"And sometimes he's so nameless"

On Thursday I’m Talking Ghosts At Skeptics In the Pub, Cheltenham Science Festival Fringe. Controversy May Ensue :D

A quick update seems in order. It’s Tuesday 12th June and The Times Cheltenham Science Festival is under way. I’m still wondering why the brochure appears to feature a perspex butt plug though?  Or is it just Global Melting, like Global Warming but hotter?  Anyway so far I have seen no events, simply because I have not yet got up and gone out except for a quick trip to acquire breakfast. Secondly, I have a talk to write!

No, the Festival organisers have not gone mad. Every year however Cheltenham Skeptics In The Pub run a wonderful Fringe programme – last year I saw the Festival of the spoken Nerd and Dr Harry Witchell on the Science of Dating.  This year the programme looks just as exciting, and while it gets little attention the Fringe Events are excellent and well worth attending if you are in town for the Science Festival.  I was thinking of going through the whole run down, from Dark Matters to Science Show Offs on Saturday, but the website does that better than I can. Also these events are all FREE, with a donations bucket being passed around if you want to give (Being Skeptics it’s a bucket not a collection plate – there may be some subtle symbolism I’m missing?)

So I am trying to write my talk on The Science of Ghosts for Thursday night

Now most of my friends so far seem to respond with “there isn’t any!”. Given I have spent twenty five  years studying it, I think there is — but as a recent row on the Rational Skepticism forum suggests, a lot of people think that when I say “ghosts” I mean “Dead Guys” ( & Dead Gals too). This is unfortunate, because it is all a lot more complicated than that. I could say I take a phenomenological approach, rather than making an ontological claim, but I think people would just look at me funny, and I don’t mean phenomenological in the sense of Philosophy they might also think I’m nuts. So just to be clear, I’m looking at how we study two things: the ghost experience, and the causes thereof. (“Tough on Ghosts, Tough on the Causes of Ghosts”? If you want to be really bored you can read my ASSAP conference talk here: this one will be faster, funnier cover very different ground and have more “science” whatever that means! :D

Anyhow this year my talk will be mercifully free of asides on the philosophy of science, epistemology and other big words too. In fact it will be a) light hearted, b) loud, c) visual (I’m using a  lot of video or whatever you call the digital equivalent) clips and also very hands on. Yes I’m running some little experiments and audience participation events, because well, why ever not? So be prepared for Circle Dancing, Knocking On Wood, learning the Power of Expectation and Suggestion, and I’m even doing a little jokey tribute to Bem’s precognition research, which sounds deadly dull, but isn’t at all, at least in my version I hope.

So is there any Science of Ghosts? Yes, way, way too much to even just list the areas covered in the time I have, unless I over run by a week. I think the best way to go is to keep the first half light hearted and fast moving. I have been through loads of topics I could cover, and have thought about presenting on a little of everything, but in the end I have chosen just two topics for the first bit that I can present well upon and have never given a talk on before, one of which is very suited to hands on experimentation.

One thing that seems to confuse a lot of people is why I am talking at Skeptics In The Pub. Paranormal Believers often seem to regard Skeptics, or as us non-Americans usually call ’em, Sceptics, as the enemy. (Why do we use the American spelling? Is it to prove we know Greek or something?) Skeptics/Sceptics think people like me who spend our time on parapsychology are all woos, unless they have heard of us (Chris French and  Richard Wiseman  are exempt from this it seems. Stuart J Ritchie probably still gets called a woo, as he is not yet a household name?). I’m desperately hoping that Professor Brian Cox might show to run a picket line and  to tell people  I’m an utter nobber, but sadly feel that highly unlikely.:D

Anyway why am I talking at a Skeptic’s meeting? Well I have always regarded myself as a sceptic. Yes I’m a methodological sceptic, and sometimes I come to conclusions that sit uncomfortably with other sceptics, but I do believe firmly that doubt and “rational sceptisicm” are the only way forward and are central to the scientific method, or rather most scientific methods, as I don’t think there is only one.  It often amuses me that I am far less certain of many things than self-proclaimed forum sceptics who are absolutely rock solid in their beliefs where I have little more than an ever expanding list questions, a lot of data, and a few tentative, provisional conclusions.   I encounter this time and time again on the JREF and other forums: people whose faith is stronger than mine. :)

Anyway, enough rambling. I have a talk to write. I’ll let others decide if I am a Fake Sceptic or not. :)  Whatever you think about ghosts and parapsychology, the questions it raises for Science, how we do Science, how we communicate Science and what constitutes real Science are vital, or so I am inclined to think. I hope some of you will come a long and heckle, whether sceptic or believer!

Here are the talk details

Thursday, June 14 2012 at 7:30PM

40 Clarence St
GL50 3NX

Er, em!

What’s the talk about?

Ghosts don’t exist, all skeptics know this, right?. Yet even a skeptic can experience a “ghost”, and when one does all kind of awkward questions arise. That was what happened to CJ, and the story of how he became involved in parapsychology, spent twenty five years investigating hauntings and became embroiled in working in paranormal television for a decade before ending up with far more questions than when he started may amuse and hopefully cause you to question your own deep seated beliefs on the subject. Learn the inside view behind shows like Most Haunted, and why despite everything for CJ at least the serious research must continue.

So can Science really address the ghost experience? For 120 years scientists have wrestled with the question of what is really going on when people think they see ghosts, and in this talk CJ promises to present a whistle stop tour of the science that has been published in the field, good, bad and bogus. Can science finally exorcise our ancient fears of the unquiet dead, and explain the night hag? Are buildings haunted, or is it people? And what should you do if you actually see a spook? If that seems unlikely, come along, and find out how you could :D

The event is FREE, but we will be shaking the Skeptic-Bucket to cover costs

cj x

Festival of Science, Cheltenham: Martin Rees on Life in the Cosmos

Posted in Reviews and Past Events, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on June 12, 2011

In terms of UK Science, I can’t think of a bigger name than Martin Rees, or to give him his proper title, Baron Rees of Ludlow. President of the Royal Society, Astronomer Royal, with if you will pardon the pun a stellar career in academia, and author of a number of highly acclaimed books, one of which, Just Six Numbers, I frequently reference and quote as it is so beautifully and clearly written. When it comes to the public understanding of science Lord Rees is a giant, and I think many of my generation accord him the respect my dad holds for Sir Patrick Moore for sheer verve in presentation.  Suffice to say I have immense respect for the chap, and when I heard that he was speaking and Dave R offered to buy us both tickets I leapt at the chance.

This was the best attended of all the events I went to all week, held in the EDF tent, and sponsored by Winton Capital, a hedge fund management company about whom I know nothing but am delighted that they chose to sponsor this event so if you have money unlike me I guess you should have a look at their site, and their reputation is very good I was told. The whole Science Festival was also sponsored by Pfizer — while I am known for my distaste for the world of finance and “big business”, I thoroughly applaud and respect those companies who invest in science education so I have taken the time to mention them, and hope you understand and will bear them some good will for their generous corporate sponsorship. Well done to them all for investing in our future.

So anyway, it was very busy, and I was surprised at how the demographic had shifted; the audience was on average older, with a higher proportion of men, but also ranged from maybe 7 to their mid to late 80’s, all united by their love of astronomy.  It was heartening to see so many people there, especially given the torrential rain and high winds that buffeted the marquee alarmingly. Indeed after the sunshine of the last few days the Science Festival in the rain was a desolate sight.

A rain swept Cheltenham Science Festival

The talk opened with a picture of Sir Isaac Newton (“a really unattractive man”) and after that laugh was spiced with humour throughout.  Newton in the Principia calculated the velocity needed for a cannonball to enter orbit, which I always find hard to envisage as what it is, a kind of endless falling! And then we were off, for a really wide ranging discussion of all kinds of fascinating aspects of space, from the scales of the universe, cosmic inflation, event horizons through Cosmological Fine Tuning (on which Rees was admirably open minded saying the question can not currently be resolved as far as I could make out), manned versus robotic space travel and much much more.

One thing that really shocked me was when Lord Rees pointed out that there is only 66 years from the Wright Brothers first powered flight to the first men walking on the moon, some 42 years ago now.  I thought for a moment that our knowledge of space may be stagnating, then I realised as Rees spoke on the tremendous achievements of those 42 years in terms of unmanned space exploration, and thought of my shock on first seeing pictures taken on Mars, and just how far our probes have gone – Voyager is now approaching the edge of the solar system. Still from Kitty Hawk to the moon in less than a single lifetime – indeed my grandmother lived through both events, and long enough to see the Pathfinder missions to Mars, yet as she once told me as a young girls she had disliked aeroplanes believing they would disturb the angels in the clouds! (She remained deeply if unorthodoxly religious, and curious about scientific discoveries, right till her death.)

This is what Rees does so well: he uses brilliant illustrations that make you think. A picture of an Ouroborous showing the cosmic scale of things was really gripping, with humanity falling right in the middle from the atomic scale through to the astronomical. If you have read Just Six Numbers you will be familiar with this, but still nice to see again. Another interesting thought which surprised me was that to today’s kids the moon landings are something old, historic, “like the Wild West”.  I was born in the year of the moon landings, and when I was young we were all excited by space travel, and many of my friends wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. ( I hoped to be an archaeologist, and ended up a third-rate ghost hunter. These things happen!) Now few kids would aspire that way — this is one of the themes Marina Benjamin explores in her fascinating little book Rocket Dreams, where she charts with nostalgia how my generations love of Space, the final frontiers has been replaced by a new generation who seek potentialities in the unlimited fantasies and virtual worlds of cyberspace.  Well worth reading that book actually.

Lord Rees at the book signing after the event

I did not have a notepad on me to take notes, so I scribbled some phrases on my ticket. One thing I found very interesting was the idea that “nowhere in the solar system is as hospitable as even the top of Everest or the South Pole.”  Still Martin Rees remains as always an optimist about our potential, while pessimistic about politics, with I think good cause. “A technological optimist, a political pessimist” was how he put it as I recall.

He ended stating that this century has a special responsibility, as we can finally destroy our evolutionary progress and throw it al away by destroying ourselves, or perhaps move on in to space, or something to that effect. I’m going to end though with my favourite quote of the  whole talk, that hopefully I have got right…

It is better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science, more entertaining; and no more likely to be wrong

– Martin Rees

The Science of Flirting and Other Curiosities: Cheltenham Science Festival 2011

Posted in Reviews and Past Events, Science, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on June 11, 2011

So yesterday I managed to spend my first whole day at this years Cheltenham Science Festival. having no money is always an issue, but I still found plenty to do, and meeting up with three friends we enjoyed the sunshine and  headed down to the Imperial Gardens to check out the stands behind the Town Hall.

Local educational publisher Nelson Thornes had done a discovery trail for children, and while I did not participate I did see some of their beautiful science books for young adults and younger children. I enjoyed an ice cream courtesy of a friend, and we tried to have a look at the Educational Lego tent but it was packed with schoolchildren and they had to turn some parents away, so we moved on to Area 42, a fascinating little tent with a number of really interesting displays about actual scientific research projects.

I chatted to two brilliant research students  from the University of Southampton, working on non-titanium memristors, fascinating stuff on (I think) breaking the limits of silicon, but soon became lost! I then had a long chat about science, scepticism and religion with Jens Christensen, a Cambridge research student who is developing a fascinating mobile phone technology that replaces traditional touch screen technology with a much cheaper acoustic based system that uses a single microphone and a algorithm that detects where the signal is coming from on the screen by the shape of the waveform.  Conceptually simple, it seemed a viable and very  inexpensive possibility for future touch screen tech, but I expect the physics involved is far from simple! There were loads more display stands – these were just the two which immediately seized my imagination. It was fascinating to see the innovative cutting edge stuff going on in UK universities.

Jens seemed genuinely surprised by my religious faith — but that seems to surprise a lot of people! I joked with Jens about the Festival crowd: quite a few interested teenagers which was great to see, lots of pretty young women (far more than at the Literary or National Hunt Festival) and generally a much younger vibe than the other Cheltenham Festivals. There seem to be science journalists everywhere, which seemed a bit over the top, as cutting edge research is probably more likely to be found in the journals than here (though Area 42 proved me wrong!), but it was really nice to see them all running around anyway! anyway Area 42 is open till 8pm tonight and tomorrow so do go take a look, as it is free.

Also free was the Zooniverse demonstration. This is awesome; anyone from the very young to the positively ancient can help do real science, log in, create a profile and start measuring moon craters, transcribing weather reports from early 20th century ships logs, counting boulders on the moon or many other fun projects that work on the wisdom of crowds to self-correct. Awesome, I’d encourage everyone to take a look.  They kept us entertained for a long while, and I plan to start playing with the site very soon, as it has so much potential to contribute in a more interesting way than the old “donate spare processor time” things: these projects use humans and the computer together to do some real science, and look highly entertaining. Recommended, go check out the link!

While I was trying to persuade my friend David R that the only way to chat up girls was to actually approach them, in a non-threatening manner, find a natural pretext and strike up a conversation, he seemed highly hesitant. As I talk to everyone irrespective of age, gender or number of tentacles this comes naturally to me, but Dave seems shy. So in the evening we went with Barby to another one of the excellent Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub Science festival Fringe events, The Science of Flirting.

I had heard of Dr Harry Witchel, the physiologist, and associate him with heart problems of a different type (and I think amino acids and SSRI’s – his academic research is far ranging and impressive). It was really fun therefore to see him talk about something very different, “How to Flirt Effectively”. He has just written a book on music I wanted to pick up but sadly I was a couple of hundred short when my money finally came through today so I’m on bread and water this month, but I will do when I have cash again.

I did not know what to expect, but he was superbly entertaining, with a talk pitched at the popular level and illustrated with film clips, which should be compulsory for shy college kids. Body language, acceptable and unacceptable eye contact, the twelve mannerisms by which men flirt and the fifty plus that women employ, and so on. All delivered at great speed with wit and panache, I think that is the only appropriate word for it. Shame he did not have longer, and more of a shame that I did not take notes!

Despite having a vague interest in the academic literature of the subject, I learned a great deal, and wish I could pass on some of what I learned. Banter not sarcasm is one essential point: you can playfully insult someone in a backhanded compliment, but actual insults and sarcasm fail. The dance of body language, posture mirroring etc was really fun to see explored: body language is a horrifically complex subject, but this was truly fun to talk about. Witchel is a huge amount of fun – here is a reel of clips from his various media appearances —

I seemed to get on with Dr Witchel, and we talked about academic politics, the insanity of university life, how dating differs in the USA and Britain and how to pick up women (and men) and successful relationships till well past eleven. He seems to combine an excellent academic research career with a huge amount of fun pop media appearances! If you ever have a chance to see him, go — he is excellent fun. and also, if you are interested in flirting or dating, and at uni, well check out the academic literature — it won’t do you any harm and you may learn something, even if like me you are happily in a relationship. :)

Of course like everyone I seem to meet this week Dr Witchel is a huge fan and personal friend of Dr Richard Wiseman, who I occasionally mention on this blog. ;) I had chatted to Dr Wiseman online the night before, and he seems to have taken my review of Paranormality with good grace, which is kind of him, but then I learned he is doing three Science Festival events, one tonight with Robin Ince, and two tomorrow. I will miss the talk with Jon Ronson on Paranormality — I need to eat somehow till I get money again, and I could not justify eight quid in the circumstances, but hey, I have got tickets to go to the Playhouse tomorrow and see Richard perform a seance. Ironically it will be the second time I will have observed a seance  there this year, the last time being at the Paranormal Festival a few months back. I might check out where the ghost photo was taken that I featured on my blog earlier in the year, the ghostly diminutive figure. ;) However in the morning I am up early to see Lord Rees talk on Life in the universe as David kindly bought us tickets, and then my Science Festival will come to an end and I will once again immerse myself in the thirteenth century.

I have really enjoyed this years Science festival, and hope to se emore of you there next year!

cj x

The Festival of the Spoken Nerd: Cheltenham Science Festival Fringe event

Posted in Reviews and Past Events by Chris Jensen Romer on June 8, 2011

It’s hard to review an event when you had to leave at the half time intermission, and probably bad form, but I thought I’d say a few words about this one. It’s Science Festival Week in Cheltenham, and while Dave and I will go have a look at the free stuff (the educational Lego we have to see!) on Friday, I went tonight to a fringe event hosted by Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub. And I’m really glad I did!

The turn out was pretty good, but I had expected more — I turned up at 7pm to be sure of a seat, and ended up playing chess on my phone till it started. Was lovely to see all the SitP regulars again, and some of them recognise me now which is nice (I’m the resident “woo”!) D Fly is a lovely venue, but a little pricey if like me you have no money, and I could only afford one drink – I would have had a second and stayed maybe but Sally managed to mug me for a donation on the way to the bar so I gave her all my remaining cash and slipped out, hence home early.

So what is the Festival of the Spoken Nerd? Science meets comedy, Dean Burnett style, only not Welsh. Originally performed in London on Valentine’s Day, it had an X versus Y theme of sex, gender and romance, and was rather fun. Presented by Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker the event raised a lot of laughs and made me smile, and certainly taught me some unusual science, involving John Maynard Smith’s “sneaky f*cker” model of reproductive advantage – yes really, I have looked it up, blog post gives you the idea here — hamsters on Viagra (or a cheaper generic one assumes), why men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus and a couple of wonderful songs by Helen on ukulele.

They seemed a little nervous at first, but soon warmed up and the three laptop show used multimedia to good effect and was genuinely funny, with a lot of xkcd style humour that made me laugh out loud. There were some fantastic jokes about irrational numbers, quantum physics and biology and cosmology, subjects which are not normally funny, and it’s a shame I had to leave before the Valentine’s Day cards were delivered, as I’m sure I would have got loads. OK, I would have got none, as always! (Not quite true actually: I received one in 1989, and one in 2005. Not that I’m counting!)

Yes Valentine’s Day cards, which the audience were asked to make! If the lads science heavy love poems were anything to go by  (I wont spoil them but if you know the hexadecimal for red and blue like anyone who designed webpages in the pre-Dreamweaver era you will be able to guess one!) this could have been hilarious, shame I had to leave when I did!

There was also an excellent guest speaker, Dr Lucie Green from the Mullard Space Science lab, who spoke very well on Mars and Venus, and was genuinely educational and informative even to someone as lacking in knowledge of astronomy as me. I wanted to ask her about sun spot cycles but didn’t, and instead asked a quick question on why the planets are arranged in a plane around the sun (mathematically this is what it all collapses to apparently).  She really is an very clear and patient communicator, and comes over as highly intelligent and very charismatic, the kind of person I’d like to see more of on the screen (and maybe a little less of other celebrity cosmologists, naming no names, but thinking ex-pop stars!).  But we are all effected by image – I thought her blue trousers were really stylish, and tried to imagine Bernard Carr or even a Max Tegmark given a style makeover for TV, though actually they are pretty stylish, so let’s settle for Patrick Moore. :) I’d really like to hear her talk about space weather and the sun, and I did want to ask if Mars weak magnetic field meant it would eventually lose its atmosphere, but I didn’t.  Dr Green deserves a decent slot to herself at a future Science Festival event, not to appear only as a guest in the Fringe, and the Festival of the Spoken Nerd was superior to some of the events I have paid full price for in the past, indeed most of them. Getting it performed here was a triumph for Cheltenham SitP, and I really wish I could have seen Professor Ray Talis last night.

I’m sorry I had to leave when I did, but there are some more great events coming up this week, though sadly I will have to miss Jim Al-Khalili doing Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed tomorrow night. If you can go, then get there early, the venue only holds eighty and it will be packed, so try to get there by half  seven.  This one interested me more than most of the main festival events, and I’m annoyed I can’t go — but I’m missing seeing Alan Moore at the main festival as well :( (No money!) I might make A Guide to the Science of Dating   on Friday, and will definitely see Dean Burnett on Pattern Recognition on Saturday, and if Dave is up Helen Keen on It is Rocket Science! on Saturday as well.

So, in short, providing you are mature and not easily offended, then I really recommend the intelligent and genuinely funny Festival of the Spoken Nerd, which was great fun, indeed hilarious, even if the trio are all too well dressed and good looking to ever be proper nerds like me,  and hope to see more on TV of Dr Green. The week has been an organisational triumph for Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub, and more science than scepticism, in keeping with the themes of the Festival. An amazing achievement for a small, dedicated but still very new group, well done chaps (and Sally!).   Please do support the remaining events, and hopefully I’ll catch you at one?

I’ll leave you with Helen Arney…

cj x


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