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I slept uneasily, my dreams full of ticking clocks, of racing the dawn, of improbable clouds just before sunsight and obscure preparations against the day. I dreamed that I could fly by selecting parts of a petroglyph body in my Firefox window and indenting them to high speed. When I tried, I fell up a Blade Runner hill, careening over an empty freeway as slick as Teflon.

I woke up to an insistently beeping cellphone alarm and got dressed to the Lola Rennt soundtrack. Clutching a bottle of soda which I knew I shouldn’t drink since, like mental illness, diabetes runs in my family (but unlike mental illness, only on one side), I stepped out into a beautiful morning slightly too cold for my tweed eigenjacket and slightly too warm for my black leather trenchcoat. (I guess it’s never springtime in the Matrix.) Forty minutes of strolling later, with a song in my heart — specifically, Infected Mushroom’s “Cities of the Future” — I arrived at Darwin’s, a sandwich, coffee and pastry place near Harvard Square. It was five minutes till eight; I was early, but PZ Myers was earlier.

He was making a whirlwind, 30-hour visit to Boston under the auspices (and with the funds of) Seed Magazine. Its founder, Adam Bly, wanted to get some creative minds together and plan Seed‘s world domination, through the avenue of improving science’s stand in modern culture. To hear PZ tell it, Bly believes science needs a “superstar”, a mediagenic spokesperson who can be the public face of the enterprise. Finding such a superstar is of course not easy, since you can’t get tenure for making Cosmos 2.

Our conversation wandered and looped through conversation space. As I slowly worked through my cranberry muffin, other people showed up: Mark Brook, Revere and Denis Castaing, who brought the “Atheist and Proud” buttons. I don’t think I have a good chance of reconstructing what we talked about, but I can provide a few highlights which stuck in my memory:

Karl Popper. Falsifiability ain’t the whole story. A statement like “all swans are white” sounds so simple — just look for a black swan! — but as Revere said, “In my field, epidemiology, the question is — what’s a swan?”

Framing science. If we can’t even convince people to buy compact fluorescent light bulbs to save on their electric bills, how much luck will we have hyping evolution on job-market grounds? Also: dividing between short-term and long-term efforts is a good idea, but to suggest something slightly heretical, the side of reason is already doing pretty well on the short-term end (not perfect, looking at indices like court cases, but pretty well). The problem we then face is one of induction: winning the first N battles is no guarantee that you’ll win N + 1, so long-term thinking is vitally necessary.

Housing. An apartment in the center of a thriving city beats the heck out of a suburban house.

Bioinformatics. Biology students at UM Morris keep coming up to professors and saying, “Bioinformatics sounds really cool and important. Where can I learn about it?” So, somebody on the faculty has to learn bioinformatics and teach it to the students. And everybody looks down the table to PZ.

Schoolchild trauma. PZ grew up thinking his name was PZ. He didn’t know he was “Paul Myers” until the first day of kindergarten, when — to top off the iniquity of being shoved onto a bus full of strange children he had never met — he was given a name tag which read “Paul.” The shock, we’re told, was severe.

I had a similar experience on my first day of school. Our teacher was out (having a baby, if I recall correctly), and so we had a substitute, of the kind, grandmotherly type. She explained many things to us about the wonderful place school was going to be. One such item was the fact that every Friday, the school cafeteria would have pizza for lunch.

“Yay, pizza!” chorused the class.

“Yes, and it comes out on this big, square tray —”

Hold it right there, I thought. Pizza is round. That’s the way of the world. The nature of things. Something is wrong with this place.

I never really recovered from that moment.

Post-Atheism. If reason were one day to win out, would any of us button-wearing folks live our lives any differently? No, not really. The ratio of blag posts about straight-up science would be higher, of course (and the vitriol of the comment threads perhaps lower), but we don’t define ourselves by that which we oppose.

Almost everyone who meets PZ Myers in real life after reading Pharyngula makes some remark like, “He’s so mild-mannered compared to what he says online!” (Or, “No fire-breathing and nary a tentacle in sight!”) We chatted about this for a while. Among us, the people present had met several well-known blaggers in the flesh, and we’d found that generally, the ones we met sounded and acted pretty much like what we’d expected from their online personae. Maybe PZ is just exceptional (or maybe personalities are too multifaceted and polymetic to be gauged this way).

If it helps any, I often don’t see the fire-breathing, Lovecraftian horror which other people seem to find in Pharyngula. I was a New Atheist before the New Atheism was new, so perhaps I’m simply inured to it; having grown up at such a high ambient temperature, I don’t notice the flames, and PZ Myers appears — both online and at the coffee shop — a person who genuinely likes people and whose conviction values truth above all.

5 Comments

  1. PZ grew up thinking his name was PZ. He didn’t know he was “Paul Myers” until the first day of kindergarten, when — to top off the iniquity of being shoved onto a bus full of strange children he had never met — he was given a name tag which read “Paul.” The shock, we’re told, was severe.

    Young PZ sez: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!”

  2. Thanks Blake, I feel like I was there.

  3. Over at http://www.dangerousintersection.org/ they are looking for some more smart, witty atheists to discuss current events. If you can’t locate any of them (witty atheists) to send over, there might still be room for you to make a cameo.

  4. I’m so jealous you got to meet Revere.

    As an admitted partisan Democrat, I think once there’s a loud argument about teaching evolution in schools you’ve lost one battle already. The more the argument is about cultural issues — no matter how well your side argues — the better it works for Republicans.

    Talk about stem cell research or climate change or the politicization of science, and you’re in a field where most people really respect the position of scientists. You’ll support the party that doesn’t have politicians who think AIDS is a plague from God, and by obstinately changing the subject when someone says scientists are hating on their Jesus, you’ll eventually win by default.

    Loved Salon’s piece on anti-relativity cranks you linked to yesterday. Something I found particularly instructive, for all kinds of areas of life: real iconoclasts understand what came before and why it worked for so long.

    In his book “Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos,” science writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein points out that one of the criteria that always defines crank science is its lack of correspondence with the body of scientific knowledge that has gone before it. “I would insist that any proposal for a radically new theory in physics, or in any other science, contain a clear explanation of why the precedent science worked,” he wrote. Einstein did this, as the first page of his paper on special relativity, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” illustrates perfectly.

    In contrast, “The crank,” Bernstein wrote, “is a scientific solipsist who lives in his own little world. He has no understanding nor appreciation of the scientific matrix in which his work is embedded … In my dealings with cranks, I have discovered that this kind of discussion is of no interest to them.”

  5. Joshua:

    Funnily enough, that was exactly the allusion I made after PZ told his story. “They should have just called you ‘Number 6′!”

    The algorithm (goes to med school):

    Well, drop by the Greater MIT Metropolitan Area some time — Revere may well be around.