The Sciences

TAM London in review

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitOct 8, 2009 4:30 PM


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[Note: all the pictures here, and more, are in my TAM London Flickr set.]

TAM London has come and gone, but it's left quite a wide swath. The Amaz!ng Meetings 1-7 have all been, well, amazing, and so this one, the James Randi Educational Foundation's first international conference, had a lot to live up to. I think we did pretty well.

In fact (to use an Americanism), this ball was hit way out of the park. The speakers were incredible: Brian Cox talking about the Large Hadron Collider and the origin of gravity, Simon Singh on his well-publicized libel lawsuit involving craven chiropractors, Ben Goldacre and bad medicine, Ariane Sherine on the atheist bus campaign and her new book, The Atheist's Guide to Christmas (for which I wrote an essay), and so many more. Professor Richard Wiseman emceed the event, and was fantastic at revving the audience up and keeping things moving -- it was a tough choice to have him host rather than give a talk, but he did such a tremendous job I may never want to hear him give a talk again. Um. Yeah. You know what I mean.

It was an anglocentric meeting, with mostly UK speakers by design. The exceptions were me, musician and skeptic George Hrab, and of course My Close Personal Friend Adam Savage™. There was a comedy show Saturday night featuring Robin Ince and friends, too. The highlight for me was Tim Minchin. He is a brilliant musician, and not only skeptical, but incredibly funny. He has critical thinking messages relayed with extreme and laser-focused humor in his songs. I laughed my head off, and when I wasn't bent over double I checked the room to see everyone else in hysterics as well. He did his extraordinary nine minute beat poem "Storm", about a fictional believer in nonsense he meets at a dinner party. It's an excrutiatingly funny compendium of woo and how reality stomps it flat. Tim is frakkin' awesome. He owned that crowd, and deservedly so. He's a monster of skepticism.

A real delight for the audience was a live video Q&A with Randi via Skype. They were able to directly ask Randi questions, and he pontificated as only he can in response. Although skeptics by nature tend not to follow authority terribly well, Randi is something of a touchstone in the skeptical movement. It is directly through his work that the modern movement, such as it is, exists at all, so getting to talk to him is a treat. My talk was last. I decided to go with my lecture on asteroid impacts, since it's timely and does have a lot of skeptical content. I think people enjoyed it -- making fun of "Armageddon" is shooting fish in a barrel. When I was reviewing the talk a few days earlier, I realized that I would be giving it in a city hit hard by rocket attacks in World War II. Yet that same technology, just a few decades later, may save the entire human race from destruction by a rock from space. That sort of syzygy was too good not to discuss, so I ended with it. We closed the meeting with a wrap-up and thanks, and got a standing ovation that went on and on. These folks were applauding the JREF and TAM London, but I get the very strong feeling they were also demonstrating their own emotional support for themselves, for all of us who are active skeptics. We go out and try to make the world a better place, a more real place, and you know what? I think we do deserve a little respect for that. It's a tough job, but it's one we love to do, and one we need to do. We knew in advance that the UK audience would be a good one; there is so much good critical thinking work being done in England and its neighbors. But even knowing that I was overwhelmed with the generosity, support, good nature, and overall enthusiasm of the audience. You may have been applauding us, but you can be sure we applaud you as well. And will there be a TAM London 2? Well, we can't promise, of course. But given how big this one was, how much fun it was, and how great the audience was, well, I wouldn't be too surprised to see another British invasion sometime soon.

[Edited to add: I should never post in a hurry; I inevitably leave off something important! In this case, it was to personally thank Tracy King from February Marketing and Skepchick for being the JREF's event planner for TAM London! Tracy did a fantastic job getting things put together, especially when -- as they always do for big events -- things didn't go according to plan. Despite a postal strike, a balky printer, and a hundred other speed bumps, Tracy and her crew managed to make the meeting run smoothly and efficiently. My hat's off to Tracy and all the people who were behind the scenes at TAM London!]

Other people have been writing about TAM London as well. Here are a few samples: The BBCAardvarkology on TAML SaturdayAardvarkology on TAML SundayJack of KentSunny Spells and Scattered ShowersBruce HoodThe Londonist

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