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The Origins – Big Questions conference

After having attending several of James Randi’s The Amaz!ing Meetings (TAM’s) over the past few years and having listened to some fascinating people (Murray Gell-Mann, Nadine Strossen, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Gillespie, Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman and Neil DeGrasse Tyson off the top of my head), I wanted to see what a Cal Tech-based, one-day Skeptics Society conference was like, in comparison to the JREF’s multi-day, Vegas-based get togethers.  One of the things about TAM is that there is a lot of fun filler.  Debunking stuff, magicians performing “psychic” experiments, people really passionate about ending psychic fraud and “amateur” presentations on various one-off topics (which were sometimes some of my favorite people/thoughts) fill in between the heavy hitters and usually have little to nothing to do with the theme of the conference.  So at this year’s TAM (at which the Skeptics Society always plays a big role), I was very interested to learn about the topic of this year’s Skeptic Society conference: Origins – the Big Questions.

The conference was fascinating.  We met on Friday night for a banquette at Burger Continental in Pasadena.  I recognized a few faces from TAM, but mostly met old white guys from California.  The demographics were skewed more towards them (us?) partly because of the on-going, monthly Skeptics Society lecture series at Cal Tech, I think.  I did end up meeting a guy from Las Cruces, NM (just up the road) who later gave me a great lead on one of the best speaker’s material.  After dinner, Dr. Michael Shermer took the band stand, welcomed us all to the dinner/conference, briefly reviewed the next day’s schedule changes and then introduced a great Los Angeles magician named John Carney.  This was a nice lagniappe for me.  I’ve heard about Carney for years, but have never seen him perform.  He was incredible.  He did a short stage set, then did walk-around to pick up the people in various dining rooms.  Amazing.  I can see why he is so well-respected in the magic community.  Plus, he was a funny guy and had a great stage presence.

I walked back to the “conference hotel” and called it an early night, to get rested for the big day of lectures.    Before I get to the lectures, I scare-quoted conference hotel because the entire conference took place at Cal Tech.  The hotel was very nice, and ran a shuttle (barely) to Cal Tech, but other than some ad hoc bar conversations there was really no conference-specific reason to stay there.   If I make it out there again, I’ll consider staying somewhere either closer to CalTech and/or less expensive.

The morning lectures were great!  These rock stars of science (Susskind, Prothero, Davies, Carroll and Koch) talked about string theory, evolution, cosmology, the origins of time and consciousness.  I enjoyed all the lectures, but Sean Carroll‘s was my favorite.  Unfortunately, his only published book is a graduate-level text book (pass); fortunately, he does have a Teaching Company lecture series available (check).

The afternoon lectures were less great.  Two out of the three religious speakers who were invited to debate the scientists did not present themselves very well at all.  To the point that a lot of the afternoon was a personal waste of time, contrasted against the morning lectures.  Here’s a link from another attendee and here’s one from Sean Carroll himself.  Both of these pages have more comprehensive links to the speakers and both criticize the afternoon sessions.  Between the two, you may see more of what I’m talking about.  I will be keeping an eye on Shermer’s responses to this criticism of the conference.

After the painful afternoon, we had dinner (all Burger Continental, all conference long) and then reconvened for a funny session with the cast from Mr. Diety.  Brian Dalton told us about the creation of the show, showed some of the earlier episodes and talked about their background, then he and the rest of the cast did some live performances of a few of the episodes, showed the obligatory blooper reel and took questions from the audience.  It was nice to end the conference belly-laughing instead of eye-rolling.

In his closing remarks, Michael Shermer mentioned that the next “annual” conference in a few years (a running joke of his) would probably be on war and terrorism.  Not sure if I’ll be able to make it back out to Pasadena in a few years (who knows where we’ll live then), but I’ll definitely keep my eye out for the speaker list.  Overall, the conference was well-run, most of the speakers were incredible (OK, they were all incredible in one sense or another) and it was very stimulating to socialize with that many other people interested in learning more about the Origins and the Big Questions.


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