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Neil DeGrasse Tyson is unquestionably one of the best communicators that the scientific community has at the moment. He is an astronomy wonk and all of his talks on the subject are bursting with enthusiasm and passion for his chosen subject. When it comes to public outreach and inspiring new generations of scientists and science fans, I put him up there with Carl Sagan.
He was recently a guest on the Rationally Speaking podcast with Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galaf, and he did not disappoint. In the podcast, Neil talks about Obama’s recent NASA announcement, and how it will shape space exploration in the coming decades.
Tyson states that no humans will be going to Mars any time soon. Major expeditions need major, sustained funding and this can only happen if at least one of three fundamental drivers are in place: the glorification of a deity or king, the search for wealth and the need for self-preservation. In essence, power, money and war. None of these driving reasons can currently be used to justify the landing of humans on the Red Planet.
I would note two honorable exceptions to Tyson’s rule: the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider. Both projects were monumentally expensive, but nevertheless none of the reasons outlined above were in place. Tyson notes that the end of the Cold War caused the US superconducting collider project to be cancelled in 1989, but this doesn’t explain why the EU persisted with the LHC as the end of the Cold War affected Europe to just as great a degree.
At the end of the podcast, Tyson discusses the recent movie Avatar and some of the movie’s more badly executed concepts. It’s a delightful discussion. I had to laugh when he talked about the creatures with their own USB ports..
This is a top-class podcast from a top-class communicator so if you get a chance, have a listen.
This is a mindblowing podcast from NPR’s “This American Life”. It’s about the Credit Crunch, explained so that even a thicko like me can understand it, but done in a way that is, well, mindblowing.
I’ve been like an evangelist over the last few days, telling my real-life friends to listen to it.
So now I’m telling you.
Over the past few years, I have developed a habit of skepticism, which perhaps could be described as the careful use of critical thinking in the face of extraordinary, supernatural or highly unusual claims. So, if I hear someone talking about healing crystals or angels or UFO’s or homeopathic cures or divine miracles, my immediate reaction nowadays is disbelief.
Skepticism is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a relatively trusting nature, so for me, skepticism is hard work. I’d love to believe – I really would – it’s just that alarm bells go off in my head which can sometimes make for awkward situations in otherwise polite company.
So, when I hear about people using the phrase “at first I was skeptical, but..” in the context of “witnessing” something such as a UFO or a miracle cure or some other such nonsense, it’s become clear to me that these people doesn’t know the first thing about proper skepticism. Most people simply don’t realise the extent to which they can be manipulated or deceived by false arguments, hidden prejudices, partial evidence and statistical anomalies.
My journey into skepticism has been a long, but highly rewarding journey. In my teens, I read Martin Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies“, which presented the other side of Homeopathy, Biorythms, UFO claims and Scientology. Much later on, I read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” and his “baloney detector kit”. Around the same time, I came across James Randi’s website with his million dollar challenge. I developed a keen interest in identifying logical fallacies and exposing urban legends using Snopes.com. More recently, I have become a keen subscriber to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid and the superb “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcasts.
In the light of a media culture that seems to thrive on feeding mistaken notions rather than challenging them; in the light of a world where sophisticated marketing techniques are employed by all manner of cults and fringe groups; and in the light of multi-million industries peddling all manner of snake-oil cures, maybe it’s not too late to bolster our skeptical abilities.
I would recommend the above books, websites and podcasts if you are interested in learning more.
Last week I learned how to download podcasts to my mobile phone. It wasn’t that difficult: it just takes time to set up and download. I needed first of all to subscribe to the website RSS stream, then I had to download the MP3s to the computer and after that (whew) I had to use Nokia’s file download facility to transfer the stuff via a Bluetooth connection to the mobile phone.
The quality of the podcasts is very good. I was listening to the Skeptoid series on the phone while I was in London for a day last week, and often I thought that someone beside me was talking to me. It’s like my own “on demand” radio series for listening to when nothing else seems worthwhile listening to, which is kind of cool. I also downloaded the “Lie of the Land” series from RTE about the history of map-making in Ireland. I’ve been listening to that over the last few days.
The amount of space available on my phone is tiny: only around 400 Mb, which isn’t much when I am trying to download a few radio series to the phone. I suspect I will need to delete early and often if I am to get any benefit from it at all. I then discovered a dreadfully inconvenient problem with my Nokia. It doesn’t have any “Forward” or “Rewind” functions. When listening to a 30 minute show, this can be irritating in the extreme.
Do you listen to podcasts, and do you have a favourite show that you listen to?