November 25, 2012 • 12:54 am

I had a free day before my talk on Theology versus Science, so, after a big Scottish breakfast (minus the beans and black pudding), I went to the  National Museum of Scotland, a wonderful place that combines Scottish technology, natural history, and human history.  A few highlights:

My first Irish elk (actually a deer)! This species, Megalocerus giganteus, lived from about half a million years ago to about 10,000 years ago, and may have gone extinct owing in part to human predation. It had the largest antlers for its size of any deer we know of: the males had 90-pound antlers on a five-pound skull! And they had to be regrown each year! As I tell my students, imagine yourself walking around all day with a teenage girl on top of your head.

Imagine, too, the metabolic energy (and neck strength) that these antlers required—all in the name of sexual selection (males with big horns were more attractive to females). This was the first complete skeleton of the animal to be found, recovered on the Isle of Man in 1819. It’s thought to be about 12,500 years old:

A rear view of the skeleton showing the lovely open interior of the museum (exhibits are around the side):

A saber-toothed cat (they didn’t give the species, but it’s probably the amusingly-named Smilodon):

There is simply too much to show from the Museum, but I highly recommend a visit if you’re in Edinburgh. Entry is free.

Here’s what is supposedly the world’s largest example of scrimshaw: two sperm-whale jaws that were extensively carved by a sailor:

Jackie Stewart’s (now “Sir Jackie”) Formula 1 racing car is there, too. The cockpit is extraordinarily small! It’s the most successful Formula 1 chassis of all time, with 8 wins in 1971 and 1972, powered by a Ford-Cosworth DSV engine. The variety of stuff in the museum is astounding, and you can spend many hours in there, no matter what your interests:

Don’t miss the rooftop terrace, with a fine view of Edinburgh and the castle:

Solipsistic self portrait (in shadow) with Edinburgh. I had to climb up on a wall to take this, and the guard eventually yelled at me to get down, but not before I snapped this panorama:

Museum-going is of course thirsty work, so I repaired to the nearby Guildford Arms, my favorite pub in Edinburgh. It has a gorgeous Victorian interior and about ten real ales:

Which to choose? (This is only half of their selection):

I drink only one pint at lunch, so it was a hard choice between Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted and one of my favorite dark beers, Orkney Dark Island. I chose the former, but was able to accompany it with a steak-and-ale pie made with the Dark Island:

If you are in Edinburgh, the Guildford is only a short 2-minute walk from Waverley Station, the main railroad station. It’s one of my favorite pubs in all the UK.

I am in St. Andrews today, visiting an old friend, but will head to Glasgow for my talk tomorrow evening at Skeptics in the Pub (information here).

42 thoughts on “Edinburgh

  1. All of your talk of wonderful ales is making me quite jealous. I am spending a bit of time in Heidelberg and had looked forward to a variety of nice beer. Unfortunately, the typical pub here has two or three taps, and I must say that many are not up to what we have come to expect in the US. There are at least 15 craft brewers in the Boulder area, and a typical tasting room/pub such as Avery will have a dozen or more brews on tap.

  2. Glad you enjoyed Edinburgh Jerry. Your talk was extremely interesting but a shame it was slightly spoiled by some (I assume) Xtians wanting to argue over the Bible as evidence for a god.

    I’ve often thought that argument that the resurrection story must be true because low status women were the first to the tomb and obviously no writer would have used that detail if it were not true, is ridiculous. You may as well say the Star Wars universe is true because no one would invent such a preposterous character as Jar Jar Binks!

    At your comment that you would make it illegal for parents to indoctrinate children into a religion, I looked over at the two chaps who had been arguing with you and they were clearly apoplectic. I thought they were going to bust their faces were so rage like. I was a little worried for you at the end when one of them immediately made a bee-line for you behind the lectern. I assume it was OK?

    Anyway, thanks for the talk and enjoy St Andrews and Glasgow.

    1. Yes, that guy had a bit of rage! What he wanted to ask was this: “Would you put me in JAIL?” I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “You said that you’d make it illegal to indoctrinate children with religious belief. Does that mean you’d put me in JAIL for teaching my kinds Christianity?” I said, no, I was just speaking metaphorically (LOL); that I considered it immoral to brainwash children with faith.

      He then said shook my hand and said this, “I am a Christian, but I think religion is bad. Chew on that for a while.” I was told that the guy was a notorious faith-head and prone to making statements like that, which meant, “I see most religions as bad, but mine is great!”

      1. Just as Pubs are for over 18’s and cinemas show age-restricted films, maybe we should make churches over 14’s only and like cinemas or pubs, punish the churches rather than the parents?

        I like that idea.

        1. Not a bad idea on the face of it. But as a teenager I remember lying about my age to get into X-rated films. There could be a danger of making religion more attractive to kids by banning them from attending church before a certain age.

          I wondered what the faith-head guy was up to at the end when he came over to the lectern. I like the reply you gave “…just speaking metaphorically”. Brilliant!

      2. One might also consider this counter argument: If a person in a local courtroom could be whisked off to the slammer (or, “gaol” <= love the look!) by the judge for contempt of court, if the nature of defying an ordinary, solitary judge so warranted the punishment, why then, an emphatic "Yes"! =You=, friend, should be whisked off to the prison yard for the crime against a much larger population of victims of your crime: "contempt for the human race, a crime against humanity".

        No one commits a crime warranting even a fine, without being warned that such behavior is illegal. It is the willful contempt of the law that warrants stronger punishment.

        1. No one commits a crime warranting even a fine, without being warned that such behavior is illegal.

          You have a lovely, if unrealistic, faith in human nature. In the areas of town where I’ve recently escaped from, reporting an apparent crime (e.g. violent assault) to the police is itself a crime worthy of violent assault, twice. Once for the original assault (normal behaviour), and a second battering for the crime of talking to the police.
          The idea of settling differences by assault and battery being wrong, simply doesn’t enter consideration.

    2. Richard Carrier demolishes this one (and so many others) in Proving History: it’s the confusion between “more probable than if that detail wasn’t there” and “more than 50% probable”. These are, of course, completely different things.

  3. I have a theory about Jerry’s amusing predilection for taking photographs of his meals. Imagine the pub or restaurant manager’s possible reaction:

    Oh dear… we have a scholarly food critic in our midst. You doubt me? Why just LOOK at him!

    Make sure his next dish is absolutely spotless. Only the best, leanest beef goes in that pie, and don’t you dare over-season it, either…Run along now, chop chop!”


    1. I have several flickr contacts in Japan and Taiwan and most of them regularly post pictures of food they happen to be eating; one from Taiwan is currently in Sheffield and can’t resist posting the strange things he finds on his plate

    2. It would take too long. They don’t make the pies on the day ; at best they do a week’s pies on Sunday, when it’s relatively quiet. After that, microwave.

  4. Jerry,

    You say that evolution is now an established fact because of the mounds of evidence from multiple sources.

    Do you mean that evolution is a fact or do you mean that the accepted mechanism of evolution (random mutation and natural selection) is an established fact?

    I’m interested because there is a fringe group that I keep coming across who say that there is mounting evidence that mutation can be non-random and that this will cause a paradigm shift in thinking about evolution.

    Granted, they seem to have trouble pointing out this mountain of evidence and even more trouble coming up with a mechanism by which mutation can be non-random, but is Neo-Darwinism/The Modern Synthesis in any danger?

    1. Evolution will inevitably spontaneously emerge from any and every system in which you have reproduction that is both varied and dependent on environmental conditions.

      The tempo and shape of the evolution will differ depending on the source and scope of the variation, but it’ll still be there.

      And extensive studies have shown overwhelming evidence that the source of genetic variation in life on Earth is plasticity in the genome combined with sexual selection and the odd random mutation.



    2. To clarify what BG says – evolution is a product of variation and selection ; variation is a product of imperfect copying (and other processes, but primarily imperfect coying).
      Perfect copying is much, much more expensive than imperfect copying. For a start, it involves multiple “reads” of the source data stream. So there will always be an economic play-off between fidelity of copying and cost of copying. Even in the data-banking business where my wife works, there is a real and substantial cost for doing a confirm-after-write check of an archived copy of some data.

      1. But black puddings don’t bite – at least I’ve never been bitten by one – and they are delicious. But, yes, the beans are best avoided, both for themselves and for what hey do…

  5. Jerry, you must really try black pudding “with and open mind” as the scientific outlook dictates. I am a fellow American(but living in England) and like yourself was originally repulsed both by the look and the recipe of the particular dish. But experimentation has proved to me that it is an outstanding contribution to the wonderful attributes of the great British breakfast. I can no longer enjoy such a breakfast WITHOUT black pudding.

    The beans I can still pass up…..

    1. I have had black pudding–several times in fact. And every time I found it repugnant.
      I’ve tried a lot of stuff that I don’t write about–for good reason!

  6. Thanks again for a great talk, and for signing the book.

    I quite like a few faith-heads to show up at this sort of gig – they give added spice to the Q&A session, as long as they’re not allowed to take it over.

  7. I’m confused by the whole elk/deer thing. An ‘elk’ in America is also called a wapiti, which is much the same as the Eurasian red deer (Cervus elaphus) – which is a deer. An ‘elk’ in Europe is a ‘moose’ (Alces alces) in America, which is a member of the Cervidae – which is the deer family. So – elk or deer – they are both ‘deer’; unless you just mean Megalocerus did not look like a ‘moose’ when alive?

    1. As my old professor used to say to help his students remember…

      “Hippity, hoppity. There goes the wapiti.”

      Not that this answers your particular question.

    2. Oh boy, this exact topic was an endless source of confusion for my wife when she moved to Europe from MT. Why is a US elk only a deer over here? And why is a moose an elk (alce, Elch, etc)? A similar related source of confusion was what in the US is often referred to as a buffalo (really not a buffalo, but a bison) and the antelope (Antilocapra americana, not really an antelope). Could it be that a deer being called an elk in North America is similarly due to some linguistic confusion, some initial error that has since become common usage?

        1. BTW, of course I realize that I missed the specific point of BilBy’s initial comment. The whole deer/elk thing brought back memories and led me to sort of go off on a tangent of my own…

    3. I think (not that I’ve personal contact beyond the Red Deer) that the large horned deer of the Arctic regions (Reindeer, Elk, Moose, Caribou) are pretty close to being a “ring species”. In the glacial period, when the wandered the ice margins, they were evolutionarily continuous from Ireland to Greenland via Beringia. But since the rise in sea levels, they’ve started to differentiate.

  8. Jerry, do you know if Richard Holloway came to your talk? He’s a former bishop of Edinburgh and still lives there. His autobiography, Leaving Alexandria*, is well worth reading. It’s on Kindle.

    *A suburb of Glasgow.

  9. I was in St. Andrews today as well (I live about 10 miles away), and I got my PhD in that biology department. If your friend works there and you went to a pub, I’m guessing the Criterion or the Whey Pat? I would guess the Central, but I was in there and didn’t see you! Shame about the weather, St. Andrews is glorious in the sunshine.
    It was great to hear your talk on Friday. The christian guy was so cringeworthy; what makes someone like that think that offering Jesus Christ as evidence for god in a room of atheists (especially you, from a Jewish background!!) is going to be remotely successful? What a dingleberry.

  10. Wow! Those are great photos. I’ve been to Edinburgh and was in that very same pub. I tried a few of the ales, and thought one local one was absolutely undrinkable. But the rest were amazing.

    Edinburgh castle is beautiful and one of my favourite castles in the UK. It was very well restored but I have to agree with my friend from London who called it “a walled set.”

    I love Edinburgh. It’s one of the best walking cities I’ve ever been to. It’s in my blood (my grandparents emigrated from there) and would go back in a heart beat.

  11. Thank you for showing the museum picture of the extinct “Irish Elk”. I love those mounted skeletons.

    “Smilodon” is the “State Fossil” of California btw. I even have a replica giant tooth floating around here…..somewhere…..(rustle, bang, shove). 🙂

    1. I even have a replica giant tooth floating around here…..somewhere…..(rustle, bang, shove).

      Found it?

  12. Very glad you enjoyed the revamped NMs! I love the way you now enter from the old storage basement and come up into that beautiful glass and cast-iron space of the main hall…probably one of my favourite bits of architecture, a cathedral to reality.
    I usually have a pint of Bitter and Twisted in the Guildford, though the Jarl is very fine, also. Shame I couldn’t be in town for your talk. Next time.

  13. Sorry to be a car-nerd, but the engine in Sir Jackie’s car was a DFV (“double four valve”).

    For the benefit of anyone who might care a little bit, the 3-litre V8 DFV debuted during the 1967 F1 season (the second year of the 3L engine formula and the year before aerodynamic wings and corporate sponsorship were introduced) and was designed by Cosworth in conjunction with Team Lotus with sponsorship from Ford. As well as having tremendous power, the engine was designed to act as a stressed member of the Lotus racecar chassis, with rear suspension attached directly to it (as opposed to the engine sitting in a chassis to which everything would normally be attached). This innovation (among others; Lotus founder Colin Chapman was a visionary in the field of racing car design) saved weight and improved handling via added rigidity to the chassis, and although the more reliable Brabham car piloted by Denny Hulme won the ’67 season, some of the most memorable drives were made possible by the DFV-powered Lotus of Jim Clark, two-time world champion and regarded as the finest driver of his day. Clark’s amazing recovery from being a lap down to finishing third at Monza that year (which was a nail-biter in its own right) is regarded as one of the finest racing comebacks ever; if not for Clark coasting across the line after running out of fuel, he may well have won.

    In subsequent years the DFV proved itself as the go-to F1 engine, with most top teams using them and every race-winning car powered by a DFV in the 1969 and 1973 seasons. Such was its power, reliability, versatility and groundbreaking design that the DFV was used in Formula 1 until 1983 – an enviable lifespan and record of success for any piece of technology, but is unmatched in the world of motor racing (except maybe by the pneumatic tyre!).

    /huge nerd 🙂

    1. I primarily come here for the huge nerds. You never know what you might learn reading the posts and comments on this site.

  14. Jerry, I hope you also get a chance to visit the natural history museum at St. Andrews, if you have not already. It is a gem!

  15. The name Smilodon comes from Greek: σμίλη, (smilē), “carving knife” + ὀδoύς (odoús), “tooth”


    It’s not as amusing in Greek.

  16. Trawling through the archives of the blog (woops, sorry, website!) I came across this awesome piece. I’m a Scot myself and I’ve been to the National Museum (and St Andrews, for that matter. It may be the religious capital of Scotland but it’s great!). I last visited the museum a year or two ago, and though I’d been a few times I never saw it all. It’s massive! I’ll have to go again this summer, I think, before I head off to uni. Fantastic place.

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