The Sciences

Galapagos Wrapup

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitAug 26, 2008 12:30 PM


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I am finally getting my act back together after 11 days away from home, visiting the astonishing and wondrous Galapagos Islands. I wasn't sure how to tackle writing about it, since there is so much to say: the trip itself, the islands, the time we spent in Quito, the friends renewed and newly made, the incredible, incredible scenery, animals, plants, and, of course, the southern skies. Maybe it'll help to point you to my best 187 pictures (!) I posted on Flickr (and you should check out Scott Hurst's pictures there, too; he's very good).

Happily for me, others have covered the basics. PZ wrote about a typical day on the cruise, and not to disappoint anyone, but I agree with what he says there. Skeptics, like any other group, are not a homogeneous mix; we have talkers, partiers, shy retirees, young folks, old folks, and everything in between. But what we all shared was a love for nature, science, and reality, and that is a very refreshing and solid atmosphere in which to travel. Several times I announced I'd be on the top deck to point out the few stars we could see between the clouds (and with the Moon washing out a lot of the sky), and each time -- every single time -- a crowd of people showed up, even when it meant postponing a meal. That's a good group to hang out with.

One highlight of the trip was being at the Equator. We had about an hour to play around, and that was fun. I took videos of toilets flushing (that'll be a while before I can put it up, patience please!) which raised some eyebrows -- in those cases, the language barrier worked to my advantage, since I could just stare down anyone staring at me -- and I'll spoil the results by saying the way the toilets flushed had nothing to do with the Equator. That's good, since I wrote a whole chapter in my first book (Bad Astronomy) making that case. Anyway, yes, that's me and the awesomeness that is George Hrab lying on the Equator itself in the picture above. I was posing like that and didn't even know that he had laid down behind me, so that picture makes me laugh even more.

Being there with James Randi was of course a special treat as well. He turned 80 while on the cruise, but you'd never know it. He went on a lot of land excursions, hiking over volcanic rocks, iguanas, sand, and cacti, all the while apparently never getting his pants or shoes wet. I know he's a stage magician and conjourer, but it's difficult to know how he pulled that off; I and everyone else got soaked. Does he walk on water? Well, I'm a skeptic, so I doubt it. But I wonder. I am very, very glad the James Randi Educational Foundation set this expedition up; it really is a moving and astonishing experience. I can safely say the other passengers agreed; you can read their exploits all over the place, like here, and here, and of course on the JREF forum. I also highly recommend reading PZ's transcription of a short speech he made on the cruise about Darwin. It made me appreciate what Darwin did a lot more. I plan on reading On the Origin of Species very soon, in fact, now that I've seen from where these ideas came. I know that the Galapagos islands will have a profound affect on me for years to come. They tend to do that. A lot of our understanding and appreciation for nature and biology -- and yes, evolution -- stems from the Galapagos, but even without that they are a place that stimulate the mind and excite us to a deep, profound level. But then, that's what science is all about. Understanding and appreciation. And I wonder: just how deeply was I affected? I think the Galapagos are a part of me now... and being a good scientist, I have proof.

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