TAM London in review

By Phil Plait | October 8, 2009 12:30 pm

[Note: all the pictures here, and more, are in my TAM London Flickr set.]

TAM London has come and gone, but it’s left quite a wide swath. The Amaz!ng Meetings 1-7 have all been, well, amazing, and so this one, the James Randi Educational Foundation’s first international conference, had a lot to live up to.

I think we did pretty well.

In fact (to use an Americanism), this ball was hit way out of the park. The speakers were incredible: Brian Cox talking about the Large Hadron Collider and the origin of gravity, Simon Singh on his well-publicized libel lawsuit involving craven chiropractors, Ben Goldacre and bad medicine, Ariane Sherine on the atheist bus campaign and her new book, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (for which I wrote an essay), and so many more. Professor Richard Wiseman emceed the event, and was fantastic at revving the audience up and keeping things moving — it was a tough choice to have him host rather than give a talk, but he did such a tremendous job I may never want to hear him give a talk again.

Um. Yeah. You know what I mean.

It was an anglocentric meeting, with mostly UK speakers by design. The exceptions were me, musician and skeptic George Hrab, and of course My Close Personal Friend Adam Savage™. There was a comedy show Saturday night featuring Robin Ince and friends, too.

The highlight for me was Tim Minchin. He is a brilliant musician, and not only skeptical, but incredibly funny. He has critical thinking messages relayed with extreme and laser-focused humor in his songs. I laughed my head off, and when I wasn’t bent over double I checked the room to see everyone else in hysterics as well. He did his extraordinary nine minute beat poem "Storm", about a fictional believer in nonsense he meets at a dinner party. It’s an excrutiatingly funny compendium of woo and how reality stomps it flat. Tim is frakkin’ awesome. He owned that crowd, and deservedly so. He’s a monster of skepticism.

A real delight for the audience was a live video Q&A with Randi via Skype. They were able to directly ask Randi questions, and he pontificated as only he can in response. Although skeptics by nature tend not to follow authority terribly well, Randi is something of a touchstone in the skeptical movement. It is directly through his work that the modern movement, such as it is, exists at all, so getting to talk to him is a treat.

My talk was last. I decided to go with my lecture on asteroid impacts, since it’s timely and does have a lot of skeptical content. I think people enjoyed it — making fun of "Armageddon" is shooting fish in a barrel. When I was reviewing the talk a few days earlier, I realized that I would be giving it in a city hit hard by rocket attacks in World War II. Yet that same technology, just a few decades later, may save the entire human race from destruction by a rock from space. That sort of syzygy was too good not to discuss, so I ended with it.

We closed the meeting with a wrap-up and thanks, and got a standing ovation that went on and on. These folks were applauding the JREF and TAM London, but I get the very strong feeling they were also demonstrating their own emotional support for themselves, for all of us who are active skeptics. We go out and try to make the world a better place, a more real place, and you know what? I think we do deserve a little respect for that. It’s a tough job, but it’s one we love to do, and one we need to do.

We knew in advance that the UK audience would be a good one; there is so much good critical thinking work being done in England and its neighbors. But even knowing that I was overwhelmed with the generosity, support, good nature, and overall enthusiasm of the audience. You may have been applauding us, but you can be sure we applaud you as well.

And will there be a TAM London 2? Well, we can’t promise, of course. But given how big this one was, how much fun it was, and how great the audience was, well, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see another British invasion sometime soon.

[Edited to add: I should never post in a hurry; I inevitably leave off something important! In this case, it was to personally thank Tracy King from February Marketing and Skepchick for being the JREF’s event planner for TAM London! Tracy did a fantastic job getting things put together, especially when — as they always do for big events — things didn’t go according to plan. Despite a postal strike, a balky printer, and a hundred other speed bumps, Tracy and her crew managed to make the meeting run smoothly and efficiently. My hat’s off to Tracy and all the people who were behind the scenes at TAM London!]

Other people have been writing about TAM London as well. Here are a few samples:


Aardvarkology on TAML Saturday

Aardvarkology on TAML Sunday

Jack of Kent

Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers

Bruce Hood

The Londonist


Comments (33)

Links to this Post

  1. A Storm has arrived | Bad Astronomy | moregoodstuff.info | April 21, 2011
  1. You know how awesome the BBC article about TAM London was? So awesome that I think I’m going to cry myself to sleep for a week because I didn’t go.

    Oh well… There’s always All-American TAM and Skepticamp to look forward to.

  2. SMo

    You know you’re an astronomy nerd when you use syzygy as a metaphor.

  3. A fabulous event but the photograph we wanted to see was the one taken of Richard Wiseman, George Hrab and your good self in a battle of the baldies! Never was so much light reflected off three gleaming domes of intelligence and talent. Bravo to you all. Put me down for TAMLondon-the sequel

  4. Makes me sad that I have yet to attend a TAM anywhere. :( One day!

  5. 3. Bruce Hood Says:

    A fabulous event but the photograph we wanted to see was the one taken of Richard Wiseman, George Hrab and your good self in a battle of the baldies! Never was so much light reflected off three gleaming domes of intelligence and talent.

    I’d think there’d be problems with the reflection and lighting…



  6. KingMerv00

    Great job Phil/Tracy/Richard/Tim/etc.

  7. Thomas Siefert

    Having witnessed first-hand the intelligence of all the speakers and performers, I feel very humbled to have spent two days in their presence.
    I feel like the mouse that said to the elephant: “What a racket we two are making” as they stomped over a wooden bridge.

  8. deeg

    Sounds like an appropriately amazing event! Wish I could have attended.
    Where would one find out ahead of time about any similar events?

  9. Acronym Jim

    But, isn’t shooting fish in a barrel armageddon…for the barrel fish?

  10. It was a great conference. Many thanks!

  11. I presently have 2 wishes — 1) That more TAM’s happen in London and 2) That I actually get to go.

  12. CybrgnX

    Yes TAM is great and I’d love to attend one someday BUT the startling part is you used the word syzygy!!! My Dad LOVED that word cuz NO ONE knew what it meant. I stated using it and found out no one knew what it meant. You are the 3rd person I’ve every seen use it.
    I know it is a trivial point but so what.

  13. David D.G.

    Congratulations on an excellent event, Phil! I’m sure that you and your event organizers are justly proud.

    In fact (to use an Americanism), this ball was hit way out of the park.

    Can our British friends perhaps provide an appropriately equivalent metaphor alluding to cricket?

    ~David D.G.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    You wrote an essay?!

    …, um, no, that’s not it either.

    [So “Rockets against Rocks”, huh? What would we do without such alliterations?]

    you used the word syzygy


    A technical mathematical object defined in terms of a polynomial ring of n variables over a field k. Syzygies occur in tensors at rank 5, 7, 8, and all higher ranks, and play a role in restricting the number of independent isotropic tensors. [Wolfram MathWorld]”

    “syzygy syz¬∑y¬∑gy (sń≠z’…ô-jńď)


    The association of gregarine protozoa end-to-end or in lateral pairing without sexual fusion.

    The pairing of chromosomes in meiosis. [dictionary.com Medical Dictionary]”

    Oh, I have so to remember what it means in some contexts. :-/

    [And “lateral pairing without sexual fusion” is oddly revolting too.]

  15. Oh good, I’m glad you got to see Tim Minchin :)

    Everyone else, go search YouTube for “tim minchin storm”. It’s a bit of a strawman, but funny as hell.

  16. SMo

    I’m sure Phil is using the astronomical sense of syzygy, but I could be wrong.

    a. Either of two points in the orbit of a celestial body where the body is in opposition to or in conjunction with the sun.
    b. Either of two points in the orbit of the moon when the moon lies in a straight line with the sun and Earth.

  17. H CArinae

    will there be a Germany TAM ?? plz!!!!

  18. @David D.G.
    Can our British Australian friends perhaps provide an appropriately equivalent metaphor alluding to cricket?

    Hit for 6.

  19. Kristin C

    Nearly four days since I left London, and I’m still doing a standing ovation for what all you guys did for us there. I actually don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that this event made me just wanna go out and … save the world from the stupid! TAM London 2, yes pretty please!

    Much thanks to Tracy King and the JREF and Randi for magically appearing, and all the speakers, and of course you Phil, let me just say I now own the dorkiest picture of us two and I’m darn proud of it.

    Sigh. I was in nerd heaven this weekend.

  20. Deb G.

    Since I read this, I’m (1) bummed not to have been at TAM…and (2) hooked on Tim Minchin. Thank you for the pointer to him (and, always, for being a voice for reason).

  21. Sandra (MedTek)

    What a great show. Phil, I’d love it if you’d comment on how you addressed the liberal use of profanity during the weekend with your family. I know you are not a big fan of it and I’m interested in your take on it.

    I’ll be very bummed if there isn’t another TAM London next year (in a much bigger place!)

    One more comment that I heard a couple of times was around the format- most meetings of this type will have breakout sessions. TAM London did not- all of the sessions were held in one large hall. I always feel like I’m missing something, and I heard several others express the same sentiment. I kind of liked not having to choose between sessions. I’m interested in reading other commenters’ views on this.

  22. @Sandra I, personally, would absolutely hate having to choose between speakers. I think it was great to be able to see everyone.

    As for the TAM itself, I’m totally speechless … all I can say is thanks to everyone involve in making it an unforgettable experience

  23. Great event, and nice to finally meet you Phil.
    Here’s my rambling review of the weekend:

  24. Al

    Here you go Bruce:

    There’s also

  25. Al… you’re a star… That is a classic photograph! Brilliant hehehehehhe

  26. Or there’s this one:

  27. Soren

    It was such a great event.

    I was a little concerned beforehand, partly because the ticket sales, and postal delivery was not hmm perfect, and partly because I was going alone to a conference, where I only knew some of the speakers, and none of the delegates.

    The event itself was almost perfect, Richard Wiseman was a perfect MC and most of the speakers were fun and/or interesting. The Saturday entertainment was very fun indeed, in a suitably cerebral fashion.

    The biggest problem was the venue. It wasn’t geared for 500+ delegates, with standing only meals.

  28. apaeter

    Please say that there will be videos!
    Will there?

  29. Kristin C

    @apaeter: There will be a DVD ūüėČ

  30. Len

    There’s probably no god, but I always hear angels singing when I see Ariane Sherine.

  31. widdowquinn

    Just another snap of the three baldy problem…

    The Three Baldy Problem

  32. Carrying on from Paul’s photo where you can see me grinning at my camera.. (sorry I’m so late in replying to this!)

    Wiseman Hrab and Plait


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar