Craig Venter delivers the Graeme Clark Oration

On Wednesday, I dragged a jet-lagged Other Half along to the Convention Centre to see Craig Venter give the annual Graeme Clark Oration. Venter is the first speaker to give the oration other than Clark himself, inventor of the cochlear implant.

Venter is best known for his role in the Human Genome Project. He recognised that the publicly-funded mission was sluggish and inefficient and started a private company funded by industry, to complete the sequencing of the human genome. As a result of these efforts led by Venter, the genome was sequenced 3 years ahead of schedule.

Venter is one of the ‘big ideas’ scientists. His research is multidisciplinary and really inspiring to people from a wide range of backgrounds. His publication record in the highest impact factor journals is impressive, if not intimidating. and he’s also one of the worlds most cited authors. The J. Craig Venter Institute carries out research based in genomics, but spanning other fields including medicine, energy, computer science, chemistry, ethics and commerce. Check out their excellent website if you are interested in finding out more.

The Rise of Atheism – 2010 Global Atheist Convention: Afterthoughts

On the weekend, I attended The Rise of Atheism – Global Atheist Convention at the Melbourne Convention Centre. I’m not going to write a review of the event, as I often like to do, because it’s been done a number of times already. Instead, I will just go over a number of thoughts/feelings/issues that have stayed with me and I’ve thought about a lot since the weekend. 

  1. My eyes were really opened as to the extent of religious influence on virtually all aspects of the world. Whereas before I thought of atheism as a natural extension of science with maybe a little philosophy involved, I now realise that fields such as economics, feminism, environment and politics are intrinsically and inexplicably related. In particular, Taslima Nasrin’s talk, along with the women’s panel (who all should have been given their own speaking slot IMHO) really made me aware of the role religion has played over the last 2000 years in oppressing and denigrating women. The blame placed upon Eve in leading Adam astray in the garden of Eden is pertinent today in relation to the Bingle/Clarke/Fevola debarcle. Whatever Lara’s faults may be, the fact is she had a picture taken of her in the nude, clearly against her will and somehow she is the one in the wrong? The cries of ‘homewrecker’ and ‘slut’ are sickening and these attitudes can be directly attributed to those in the bible and perpetuated through the history of Abrahamic religions.
  2. For a group of people who would universally consider themselves intelligent, the mob mentality that reared its head during question time of Richard Dawkins talk was really disappointing to me. I know that many people, such as PZ Myers think the questioner got exactly what she deserved and that she was trying to somehow catch Dawkins out. I’m not so sure. What a lucky woman – to get a 2 minute crash course on DNA from one of the worlds most well known biologists! Is it hypocritical of me to laugh uproariously at Sue-Ann Post, Catherine Deveny and Jamie Kilstien’s ruthless mocking of believers, whilst not participating in a massive crowd boo at someone in a semi-public forum? I don’t know, but I thought it was a really rude and totally unnecessary response nonetheless.
  3. I went into the convention hoping to come away with a clear direction or course of action that I could take to support this cause that I feel so strongly for. But the realisation of exactly how far reaching the influence of religion is left me feeling more lost and confused about what I can do to help. Should I write a letter to my MP expressing offence at the saying of the Lords Prayer in parliament? Should I donate to Oxfam or similar to raise the education levels of those in the 3rd world? Should I support human rights charities that stand up for women persecuted at the hands of religion? I’ve come to realise that despite wanting to funnel some of my spare time into a ‘cause’ of some description, that cause is not going to be atheism. I do not have the patience, self-confidence, diplomacy, lightning-quick wit, vast repository of debunkifiers to spend my time arguing with/debating/converting/enlightening strangers who have failed to recognise the falsehoods of religion. I am not interested in convincing people of ideas that they are so reluctant to acknowledge. And although I found every single speaker interesting and educational, the one moment of the weekend where I felt a real spark of passion was a passing moment in Ian Robinson’s session where improving the teaching of science to primary school children was mentioned. If I ever take on any type of active role related to atheism, it will probably be in relation to politics, the separation of church and state and so forth. Because this feels to me like an area where real change can be affected. However, having said this, I will be a very happy person if I see in my lifetime, a gradual change in attitudes that allows ‘normal atheists’ like myself to be able to refer to my lack of faith in casual conversation without someone crying offence, or causing some sort of argument.

Overall I’d have to say my experience at the convention was wildly positive. I learned a lot, met some interesting people and was really impressed to see most of the speakers mingling at the breaks. The Convention Centre is an excellent venue and I’m sure the organisers would have been really pleased with the weekend. Thank you to everyone who helped to organise the convention, volunteered, attended and presented. I will remember it for a long time.

Happy Pi Day!

Today, March 14th (3/14 in American date notation) is Pi Day. Via Simon Singh’s twitter feed, I found out about this really cool poem by Mike Keith. It’s a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven (“Once upon a midnight dreary…”), written in a style known as Pilish. Each word in the poem has the same number of letters as the digits of pi.

There are actually a number of mnemonics and even a book (also by Keith) which follow this pattern. Whilst some of these are very cute and fun little party pieces, I’m not sure how useful they’d actually be if you were trying to memorise pi to a particular number of digits. I personally have memorised it to 18 digits fairly easily, simply through rote and repitition – I’m no memory sportsperson.

The most popular Pilish phrase is

How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!

which is great because it’s both funny AND true.

I wore my pi shirt to the Global Atheist Convention today, (which I will blog about soon) and was surpised and little bit disappointed to only see one other person wearing one! Maybe it’s not everyone’s favourite irrational number after all… could be e I guess, e is pretty cool too but until February 71st rolls around, there won’t be an e day.

Richard Dawkins at the Melbourne Town Hall

Last night, Other Half, a friend and I had the pleasure of attending Richard Dawkins’ appearance at the Melbourne Town Hall. An out-of-season event  of the Melbourne Writers Festival, the subject of the evening was Dawkins’ latest book release The Greatest Show on Earth. According to the MWF website the show was sold out, but there were easily tens of seats free in the balcony area.

The show took the format of a Q & A session, with ABC Radio National’s Robyn Williams comfortably (sometimes overly comfortable with the  sound of his own voice) taking on the role of interviewer. Dawkins was lucid as ever, and displaying in person the characteristic wonder and awe of the natual world that comes across so well in his books.

I found it quite curious that on stage with Williams and Dawkins were two Auslan interpreters, one of whom was particularly enthusiastic in his signing to the point of being a little distracting! I say curious because I have never seen this done before, but I am glad that the hearing-impared were able to enjoy the evening as I did.

A highlight of the evening was Williams asking Dawkins about his infamous interview with Andrew Denton featured on the Elders series last year. You can view it in three parts here if you haven’t seen it. The interview ends hilariously, with Denton asking Dawkins what his star sign is. One of the sticking points was that Dawkins was reluctant to answer questions of a personal nature. When Williams asked him about these questions he struggled with, or refused to answer, Dawkins said that he didn’t feel that what he thought about anything, other than his own area of expertise, was interesting to anybody. Now, I would be happy to accept that he won’t answer those questions out of privacy, or being uncomfortable with that line of interviewing – but he can’t say that people are not interested in what he thinks when he looks in the mirror in the morning, or what he feels ‘wisdom’ is. He can’t deny that he is a celebrity, and there is something about humans that makes us interested in all facets of a celebrity, including their opinions on things no matter how banal and clichéd they may be. But anyway, I have gone a little off track.

Although the main part of the evening was a discussion of The Greatest Show on Earth, the floor was opened for questions towards the end and some additional thought-provoking content was generated from the audience questions. There was relatively little discussion about religion, perhaps the crowd were content with evolutionary biology this week and willing to wait for attacks on religion at next weekend’s sold out Atheist Convention.

Finally, I feel as though I must include the photo I took on my phone (just as the MC was requesting no photography – oops!), despite it’s very poor quality. But that’s Dawkins there in the middle…