Volume 15 Number 2, Summer 2002
Rhyme and Reason
To quote the broadcaster, Terry Wogan: “Is it me? or is the world just going mad?”
I am an inveterate listener to BBC Radio 4, especially the flagship Today programme. (Yes, I know Wogan’s programme is on Radio 2 — I listen to that sometimes, as well). In particular, I am always interested to hear scientific topics being addressed by John Humphrys, Sue MacGregor (now sadly retired), and the rest of the crew (despite the occasional inanity of the questions) and it is always good to hear my fellow scientists doing a good job of explaining their interests to 6 million radio listeners. And so, as the redoubtable John Humphrys introduced an item on cloning a couple of weeks ago, I was wondering which academic expert the Today programme researchers would have selected to discuss this scientifically — and ethically — challenging topic. Professor Steve Jones perhaps? Or that standard fallback “our science correspondant, Pallab Ghosh”? No, neither of the above — instead the chosen expert was . . . Rael.
Volume 15 Number 1, Spring 2002
Rhyme and Reason
I decided to make a New Year’s resolution this year: to stop being weird. It all began in the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket where I was closely examining the parsnips as I always do at this time of the year, just before my final lecture to first-year Physics undergraduates on classical mechanics. As the final topic on my lecture course, I talk about Newton’s conic sections as these link the mundane with the cosmic and serve beautifully to illustrate the simplicity that often underpins the apparent complexity of the universe. What are conic sections? Well, if you take a solid cone and slice it in four different ways the edges of the different cuts form a circle, an ellipse, a parabola and a hyperbola respectively and these curves are precisely the orbits of celestial bodies — planets, comets and others — as they move through the heavens. Parsnips are the most conical vegetable in my supermarket and are easily sliced and so I have been using them for several years to illustrate conic sections in my lectures. All very logical and reasonable, you might say; however, that view didn’t appear to be shared by the young woman in a Tesco uniform who noticed me perusing the parsnips. “Can I help you”, she kindly enquired. “No it’s OK”, I replied. “I’m just trying to find the most conical parsnips”.
Volume 14 Number 3, Autumn 2001
Rhyme and Reason
I normally avoid getting involved in discussion of religion in the context of skeptics and skepticism. The main reason for this is that I do not believe that there is necessarily any intrinsic conflict between a belief in one or more deities and a scientific approach concerned essentially with falsifiable phenomena. If someone’s religious beliefs have no observable and testable consequences on the universe then, in a sense, they are of no interest to the scientist or the skeptic. Therefore, although I do not possess any myself, I do believe that it is possible to hold religious beliefs and, at the same time, to have a scientific and skeptical worldview. And, indeed, there are many people with religious beliefs that, in the main, do not contradict their rational worldview.
Volume 20 Number 3, Autumn 2007
SEXUAL ETHICS seems such a quaint old subject.
Such has been the success of the almost complete purge of sex from the arena of serious, secular ethical debate that when someone does raise the topic, we immediately suspect (usually correctly) that that person has some conservative or religious axe to grind.
Volume 20 Number 4, Winter 2007
Matthew Provonsha reports on his disillusionment with life in a religious commune
LAST YEAR I spent two months inside a Camphill Community along with other volunteers of various ages from around the world, eager to help others and better myself. I was drawn to communal life, but more importantly I was put off by the society in which I grew up. As a teenage atheist and leftist in the United States I was appalled by the vast increase of religious fervor in public life and by our startling move to the Far Right even during my lifetime. Like so many Americans I was laden with a painful sense of hopelessness. I could only watch television, drink or get high to distract myself. Retreat in one form or another seemed to be the only suitable option.
I was quite enamored with British culture, as well, and wanted nothing more than to see the land which had produced so many of my favorite authors, comedians, rock stars and TV shows. The UK almost seemed (to my naïve self ) to be a totally different, more civilized world. So it was that I decided to find someplace in Britain where I could work for food and lodging. In truth I only chose to ‘volunteer’ at the Mount Camphill Community, a school for young adults with special needs in the South-East of England, because it offered the best benefits. In addition to organic food and lovely surroundings it offers a weekly stipend of fifty pounds, weekend outings and ample time off.
Volume 20 Number 1, Spring 2007
James Byrne in retrospect on being a psychic
WE LIVE IN an age where many millions of people turn to psychics and mediums for help and guidance in so many aspects of their lives. You see the advertisements in nearly every magazine available on every newsagent’s shelf, “call this number for accurate readings”, “love, career, relationships”. The number you dial will either be an 0906 premium rate number where clients are charged at the rate of £1.50 per minute or you can pay by credit card, but you will still pay anything from £30 to £40. Yet so many times what you are told by the psychic you will not be able to relate to, and their predictions in many cases will turn out to be complete nonsense. This kind of disappointment is damaging and distressing to vulnerable individuals who are desperate for help. There may be psychics who genuinely have a desire to help those in need, but I believe they are in the minority.
Is it possible to give someone a psychic reading without having any psychic ability whatsoever? The answer of course is “yes”. Anyone can learn to do psychic readings and earn a very good living in the process. I will show you how to conduct a successful psychic reading later in this article. The only ability you will need is observation.
One of the people on the Skeptics in the Pub mailing list, Partha Lal, sent a note to me asking me to publicise a firewalk he was doing for charity.
I checked out the charity, which seemed worthy enough (the charity is Haven House, a children’s hospice. (It’s still not too late to donate some money for Partha’s walk! Send him an email with details of your donation). I duly published the details of the event in a mail. A few days before the event, Partha told me that people could join in for a modest price, and being someone interested in new experiences, I decided to do the firewalk.
I was quite terrified, if truth be told, for several days before the event. Although I’m a pyromaniac and love to watch flames, I’m terrified of being burned (is this normal?) and while I knew, in my head, all about the thermal conductivity of ash and so on, I still found the build-up psychologically challenging.
Attending my first ‘Skeptics in the pub’ meeting last week, I was troubled to find Lord Taverne presenting the session about his organisation Sense About Science. While Lord Taverne, befitting his distinguished career, was an entertaining and persuasive speaker, he did not strike me as an appropriate figure to lead a sceptics meeting. It was more discouraging, then, to hear him introduced as an “old friend” of the society and to hear he’d presented before. I was beginning to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.