Wednesday, 9 March 2016

A polydactyl cat walks into a bar

Eleven times a year on the first Monday of the month in a pub in Camden (The Monarch, near Chalk Farm) an assorted group of scientists, cynics, non-believers, believers, and the plain curious meet to hear a talk about subjects that include anything from creationist schools to drug taking in sport, artificial intelligence, the science of taste, ghost hunting, the Alpha course, anti-vaccination and the urban myths behind London's parakeet population.

The talk lasts about three quarters of an hour. There's a break for about fifteen minutes into which you're encouraged to lob £3 in to a pint pot to cover expenses, and then there's usually a Q&A session with the speaker. It's an amicable evening all round. People occasionally disagree but I've never witnessed anyone get heated. It's a decent pub with friendly bar staff and a good range of ales and food. Although some nights it's hard to get a seat. Testament to the growing popularity of the event.

Further evidence of the same can be found in the fact that these evenings have spread out from London into Dundee, Aberystwyth, Lewes and Tunbridge Wells. Even overseas with events springing up in places like Brussels, Paris and Leipzig.

I started going over a decade ago on the recommendation of my friend and colleague Richard Sanderson who now runs the well worth investigating Linear Obsessional record label. It was a more shambolic affair those days and many of the speakers who were invited to its then London Bridge HQ were believers in the paranormal or some such who were summarily debunked.

That was fun for a while but I guess the organisers got fed up of stealing candy from babies or decided that it'd be far more edifying to learn something on a night out rather than get into slanging matches with flat Earthers etc;

Other things happened in my life and I pretty much forgot all about Skeptics in the Pub. A few years back I got to thinking about them and wondered if they were still going on. Obviously I found out they were so I popped along to see what'd changed. I was glad I did. I now try and get along to every event if possible and have even branched out into visiting the Greenwich and Soho branches. We have to have more of everything in London. We're greedy.

It's rare I join in the Q&A, I'm mostly content to simply listen and learn, but I always come away feeling energised. If I've had a shitty, or just a mind-numbing, day at work I find a couple of hours in such company really blows the old cobwebs off. There's been so many good evenings, and very few disappointing ones, I wish I'd started blogging earlier so I could've bent your metaphorical ears about them sooner.

Monday gone's was an excellent example of everything that's so right about the format. Dr Kat Arney is a science communicator and award winning blogger (there are awards for this!?) for Cancer Research. She's just written a book about how our genes work called Herding Hemingway's Cats.

Being virtually illiterate scientifically I was wary of going. I thought I might not have the faintest clue what she, or anyone else, was talking about. It happens to me sometimes. Quite often if truth be told.

I needn't have worried. She's taken the pop science route with both her book and the talk. It's a method that works. After a brief explanation of what genes are, to the level that anyone knows, and how DNA works she got into the good stuff. You need to buy her book if you want 'the science bit' but a couple of anecdotes that interested and, in the latter case, amused me were about sticklebacks and the human penis.

Sticklebacks have elaborate breeding behaviour. Though they live in sea water they'll only breed in fresh water. Not cheap dates it appears. Something like 10,000 years ago a load of sticklebacks were all busy enjoying their annual fishy fuckfest when they got so carried away they didn't notice they couldn't get back to the sea afterwards. So they stayed put and slowly, but not by evolutionary standards, became a different species. The sea water sticklebacks have little spikes protruding from their undercarriages. The freshwater ones don't. One little DNA switch didn't go off one day and from there a whole new species evolved.

It's the same with willies. Yes, actual men's cocks. Our primate ancestors all have spiky members as do many other animals as anyone who's heard foxes rutting away beneath the silvery moon will testify. One day a child was born with a smooth dick. That child grew up to have, hardly surprisingly, an evolutionary advantage. Now we've all got them, well 50% of us, and, quite frankly, no-one wants to go back to spikes. It's the very definition of a win-win.

It wasn't all fun, but interesting, stories. There were ethical questions raised about eugenics and that hoary old chestnut nature versus nurture (both, btw) but for those I'd recommend you buy the book. It's got some lovely stuff on Ernest Hemingway's polydactyl cats that now roam huge swathes of America's Eastern seaboard.

For further enlilghtenment I'd recommend you get along to a future Skeptics event. The next one is about the ins and outs of being in or out of Europe. It's one I really ought to attend as, once again, I'm pretty baffled by it all.

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