Sunday, 25 April 2010

She is an Astronomer Conference: My talk

This will be the first of three blogposts describing the She is an Astronomer Conference just held at the Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington Hall, London, on April 22nd and 23rd. We'd almost had to cancel it because of the volcanic ash, and several people couldn't make it - but it was a terrific experience all the same. I found it enjoyable and inspiring to meet so many professional women astronomers, and quite some of the things I found out were quite a challenge! I'll write a section on each of the days, and the lectures and conversations, after this post. This one I am writing on the train between Llanelli and home, with no power supply or Internet access; so I'll make this one about my lecture which was the last but one talk on Thursday.

I was rather nervous and hideously conscious that I was pressed for time and had stupidly left preparation until the last minute, so not everything I've written actually got said - sadly the glaring gaps seem to be all the most important or entertaining points. But there you go.

It was titled "Democracy in Astronomy" which at least one person speculated would be "Oh crumbs, a bit heavy." I hope it wasn't. This conference was basically about achieving more equality. I argued for more equality (or perhaps not equality, exactly, but certainly inclusion) on a wider level: not just between the sexes, but between the citizen scientist and the professional. I explained that my niche is running online astronomical communities, and bringing astronomy to the general public; and it has been incredibly moving not only to see the great science that has come out of all this, but to have seen many people transformed by what they've learned and achieved.

Astronomy has a history of major contributions by amateurs. To the best of my knowledge, none of the folks on this slide had any formal schooling (to be honest I am not sure about Tom Boles, and Caroline Herschel was clearly well taught by her brother - but you get the gist). I loved the story of Milton Humason driving equipment by mule up and down the mountain, volunteering to help out at an observing night, and ending up becoming a world class astronomer. Some contributions started out with glorious irrelevance, such as Fraunhoffer's discovery of the solar spectrum through his attempts to correct the "rainbow" problems with spectacle lenses. I couldn't resist the inclusion of Hedy Lamarr; not an astronomer I know, but we astronomers do love spectra, for which she found a use nobody else had thought of. She wanted to join the National Society of Inventors, but was told instead to use her celebrity status to collect money for the war effort. How patronising!

The general public tend to be very active today - especially now with the age of the Internet, and the ability to share information and work together as, I believe, never before. Here are two inspiring little stories I wanted to share. In autumn 2009, the Guardian wanted to report on a question asked by a politician in Parliament. The question was about whistleblowers and what was being done to protect them. But Carter-Ruck, the legal firm acting on behalf of the oil giant Trafigura, had obtained a superinjunction: not only could the Guardian not report the question, but they could not even report that they had been gagged. This was the first time this had ever happened in history: questions asked in Parliament are sacred ground, completely public property, and should never be hushed up. Fortunately, the Guardian could still do one thing: they could tweet something to this effect, and reveal Carter-Ruck's name. And as Parliament's website reveals questions politicians plan to ask, it was possible for the public to put two and two and find the question in, well, question. It promptly became public knowledge! As for the Simon Singh case: well, most people in the lecture theatre had heard of him, and you all know the story if you read this blog (or one of many others). Headlines often emphasise the fuss, the screaming mob, the campaigning. What doesn't always get so much attention - except in Ben Goldacre's quote - is the intense scrutiny, detail, and hard work that goes into these campaigns. The public don't just shout; they search, too, and do it extremely well.

Now, what has all that got to do with astronomy? In this case: databases. Here is one, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its vast expanses of web pages, data on each of the two million galaxies it surveys night after night. These pages show the spectrum of each galaxy, the redshift, the colour, and much more.

It has done about a quarter of the total sky now, about 2 million objects. These "scarf" shapes represent areas it's gone over. It's always doing more. And as it's a robot, most of these had not - until summer 2007 - been seen by human eyes. It is a consequence of the digital age, simply too much data for the few professional astronomers there are out there to cope with.

Now, one person actually using it was Kevin Schawinski. He was searching for a pretty rare type of galaxy: the blue elliptical. Ellipticals, as this audience knew very well, are traditionally not starforming; they have no free gas with which to do so. But Kevin had found a few, and wanted to find more - he couldn't make a judgement about what was going on with such a small sample. He therefore attempted to go through the Sloan's entire database, and got severe headaches. So he and Chris got the idea of showing the galaxies to the public . . .

. . . and created a website where galaxies from the Sloan were automatically fed into the Galaxy Zoo website, and people could click a button to choose the best shape. Computers are very good at telling you the colour, the spectrum and so on - but they are useless at telling you the shape; while human eyes are very good at it. You didn't need any particular knowledge of astronomy to choose the right shape. You just needed your eyes.

The success was beyond their wildest dreams. They thought it would be a nice little side project, with some results (on average 10 clicks per galaxy) to look forward to in 3 to 5 years' time. They achieved that target in three weeks. Even better, amateurs proved as good as professionals at doing it.

The Zookeepers had two main questions to answer: one was the blue ellipticals, and the other was whether there really was a bias or axis of some kind in the direction of spiral galaxies' rotation. (If there was, this was as sensible as saying that all sheep point left, regardless of where you are or which way you are facing - but this was what Michael Longo's survey seemed to be showing!) But suddenly an awful lot more questions were being answered. For example, ring galaxies and three-armed spirals had previously been thought extremely rare, but we found hundreds of each. We have a collection of comets, and also of asteroids - many of which may be new discoveries, and we're running a database to look them all up. Hanny over there, I remarked, would tell anyone who wanted to know about a certain object in the top left!

Oh, and of course we have terrific fun as amateurs too. This slide makes amateurs roar with laughter. I was crestfallen to say the least when this audience did not laugh at all. I gave them express permission to laugh, but the best comment I got was "You have a good imagination". Oh well!

More seriously: amateurs are full of questions, as well as unexpected answers. We started asking: has any work on such and such been done? If the answer was no, we developed the audacity to say: "Right, well let's do it ourselves then."

About a dozen different people asked, over the first few weeks, why some galaxies were small, round and green. Professionals might, under pressure to get on with what they're supposed to be doing, have only seen one or two and passed them off as anomalies. (I must admit I thought it was just the way the SDSS happened to show some galaxies, and didn't think to report it.) Pat, for example, asked if they were quasars, but it was in Hanny's humourous thread a large collection grew. Gradually the zooites learnt to interpret the spectra, and began to notice certain similarities. Starry Nite, for example, made these several observations, that were in fact right. They were not quasars - we could tell that from the narrow spectral lines (broad ones indicate a range of Doppler shifts due to the intense heat and rotation of matter around a quasar). These insights, not to mention quite some research and debate, inspired more people to add to the collection! It became a proper science project, led by Carie Cardamone and Kevin Schawinski; and they are now a new class of galaxy, very small, compact, and forming stars on average 40 times faster than the Milky Way.

This extremely serious-looking chap is Richard Proctor, known as "Waveney". He developed websites similar to Galaxy Zoo's classification ones, as a better way of sorting mergers from non-mergers, in summer 2008. Upon request, he did the same for the peas later. He, and others, had a growing interest in irregular galaxies. Irregulars are very common, but small, with no defined structure such as spiral or elliptical. Upon finding out that the largest known sample of them was only 160 or so, Waveney decided to collect irregulars and ask people questions about them himself. He, Jules, Aida and to a very small extent I are working on this and actually trying to write a scientific paper (this is where we need the professionals, I added, because we don't really know how to write a scientific paper . . .).

The scientists were so fascinated by this dedication that they actually did a social science project about us. They collected quotes from the forum to demonstrate amateurs' understanding of the scientific method. They might never have even heard of the scientific method, let alone been taught it; but having participated in science and seen how it's done, they were able to use it themselves. Amateurs do understand, for example, the need for large sample sizes and consistency of method. We weren't told to do any of this work. A wider study found that, besides beautiful galaxies and the thrill of perhaps being the first to see each one, a universally important factor for classifiers was contributing to science. Even people who don't know much science, and have probably picked up a lot of nonsense from the media. Deep down, science is deeply respected by the public, and we do want to be involved.

As I said before, it's been a very moving project for me. There's a sense of collective purpose. Caro drew this artwork from SDSS pictures, which seemed symbolic, as do Weezerd and EdV's quotes. One thing I did was encourage zooites to write Objects of the Day, our answer to Astronomy Picture of the Day: once people were writing for an audience they took immense trouble! There's a shared sense of wonder, everyone is welcomed, and people just love answering each other's astronomy questions.

Now, how is all this useful for She is an Astronomer? Well, one thing I am not telling you is "there, there, dear, don't be a professional, go and be an amateur, pat on the fluffy little head". However, citizen science does actually lack some of the main barriers Karen's project, She is an Astronomer and Galaxy Zoo, reported. It's not a career; it doesn't have the pressure, the competition, the need to relocate. You can put in as much or little time as you please. Amateurs can make a greater contribution than ever now that so much data is available on the web - please use us, we really want to help! At the moment, Jordan's survey did find that more males seem to be taking part than females in classifying; perhaps the time is ripe to try and change this, by making science contribution more attractive to women in wider society. And some people have turned to formal study - at least four of us have started Open University courses - as a result of Galaxy Zoo.

One lady remarked that citizen science might be a great way to keep up while you're taking a career break. Helen said she hadn't actually thought of using citizen science as a recruitment ground for people who'd been turned off at school. Hanny pointed out that women are hardly a minority on the forum, especially the mega-chatterboxes! I explained that I was using the results from Jordan's survey, as people don't always put their gender on their profiles (another lady remarked that she would not want to reveal her gender, which I thought was sad). I'm sure there were another couple of questions - Quentin definitely said something significant - does anyone remember what they were? Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail if you do, or indeed if you have a question of your own.

What I don't think I remembered to say explicitly was, naturally, the one point I really wanted to make: encourage the inclusion of amateurs, and equality and inclusion in general should flourish, making astronomy friendlier to women as a natural by-product. I hope that was implicit throughout the talk!

PS: Hanny very kindly took this picture with her phone and e-mailed it over. Here I am with my first slide!

Related links: The "She is an Astronomer" Conference: Day 1

(Day 2 to follow very shortly, I promise!)

Monday, 19 April 2010

Skeptic Zoo

Blame this on @SkepticSheep . . .

The Zoo has just launched a new project: Animal Skeptic Zoo. There is a worryingly insane panda on the rampage, chomping bamboo and hugging slandered politicians, as well as a chimp, cat, black duck, and penguin. That's quite a lot of skeptic animals on the loose, so we thought it best to round them up and get them classified.

This is what the classification pages look like (click on the pictures to enlarge them if necessary).

You'll need to determine the animal species:

The amount to which the animal annoys the quacks:

The animal's general activities:

The sanity of the animal (for health and safety reasons):

And, finally, before going on to the next animal, tell us if you spot anything unusual about the galaxy - does it have a ring, or is it disturbed or irregular? Sorry, um, I mean . . .

To find out more about the animal, you can go into the CRISPIAN database and find the reference number. The Jagoscope has not yet finished tracking the entire Internet, so some may have to wait until later . . .

Seriously, though, Galaxy Zoo has recently set up Solar Stormwatch and Moon Zoo, and now a third project has taken off! So *cough ulterior motive cough* I hope this has actually given you an albeit very silly taste of what you'll get if you actually start classifying some galaxies for us. Go on. It's so beautiful and relaxing. And if you're a skeptic, citizen science is probably just your thing.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Black Beauty

I found out something beautiful a month or so ago. Something so brilliant, so satisfying, so dazzlingly perfect that I gasped, stared at the book, re-read the passage again a few times and then held it away from me - and then texted a few people to tell them how happy I was.

It was about dark matter.

It's also a book that I'm reviewing for Astronomy Now, so I won't be tell you too much about it or reproduce what's in my review. It's called Horizons of Cosmology and it's by Joseph Silk, once a colleague of ZookeeperKevin. It's about galaxies, star life, dark matter, dark energy, the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe - and the study of all this and the way humans look at astronomy. I think the most interesting human point Silk makes is that discoveries are generally made by doing something new with an existing set of data, rather than thinking up a theory and then trying to derive it.

That's actually very significant for science in the public too. Alternative medicines such as homeopathy and chiropractic were born of rather random ideas which then try to get data to fit them. And although I guess much astrology has a basis in "when the Pleiades are so high in the sky, then it's the best time to plant your grain", statements such as "when Jupiter comes near the Moon from the Earth's perspective it isn't the best time to annoy your lover" are certainly based on ideas rather than concrete evidence.

Yes, of course ideas are a good thing. But they're not the only thing - not when it comes to science, and probably not when it comes to most other things.

The trouble with science in the public is that only the results (and usually only a small part of the results) are seen - not the method, and not the data. The Daily Mail, for instance, has just claimed that going to the toilet in the middle of the night will give you cancer. They certainly don't explain what the hell has led anyone to this idea. Sure, they might give you some guff about cell division and throw in a scary word or two, but what was going on? What experiments have been done? How have they organised the data and is it absolutely unbiased? And is it something for which it is seriously, statistically significantly worth making a change? When I was at school we had to write a hypothesis before our experiments, and then our results were supposed to match it. That's not science. Today the emphasis appears to be the ability to give reasons why there are "two sides" to issues such as vaccination and global warming. That's not science either.

Back to the dark beauty.

I've heard plenty of people voice the opinion that dark matter is a myth. They might have heard of MOND (modified Newtonian dynamics); they might just have a gut feeling that it sounds too unlikely or that some clever dick is over-complicating things; or they might be a bit too used to scientists sounding sure of themselves, so hearing "we don't know what Dark Matter is" comes as a bit of a cop-out (though it shouldn't - the most exciting science is the unknown). So I'll quickly summarise the evidence for dark matter's existence - although I should add we still can't be entirely and absolutely sure it even does!

The Solar System works perfectly for Newtonian dynamics. Planets nearest the Sun go round fastest. (Check out this gorgeous musical representation of how it works.) It's the same with a whirlpool or a tornado. So it should be the same with a galaxy. This one, for instance, NGC 4535:

You'd expect those stars on the very edge, the blue ones, to be going round far slower than the ones nearer the middle. Surprisingly, that isn't the case. Although of course they do take longer than the centre ones to complete the circuit, they still ought to fly straight out of the galaxy. They don't, because there's something else holding them there. It's the same with galaxy clusters. Zwicky examined the Coma Cluster to find the same effect. More evidence for there being more matter than we can see includes gravitational lensing and the rate of the Universe's expansion. To the best of my knowledge we haven't confirmed we've trapped any dark matter particles yet, but there are definitely experiments on the way and I believe one just might have succeeded.

Dark matter behaves differently from baryonic matter, the matter we can see and touch. It doesn't interact, except gravitationally - otherwise we'd be able to feel it. It also doesn't interact with light, or we'd see it. (It might just as well be called invisible matter, rather than dark.) And yet we're able to decipher dark matter haloes around galaxies, and map it out around galaxy clusters:

(You can read more about this here.)

What I found most mysterious was: if a spiral galaxy is flat, why on earth is the dark matter halo much more spherical? And in any case, as a few people have sensibly asked me, why should dark matter be so spread out that it only becomes apparent at galaxy-or-bigger-sized scales? For instance, why can't we have dark matter stars or planets or black holes?

Horizons of Cosmology answered me.

It's so simple. I actually told you earlier, and I could have told myself a lot earlier, but I had never picked it up. It's because it does not interact with the electromagnetic spectrum. Therefore, it cannot throw off photons, and therefore, it cannot lose heat.

Stars can only form when their parent dust clouds lose heat. When a dust cloud is hot, its atoms are not going to clump together. In fact about half the baryonic matter in a galaxy cluster is hot gas that cannot condense; the heat from stars alone stops it condensing. It is ironic that the hottest objects we know have to be born from something so cold. But there you have it.

All matter has been at about a billion degrees, in the moments and days and millenia after the Big Bang. Because baryonic matter has been interacting with light - first from all the photons from the Big Bang and from annihilation between matter and antimatter and then from stars and so on so forth, and from shelter amongst dust clouds and even, in minuscule quantities, in planets, the baryonic matter has been changing temperature, so we wouldn't know what temperature it would "naturally" be on its own. And you can't really stick a thermometer into dark matter, either. But because it can't condense, as can the atoms we know, it's like a ghostly fluid, floating around the more solid objects.

As far as I know, we don't know what would happen if we could cool it enough so that it can: for instance, we don't know if it's atoms like baryonic ones, which can interact with each other chemically, forming bonds and different types of atom and so forth. It may be much simpler. Or could it have its own, different complexities? I have no idea.

What happens in the formation of a galaxy, I also learnt from Horizons of Cosmology, is much more complex - but much more satisfying and beautiful - than I thought. I won't go into most of it, only a few basics. Remember the Cosmic Microwave Background had very, very tiny unevenness. I don't know if this was simply due to inevitable random movements of particles or something else. But in any case the slightly denser areas had a slightly stronger gravity, so they were able to attract more material, so the gravity got stronger . . . and so on. (A popular joke about this is the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.) This was actually mostly dark matter. It can't clump together, but it's still affected by gravity. So it pooled into huge, more or less spherical haloes. And because baryonic matter can clump, it trickled right into the middle of those haloes.

And after that I picture the spiral galaxies flattening and spinning in their centres just like the foam on my coffee.

The simplest thing imaginable, the difference between hot and cold, lit up dark matter in my mind. It's the purest, most dazzling beauty. I feel so lucky to be here to appreciate it all.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

One giant leap for Simon, one small step for libel reform

The first thing I saw once I had got into the office and fought the standard 20 minute battle to get the Internet working was a Top Tweet by Jack of Kent: the BCA have finally listened to a good lawyer and caved in.

After that I found it extremely hard to move on to real work and concentrate dutifully while one of my bosses went through the intricacies of my paperwork related errors - I was too busy grinning like a lunatic, my insides swooping! Which may seem rather over-the-top considering I've only ever spoken to Simon for about 5 minutes - but it's very important news.

We can now all shout from the rooftops: the BCA happily promotes bogus treatments, for which there is not a jot of evidence (sorry, I couldn't resist that).

Actually, that isn't all that much to say, especially in an opinion piece. How many doctors, lawyers, politicians, teachers, social workers etc get routinely accused of outright murder and so on? And yet it's taken nearly 2 years, and £200,000 on Simon's part alone, just for us to get this far.

"My victory does not mean that our libel laws are okay," Simon tells us, "because I won despite the libel laws - we still have the most notoriously anti-free speech libel laws in the free world."

It's not over for him yet in any case, because he and the BCA still have to settle their costs. Even if the BCA pays him back every penny he's spent, he could have been doing far better things with the last 2 years of his life. It's been a sacrifice for the benefit of writers, science, and the general public who are so often misinformed because of vested interests abusing their power. But it won't do much good if other people have to go through the same thing.

Peter Wilmshurst, for instance, faces bankruptcy if he loses his case. Like Simon, he is a principled man, who will not bow to corporate pressure when he knows that what he is saying will for some patients be a matter of life and death. His case is also an example of the ridiculous libel tourism that results from our stupid and embarrassing laws. He's being sued by NMT Medical, an American company, who wouldn't get away with such a thing on home ground. And he's not backing down over what he says because it concerns medical research. He and some colleagues were investigating whether a new device could close a hole between the left and right atriums of the heart and thus reduce migraines. Initially, he was hopeful; but the clinical trials showed otherwise. Actually, it's murkier than that; the published research claims effectiveness, but then denied Wilmshurst access to the full dataset and he has concluded that what he has actually seen is mathematically impossible! I'm delighted to see that a charity has been set up to help him (oh, and you can visit the usual suspect for the best summary). And yet . . .

And yet what will suing Wilmshurst achieve? If they couldn't do it on home ground, why is it acceptable to do it here? Why not show him - and the rest of the world - the full dataset? What have they got to hide?

I know I'm annoyingly naive and idealistic. But it stuns me that any company considers its own reputation to be more important than what it actually produces, and the effects said produce will have. As Andy Lewis makes deliciously clear, there is no universal human rights declaration that all corporations have the inalienable right to a good reputation. Frankly, it's much better to just admit that you had a great idea, patented an amazing invention, or did an ambitious piece of research - and your hopes failed and the new treatment just isn't any better than the current favourite, but that's not for lack of effort or caring on your part. It's deflating, and in some market-driven societies could lose you funding - but that's still better than to put your patients (or customers, as they are so much more coldly and greedily regarded all too often) at risk. Otherwise, it isn't about treatment at all, and therefore shouldn't be allowed to claim it is.

All three major political parties have declared themselves in favour of libel reform. But we mustn't just sit back and assume everything will now be fine. We've won our first battle; let's not now lose the war. Please sign up to libel reform if you have not already done so, and tell your friends. As Dave Gorman said yesterday, if you've got a blog, if you ever take medicine, if you want to know more than you knew last year - this affects you. And it affects you if you don't live in the UK, because someone in Country A can sue someone else who lives in Country B, by coming to a third country - here. We need to end the libel tourism, and we need to end the ridiculously high costs which mean almost all writers will face bankruptcy if they don't fold immediately. And we need to make freedom of speech and openness in science the norm, not the exception as this has been.

Read more at Jack of Kent, Andy Lewis, the BBC, the Guardian, a Guardian blog post by Simon, umpteen quotes and links at Index on Censorship, and doubtless half a million more but that'll do fine for now!

Westminster Skeptics in the Pub: a libel law reform rally!

Having been to one terrific Skeptics in the Pub, I immediately decided I had to attend another - a celebration of Simon winning his appeal, and a rally for where the libel reform movement needs to go next.

I would have gone over the entire meeting as well as I could remember it, but that actually wasn't as well as last time - and in any case Noodlemaz has just done me out of a blog by an incredibly thorough and entertaining summary here! So you'll just have to have one of my rambling novels as a substitute!

This time, the train journey there went smoothly. I arrived at Westminster tube station shortly before five, and just for once had remembered a map, so decided to do a bit of touristy wandering. First I ambled up to Hungerford Bridge. I can never see or hear that name without getting a serious attack of the giggles. This is entirely Mark Thomas's fault: it is the site of two of his hilarious demonstrations in his wonderful investigation of the SOCPA Act. (I seriously, seriously recommend listening to that show.) "WHY DO YOU WANT TO DEMONSTRATE ON HUNGERFORD BRIDGE?!" "I want to abolish footbridges." "WHY?" "I want to encourage swimming." Not to mention, "I'm going to stand on the bridge at midnight and I'm going to hand out one leaflet. One leaflet counts as a demonstration." "Indeed it does. Indeed it does! But don't you see, I'm going to be generating more paperwork than you're going to be handing out! Were you aware of that?!" "Yeah, yeah, I was . . ." And later: "Ah, so you're back on Hungerford Bridge again!" So, yes, I hope I didn't giggle too conspicuously while wandering to the middle of Hungerford Bridge and back again.

So then I drifted back Big Benwards and ended up in Parliament Square. I was in the no-demonstrations-without-police-permission zone. I wondered if I could be arrested for wearing a Keep Libel Laws Out of Science T-shirt and was rather disappointed I'd decided not to (as I wore it for Jourdemayne's talk). Brian Haw was there, in the middle, with several tents and placards. The man himself was standing at a sort of table reading the paper. I had to walk most of the way round before I could actually get to the middle bit where he was. I felt a bit of an idiot, but I went up and said to him, "Thank you for doing this." He nodded and smiled but said nothing, and I could think of nothing further, so I stood around moronically looking at his placards and news columns. I do thank him for doing this. Right in the heart of our country's capital, he is a pin poised over our government's balloon, a breath of fresh air reaching the open wound of our country's conscience. I wouldn't argue with anyone who said you have to be a bit of a nutcase to go and live there for so many years as a protest, but I'm glad someone did. Not to mention glad that that ridiculous SOCPA law failed in its primary purpose, namely to get rid of him. Sorry, but hushing up protests won't make us forget we entered an illegal war.

I wished there was something I could contribute to his efforts somehow, but didn't see anything obvious. Later I saw the flag over Buckingham Palace appeared to be flying at half mast. What was the matter? asked a snarky little voice in my brain. Was homeopathy being given a hard time?

Fast forward the next hour or so while I said around in the pub waiting for someone I would recognise to arrive! In fact someone did look familiar and it later turned out he was James who runs the Pod Delusion. As people arrived there was suddenly a feel of a Galaxy Zoo get-together: the surreal feeling of meeting people you've already known and formed definite impressions of over the Internet - and, as both parties relax and clamber over the surprises, a wonderful sense of being amongst one's own species. I wasn't among aggressive fanatics, desperate to narrow the world down to a cold set of proven/disproven data. I was among cheerful, passionate, amiable people, full of smiles and laughter (not least when the rumour began to trickle round that Dr Evan Harris's parents "had come to hear him speak"), who bought drinks on a very random basis (I got one from someone I barely exchanged a word with and bought one for another similar). We want the truth and to search for it. We're on a mission. So, M J Robbins, Carmenego, Zeno, Maria, Jon Treadway, Richard Wilson, Dave Gorman, and many more - it was lovely to meet you. (I'm still waiting to meet Simon Perry, also known as Sir Simon, and perhaps Dr Ben Goldacre!) Crispian and Jourdemayne, it was great to catch up. And a special lovely-to-meet-you must go to David Allen Green, better known as Jack of Kent. Besides writing a wonderful blog that has taught me a great deal, David organises Westminster Skeptics in the Pub, was working ridiculously hard to make every tiny thing a success . . . but still found time, among so many other things, to introduce me to Simon!

Who I hadn't had a clue had actually read any of this blog, but shook my hand and thanked me for spreading the word. I'm sure some people would like to think of him as twisted, stubborn and evil, but he was the most gentle and charming of people, and an excellent listener. I thanked him for what he's doing for science, writers, and the general population, and he smiled vaguely and said, "I didn't have much choice." He was very keen on updating us on the baby's progress! I asked him where I should buy his books in order to give him the maximum profit, as I had got the impression that it varies, but Simon just shrugged and said wherever. Jack/David told me later that my face when Simon came up to me was worth the entire evening, so I hope nobody had a camera handy just then!

And the bit we were all waiting for: speeches! speeches!

There were so many people I could barely see the panel. Jourdemayne chaired. It was one of those large pubs with a lower area with a lot of round tables, and a few steps up to a restaurant area. The speeches were made at the border between the two, and most of the speakers were up in the restaurant area waiting their turn. The bar staff, meanwhile, were quietly and really rather heroically managing to squeeze between us to tidy up.

Dave Gorman began, with a hilarity a sentence. He explained how the BCA have pretty much done the worst thing possible for the chiropractors they purport to be helping. They've tried to have their cake and eat it. They could have taken the scientific route: to argue that actually Simon is wrong, and there is distinctly more than a jot of scientific evidence. Or they could have taken the woo route: they don't care about the science, this is something beyond that. Instead, they tried to take the middle route. But their own plethora of evidence did demonstrate that whatever the evidence was, it was distinctly less than a jot (howls of laughter). What did they want Simon to say? "All right, I'm really sorry I called you liars - actually, you're just stupid"?

In any case, they operated a bully's policy: they chose to sue Simon rather than the Guardian, because Simon would have fewer resources to fight with and therefore be likelier to back down. That he did not makes him a hero. And meanwhile, suddenly their chiropractors have been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny, and are no longer getting away with happily promoting bogus treatments, because the bogusness is being pointed out far and wide. Even if the BCA win the case, the very people they're supposed to be helping are now at a huge disadvantage.

Meanwhile, David was silently heading from one speaker to another - it turned out that the prospective Labour speaker, Bridget Prentice, hadn't been able to make it and Lord Bach, who had to leave in 10 minutes, had taken her place. So it was necessary to swap round all the talks right on the spot. The political speeches were heartening, but later left a vague sense of flatness (apart from Dr Evan Harris, of course). Lord Bach made promises. Joanne Cash pointed out that Labour hadn't done much over the last 12 years. Evan Harris pointed out that neither Labour nor Conservative actually made any specific promises, and urged us to all ask our local candidates for specifics. (Which reminds me, have a look at, which shows you what's said but not by who. Your vote based on that might surprise you. I picked the ones that not only sounded fairest, but which actually gave specifics. That turned out to be 60% Green and 40% LibDem, if you're interested.)

Actually, I'm being a little unfair. All the speeches were very good. Joanne Cash described David as "a force for good - even though he's not going to be voting Conservative", to which he replied, "A force for good, that's so going on my blog tomorrow!" She is actually a libel lawyer and has the experience to see what needs changing - and has come to the conclusion: a lot. Evan Harris asked why the Labour manifesto talks about "defendants". To say the least this says nothing of the self-censorship that so many writers have to undergo to stay on the safe side.

Our beloved Simon was obviously very happy at the result of his appeal, but he and David reiterated that this is far from the end. The appeal does nothing about the state of the law as it is. Libel costs in the UK are still 140 times higher than the European average. Libel tourism is still rife. Reputable publications (such as Cambridge University Press, as we later heard) will promptly stifle anything that could cause them trouble. And as it stands at the moment, it's a field in which only the wealthy can play. (Another huge joke of Dave Gorman's was about two magicians having an argument over the right way to do a magic trick, and one of them claimed victory and walked away on the grounds that he drove a posher car. By that argument the fanciest car in the world - a James Bond model perhaps - gives its owner the right to rule the world.)

There was a poignant little memory, I think told by David, about the original preliminary hearing in which Judge Eady described Simon's article as "the plainest allegation of dishonesty". The skeptics were stunned. "Simon made his excuses and went home," said David (or whoever it was), a chapter in a few words. And meanwhile the rest of them sat down in the pub for a long time and discussed what to do about it. Out of this came many tweets, blogposts, articles, Internet groups . . . and out of that came a grassroots campaign which is now supported by all three main parties. Now that is real progress! Margaret Mead might have been famously wrong about sex and South Sea Islanders, but I am nearly sure she was right when she wrote: "Never doubt that a small, thoughtful group of people can change the world - it's the only thing that ever does."

Anyway, for more details, check out Noodlemaz and also James Streetley.

There were a few more amusing moments. A questioner was telling a very long story until he had to finally be asked: "Do you have a question?" Another question was about Judge Eady, and David stood up and said loudly: "I have never criticised Judge Eady!" As he has said before, it is useless to scapegoat: it is the law that needs changing. Oh, and we mustn't forget that just when the cost of Simon's trial so far was mentioned to a relatively quiet room, one of the bar staff broke several glasses with a resounding crash - followed by whoops and cheers! Now, we mustn't confuse correlation with causation, but that was still pretty fantastic.

It was a fascinating and joyful evening - I noticed that Simon was surrounded by well-wishers a very long time after he'd announced he was off - and one result of going was that I have been sent a 1023 T-shirt by the terrific Carmenego (thank you very much!). I've been widely urged to start a Wales Skeptics in the Pub, and will write about that another time. Guess what, again special thanks go to Crispian for making it possible for me to come along. I wouldn't have been able to go to either of these great events had it not been for him. The only downside was that my purse was stolen at Cardiff Central on the way home. It contained all my cards, my tickets, driving license, National Insurance, clubcards, silly little things like get-so-many-coffees-stamped-get-another-free, a cheque, car keys, house keys and about £60 in cash that I'd withdrawn just in case. I don't know how anyone got hold of it. All I know is, I sat on a bench with it, my bag and a cup of tea, and I put it into my bag. But then, when I got onto the train, it was gone. The guard at Bridgend (the next station) rang the folks on Cardiff Central but they hadn't seen it. He then directed me to the local police station, who sent me straight back to Bridgend saying they couldn't take the report and this was a matter for the British Transport Police. I might add that it was boiling hot and I was still carrying my bag and coat and had a blister larger than a fifty pence piece. So after a lot of depressing phone calls, I had to wait another hour for the next train, and didn't get home until seven though I'd left before ten o'clock. Still, the guard on Bridgend was very generous, letting me use the station telephone, bits of paper and so on - and writing me a special note to show the train guards all the way home.

Perhaps a randomised blind trial with a control group could be set up to see if my attendance at Skeptics in the Pub really does have the effect of attracting disaster. Based on a sample of two, the answer is a definite yes. But then I am known for clumsiness and losing things. Anyway, let's put it this way. Bit by bit I can replace the contents of my purse. But if I hadn't gone to those two events, no amount of phoning police stations and banks and working for a salary could get me all those friends, knowledge, and enjoyment - or address any of society's problems. So it's still got to be worth doing!

Friday, 9 April 2010

Nine Days' Woo Report, brought to you by the Blogosphere

As I expect you know by now, Simon Singh won his appeal. This is terrific news for the scientific, journalistic, medical and any communicating bodies, who have not only given Simon their staunch support for nearly two years, but have been awaiting the outcome on tenterhooks about what it means for their professions.

It sounds like the judges made it clear that they are in favour of libel reform. Perhaps, in future, it will be less dangerous to reveal that a new drug may have some side effects your colleagues don't want the world to know about; that some bigshot actually did put millions into funding some dodgy enterprise; or that there is actually no real evidence to support the miraculous claims being made by self-styled health practictioners . . . because, as Richard Dawkins expressed so beautifully months ago, Simon's case has been a landmark.

It can't have been easy for Simon. He's lost out 2 years of his life. He hasn't been able to do any more writing for the Guardian or even start any more great science books - so, in effect, he has been silenced even while he fights. I've only ever had the faintest taste of a legalese attack and it is just as stressful as he says. But he's not giving up, because he is - and this is rare - in a position not to do so. At the moment, most writers do simply because defending yourself is more than they can afford. What is even sillier is that, on the grounds that a website or a few books might be read in Britain, people in totally different countries can pop along here to sue each other. And for that reason, there are laws being passed in America to protect their own citizens from us, and the National Enquirer have blocked us. Try and go there from anywhere in Britain! Not that it sounds like earth-shattering news that everyone needs to know, like science is; but how embarrassing can you get?

You can read a lot more at a court analysis, a guest post and an open letter at Jack of Kent; a wonderful article at Thinking is Real . . . and so many more, but my personal favourite is this succinct tweet from VizTopTips: "QUACKS: If you are happily promoting bogus treatments, keep the whole thing quiet by suing people. No-one will notice."

The BCA's press release gave me and several others quite some amusement. If I remember rightly, they complained about the "happily promotes bogus treatments" but Judge Eady didn't "agree" with them, he actually took it a lot further than they'd ever even thought of, didn't he? "The Guardian subsequently offered a right of reply but this fell short of our expectations, not least of which because the original libel would have remained uncorrected." In other words, this was because they couldn't reply convincingly - as their "plethora of evidence" demonstrated. "The BCA has followed its legal advice throughout this case." Oh, are they libelling their poor hardworking lawyers now? Or perhaps their lawyers gave them advice which would earn themselves the most money, rather than the most sensible route . . . ? "The motivation for this action was always to clear our good name, particularly in respect of the implication that we acted dishonestly." Simon himself has said he doesn't consider the BCA to be dishonest - and yet their refusal to produce anything that convincingly says the opposite must have given an awful lot of people that idea, far more than would have thought it simply by reading the article. (Ben Goldacre's book "Bad Science" is very careful to distinguish between nuttiness and actual lying, for example in the case of nutritionists who claim on telly that each glass of fruit juice adds 6 months to one's life.) "It never was, and it is still not our intention, to curb freedom of speech, whether in the field of scientific research or elsewhere, although sadly we recognise that this is how it has been portrayed by Dr. Singh and his supporters”. Well, since intentions don't seem to come into it, how about the entire world of scientific research and elsewhere sue you folks for doing it in practice then? "Our original argument remains that our reputation has been damaged." I wonder who is the most responsible for that.

A commenter on Jack's open letter proposed that the BCA are less bothered about the consequences of their silly action than the importance of seeing Simon punished. That reminded me of a remark by one of Bismarck's contemporaries, which I read about in Hannah Pakula's "An Uncommon Woman": "He would always repay a pinprick with a knife thrust." Bismarck was a master of reinterpretation and of grand scale punishment for the least little annoyances. If the BCA really want to look like proper doctors, perhaps they should behave like real ones who put up with daily nutty accusations of forced vaccination, misdiagnosis, failure to be on call 24/7, failure to save 94-year-old cancer victims so complete incompetence, etc. etc. etc.

Now, before I get sued (so could someone please save a copy of this page in order for it to multiply across the blogosphere later), on to more amusing woonecdotes.

Check out this petition to save the London Homeopathic Hospital. I am Tara Rara Boomteay. To this day I am not sure if it is real or not, or if they are going to count the spoof votes.

Have you been watching Wonders of the Solar System? There is still a day or two left on iplayer to catch up if not - I certainly need to, my family not being into TV and us therefore not having switched over to digital yet. (Our local butcher doesn't understand how we survive. He obviously hasn't met the delights of the Internet.) Anyway, Brian Cox seems to have enchanted millions and annoyed a few with what I doubt very much was "an unfortunate chance remark" about astrology, so the poor little astrologers have got mighty upset. I'm astonished they didn't manage to predict it.

Actually before Jourdemayne's talk began last Thursday, Edd and I had a great conversation in the pub about astrology. I told him I was thinking of winding up the astrologers with a few facts against which to pit their beliefs. For example, let's imagine a future colony based on Mars. It now takes double the time for you to go round the Sun. Does your horoscope still work at different seasons? It can't tally with someone who was born at the same moment as you but is now on Earth.

Or, what about if you go to another galaxy, or even just to a different place in this one? You won't be seeing the same constellations and the stars won't be doing the same things. Which gets the upper hand? What they're doing from the point of view of Earth? Or does a new load of tosh, I mean what astrologers think is serious scientific study dreamed up, and by who?

Or what if you don't know your birth date?

Or what if you're not a human? Why does some supposed influence only apply to humans? Animals and humans are very much alike, DNA-wise. Perhaps the stars should predict when an ant gets stepped on. What about a foetus - why doesn't your "chart" start when you're conceived? Or what if you break it down into when the egg and the sperm that made you were created? That's when you'll get a serious headache, since those wouldn't have been at the same time.

I'd hoped to make Edd laugh; but, unlike me, he is a real scientist and reminded me that the ultimate test isn't how stupid something sounds, even when you break it down logically, but whether or not it works. Of course astrologers will promptly claim it does - but have a look at The 21st Floor to see how easy it is to make it look like that. Oh, and by the way, astrologers, I'd still be interested to hear your comments on my scenarios above. "You are only showing your ignorance" is the answer I can confidently expect (and will certainly laugh at), seeing as they do seem to think that Brian Cox needs to be an avid supporter of astrology and to have spoken at astrology conferences before he can be qualified to have an opinion. (However do they deal with defectors?) For anyone reading this who doesn't feel very competent to address such subjects: fear not, the scientific method is remarkably simple, and accessible to all. If you understand the scientific method, you are qualified to say whether or not something is good science.

The Bad Astronomer jumped on this with a hilarious headline, and invited alternatives over Twitter. "'Astrology sucks' - Cox"; "Astrologers not prepared to take Cox lying down", and so on were promptly suggested - you can think up the rest for yourself!

To end on a happy note, check out this wonderful song about Tony the Fish by Tim Minchin, on the subject of the scientific method. That has to be the funniest thing I have seen in a long time, although I am not sure I could prove that under reasonable experimental conditions!

Blog interviewer dot com

At the moment, you can just see this blog making the odd appearance over the horizon of April's top rated blogs at Blog Interviewer. I got a comment out of the blue from someone named Mike, sending me along to a very interesting interview about my blog, which you can read here.

Thank you very much to whoever recommended Alice in Galaxyland, I don't know who you are but I am most flattered!

The questions certainly made me think a great deal: what prompted me to start writing, and who would be interested? I had no idea when I started out. I think I wrote my first story aged 5, and was writing constantly - usually at the expense of my homework - until I was 19, at which point I suddenly fell ill for many years and lost all my confidence. But my ability to write did gradually come back; and Chris and Pat, who I respect very much, urged me to start this blog. That's muddly and accidental enough, but gaining readers has been even more so. I get the impression that many writers feel their writing and readers seem to creep up on them from elsewhere. I couldn't give a more coherent answer than, "Oh, well, they seem to like it so here they are."

Being a curious and cynical-when-it-comes-to-economic-matters type, I'd be interested in knowing how Blog Interviewer is funded - remind me to write and ask! The prizes are given by sponsors. Actually, I can't say I really want any of the prizes that I currently see on offer (in ads on the right-hand column). But the Tips On Getting More Votes page talks about winnings as if they're money. In fact, after my very nice blog questionnaire, I was led on to another set of questions which purported to be about "claiming a free prize". After a few pages it slowly became clear that this was more like an "enter for a remotely possible prize, which you will have to pile through several mountains of bureaucracy to get at". And then it started asking me questions about my income and if I have any children. Was this really necessary? I started to get annoyed and quit the page. I then wondered if that would invalidate my interview. Fortunately, it didn't, and I seem to have quit in time to avoid three thousand tons of junk mail from them. In retrospect I'm not sure that page had anything to do with the actual blog interview prizes at all. So what was all that about? Anyone know?

Anyway, if you'd like to, please do vote for this blog as often as you like (you can vote every day); or tell them of your other favourites who should also be there. If I win something, not sure what I'll do with it, depends what it is! If it's some fancy program I don't want, I'll donate it to a good cause. If I do want it, I'll keep it.

Being nominated for things like this is an immense compliment. But I think the very best thing is when somebody is inspired to check out some science, or when people post their very interesting stories such as in the comments after my post on Jourdemayne's lecture.

I love the Internet - it lets us share so many things!

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Skeptics in the Pub: Unnatural Predators by Jourdemayne at Winchester

Skeptics in the Pub is a rational, scientific, anti-woo and brilliant informal pub/lecture series that takes place in many towns across England and now in other countries. There aren't any in Wales yet, but would anybody be interested in setting one up? I haven't a clue about how to do the finances side, possess no audio equipment and have no idea of a venue - but I expect I could ask speakers along and think up topics. Let me know.

I have just been to the Hampshire Skeptics on 1st April, advertised by Crispian - who also made it possible for me to come along. Apparently there is going to be a great one on 12th April in Westminster, to celebrate Simon winning his appeal - I am plotting ways to get there! The speaker was Jourdemayne, on the subject of unnatural predators. No, hang on, let me mention my journey there. I was nearly late for the train - it and I arrived on the platform at the same moment. They never looked out or unlocked their doors - so I wasn't able to get on! I don't know why they stopped at all. I screamed like a banshee and ran after them when they started moving again, because trains from my neck of the woods are only every 2 hours. But they just went off as if I wasn't there. (I hope the passengers told them.) Fuming, I went back to the car to call Crispian and tell him I'd be two hours late. He was busy, so after a moment or two I switched on the engine and drove 15 miles to a station on a different line, which runs at alternate hours to mine. So I was only delayed by an hour most of the way, then got lucky in Reading and delayed even less! An exceedingly annoying, expensive and stressful mishap, though, as you can imagine. Oh, and to cap it all, I opened Crispian's car door onto my face, giving myself an attractive red mark and quite a sore cheek that hasn't got better yet.

But meeting Crispian and several other great skeptics, catching up with Edd, and, of course, Jourdemayne's deliciously gory, funny and thought-provoking talk, was worth all that a hundred times over.

"Jourdemayne", by the way, was burnt at the stake in London in 1441. Very knowledgeable, she also knew a bit too much dark stuff and was accused of witchcraft. Her namesake's real name is Deborah Hyde. Deborah does some acting, but informed us that "acting is a very silly job" and she mostly does behind-the-scenes work such as make-up artistry. She has got into special effects such as vampires and zombies, and for many years has been researching this sort of folklore and how it gets started. "Unnatural Predators", the title of her talk, is also the title of her book which hopefully will be coming out soon.

My first surprise of the evening was when she put up one of the Psalms that states that each of us should live "three score years and ten" (it was my impression that life expectancy had been increasing for the last few hundred years). When someone dies before this age of seventy, there's a sense that something unnatural caused this. And when you grow up enough to become aware that other people have a consciousness like yours - that they think and feel as much as you - it is impossible to forget; and it is rather easy to treat objects and such phenomena as if their behaviour towards you was deliberate, as Deborah showed:

Historically, explained Deborah, there are three times of great danger and high mortality, which are: during epidemics; during childbirth (for women); and during infancy. It is these times around which a great deal of superstition evolved and grew.

One way society often faced - and still faces - things it doesn't like is scapegoating. For example, a particular individual or group or phenomenon may be blamed; and the others may go through rituals to cleanse and protect themselves. (It was all I could do not to make a choice remark or two about certain US and UK politicians regarding illegal wars.) Death itself is usually depicted as some kind of conscious being.

Most people on this world and, of course, nearly everybody historically, never had access to the scientific method. The scientific method basically means: test everything properly, and use nature itself as an arbiter of what is wrong and right. It does not allow for arbitrary invention; it requires things to be checked and checked again; it is a self-correcting discipline. It's brought us to our modern way of life. But it's very counter-intuitive, and you need a lot of education before you can start acting with that as your guide, rather than instinct.

Especially when your own psychology and biology is geared up towards very powerful sensations - about which more anon.

Deborah told us, with great relish, about some of the "unnatural predators" in folklore: the zombie, the vampire, the werewolf, and the Dracula-esque. The idea of the dead walking around reached Europe when there was a dispute between the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires over some land, and an Austro-Hungarian chap (though wasn't this centuries before Austria and Hungary became a dual monarchy? - or did they do it in medieval times as well?) went to a village where an epidemic was raging and the locals warned him that the dead were extremely dangerous. It seemed that several people would wake up in the middle of the night in terror and report that those who had recently died had come back and sat on them, sucked their blood, raped them, or attacked them in some other way.

One problem these people had was when dead bodies did not decompose as expected. For example, if buried when the ground was frozen, there would be two results: firstly it would be very hard to dig a deep grave; secondly the body would, of course, be preserved. Blood would freeze in the heart, and thaw in the spring only to leak out wherever - for example at the mouth, hence the stories about vampires sucking blood!

Even more grotesque and terrifying was during the times of the Plague, which usually peaked in the summer (due to the increased rat population) and bodies had to be dumped in mass graves. Dead bodies give off heat as they begin to decompose, same as anything decomposing like piles of leaves and compost heaps; imagine a mass grave of them all giving off heat together! Body parts such as intestines would sometimes explode, spattering blood and guts around; the force of this could move them, too. It would also have made the most ghastly noises. Hence stories about the dead "chewing" in their graves, not to mention of course walking about.

(A few years ago the New Scientist's Last Word ran a question and answer column, "Grave Concern", about why dead bodies sometimes do not decompose. In warm, dry soil, bodies - especially plump ones - can turn to adipocere or "soapy" tissue, made of fatty acids and salts, rather than rotting. This didn't come up, but seemed worth mentioning.)

But what about people's experiences of actually seeing, or sensing, the presence of these people?

Deborah told us about sleep paralysis and how a lot of research has been done on it. As we go to sleep, several "switches" get turned off in a specific order. When sleep paralysis, lucid dreaming or sleepwalking occur, some switches are turned off but not others, or the order has been messed about with (this is how I understood it, anyway). She asked how many of us had ever woken up to find that we couldn't move, perceived our surroundings (the bedroom) correctly - but that it was accompanied by, for example, the sense of a malevolent presence in the room or a frightening hallucination. A few of us had. Fewer than average, she remarked (the area of the pub where we were sitting was packed). "The Nightmare", by Henry Fuseli, could well be interpreted as the effect of sleep paralysis:

In more modern times, sleep paralysis is often associated with such phenomena as UFO visits or abductions; in medieval times a recently dead person or a zombie would be the unwelcome visitor. It also often accompanied a crushing sensation on the chest, as if something was sitting there. It usually occurs when the sufferer is lying on the back. (Aha! I thought - since I don't like to sleep on my back, and I have never had this in full.) The back of the brain actually seems to feel the pressure of the back of the skull. Again, there may be some evolutionary basis in this - for most animals, to be supine is a very dangerous position as the defenceless belly is exposed; so of course they avoid it. (My cats will certainly confirm that.) Incidentally, Elaine Morgan makes a well-thought-out case that this is why sex is so difficult for our species compared to other animals: an approach from the front, for example, is a direct sign of aggression among many primates, and young orang-utan females are often terrified and defensive when approached for mating face-to-face.

Anyway, it seems logical that when the dead were so feared, it should be they who were the demons during sleep paralysis. Indeed, if one person reports that their demon was such-and-such who died last week, and then you saw somebody as well, you and people you tell will probably conclude that it was the same person.

Sometimes the consequences of incorrect conclusions from frightening events can be tragic. Deborah told us about the idea of changelings. It was believed that fairies' children were weak and sickly, and fairy mothers had a habit of swapping their own children for human children and putting the babies they left in disguise. This would presumably account for childhood diseases and other disorders, such as failure to thrive - and perhaps things like autism; who knows? Some parents were told to treat their cuckoo baby well, so that the fairy would bring up their own baby well in return. Others were told dreadful things such as to place the infant on a red-hot shovel and put it in the fireplace in the hope of sending it up the chimney. Tragically, I think she said as late as the nineteenth century a few families still did this - though it was seen as a crime by then.

Deborah also told us about a Malaysian equivalent of the zombie that none of us had heard about: the penanggalang! She is a woman who is not (yet) dead, but who, at night, detaches her head - with entrails still attached - and flies around the village looking to suck blood and the life from babies. The houses' windows do not have glass, and the penanggalan has a tongue like a proboscis to reach the baby with. (They grow plants around the windows to try and catch her. I wonder if they've ever caught any?) Needless to say, Deborah wants a full scale model to display in her office.

Update: The above is a Penanggalang, e-mailed by Deborah just now. Many thanks! It was commissioned for the Unnatural Predators card set and was drawn by Floyd Jones-Hughes.

To the left is a model from a photograph in W. W. Skeat's 'Malay Magic' of 1900. Many thanks for both.

It was a great lecture, after which we took a break and then had an even better questions and answers session. (Incidentally, I got asked by two members of the public what Skeptics in the Pub is exactly - and found it very difficult to define.)

Deborah's father asked the first question, and what a trouble-causer he was being too: "Did an unnatural upbringing contribute to an interest in unnatural predators?" I'm so glad nobody in my family has ever been to any of my talks!! (She first became interested when she got up on a chair to get down one of the few books in her house she wasn't allowed to read, and it was about the dark arts.)

She was asked more questions about folkore, such as werewolves - I asked if the business about garlic and silver and so on was a recent film-maker addition. She said no: for example, garlic is pretty smelly, like the dead, so this was a "like cures like" attitude (good job I wasn't sitting next to anyone I knew or I think they and I would have nudged each other until we'd wet ourselves laughing!); and garlic is also quite a good antibiotic, so it was actually a form of hygiene as best people could do. Someone also asked why people didn't burn the bodies they feared so much; the answer was that very little fuel was usually available, and burning was usually reserved for important people.

Someone asked if she believed that, for example, Africa with its current fashion for witch-hunts, is going through the same episode as Europe went through in medieval times. Deborah said probably yes: many people there won't have much access to education or the scientific method. She also told us that there is a strong correlation between superstition and times of social unrest. For example, she said, there was a great deal when Protestantism took over from Catholicism in the UK: before, the homeless were sent to the monastery to get bread, but afterwards, they were your Christian brother and you had to look after them - "so they went from someone to be pitied to a pain in the arse".

But most of the questions were about sleep paralysis and other personal experience.

There were several questions about sleepwalking. An amusing lady asked what is going on when she suddenly leaps out of bed and says something like "I can't find my little blue pony" and hunts for it for five minutes before gradually waking up. I think we concluded that this was a form of sleepwalking! Another good question was: is it true that you shouldn't wake a sleepwalker? Deborah replied that it's not dangerous, as in it won't hurt them - but it can be a terrific shock. (My mum has never got over the story of a little girl climbing a tall crane in her sleep, and the rescue team having to get her down again without waking her.) Another hand shot up in the air: "As a sleepwalker, I beg you never to wake us up suddenly, it's absolutely terrifying!"

I asked a question which, ten years ago, I'd have found intensely personal and would have left me feeling desperately vulnerable, but which I could now ask as a matter of cheerful scientific curiosity. When I was twelve years old I was finding things very difficult at a rough school, so it was quite a stressful time. As I said earlier, I never had the experience of sleep paralysis (which makes me a little jealous!) - but I certainly did sense the "malevolent presence" a lot at age twelve, and occasionally for the next few years. It was always when I was alone, and it was always right behind me - unless I was in bed, in which case it was always in the darkest places, such as the shadows around the window. It was usually at night, though occasionally would seize me during the day. I was never 100% fooled: deep down I knew it was a lot of nonsense. (I think I was a born skeptic; I had decided by about age 5 that the idea of God was rather implausible.) I remember reading for the first time about mental illness and paranoia in a science textbook when I was 13, and spending the next three years worrying about that. Even so, I might have forgotten the whole business had I not incorporated it all into a story I wrote for a long time a few years after that.

The audience listened with interest and laughed sympathetically when I told them about the worry - although I hope it was clear that I myself found my younger fears funny now! Deborah told me that it did not sound like sleep paralysis, though some of the switches may have gone off in the wrong order - but, crucially, a very powerful experience like that can come back very easily, without the special triggers, and especially in a time of stress. The mind is very creative, after all. Fascinatingly so.

She was asked - to everybody's eager enjoyment! - if she had any tips on inducing a lucid dream. Lucid dreams are closely associated with sleep paralysis, though are not the same thing (for example, you are not conscious in a lucid dream, though you are aware that you are dreaming). She recommended avoiding what she tactfully termed "pharmaceutical help", as that reduces your own control over the situation. She recommended deliberately messing up your sleep patterns: four hours' sleep, then two hours of wakefulness, using your brain, going on the Internet for example (no, the two are not mutually exclusive!) and a cup of coffee. Then lie on your back, as described above for sleep paralysis. And although this sounds initially like woo, it makes a lot of sense: because it's very common to sense a "thing", a presence, or feel something crushing your chest, practice feeling love and acceptance towards it so you don't get frightened. For example, convince yourself that it's your cat or your bunny rabbit. (As it turned out a beautiful tabby cat gave me plenty of practice in putting up with her turning round and round and round and round and round and round on my tummy that very night!) Once you're practiced enough, people assure me, you can do whatever you want in a lucid dream. I shall certainly go on a trip round the Universe, if I ever make it!

After the lecture, while Crispian was putting away the audio equipment, Sean Ellis - @ofquack - popped over to chat with me about the "malevolent presence". He said that it's very commonly felt, which didn't surprise me at all. He also told me that it's been given a name by some - "the shadow people" or something like that. I said I'd Google that, which I must admit I haven't yet; but his remarks on it directly tallied with my experience. For example, he said, it's always right behind your head. I remarked that it probably has an evolutionary basis - if you're under stress in the wild, as our race was for a lot longer than it's been "modern", stress probably means there might be a lot of predators about. "Exactly," said Sean, "if you're wrong, the only problem is you get a bit scared; if it's the other way round, you'd get eaten. So better to have a false positive."

Which has a great deal of significance, if you ask me, for people who believe in unproven medicine!