My Little Atoms podcast

July 4, 2012 • 5:57 am

As I’ve mentioned before, Neil Denny, a British writer and podcaster, just did a three-week road trip across America, exploring the state of science in America. He writes about his adventures for the Guardian and puts up his interviews on the Little Atoms “roadtrip” website. The one-month trip ended on June 9, but its aim was this:

Neil will be interviewing scientists working on ground-breaking, cutting edge science, educators combatting the encroachment of anti-science and irrationality into politics and the classroom, and writers attempting to popularise amazing ideas and concepts to the wider public. And he’s going to explore some major scientific (and some not so scientific) sites of interest along the way.

Back in England, Neil is gradually editing and putting up his interviews, and his 50-minute chat with me can be heard here. (I haven’t yet listened to it; the Feedburner site is here). The topic is, naturally, why scientists accept evolution as fact but many laypeople don’t.

There are eleven podcasts so far, and a fair few to come. The ones currently posted include Eugenie Scott, the physicist Sean Carroll, and a group of people from the Freethought Alliance Annual Conference.

Neil was a delightful guy and asked intelligent questions—and he’d actually read my book!

53 thoughts on “My Little Atoms podcast

  1. Would you say you know for sure why Evolution happens? Definitively so, besides what scientists claim to be the reasons. Less than 10 years ago, astronomers (another interestng breed of scientists) told us that they had got it slightly wrong. That Pluto was in fact not a planet, according to the ‘new’ definition of the term (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/060824-pluto-planet.html). Over the years there have been numerous such rescinds, too many to list here. Some were high profile (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn6151-hawking-cracks-black-hole-paradox.html), others middle profile (http://science.discovery.com/top-ten/2009/science-mistakes/science-mistakes-10.html) and yet many more low profile (http://www.iol.co.za/scitech/science/environment/we-got-it-wrong-admit-climate-scientists-1.1074613#.T_RDgvX8mSk). As a scientist, I struggle to convince my peers that Religion (or anti-science, as you term it) and Science, answer totally and sometimes irreconcillably different questions. And that neither is perfect [despite what the reverend or the neurosurgeon says, we don’t know everything yet]. Neither can substitute the other. I think such is a cautious and wiser approach, than to be arrogant in supposing that we know it all, one way or the other.

    1. It sounds like you are trying make an equivalency between science and religion. There really isn’t – what questions does religion really ‘answer’? Also: “Would you say you know for sure why Evolution happens? Definitively so, besides what scientists claim to be the reasons” – what does that mean?

      1. Ok, I’ll try again: Have you seen evolution take place? No. Neither have I. How come you believe in evolution then, when you have never seen it? Because you have “faith” in what some scientists say. When essentially what they have done is gathered together a disparate number of sources of human and animal metamorphosis and hypothesized (i.e. proposed one explanation, which could be one of an infinite number of possibilities + much more importantly – which could someday turn out to be not totally correct) on such physical phenomena. In other words, a guess. To hit my point home, think of the development of antimatter. That curious material composed of antiparticles. When Arthur Schuster, waxed whimsical about it in 1898, scientists everywhere considered it, and research leads began. Yet his thesis was no more speculative than the redundant belief that the world was flat. Over the years, as scientific advances have improved, so has research on antimatter, so much so that what we now know differs significantly from Schuster’s speculation.
        So, although “anti-science” is not perfect, it can explain certain things which science is not advanced enough to explain. I know this will get some people’s heads hot. But its a fact. 70 years ago, the world looked different, wait another 60 – 70 years, and the whole landscape will be completely different.
        Another way to look at it is to ask this question. How many straight men really know what being gay feels like? No matter how open minded, you’ll never know. Its almost like you have to step into another’s world, to knwo it exists. Or be undecided about the issue. Reminds me of this story: An Atheist Professor of Philosophy was speaking to his Class on the Problem Science has with GOD, the ALMIGHTY. He asked one of his New
        Christian Students to stand and .. . ..

        Professor : You are a Christian, aren’t you, son ?
        Student : Yes, sir.
        Professor : So, you Believe in GOD ?
        Student : Absolutely, sir.
        Professor : Is GOD Good ?
        Student : Sure.
        Professor : Is GOD ALL – POWERFUL ?
        Student : Yes.
        Professor : My Brother died of Cancer even though he Prayed to GOD
        to Heal him.
        Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill.
        But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm?
        (Student was silent )

        Professor : You can’t answer, can you ? Let’s start again, Young Fella.
        Is GOD Good?
        Student : Yes.
        Professor : Is Satan good ?
        Student : No.
        Professor : Where does Satan come from ?
        Student : From . . . GOD . .. .
        Professor : That’s right. Tell me son, is there evil in this World?
        Student : Yes.
        Professor : Evil is everywhere, isn’t it ? And GOD did make
        everything. Correct?
        Student : Yes.
        Professor : So who created evil ?
        (Student did not answer)

        Professor : Is there Sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness?
        All these terrible things exist in the World, don’t they?
        Student : Yes, sir.
        Professor : So, who Created them ?
        (Student had no answer)

        Professor : Science says you have 5 Senses you use to Identify and
        Observe the World around you..
        Tell me, son . . . Have you ever Seen GOD?
        Student : No, sir.
        Professor : Tell us if you have ever Heard your GOD?
        Student : No , sir.
        Professor : Have you ever Felt your GOD, Tasted your GOD, Smelt your GOD?
        Have you ever had any Sensory Perception of GOD for
        that matter?
        Student : No, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t.
        Professor : Yet you still Believe in HIM?
        Student : Yes.
        Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol,
        Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you
        say to that, son?
        Student : Nothing.. I only have my Faith.
        Professor : Yes,Faith. And that is the Problem Science has.

        Student : Professor, is there such a thing as Heat?
        Professor : Yes.
        Student : And is there such a thing as Cold?
        Professor : Yes.
        Student : No, sir. There isn’t.
        (The Lecture Theatre became very quiet with this turn of events )

        Student : Sir, you can have Lots of Heat, even More Heat,
        Superheat, Mega Heat, White Heat,
        a Little Heat or No Heat.
        But we don’t have anything called Cold.
        We can hit 458 Degrees below Zero which is No Heat,
        but we can’t go any further after that.
        There is no such thing as Cold.
        Cold is only a Word we use to describe the Absence of Heat.
        We cannot Measure Cold.
        Heat is Energy.
        Cold is Not the Opposite of Heat, sir, just the Absence of it.
        (There was Pin-Drop Silence in the Lecture Theatre )

        Student : What about Darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as Darkness?
        Professor : Yes. What is Night if there isn’t Darkness?
        Student : You’re wrong again, sir..
        Darkness is the Absence of Something
        You can have Low Light, Normal Light, Bright Light,
        Flashing Light . . .
        But if you have No Light constantly, you have nothing
        and its called Darkness, isn’t it?
        In reality, Darkness isn’t.
        If it is, were you would be able to make Darkness
        Darker, wouldn’t you?
        Professor : So what is the point you are making, Young Man ?
        Student : Sir, my point is your Philosophical Premise is flawed.
        Professor : Flawed ? Can you explain how?
        Student : Sir, you are working on the Premise of Duality.
        You argue there is Life and then there is Death, a Good
        GOD and a Bad GOD.
        You are viewing the Concept of GOD as something finite,
        something we can measure.
        Sir, Science can’t even explain a Thought.
        It uses Electricity and Magnetism, but has never
        seen, much less fully understood either one.
        To view Death as the Opposite of Life is to be ignorant
        of the fact that
        Death cannot exist as a Substantive Thing.
        Death is Not the Opposite of Life: just the Absence of it.
        Now tell me, Professor, do you teach your Students that
        they evolved from a Monkey?
        Professor : If you are referring to the Natural Evolutionary
        Process, yes, of course, I do.
        Student : Have you ever observed Evolution with your own eyes, sir?
        (The Professor shook his head with a Smile, beginning to realize where
        the Argument was going )

        Student : Since no one has ever observed the Process of Evolution
        at work and
        Cannot even prove that this Process is an On-Going Endeavor,
        Are you not teaching your Opinion, sir?
        Are you not a Scientist but a Preacher?
        (The Class was in Uproar )

        Student : Is there anyone in the Class who has ever seen the
        Professor’s Brain?
        (The Class broke out into Laughter )

        Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s
        Brain, Felt it, touched or Smelt it? . .. .
        No one appears to have done so.
        So, according to the Established Rules of Empirical,
        Stable, Demonstrable Protocol,
        Science says that You have No Brain, sir.
        With all due respect, sir, how do we then Trust your Lectures, sir?
        (The Room was Silent.. The Professor stared at the Student, his face
        unfathomable)

        Professor : I guess you’ll have to take them on Faith, son.
        Student : That is it sir . . . Exactly !
        The Link between Man & GOD is FAITH.
        That is all that Keeps Things Alive and Moving.

        NB:

        That student was Albert Einstein.
        Concentrate on this sentence

            1. What palpable nonsense!
              You should be ashamed of yourself, inflicting such ludicrous lies on the rest of us.
              By the way, I have seen evolution happening. I’m a molecular biologist and have frequently had bacteria or cell lines develop resistance to drugs I use in experimental procedures.
              In fact everyone who has had experience of cancer (either themselves or a friend or relative) has seen evolution at work. Early stage cancer is not dangerous – it takes the evolution of more aggressive, drug resistant and metastatic descendents of the original cancer cell to kill.

              1. Which lies? And its you are now attacking me personally. Why should i be ashamed, for stating it as it is, a guess in an infinite sea of probables? Why do some scientists resort to personal attacks when their line of reasoning is thin. If you saw bacteria or cells transform, it doesn’t naturally follow that everything else will transform, in the same way. Many thesis in science and anti-science are guesses. Some may be informed guesses, but they are nevertheles guesses. You’ve not seen an ape change into a human. Just because some scientists have said so, and showed you hundreds of photographs of sketched “speculating ” what the evolution must have looked like doesnt mean that they are absolutely right. That’s exactly the arrogance I was referring to.

            2. Well you should care if it is true! Einstein almost cetainly never said any such crap, no ‘professor’ worth his/her salt would talk such rubbish, and I fail to see how any of that long Chick tract rambling has anything to do with evidence for or against evolution. Anyway, I feel that I might be falling for a deliberate trolling here so I’ll wind my neck in.

              1. You are right. Maybe i should care. My point is both science and anti-science have too many arrogant proponents that do nothing to further the causes of both. It would be good if people said, ” this is what we know, but we could be wrong, it could change, anytime.”

            3. “this is what we know, but we could be wrong, it could change, anytime.”
              Isn’t this EXACTLY what the proponents of the scientific method say? You won’t hear it from religionists. Seriously, go read, or re-read JAC’s book. Your strawmen about ‘observed’ evolution are dealt with there.

              1. Actually, there are some ‘religionists’ who see things differently. Maybe not as many, but the problem is most scientists are not prepared to listen to them, and arrogantly dismiss them as, ‘strawmen’, so they don’t bother to explain their viewpoints. After all, medicine is probably only needed for those who need it.

    2. Why? Did you write your message on a manual typewriter, and take it to the local telegraph office, to have it transmitted to WordPress Central? Of course not. Those technologies were superseded.

      DNA replication is not perfect. We see that in the existence of multiple alleles. Every so often, one of those errors turns out to confer some advantage. We can trace these differences phylogenetically. In re. that, for example, I eagerly await the release (Oct 2012) of Russell Doolittle’s new book on the evolution of the coagulation cascade. And this line of argument is one that Jerry explicitly does not cover in WEIT.

      Asserting that one knows it all is entirely different than asserting that evolution has indeed, in fact, unquestionably taken place, over a humanly incomprehensible timescale.

      1. Why? Did you write your message on a manual typewriter, and take it to the local telegraph office, to have it transmitted to WordPress Central?

        A couple of problems here:

        • Clipboard was not set up to remove redundant carriage returns.

        • Nor was WordPress, or most other publishing mediums.

        • Thus, these unwarranted returns will distractingly break sentences in the published piece.

        One option is to paste it into a .txt file, then specify ‘no word wrap’, then recopy to the clipboard to paste into blog entry. Or to use a program such as ClipCase to do what Windows has failed to do, nor even to offer it as a formatting option.
        http://lifehacker.com/275267/advanced-clipboard-formatting-with-clipcase

        1. One option is to paste it into a .txt file

          The other option is to not make book-length posts in comment threads. This is the option I prefer.

          1. The other option is to not make book-length posts in comment threads. This is the option I prefer.

            As do I, and many blog sites limit word or character counts.

    3. “As a scientist, I struggle to convince my peers that Religion (or anti-science, as you term it) and Science, answer totally and sometimes irreconcillably different questions.”

      Whatever your profession is, you are not a competent scientist. You demonstrate that you are clueless about the methods of science and how they differ from “other ways of knowing”. It is really too bad that you spent so much time composing all these cliche, bullshit arguments in your several posts. As the term cliche implies, they are old and stale, and they are all “not even wrong”. That you are beholden to these old cliche arguments that have been shown to be wrong countless times demonstrates your ignorance. Now, ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of, if you make the effort to correct it when it is pointed out to you. When you don’t make the effort it then becomes “willful ignorance,” and that is something to be ashamed of. Especially from someone who claims to be a scientist.

      1. Well, you are entitled to your opinion. I have mine, and I know I’m good at my job, so that’s a subjective issue. Regarding my views, its totally predictable how all the attacks have become personal. But i can stand my corner. I’ll say it again, I’m a scientist, but not an arrogant one who thinks I knwo it all. I knwo anti-science may have material things which science can’t put a finger on. Just because we haven’t been able to detect for example aliens, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Same goes for anti-science. Just because your equipment is not advanced enough to be able to pick up unexplainable phenomena doesn’t mean that the unexplainable phenomena is non-existent.

        1. We are all entitled to our opinions, we are not entitled to make up our facts.

          Why is it that whenever someone tells someone that they are entitled to their opinion I get the sense that there’s nothing better they would like to do than take away the right to express it ?

          I’m sure you haven’t detected an invisible pink unicorn in your garage, so make sure that in your arrogance you don’t reject it’s existence.

          1. Well, this is now getting bizarre. Steve, no need for personal attacks. All I’m saying issimple. Just because you can’t measure it , yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. How is that arrogant. Claiming that it doesn’t exist because we can’t measure it yet, IS ARROGANCE.

        2. You need to understand that the arguments in your response are way off target. You clearly do not understand the viewpoint of the people you are trying to argue with. Though I suppose there may be someone who has a good understanding of the scientific method who would claim . . .

          “Just because we haven’t been able to detect for example aliens, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.”

          . . . their number would be a small percentage of the total. That is because they understand that unlike the typical god / supernatural claim made by believers, there is not a mountain of evidence that is counter to the claim that aliens might exist elsewhere in the universe. And that is just one of the major differences. That you can not see the glaring differences in the examples that you offer compared to the claims that you are trying to support does not mean that other people can’t. The only explanations that make sense are that you don’t see them because you really really want your claims to be true, or you do see them but hope that some of the people you are arguing with are too ignorant to notice the differences.

          1. Darelle, I never said anti-science is perfect. That’s the point everyone seems to have missed. Lack of evidence , or a mountain of evidence to the contrary, it still boils down to the same simple issue. I wish we could pause this discussion and return to it, 50 years down the line, if we will be alive then, because surely we would have possesed a lot more knowledge then, much mroe than we do now, and maybe some of the unexplainable phenomena, like alien life, or “god” would have had some answers. I gave the example of antimatter, and nobody wants to reference to it???

    4. You know what I’d like to see ?

      A religion, say the catholic church, publishing the top 10 mistakes that they have made, the evidence they used to change their position and what their new position is.

      Isn’t going to happen.

      It’s always advances in science that force religion to rescind their position, always grudgingly, and never honestly admitting their mistakes.

      And you are no scientist except in the sense that the Discovery Institute has “scientists”.

      Your arguments and examples are tired old canards copied and pasted from creotard websites.

      1. <

        Your arguments and examples are tired old canards copied and pasted from creotard websites.

        The term creotard is derived from ‘Creationist’ and ‘retard[ed]’, and is a valid descriptor of some, in particular religionists who reject science, at least where empirical science violates their religious beliefs. This is not true of all religionists, since an acceptance of the possibility of intelligent life at a higher level, even one which encompasses oversight, is a distinct possibility.

        But there also exists the term ‘evotards’, which would apply to any who not just accept evolutionary theory as currently defined, but are closed minded to the possibility of a priori interactions in the formative (not adaptive) processes involved. As ‘just me’ correctly states or implies, empirical verification of novelty formations, or deviations from a genera’s current body plan, could well involve directed genomic modifications, and not necessarily (or likely) from an Old Man Sitting on a Throne.

        To do valid science, one must be open to all that the data connotes, and not just fitting the data, however improbably, to confirm an established paradigm or prediction.

        It worked however for O. J. Simpson, who got the jury to improperly interpret the evidence. A shrunken glove and a braced hand can distort the evidence, similarly to equating antibiotic resistance to phylogenetic novelty formation, an extrapolative stretch.

        I would suggest more drosophila or perhaps drosophilidae experiments, but by other methods of genomic modification. A resulting species modification beyond Mayr’s definition has been long awaited.

      2. Well, Steve, as I told others here, you are entitled to your opinion. And yes religion has had its mistakes. But most scientist don’t want to admit that science has its limitations and theres a lot that’s still unkown. And that science can measure unexplainable phenomena.

      3. Oh, by the way, I haven’t copied anything from the web. That’s a story i receivced by email which I used to explain my point that both anti-science and science don’t yet know it all, however arrogant their proponents.

        1. You are derailng the thread and have posted nearly 50% of the comments on it. Please limit your posts on this thread until you have something new to say.

          Also, you say you’re a scientist, but I have trouble believing that. What kind of scientist are you?

          The reason I have trouble believing you’re a scientist is that you say things like this:

          Ok, I’ll try again: Have you seen evolution take place? No. Neither have I. How come you believe in evolution then, when you have never seen it? Because you have “faith” in what some scientists say.

          I’ve been studying evolution all my life and I’ve seen it take place in the laboratory, in a way identical to what we find in the wild. And I don’t have “faith” in what some scientists say; I have confidence in results that are repeated by other scientists. That’s completely different from religion, where faith claims come from religion, and aren’t repeatable (every religion, of course, makes different “truth” claims).

          I have to say that you are apparently ignorant in both senses of the word: you don’t know what you’re talking about (ignorance from failure to learn), and you don’t want to learn about the evidence for evolution (wilfull ignorance). I recommend you read either my book or one of the several other fine books on the evidence for evolution before you post here again.

          Finally, you should be embarrassed at posting that dialogue supposedly involving Albert Einstein, and emphasized that we concentrate on the fact that it was Einstein. Then, when called out on the fact that that wasn’t true, you say you don’t really care.

          That’s not the way a scientist behaves. Frankly, I don’t think you are one.

          1. The blog is contributed to by 3 different people. And is fictional. But it seems your community is full of people who are closed minded and are “afraid” of admitting that both anti-science and science are not perfect and there is undoubtedly things that are not yet known. May have got the word “confidence” confused with “faith”. But dnt you agree, evidence is only limited by the means of which science is able to detect it? If the equipment being used to detect something is not suitable for the detection of that thing (i.e not advanced enough)…it doesn’t follow that that something doesn’t exist.

            1. I’m sorry, but you have branded yourself as an ignorant troll, and will no longer be allowed to post on this website unless you send me evidence by email (my email can be obtained from my University of Chicago website), that you are indeed a scientist as you said. I strongly suspect that it will not be forthcoming, and that you have lied about being a scientist. In fact, I suspect you are creationist who is getting course credit for trolling an evolution website.

              Please provide evidence to me privately (which I will keep cofidential), or leave. You are getting tiresome.

              1. Well, sir, then you are indeed a liar. Your excuse for not giving evidence that you’re a scientist is pathetically lame.

                You will be heard no more at this site. As John McLaughlin says, “Bye, bye!”

    5. Simple You – you ask above “which lies?”

      The initial one is misrepresenting yourself in your very first post. You said you are a scientist. Whenever anyone claims to be a scientist and then proceeds to make laughably weak arguments, I try to verify their claim.

      On your blog you call yourself “a legal scholar”. Somehow I doubt that as well.

      Jerry is probably in transit or he might have put an end to your mindless blather.

      1. As i say, the blog i write to is contributed by 3 different people. And is fictional. It says so on the about page. But what i’ve learn in these posts is that this community has many people who are closed minded. My point is simple and logical. Just because your equipment, or methods of sourcing evidence are not adapted to detect certain phenomena (i.e alien life, or unexplainable occurences) doesn’t make such phenomena non-existent. I gave the example of anti matter, interestingly no one was able to comment. Anyhow I’m off. Hugs 🙂

    6. You know a neurosurgeon who “… says, we … know everything yet” ? Cite please. In “the literature”, or in the bar?

  2. Extraordinary interview. I think it would make an excellent companion CD for WEIT….. particularly for the home schooled.

    Thanks for posting the interview and well as the link to the Feedburner site. It’s chuck full of good stuff.

  3. This is a great interview – it is really enjoyable to listen to a discussion where the interviewer is evidently well-prepared and asks intelligent questions.

    And to our Copy-pasta friend “simplyme” above:

    1. Albert Einstein didn’t write that. A woefully uneducated Creationist wrote your classroom scene.
    2. Science actually does say “we’re not 100% sure” all the time. You must have seen the big news today about the Higgs Boson at CERN. This is what scientists have to say about it:

    “…we’ve found the Higgs, or at least a Higgs. Still can’t be sure that it’s just the vanilla Standard Model Higgs. The discrepancies aren’t quite strong enough to be sure that they really represent beyond-Standard-Model physics… but it’s a strong possibility.”

    That’s not arrogance. That’s a careful representation of the evidence.

    Source: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/07/03/live-blogging-the-higgs-seminar/

    1. The poster of the comment also seems to have left his/her critical thinking faculties at the door too:
      “Professor : You are a Christian, aren’t you, son ?
      Student : Yes, sir.”

      Erm… Albert Einstein was born in a Jewish family, wasn’t he?

  4. I just finished listening and found that interview to be thoroughly enjoyable and informative. It always impresses me how people like Jerry can speak intelligently and informatively for an hour with such depth of knowledge on a topic, and do it so well to make it accessable to lay people such as myself.

    As they say; “he’s a man who knows his onions,” and as a bonus could tell you how they got there too. 🙂

  5. I find the naming of the MP3 files (downloading for the player in the Office tomorrow) amusing : “LART_”-this-that-and-the-other. In British-English-Nerdish, “LART” stands for “Luser Attitude Re-adjustment Tool”, otherwise known as a “clue-by-four”.
    Would anyone wish to put money on a book for the survivor of a CeilingCat vs BOFH bout? I’d put my money on Ceiling Cat, just, but I’d definitely want to observe from orbit. It’s safer that way. For me. Jovian orbit. Or Saturnian.

  6. Really enjoyed this, thanks for posting! A lot of interviewers seem to like the sound of their own voice but this guy was evidently interested in letting you talk.

    Did you ever post the Q&A from your recent Harvard lecture?

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