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Science Salon Archives

In the tradition of the Enlightenment salons that helped drive the Age of Reason, Science Salon is a series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, scholars, and thinkers, about the most important issues of our time. Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 75

Charles Fishman — One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon

One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon (book cover)

On this July 16th, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Michael Shermer speaks with veteran space reporter Charles Fishman who has been writing about NASA and the space program for more than 30 years.

In One Giant Leap he delivers an all-new take on the race to the Moon that puts Apollo into a new perspective in American history. Yes, the Apollo astronauts are the well-known and well-deserved public heroes of the race to the Moon. But the astronauts didn’t make the trip possible. It took 410,000 people to make the moon landings achievable. Every hour of spaceflight for Apollo required a million hours of work by scientists, engineers and factory workers on the ground — the equivalent of 10 lifetimes of work back on Earth. Fishman tells the story of the men and women who did the work to get the astronauts, and the country, to the Moon and back. Fishman and Shermer discuss:

  • When President John F. Kennedy rallied the nation to go to the Moon in 1961, the task was impossible. None of the technology or techniques existed to do it. Engineers, scientists and factory workers in every state in the USA created that technology in just 8 years. They invented space travel on a deadline.
  • Apollo is sometimes judged a disappointment because it didn’t usher in the Jetsons-like Space Age we thought it would. Fishman argues that the success of Apollo is the age we live in now — it opened the world to the digital revolution in ways that have never before been appreciated or written about. “The race to the Moon didn’t usher in the Space Age; it ushered in the Digital Age,” he writes. “And that is as valuable a legacy as the imagined Space Age might have been.”
  • Secret tapes JFK made of meetings about space, along with other overlooked information from the Kennedy Administration, indicate that Kennedy himself was losing enthusiasm for the Moon race and the Moon landing by the fall of 1963. Had he not been assassinated, it’s not at all clear that Armstrong and Aldrin would have walked on the Moon in July 1969.
  • The on-board computer for Apollo was the smallest, most flexible, most powerful, most user-friendly computer ever created when it flew the astronauts to the Moon — and it did its mission with less computing power than your microwave oven has today.
  • Much of the most critical work to make the Moon missions possible was done by hand: the spacesuits were sewn by hand; the parachutes were sewn and folded by hand; the computer software was woven by hand; the heatshield was applied by hand, using a specialized version of a caulking gun.
  • The iconic image of astronauts unfurling an American flag on the Moon almost didn’t happen. NASA had not even thought about carrying a flag on the Moon missions until just weeks before the first mission blasted off.
  • Shermer ends by asking Fishman about the reputation of Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who built the mighty Saturn V rocket that took the astronauts to the moon: how can we reconcile his genius and vision with his Nazi past, especially his involvement in the slave labor that built the V-2 rockets that rained death down on England in the final year of the war?

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SCIENCE SALON # 74

Shaili Jain, M.D. — The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontlines of PTSD Science

The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontlines of PTSD Science (book cover)

From a physician and post-traumatic stress disorder specialist comes a nuanced cartography of PTSD, a widely misunderstood yet crushing condition that afflicts millions of Americans.

The Unspeakable Mind is the definitive guide for a trauma-burdened age. With profound empathy and meticulous research, Shaili Jain, M.D. — a practicing psychiatrist and PTSD specialist at one of America’s top VA hospitals, trauma scientist at the National Center for PTSD, and a Stanford Professor — shines a long-overdue light on the PTSD epidemic affecting today’s fractured world.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder goes far beyond the horrors of war and is an inescapable part of all our lives. At any given moment, more than six million Americans are suffering with PTSD. Dr. Jain’s groundbreaking work demonstrates the ways this disorder cuts to the heart of life, interfering with one’s capacity to love, create, and work — incapacity brought on by a complex interplay between biology, genetics, and environment. Beyond the struggles of individuals, PTSD has a tangible imprint on our cultures and societies around the world.

In this conversation Dr. Shermer and Dr. Jain discuss:

  • the history of PTSD and why no one talked about it after WWI, WWII, and Vietnam, but now we are
  • how Dr. Jain diagnoses PTSD by characteristics presented by a patient
  • how to treat PTSD through Cognitive Behavior Therapy through systematic desensitization
  • the problem of tracking rates of PTSD because of the expanding bin of who is considered a victim of the disorder
  • the difficulty of predicting deaths by suicide
  • the difficulty of predicting who will suffer from PTSD, given the many people who have suffered severe trauma and not developed it
  • why some stress is good for developing resiliency in life, but when too much stress causes harm, and
  • the unseen costs of war.

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SCIENCE SALON # 73

Andrew Seidel — The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American

The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (book cover)

In this important new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, constitutional attorney and scholar at the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), Andrew L. Seidel, begins by explaining what apparently religious language is doing in the Declaration of Independence. Does this prove that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles? Are the Ten Commandments the basis for American law? What, exactly, was the role of religion in America’s founding? Christian nationalists assert that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and advocate an agenda based on this popular historical claim. But is this belief true? The Founding Myth answers the question once and for all. Seidel builds his case point by point, comparing the Ten Commandments to the Constitution and contrasting biblical doctrine with America’s founding philosophy, showing that the Bible contradicts the Declaration of Independence’s central tenets. Thoroughly researched, this persuasively argued and fascinating book proves that America was not built on the Bible and that Christian nationalism is, in fact, un-American.

Seidel and Shermer also discuss:

  • the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade and he explains how this could happen in the next 3–5 years
  • new laws being passed in many southern states enacting the teaching of Christianity and the bible in public schools
  • the thousands of letters that the FFRF receives every year from both secularists and members of minority religions who feel and believe that their rights are being threatened and even violated by Christian nationalists
  • the “religious exemption” for vaccinations and why it’s nonsense
  • why Christianity was not responsible for the abolition of slavery
  • how the South justified slavery in the Civil War
  • how Christian nationalists cherry pick biblical passages to fit current secular moral trends
  • the historical treatment of women in Christianity
  • the historical treatment of homosexuals in Christianity, and
  • why moral progress must come from the bottom up from cultural change as well as top down from changing laws.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

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SCIENCE SALON # 72

Robert Zubrin — The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility

The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility (book cover)

In this dialogue, visionary astronautical engineer Robert Zubrin lays out the plans for how humans can become a space faring, multi-planetary civilization, starting with the competing entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who are creating a revolution in spaceflight that promises to transform the near future. Fueled by the combined expertise of the old aerospace industry and the talents of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, spaceflight is becoming cheaper. The new generation of space explorers has already achieved a major breakthrough by creating reusable rockets. Zubrin foresees more rapid innovation, including global travel from any point on Earth to another in an hour or less; orbital hotels; moon bases with incredible space observatories; human settlements on Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of the outer planets; and then, breaking all limits, pushing onward to the stars.

Zubrin shows how projects that sound like science fiction can actually become reality. But beyond the how, he makes an even more compelling case for why we need to do this—to increase our knowledge of the universe, to make unforeseen discoveries on new frontiers, to harness the natural resources of other planets, to safeguard Earth from stray asteroids, to ensure the future of humanity by expanding beyond its home base, and to protect us from being catastrophically set against each other by the false belief that there isn’t enough for all.

Zubrin and Shermer also discuss:

  • what the Apollo program meant to Zubrin and to the current generation of space engineers and explorers
  • the balance between government and private enterprise for the future of space exploration
  • comparing future space explorers with past earth explorers
  • why type of government should be established on Mars
  • what if a tyrant takes over the Martian colony and controls the air?
  • what type of new species we will become if we establish permanent civilizations on other planets and moons?
  • is human progress inevitable?
  • the role of freedom in human progress.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on June 17, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 71

Dr. Michael Shermer — What is Truth?

In this live podcast event hosted by the Santa Barbara Science Salon in conjunction with the Skeptics Society and the Unitarian Society, co-hosted by Dr. Whitney Detar, Dr. Shermer reflects on the question “What is Truth?” in the context of his lifelong search to understand why people believe weird things.

What is a weird thing and how do we know what is true? This is what is known as the demarcation problem, and Dr. Shermer provides numerous examples of the difficulty of drawing a clear demarcating line between science and pseudoscience. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not.

Michael Shermer in Santa Barbara 2019 (photo by Robert Bernstein)

Michael Shermer in Santa Barbara 2019 (photo by Robert Bernstein)

Science, Dr. Shermer begins, is “A set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” That is, it is “A method to explain the world that is testable and open to change.”

Through the scientific method we aim for objectivity: the basing of conclusions on external validation. And we avoid mysticism: the basing of conclusions on personal insights that lack external validation.

Dr. Shermer then presents examples of subjective/internal truths (dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate; Stairway to Heaven is the greatest rock song) and objective/external truths (evolution happened, the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago), and gave examples of how subjective truths (meditation makes me feel better) may become objective truths (meditation works). The lecture was followed by an extensive AMA/Q&A with the audience.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on May 19, 2019.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 70

Dr. Brian Keating — Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor (book cover)

We apologize for the very poor audio-video quality of this recording.

In this wide-ranging conversation Science Salon host Dr. Michael Shermer speaks with cosmologist and inventor of the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) experiment Dr. Brian Keating about the following topics:

  • how he almost won the Nobel Prize for his research that confirmed the inflationary model of the Big Bang
  • the problems with the Nobel Prize as it is currently structured, such as its limitation to only three people (when modern experiments are typically directed by a great many more); that it can’t be awarded posthumously (thereby neglecting people like Amos Tversky, who did as much work as his Nobel Prize-winning collaborator Daniel Kahneman); its neglect of many women scientists as deserving of the prize as their male counterparts, and especially how it distorts incentives to collaborate in science
  • his upbringing and what inspired him to probe the deepest questions about the nature of the cosmos and reality
  • what it’s like conducting research in the harsh conditions at the South Pole
  • what banged in the Big Bang and what there was before the Big Bang
  • the possibility (or not) of a multiverse model and a cyclical model of universes outside of, or before, our universe
  • the relationship between science and religion and why they need not always be in conflict
  • his Prager U video on why believing in the multiverse takes as much faith as believing in God.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on May 21, 2019. We apologize for the very poor audio-video quality of this recording.

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SCIENCE SALON # 69

Dr. Barbara Tversky — Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought

Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought (book cover)

An eminent psychologist offers a major new theory of human cognition: movement, not language, is the foundation of thought.

When we try to think about how we think, we can’t help but think of words. Indeed, some have called language the stuff of thought. But pictures are remembered far better than words, and describing faces, scenes, and events defies words. Anytime you take a shortcut or play chess or basketball or rearrange your furniture in your mind, you’ve done something remarkable: abstract thinking without words.

In Mind in Motion, psychologist Barbara Tversky shows that spatial cognition isn’t just a peripheral aspect of thought, but its very foundation, enabling us to draw meaning from our bodies and their actions in the world. Our actions in real space get turned into mental actions on thought, often spouting spontaneously from our bodies as gestures. Spatial thinking underlies creating and using maps, assembling furniture, devising football strategies, designing airports, understanding the flow of people, traffic, water, and ideas. Spatial thinking even underlies the structure and meaning of language: why we say we push ideas forward or tear them apart, why we’re feeling up or have grown far apart.

In this dialogue Dr. Tversky and Dr. Shermer discuss:

  • her new theory of cognition, in detail, with examples
  • what is a thought?
  • what did humans think about before language?
  • what do babies, chimpanzees, and dogs think about without language?
  • how will far future humans think if their language is completely different from ours?
  • if you had to warn humans 10,000 years from now not to open a container of nuclear waste, what symbols would you use?
  • gender differences in spatial reasoning
  • why there are not more women programmers in particular and women in tech in general
  • I.Q. tests, intelligence, and why thinking is so much more than what these tests capture.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon audio-only recording was created on June 1, 2019.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 68

Dr. Michael Ruse — A Darwinian Meaning to Life

A Meaning to Life (book cover)

Dr. Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, at Florida State University. He has written or edited more than 50 books. His new book is “A Meaning to Life,” which we discuss on the show, as well as:

  • Dr. Ruse’s early life growing up as a Quaker in England and how this influenced his thinking about religion
  • why he is a bulldog against creationism but has a soft spot in his heart for religion
  • why we should not read religious texts literally, but allegorically, and when we do there are great truths to be found, just as there is in great literature
  • his beef with the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett
  • how Darwinism is a religion
  • Darwinian existentialism
  • how a naturalist can still find morals, values, and meaning in life through the laws of nature, particularly human and social nature
  • what’s wrong with academia today, and
  • what advice he would give to someone asking how to lead a meaningful life.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on January 16, 2019.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 67

Dr. Christian Smith — Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver

Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver (book cover)

In recent years atheism has become ever more visible, acceptable, and influential. Atheist apologists have become increasingly vociferous and confident in their claims: that a morality requiring benevolence towards all and universal human rights need not be grounded in religion; that modern science disproves the existence of God; and that there is nothing innately religious about human beings. In Atheist Overreach, Christian Smith takes a look at the evidence and arguments, and explains why we ought to be skeptical of these atheists’ claims about morality, science, and human nature. He does not argue that atheism is necessarily wrong, but rather that its advocates are advancing crucial claims that are neither rationally defensible nor realistic. Their committed worldview feeds unhelpful arguments and contributes to the increasing polarization of today’s political landscape. Everyone involved in the theism-atheism debates, in shared moral reflection, and in the public consumption of the findings of science should be committed to careful reasoning and rigorous criticism.

In this podcast conversation about his book Smith and Shermer get into the weeds of…

  • what constitutes moral values
  • objectivity of right and wrong
  • the secular moral philosophies of Philip Kitcher, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, and Steven Pinker
  • Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Rawls: who is right?
  • pluralism and morality
  • theism and can it deliver the objective moral values it promises?
  • moral progress.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on April 19, 2019.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 66

Dr. Christian List — Why Free Will is Real: A response to Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and Other Determinists

Why Free Will is Real (book cover)

Philosophers have argued about the nature and the very existence of free will for centuries. Today, many scientists and scientifically minded commentators are skeptical that it exists, especially when it is understood to require the ability to choose between alternative possibilities. If the laws of physics govern everything that happens, they argue, then how can our choices be free? Believers in free will must be misled by habit, sentiment, or religious doctrine. Why Free Will is Real defies scientific orthodoxy and presents a bold new defense of free will in the same naturalistic terms that are usually deployed against it.

Unlike those who defend free will by giving up the idea that it requires alternative possibilities to choose from, Christian List retains this idea as central, resisting the tendency to defend free will by watering it down. He concedes that free will and its prerequisites—intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control over our actions—cannot be found among the fundamental physical features of the natural world. But, he argues, that’s not where we should be looking. Free will is a “higher-level” phenomenon found at the level of psychology. It is like other phenomena that emerge from physical processes but are autonomous from them and not best understood in fundamental physical terms—like an ecosystem or the economy. When we discover it in its proper context, acknowledging that free will is real is not just scientifically respectable; it is indispensable for explaining our world.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on May 1, 2019.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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