrenreich’s experience with breast cancer and all the useless, belittling advice she received from well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) people about how she could overcome it with a positive attitude and strength of character. Implicit in this advice is an enormous dose of victim-blaming. It’s her fault if she has cancer because she wasn’t positive enough, and if she doesn’t get on the program (of magical thinking with no, zero, nada, zip evidence of efficacy), it will be her fault if she doesn’t recover. This sounds to me like a perfect Republican health care plan: blame the victims and quickly get rid of all those annoying, expensive sick people. But that’s just me…

The second chapter describes her visit to a national convention of motivational speakers. Reminiscent of a Jon Ronson exploration, she finds the ultimate goal of becoming a motivational speaker is to motivate our people to become motivational speakers in some gigantic multilevel marketing scheme. Ever since the dawn of the self-help and positive thinking movements (which are deeply intertwined) in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), other people “are there only to nourish, praise and affirm”. (Sounds like a recipe for sociopathy, or at very least, libertarianism.) The whole edifice is built on a foundation of pseudoscientific principles, such as “The Law of Attraction”, pre-scientific understandings of magnets and gravity, and profound misunderstanding of simple oscillators (“vibrations”), and quantum. Its crowning achievements are The Secret and other forms of magical thinking.

If the rest of the book is as interesting (if disheartening) and as readable as the first two chapters, it will be well worth reading and discussing.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, May 16 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. (Warning: I did remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (May 17) 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 here!)

Getting Invited!

Posted on : 29-01-2015 | By : John | In : Blog Post

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Chuck

Our Friend Charles Beagleson with a Tortoise and Finches


Facebook no longer automatically invites all members of a group to group events, if the group has more than 250 members. The Boston Skeptics group currently has 557 members, so most of you aren’t getting notified of events unless you check the page (or here) frequently.

But Facebook members can invite their friends! Go to the event page, click on Invite, pick Choose Friends on the menu, and then an Invite window will pop up with a list of suggestions on the left side. Pick Boston Skeptics under MY GROUPS (you might have to scroll down) and a list of your friends who are members of the Boston Skeptics will appear in the middle column. Click on Select All at the top and all your Skeptical Friends will get selected (except those who have already been invited by someone else, so they won’t get spammed.) Of course, you can also invite people who aren’t members, since all (AFIAK) our events are public!

There’s more! We’ve invented a Facebook user, Charles Beagleson, who is a friend to everyone. (At least, to everyone who has accepted a friend request from him.) Charlie will probably be sending you a friend request soon, or you can send him one. Chuck will be sending invites to all his friends for all future events. (If you don’t want to be inundated by the average of 2 events per month, just don’t accept his friendship, or unfriend him if you’ve already accepted. He won’t be insulted. ;-(

Book Club: “1491” by Charles C. Mann

Posted on : 20-01-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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IMPORTANT UPDATE: We have postponed until Feb 7 due to bad weather.

Political Map of Pre-invasion America

America in 1491

People have lived in the Americas for at least 13,000 years, more likely 20 or even 30,000 years according to the latest archeological evidence. Only the last 500 years, the last 2%, of this history is well known to modern Americans. There are many reasons for this. The native cultures, artifacts and written records were systematically destroyed by the people Kurt Vonnegut calls the Sea Pirates, who arrived here in force starting in 1492. In addition to cultural imperialism and instigating total war (in the 20th Century sense), in places like New England, they brought diseases, plagues of measles, smallpox, hepatitis and other diseases you’ve probably never heard of. The population was decimated, not literally, but figuratively, which is much worse. For example, in central Mexico, the population declined from 25.2 million to 700,000 (97%) between 1518 (when Cortes arrived) and 1623.

Despite the destruction, some historical sources survived. Many of the Indian societies were literate, and even in places where most of the books were destroyed, stone monuments and buildings still exist. There are oral traditions of the survivors, early European records and written accounts by the children and grandchildren of the the survivors, and archeology, linguistic evidence, DNA evidence (both human and of domesticated plants and animals), epidemiology, patterns of trade and the spread of agriculture, and more. This book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by by Charles C. Mann, explores all this evidence to fill a huge gap in the knowledge of most Americans of their own history, and dispels many myths.

For example, the Americas were not sparsely populated before the Europeans arrived and some of the largest cities, road and trade networks in the world in the 15th century were in Central and South America, rivaling the largest in Europe and China at the time. There were vast engineering projects, ranging from mound building in the Midwest to water and irrigation projects in Central America and the Andes. Some of the projects were not so beneficial, but exhibit highly sophisticated organization, such as the when the Inkas forced migrations of thousands of people to achieve political ends.

Charles C. Mann is not a former defensive lineman for (ironically) the Washington Redskins. He is a science writer and contributing editor for Science, The Atlantic Monthly and Wired.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, February 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. (Warning: I did remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (January 25) 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: “What If?” by Randall Munroe

Posted on : 15-10-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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XKCD cartoon depicting odds of surviving a lightning strike

Scientific analysis of real-life problems

Our next book is “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe.

Munroe supplies scientific, in many cases, mathematical answers to the deepest, darkest questions one can ask. Some are very unpleasant, such as what would happen if the Earth suddenly stopped rotating? (Scientists at the South Pole and people in coal mines would probably survive, for a while.) What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball thrown at .9 c? (Not good for either the batter or the pitcher, not to mention the catcher, umpire, ball park and the city.) What would happen if you gathered a mole of moles? (Not good for moles in the middle, since they would form a sphere larger than the Moon.) Some answers are surprisingly benign, such as could you survive swimming in a spent nuclear fuel pool? (You’d be fine, as long as you didn’t dive too deep or pick up any random objects lying at the bottom.) Or what would happen if everyone stood near each other and jumped at the same time? (Basically, nothing, because the Earth out-masses us by 12 orders of magnitude. Except we would take up an area the size of Rhode Island, and T F Green Airport would be overwhelmed for thousands of years as everyone tried to return home afterwards, and we’d mostly starve to death as the world plunged into chaos and anarchy.)

Then there are the scary questions. They all seem to have the proviso that the person asking the question really, really needs to know the answer by Friday.

The book is fun and quick to read, and is copiously illustrated with Munroe’s surprisingly evocative stick-figure drawings. I got the Kindle version, which seems to freak out my Kindle occasionally. (It’s rebooted at least 3 times, and has a few formatting problems, mostly connected with the footnotes. Paging forward and back seems to fix most of the issues.) I wish had purchased a hard-copy version, as it would make an ideal bathroom book.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, October 25 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 unless I remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (October 26) 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: “Life Ascending” by Nick Lane

Posted on : 13-08-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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This month we are reading Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane.

Nick Lane is a Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London. He has written books about oxygen, mitochondria and cryobiology. Our current book is organized into 10 chapters, each covering an important advance (“inventions”) in the history of life. It is one of the most “sciency” books we’ve read recently, with occasional vivid descriptions of, for example, the view of the Earth from the Moon first seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968, the early Earth before the first life emerged and both kinds of hydrothermal vents (I didn’t know there was more than one.) There is little in the way of personal anecdotes or historical discussions. For the most part, the book dives right into the science, and there is a lot of it!

I’m finding it dense going but thoroughly worthwhile. A lot of it, especially the first chapter on the origins of life, is new to me. It also clears up a lot of common misconceptions, such as where the oxygen (O2) released by photosynthesis comes from. (It comes from splitting water molecules, not from reducing CO2. But it does convert atmospheric CO2 into solid carbohydrates, which is why plants are the ultimate solution to global warming.)

Book Club: “The Martian” by Andy Wier

Posted on : 01-06-2014 | 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 : 23-04-2014 | 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.

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

Posted on : 11-03-2014 | 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 : 10-02-2014 | 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 spacerelated 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!)