It hasn’t been an especially busy month for James and I but we did manage to catch a few interesting events around London. Generally, if we don’t get interviews at an event we still feel like we need to tell you about it.
Holy Quarks at the Wellcome Trust
So first up was Holy Quarks, put on by the Wellcome Trust. It was a Saturday conference with music on the Friday, however we only made the Saturday event. It was an interesting attempt at bridging the growing divide between science and religion. The arguments that some people advanced at the conference was that they two can work together. It started with an interesting talk (with lovely pictures) Felicity Powell who put together the exhibition on charms. While saying she was a rather secular person herself, she nonethless enjoyed working with such interesting objects – some extraordinarily tiny. The highlight for us though, was Alom Shaha‘s talk on Science vs Religion in the Classroom. It seemed to be the most honest of the talks of the day, arguing against what many of the speakers were trying to convey. He told about the conflict in his classroom and gave every day evidence that there is a a conflict, or at least a very stated tension between what he has to teach and what many of his students believe.
I got slightly annoyed with the talk titled Science, Faith and Doubt: Lessons from history byThomas Dixon as I didn’t agree with the examples he used. It’s rather easy to say there isn’t a conflict between religion and science in the 17th century (even with Galileo) as *everyone* had to be religious. Even in the 18th century this was largely true. Where the interesting conflict arises in the 19th century with the professionalization of science. As well, he quoted a later version of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, rather than the first edition. This could be pedantry but it was this quote:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
instead he quoted the sixth edition:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Which could be an entire lecture in itself.
I do enjoy these types of conferences and it is interesting to see what arguments are being used to bring the two – religion and science – together. It is a worthy endeavour to see where there isn’t conflict to ensure that we aren’t succumbing to a fallacy but I think I’m going to need some more evidence before I believe there isn’t a problem.
Ghosts of Christmas Lectures Past
The second big event that we went to was the same day at the Royal Institution for The Ghosts of Christmas Lectures Past, MC’d by the seemingly omnipresent Robin Ince. I’m beginning to think he’s actually The Doctor for his ability to fly around the country and put on so many shows.
We’ve been to quite a few events this year, covering them and recording them for you, our voracious listener and I can say that this was one of the best events of the year. Robin and the RI had assembled a wonderful group of passionate science fans to present to us some of the best stuff from Christmas Lectures past. Now, I am new to the whole Christmas Lecture thing and so I don’t have a favourite or even a deep knowledge of them. However, I now have a new desire to trawl the RI archives and learn everything about them after this event.
So the format was pretty straight forward – Robin Ince hosted and introduced guests and they each gave a short talk on who was their favourite Lecturer or in the case of Helen Arney, their favourite technician! Topped off by the fact that we were in the Faraday Lecture Theatre just made it a lovely night. Matt Parker (who will also get a mention in the next section) probably got the most ooos and ahhs with the wave machine used in the first maths Christmas Lecture by Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman in 1978. The dialogue between Professor Zeeman and the BBC about the use of formulae on screen was hysterical.
Adam Rutherford touched on a issue that is becoming more important to me: the brain and gaming. As I’ve become increasingly interested in the Xbox and the gaming joy it provides, I have also been annoyed by the scaremongering of Dr. Susan Greenfield. I even did a bit of a historical rant about it on our Questival Special. Adam’s use of Fruit Ninja to demonstrate how our brains change was excellent. It will be interesting to see as the gamer population ages and takes over that of those non-gamers in editorial positions if this sort of thing will just go away. It is nice to see someone standing up for it now though!
Another person who will make an appearance later on was Professor Andrea Sella from UCL who did marvellous things with bubbles and also was responsible for the ether left out for so long!
The brilliant thing about the lectures was the unabashed love song to science. Everything was marked by a profound sense of joy and awe towards science. The night seemed to capture the idea of wonder in science and how it is conveyed to a popular audience through these lectures. It was an absolutely captivating event and one that I personally would love repeated.
Infinite Monkey Cage
I also managed to go to two Infinite Monkey Cage recordings, which were hilarious. The first was with Nick Lane, the above mentioned Adam Rutherford and Tim Minchin. The second was this week with Roger Highfield, Richard Dawkins and Mark Gatiss. I think the BBC should never let go of the Infinite Monkey Cage; in fact it should have more science based programs. Maybe a skeptical one too. With a news-magazine format…
Anyway, you will be able to listen to both of these if they tickle your fancy. A particular highlight was Richard Dawkins telling everyone to have a Merry Christmas – possibly because I know how much it must annoy the Daily Mail.
9 Lessons and Carols
The latest event was, of course, 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless people. What is becoming an annual event, with its fourth sell out year, was excellent. For me, it is only when 9 Lessons comes around that it really does feel like Christmas. I hope Robin never stops organizing them, or at least when he tires of it, passes the mantle on to other such science enthused comedians so we can continue to have our own unabashedly science and holiday fuelled festive celebration.
The only possible problem for me at any of these kind of events is that we generally see a lot of them throughout the year and so could potentially get repetitive. However, largely this was brand new material from most of the comedians but there were also a lot of new faces for me which was excellent.
The entire night was lovely, the right sort of tone and honest celebration of both the festive season but also what we all love, science and geekery. It’s hard to say who the highlights were as it was all pretty much brilliant. Helen Keen was on form as usual – I admire the amount of history of NASA she knows. Basically, I appreciate any healthy interest in history (we might be recording something with Helen in the new year, so watch out for that, maybe!). The other Helen of the night, Helen Arney’s clever swap of Santa for Cerny in a rendition of Santa, Baby was inspired (if you are lucky, you might get it hear it on the Infinite Monkey Cage on the 26th but only if they manage to secure the rights for the tune). Another wonderful musical number was Gavin Osborn singing about Carl Sagan and Voyager 1 and 2. Perhaps, made more resonant with me after our interview with Ed Stone!
As I mentioned above, Matt Parker makes another appearance with his talk about the two mathematicians that predicted the future. As I said on Twitter, the self-referential graph material was inspired. There’s a phrase that probably doesn’t get used a lot, unless perhaps, you know Matt Parker. Another RI Ghosts of Christmas Lectures past alumni Andrea Sella had a rather….illuminated talk? Which involved lighting gases on fire, including in a 4-5 ft test tube that belched flame out the top! The final act of the night was Mark Thomas, who is always pitch perfect. I had not seen the People’s Manifesto tour which is what he mainly talked about so I was at least very entertained.
There are still some 9 Lessons and Carols gigs left, though they are all sold out. However, just keep an eye on Twitter as usually there are a few people who can’t make it and you can snap up some of the tickets. But if you can’t make (or really, even if you do) you can always see Festival of the Spoken Nerd in the new year!
So that was our December! Some familiar faces, Helen Keen, Helen Arney, Matt Parker and of course, Robin Ince who we hope are not getting terribly sick of us. But also some new people who look forward to seeing much more of like Andrea Sella and Alom Shaha. It was a very science-y December but the celebration of wonder and curiosity is what I really remember. I hope I can keep up with all this next year, even though I should be starting my PhD in the history of the secular movement. Luckily, the who overlap quite a bit so just expect long diversions into 19th century science history 😉
Happy Christmas and have a fantastic New Year!