Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Amazing Meeting 6 summarized, part four

This is part four of my summary of The Amazing Meeting 6 (intro, part one, part two, part three, part five).

Phil Plait

Astronomer Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy blog began by saying that the Internet is "a system for rapidly distributing sewage," but also for distributing astronomy. His talk went through the solar system from Mercury to KBO 2004 XR 190 a/k/a "Buffy," with interesting photographs and facts about various planets and moons along the way.

Mercury: The 2004 MESSENGER probe took photographs of the Caloris basin, the single biggest feature on Mercury, originally thought to be 1300 km in diameter but revised upward to 1550 km based on those photos. Because Mercury spins twice for every three times it revolves around the sun, this basin is directly under the sun, every other orbit. It's a gigantic impact crater that's 3.8 to 3.9 billion years old.

Venus: The hottest planet, a hell hole about the size of earth and with about the same amount of carbon and just a little bit closer to the sun, but it suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. It's been photographed by the Russian Venera probes from 1962 to 1982 and by Magellan in 1990.

Earth: Plait spoke of an HD movie of Earth shrinking into the distance as MESSENGER departed.

Phobos: This moon of Mars has a giant crater--had it been hit by anything bigger, Phobos would have disintegrated. Phobos is apparently a captured asteroid, which orbits backward from other moons in the solar system. Unlike Earth's moon, it is gradually getting closer to Mars, and will collide with it in about the next 50 million years, causing an impact greater than the asteroid that created the Yucatan basin.

Jupiter's acne: The Great Red Spot (Cassini, named after Jean-Dominique Cassini, who first observed it in 1655), a 400-year-old hurricane, has now been joined in 2000 by another little spot. The new spot was white but has now turned red and is known as Oval BA (or Red Jr.)--it is as large as the Earth.

Iapetus: This moon of Saturn has one light hemisphere and one dark, and was recently discovered to have a 20 km high ridge almost perfectly around its equator. (I remarked that it looks like a Death Star.)

Uranus: It's tipped 98 degrees on its side in its orbit, likely as a result of an impact from something very large, perhaps Earth-sized.

Neptune: The other blue planet, it contains lots of methane and emanates 1.6 times the heat it receives from the Sun. It has 2,200 kph winds. Where is that energy coming from?

Pluto: It's not a planet, so we don't care about it.

KBO 2004 XR 190 a/k/a "Buffy": This is an odd trans-Neptunian object--where almost all objects in the solar system have very elliptical orbits, it is an object 8.5 billion km from the Sun--twice the distance from the Sun of Neptune--yet its orbit is circular.

Plait concluded by noting that he hasn't even talked about the Sun, Milleomeda (what the galaxy will be after Andromeda and the Milky Way collide), or countless other things that we don't understand. But this lack of understanding doesn't mean we know nothing. "The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it. That's why I'm a skeptic."

Adam Savage
Adam Savage of "Mythbusters" brought a box of about 1,000 ping pong balls which were used to raise a boat from the bottom of Monterey Bay, and gave them out to members of the audience, and signed his autograph on many of them. He then gave a talk entitled "My Maltese Falcon," about his obsession with recreating a precise replica of one of the two lead sculptures from the movie of the same name. He did extensive research into its measurements, even paying to purchase used auction catalogs from Christie's to examine photographs. Joseph Warner gave one of the two lead ones to Joseph Conrad, one which Humphrey Bogart dropped and put a dent in. He sculpted one based on photographs, sprayed it with 75 coats of auto primer, then buffed and sanded it. He freeze framed every still from the original film in a scene where the statue was rotated. Someone offered to cast it in bronze for him, and he had two made--but the casting process caused it to lose size, and so his bronze model is 3/4" shorter in height at the beak, with the result that he hates it. At a conference he met the man who purchased William Conrad's lead statue, which he hopes to be able to scan and use to make the most accurate replica ever, which he'll report back on next year.

He showed a couple of world premiere viral videos--one in which he and Jamie simultaneously solved Rubik's cubes, one while blindfolded and the other with his feet. The footage was actually reversed--they started with solved cubes and then just messed them up. In a second video, he inhaled some helium and spoke with a high voice, then inhaled some sulfur hexafluoride (which he informed us is very expensive) and spoke with a deep voice, and everyone laughed. He said that someone (a producer?) thought that the cube video was cool, but that the balloon stunt was obviously faked.

He took questions and answers from the audience; a few highlights were that they want to do a full 60 minute show on the JFK assassination, Discovery has said no to "21 grams" (do we lose weight when we die), the Cheney shooting, vinyl vs. CD, and speaker cable vs. coat hanger.

His segment concluded with some footage of "explosion porn" from the show.

Matthew Chapman
Matthew Chapman, great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, screenwriter ("The Runaway Jury" and nine other films), and author (Trials of the Monkey and 40 Days and 40 Nights, the latter of which, about the Dover trial, I am currently reading), spoke about three things: Science Debate 2008, his love of America, and "Darwin, creationism, etc." He began with his love of America, noting that he had grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, raised by parents who read the New Yorker and were fans of Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce, and so he always wanted to be an American. He moved to the U.S. to get into the film business, and went to L.A. A woman he knew to be educated asked him what his sign was--he thought she was kidding, but she was not. Ever since he has been fascinated with Americans' fondness for pseudoscience. He was invited to a "shack" (of the $5 million variety) in Malibu to see someone channel "Basha," and he couldn't help but laugh out loud. A woman present asked the channeler, "I have a potential development deal at Warner Brothers. What is Basha's advice?"

When he expressed indignation at such expressions of irrationality, he was told, "Oh, you're so rational" or "you're so British." He felt alone until he came across the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and he promptly purchased and read every back issue. (I had a similar experience in my life--I read Skeptical Inquirer while still a religious believer, and also ended up purchasing and reading every back issue from cover to cover.) He became enraged by Scientology, UFOs, spontaneous human combustion, crystals, telepathy, Shirley MacLaine (who he's met), Nostradamus, pyramid power, etc. etc. While in an elevator with James Randi at an event in UCLA, he asked Randi if he'd heard of some Brazilian paranormalist (a psychic surgeon?), and Randi responded by pulling a pen out of his ear.

Despite the far more voluminous "loony bullshit" in the U.S. than in Europe, he still loves it here, and became an American citizen.

He next spoke about creationism. His book Trials of the Monkey was about his visit to Dayton, Tennessee to learn about the Scopes Trial, and he found that the people there today are much the same as they were back then. His newer book, 40 Days and 40 Nights, was written during and after his observation of the entirety of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, which he witnessed from the jury box (where the press sat, since it was a non-jury trial). Through the Dover trial, he learned that it is possible to make science interesting to non-scientists.

Finally, he talked about Science Debate 2008. As the political debate season began, he watched all the debates, expecting to see questions about ozone, ocean health, climate change, etc., but only saw questions about lapel pins, religion, etc. There were more questions about UFOs than about global warming. He suggested the idea of a debate on science at the Atheist Alliance confernece, and Chris Mooney, who he had met earlier, got on board, along with his fellow Intersection Science Blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum. Soon thereafter, John Rennie of Scientific American became a backer, and Lawrence Krauss of The Physics of Star Trek (Chapman inadvertently said "Star Wars") also joined. They ended up starting an organization and collecting over 50,000 signatures, including the support of 51 colleges, 5 museums, 10 magazines, 112 science organizations, 14 Congresspeople, 7 presidential science advisors, 143 CEOs of science and technology companies, 28 Nobelists, 102 college and university presidents, PBS, Nova, the Franklin Institute, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and even Newt Gingrich. A Harris poll says that 85% of voters would like to see a science debate.

But so far, all of the candidates have said no or failed to respond at all. Chapman said that McCain was the most polite in saying no, and seemed to leave the door open.

They've now developed 14 questions and are preparing a new invitation to be sent to Obama and McCain.

Chapman then took questions, and someone asked if there was any opposition from scientists on the grounds that this is politicizing science. Chapman said he's had negative reactions from about three scientists, one of whom was present at this conference.

After Chapman's talk, I had a chance to speak with him briefly (he noticed the NCSE Grand Canyon trip T-shirt I was wearing, and commented on what great people Genie Scott and Nick Matzke are), as well as with his wife, Denise, who was also present at the conference. Denise Chapman, a Brazilian who has acted in television and film (including "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and Woody Allen's "Radio Days"), is the daughter of composer and musician Humberto Teixeira, started Baiao music and was the composer of the popular Brazilian song "Asa Branca" ("White Wing"). She was pleased to hear that some friends of mine named their African grey parrot "Asa Cinza" ("Grey Wing") in honor of that song. She has been working on a documentary film about her father that will be premiering later this month at MoMA.

Richard Wiseman
British psychologist Richard Wiseman spoke a little bit about his book Quirkology, presented a few optical illusions, and commented about his obtaining a videotape of Indian "God-man" Sai Baba in which he was caught engaging in sleight of hand, which he then showed to us. (Sai Baba was debunked well in a book by Dale Beyerstein titled Sai Baba's Miracles: An Overview, which describes some other instances of Sai Baba being caught in trickery.

He then showed his now-famous viral video of the "colour changing card trick," and followed it up showing a video of how it was made (it took many takes to get it right; he showed some amusing failures). This video, which has had over 2.5 million views, demonstrates the phenomena of "change blindness," and they've used eye-tracking to study viewers of the video to see if they are not looking in the right place or simply failing to register the changes, and it seems to be the latter. This video has apparently now inspired a routine in Penn & Teller's show.

This was followed up by a spoon-bending lesson from an expert--Teller. Teller explained that there is a method, the trick that deceives the eye, and there is misdirection, the trick that deceives the mind. The spoon-bending trick is based on a pre-stressed spoon, but to allay suspicion he only does the trick about once every five times he creates a pre-stressed spoon, because he waits for an opportunity to swap the spoon with a neighbor, and then only does the trick if the conversation happens to turn in a direction that makes it seem appropriate. He told the story of how Danny Hillis (of Connection Machine and Long Now Foundation fame) was invited to a posh party at the home of Courtney Ross (widow of Steve Ross, CEO of Time Warner). At dinner, the conversation turned to Rupert Sheldrake. Hillis had pre-stressed his neighbor's spoon, and put his own spoon on a plate so that the waiter took it away. Hillis borrowed his neighbor's spoon and did the trick, bending and breaking the spoon and dropping it into his wine. His hostess said, "I can't believe you did that." He made a comment to the effect that it was a trick, and she said, "No, I can't believe you did that." She was horrified that he had destroyed one of a fixed number of identical place settings by some famous designer which she had painstakingly collected over the years. And that, said Teller, made it funny.

Wiseman then came back and said that we would now make the world's largest spoonbending video for YouTube. We were given one run-through of the simple script, and then did it on video, all 900 of us (though there were only 800 pre-stressed spoons, so the 100 in the back had to mime). The video will make its debut at www.spoonscience.com (which as of this moment still says "coming soon").

Panel discussion on the limits of skepticism
Goldacre, Daniel Loxton, Radford, Savage, Novella, Hrab, Randi, Banachek, and Saunders assembled on stage for this panel discussion, which I don't recall actually addressing a subject that I'd characterize as the limits of skepticism. Instead, it seemed to be pretty much a free-for-all Q&A about skepticism.

At one point, someone spoke of "winning the war" against irrationality, and Banachek said he preferred to think in terms of making a mark rather than winning a war.

Randi commented on the famous quotation attributed to him by Dennis Rawlins' "sTARBABY" that "I always have an out," suggesting that his then-$10,000 and now $1 million reward for the successful demonstration of a paranormal event is not fair. He stated that this quotation was out-of-context, and that what he actually said was "I always have an out--I'm right." Dennis Rawlins, however, says that this is untrue, and that Randi has only recently started appending "I'm right" to this quotation. In 2000, when Matt Kriebel made his "sTARBABY mini-FAQ," Randi had a different explanation, stating that the "out" was about his stage act rather than his challenge.

Adam Savage observed that at the last TAM he mentioned that he was an atheist, and now that's appeared on his Wiki page.

In answer to a question about what's the worst thing you've ever been called, Richard Saunders said he had been accused of being "a mouseketeer of evil."

Savage made the statement that "You might think the world has color before critical thinking, but when you start thinking critically, it goes to HD."

It was mentioned that skeptical materials are appearing in other languages--"Mythbusters" is now in 145 countries and 9 languages, and Benjamin Radford is editor of the Spanish-language skeptical magazine, Pensar, along with the Skeptical Inquirer.

Sunday conference papers
The final session of the conference, Sunday morning until noon, was for presentation of conference papers.

John Janks on the Marfa Lights: I regret that I missed this, since I published two papers on the Marfa lights in The Arizona Skeptic when I was editor, but I made the mistake of assuming the session would begin at 9 a.m. like previous days--nope, it was 8:30 a.m.

Don Nyberg on "What Every Student Needs to Hear from Every Science Teacher": Nyberg, a physics professor who apparently plays a mean game of poker, said that he attacks pseudoscience, and especially "religious pseudoscience," in his classroom. Unfortunately, his talk didn't bother to define what he meant by this term, and his talk was a series of arguments by assertion, arguments from authority, and ad hominem that I thought was embarrassingly badly argued. He seemed to be arguing that anyone with a degree in science who expressed support for religion should have their degrees revoked, which prompted the moderator Ray Hall to ask Nyberg whether he thought that biologist Kenneth Miller, whose testimony helped produce the proper outcome in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, should have his degrees revoked. Nyberg responded that yes, he should, if he's promoting his religious beliefs in the science classroom (a qualifier which hadn't been included in his earlier statement). I'd like to obtain a copy of Nyberg's actual materials to review, to see how they compare to his talk.

Steve Cuno: The head of an "evidence-based marketing company," he gave an excellent talk about myths in marketing. Such myths include:
  • We control your mind.
  • Creativity is magi.
  • No one reads long ads.
  • Awareness creates sales.
  • Focus groups are predictive.
  • Sales went up because of ads.
He gave some examples associated with each of these, and described some of the tests that his company had performed to test marketing campaigns to find what causes responses to direct mailings and what leads to conversions to sales. He suggested the classic book Tested Advertising Methods, and pointed out that he has his own book coming out in December, with an intro by Michael Shermer, titled Prove It Before You Promote It.

One of the questions asked was "is Seth Godin full of shit?" Cuno tactfully said that no doubt some of what Godin says is speculative.

Tracy King: She gave a talk on "The Most Popular Science Video in the World - How to Make Your Message Famous." She talked about Wiseman's "colour changing card trick" video, which got 80,000 views in the first two weeks and 2 million views by 18 weeks, and has now been seen by 80 million people on South American Globo TV, used in classrooms, and recreated by students.

She looked at other science videos that have been viral hits, such as the Diet Coke and Mentos videos, the first of which was uploaded in 2006 by Fritz Grobe, a juggler, and Stephen Voltz, a lawyer. They chose Diet Coke for its strong brand, and when it became a viral hit they received funding from Mentos to make more, and ultimately got a sponsorship deal from Coca Cola.

King pointed out that a lot of viral techniques are now illegal in the UK--you must be explicit about being paid to produce videos, for example.

She talked about the bogus popcorn/mobile phone video, which is one that would be in violation of the UK law today. It was created in multiple versions--English (where they're drinking orange juice), French (where they're drinking beer), and Japanese (where they have miso soup). These videos were made for Cardo Systems, a bluetooth headset manufacturer, and are clearly designed to encourage the idea that cell phones are dangerous to hold near your head. (Someone should make a viral video about bluetooth headsets.)

So what makes a successful viral video? There is no formula, but there are common themes--humor, surprise, fear/scaremongering, emotion, skill, embarrassment. One thing she didn't mention which I think was a factor in the success of the "colour changing card trick" video is that there were already multiple videos spreading widely with the exact same name, where the focus really was on that card trick. The Wiseman video was an interesting twist on what was already spreading virally, with the element of surprise and humor at the end. In essence, that video caught the wave of the other card trick videos, and then took it much farther. When I first saw the Wiseman video, I thought I was just seeing another version of that same trick.

And why do we pass on viral videos?
  • Reflected glory.
  • Being the first to know.
  • Being part of a crowd with similar tastes.
  • Being part of a shared cultural experience.
  • (Participating in the formation of) the language of your generation.
She mentioned Ray Comfort's "The Atheist's Nightmare" as something which has effectively spread virally, but didn't exactly get the desired message across.

She ended by encouraging everyone to make videos promoting skepticism and critical thinking, and offered the following suggestions:
  • Identify what your message is--don't be preachy or superior, which is a turnoff.
  • Determine what your objectives are--to build website traffic, tell friend, etc.? If you don't have a call to action, your message may be lost.
  • Find a creative concept--it may be explicit, subtle, or obscure.
  • Make the video.
  • Promote the video--it's not going to circulate itself, and professional seeding (e.g., making use of a company like hers that has relationships with bloggers, forum participants, etc. to promote things in a subtle, unobtrusive, and unspammy way).
  • And finally, she explicitly listed: don't spam.
She ended by saying that while she can't recommend or encourage a "Jackass" approach to skepticism, it's something she'd certainly like to see.

On to TAM6 summary, part five.


Podblack said...

Damn, you do comprehensive summaries! Thanks!

Regarding "He seemed to be arguing that anyone with a degree in science who expressed support for religion should have their degrees revoked" - gah. I wonder how he'd feel about most of the science teachers I worked with in a religious school who were more than supportive of the students investigating UFOs, dowsing, psychics, et al... or that I have some qualifications in Theology due to graduating from a Catholic university.... :(

Lippard said...

Thank you! I hope this summary will be helpful both to those who were and those who were unable to attend the conference.

I suspect Nyberg would have a negative impression of any teacher supporting a student investigating any of those subjects except with a view to debunk them. I also suspect that the best way for any of those students to actually learn would be to teach them *how* to think critically and apply scientific methods themselves, and come to their own conclusions rather than being told what outcome was correct.

karenB said...


Hi, it's John Janks the guy who gave the Marfa Lights presentation at 8:30 AM on June 22nd at the Amaz!ng Meeting 6.

You didn't miss much. My ppt presentation didn't activate the videos and I was woefully sick from a 6-wk hospital stay with that newly-evolved MRSA (opps! I mean an MRSA CREATED all along but bunch of us are just getting it now.)

Regardless, go to YouTube, look up "telluricfields" and you'll see all four videos.

john janks

Lippard said...

John: Thanks for the info. So, do the lights correspond to automobile traffic on the U.S. 67?

karenB said...


Overall, yes, the Lights follow Hwy 67, but low-angle carlights also reflect off road shoulder gravel, and the USDA soils exposed along the mountain flank: Borunda, Nillo and Portrillo [USDA] soil series.

Thus, yes, an observer will see a reflected light, but it is not necessarily the carlight itself.

If you start with the "Marfa Lights Optical Experiment" video, I think (or hope) it will become clearer.

I published a short article on it:

janks, j.s., 2002, "The Mysterious Marfa Lights - a riddle solved by remote sensing," Earth Observation Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 10, pp. 31-32.

If you can'find it, (EOM is a remote sensing professional journal), I'll email you a copy.