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Picture 29This last weekend found me in the UK, attending a very unique conference – the TAM London event. TAM (“The Amazing Meeting”) is the brainchild of James Randi, a well known US based magician who is best known for his dogged debunking of the claims of mystics, frauds and charlatans such as Uri Geller, Sylvia Brown and Peter Popoff. TAM is a meeting of skeptics – people who tend to see the world (nay, the Universe) as fundamentally rational and who cast doubt on the extraordinary and often wacky claims of supernaturalists, conspiracy theorists and those who believe in different forms of reality.

It’s pretty interesting stuff, because there are myriads of strange, weird and wonderful ideas out there that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Some claims are relatively benign (fairies, chakras and fortune telling, perhaps), but other claims are positively dangerous (vaccine denial, AIDS denial, and the rejection of modern medicine for curable complaints). There is just so much material to discuss and investigate, it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. Where do you start? Going to TAM is as good a place as any.

The attendees at TAM were a motley crew of science enthusiasts, magicians, writers, atheists and agnostics, comedians and every shade in between. The speakers were similarly diverse, ranging from bloggers to musicians to scientists to famous authors – each of them passionate about getting the skeptical message across to the general public.

There were a few real highlights.

Brian Cox, for instance, is the public face of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the biggest machines every created by human beings, whose purpose is nothing less than discovering the fundamental nature of the Universe. He gave a wonderful talk on the potential discoveries in the offing, from dark matter to the “god particle” (aka. the Higgs Boson) to the nature of gravity. Brian can be credited with one of the more memorable quotes of the meeting: “Anyone who believes the LHC will destroy the Earth is a twat”.

Then there was Adam Savage. Yes, the Mythbusters guy. Adam, a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm (if you don’t believe me, watch his TED speech), has done more than almost anyone to make science and scepticism relevant and interesting for TV viewers the world over. His talk was all about the efforts the Adam / Jamie team went to in testing the difficulty of swimming through syrup (busted). Adam raised a big laugh when he described libertarianism as “anarchy for rich people”.

Another highlight was the incomparable Jon Ronson, author of “The Men who Stare at Goats”, and who self-describes himself as being “to humorous journalism what Brian Cox is to science”. Jon introduced us to some of the craziest people on the planet. His talk was brilliant – featuring group sex, murderous pieces of plastic, and the (in)ability of American generals to walk through walls. I can’t wait to see the movie, (where Ewan McGregor plays Ronson – huh?).

Not forgetting Tim Minchin, musician, comedian, precise commenter on the follies of modern life – fantastic! If you have never heard his poem Storm, stop now and listen to it on YouTube. He also sang us a wonderful song about looking forward to Christmas. For his efforts he got a well deserved standing ovation.

I was particularly keen to listen to Simon Singh, who wrote an article about chiropractors in the Guardian and has ended up in court because he, um, told the truth. The ridiculousness of the British libel system was devastatingly exposed for all to see. Simon won an award in the meeting for outstanding contributions to skepticism.

I could wax on about Ben Goldacre taking journalists to task; George Hrab singing about the candiru (nasty little blighter – look it up on Wikipedia); Ariane Sherine on receiving hate mail as a result of her atheist bus campaign; James Randi live over Skype from Florida, Phil Plait metaphorically blowing apart the movie “Armageddon”, and Richard Wiseman doing a truly wonderful job as host for the proceedings, but damn it, I need to get some sleep now.

Suffice to say that TAM London was worth every penny spent – it was truly amazing and wild horses won’t drag me away from going to future meetings.

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TAM London

I’m going! Or at least I think I am…

TAM (“The Amazing Meeting”) is the brainchild of James Randi, a magician who has spent his life debunking psychics, UFOlogists, quacks and all sort of random frauds and charlatans. He is one of the main drivers of the modern skeptics movement, and an all round good guy.

I first came across him, wow, years ago, when the world was still in black and white and when a row of houses cost thruppence haypenny. Well, about 1995 to be more exact . Randi is pretty outspoken when it comes to people who make money by pretending that they have real psychic powers. Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne are some of his more high profile targets. He has even put up a prize of 1 million dollars to anyone who can prove a supernatural occurrence (ESP, clairvoyance, dowsing etc, etc) in a controlled scientific test. Needless to say, the prize has never been claimed.

TAM is THE event for skeptics and to date it has only been held in the US. No more. In October it comes to London. Attending it will be Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, Adam Savage and Phil Plait, the author of the Bad Astronomy blog. It’s fantastic!

Access to the website yesterday was a bit of a joke. First of all, the order told me that the fee was 175 pounds, but shipping and handling would be 999.99 pounds. Oops. Then when that issue was fixed it wouldn’t allow me to enter my order because I live outside the UK. My sister’s address in the UK was promptly used and eventually my order went through. I still haven’t seen a confirmation coming through as yet though. Nevertheless the demand was extreme. The whole event sold out in an hour or so, much to the amazement of the organisers and to the intense disappointment of those who failed to get a ticket in time.

I’m lucky I persevered, I think.

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