Talking about World War I at Ignite Liverpool

The other night I had the pleasure of giving yet another Ignite Liverpool talk, this time entitled “How did the First World War start?”.

I’ve always had an interest in modern history, and the excellent (although exceedingly long!) series by Dan Carlin called Blueprint For Armageddon was the inspiration for this talk. Ever since I first heard about it at school, I’ve never heard a good explanation as to how the First World War started until recently. In this talk I had just five minutes to tell the story and I think I got all the key facts in with one exception: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The story of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand contains the most extraordinary coincidence, so allow me to give some background. In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, set to take over from his elderly father Franz Josef. Imagine Prince Charles but popular and powerful. He goes to Sarajevo to observe military maneuvers. Now if you know your geography, you might be thinking that Sarajevo, capital of modern day Bosnia, is quite a long way from Austria. Well that’s true, and various people from neighboring Serbia weren’t too keen on a foreign power meddling in the Balkans. A group conspires (a genuine conspiracy, they do happen!) to kill the Archduke. One of the conspirators is the infamous Gavrilo Princip.

The Archduke and his wife Sophie get into an open-topped car and start on a procession through the city. The Archduke is in full military garb and sticks out like a sore thumb. The conspirators line the route, and one of them emerges from the crowd and throws a bomb at the car. The bomb misses, goes off and injures a bunch of people. Everyone panics and the royal couple get away. The conspirator who threw the bomb attempts to kill himself by biting on a cyanide pill and jumping in the river. Trouble is, the cyanide pill doesn’t work and the water is only a few inches deep, so he gets caught by the authorities pretty quickly. The rest of them drift away, with Princip ending up in a cafe.

Meanwhile, the Archduke and his wife Sophie consider what to do next. Now, you’d think that as they were nearly killed and people want them dead, so they’d get out of there and go back to Austria as soon as possible, right? Well, not quite. The Archduke wants to go and visit the wounded in hospital. So they get back in the open-topped car, the Archduke still in his military garb, and set off for the hospital. There’s just one problem: the driver doesn’t really know the way. They take a wrong turn, but instead of carrying on and finding a different route, the driver decides to stop and reverse the car. As he does this the engine stalls, leaving the royal couple totally exposed. It just so happens that car has stalled outside a cafe. The very cafe that Gavrilo Princip has gone to. He gets up, takes out his gun, and the rest is history.

I find this coincidence absolutely incredible, because of course it started a complex chain of events which resulted in the start of the First World War. Amazing how so much history was changed by a coincidence and the actions of one man.

I’d like to finish by recommending a couple of things: firstly, if you are in the Liverpool area, come along to the next Ignite! It’s penciled in for the next Star Wars day (May 4th naturally). Secondly, if you go along to Ignite Liverpool or catch up later with their YouTube channel, why not donate to them via Patreon?


My talk on the Planet Vulcan at Ignite Liverpool

I love Ignite events. As a speaker they are very challenging, you get just 5 minutes and 20 slides to talk about whatever you want, and as a viewer you get to learn about a huge range of topics. I’m very keen on communicating science, and for this reason my last Ignite talk was on the planet Vulcan, a non-existent planet whose story encompasses the transition from Newtonian physics to Einstein’s theories of relativity. Enjoy!

Thank you Hackney Skeptics, Ignite Liverpool and York Skeptics!

A little while ago I blogged about going on a ‘mini tour‘, giving talks at Hackney, Liverpool and York. Well, it’s now all done and dusted, I had a fantastic time, and I hope everyone who came to see me enjoyed themselves!

On November 28th I was very privileged to have the honour of speaking at the very first Hackney Skeptics in the Pub. Alice and James did a great job of hosting the event, and it seemed like a great crowd to be a part of. It was held at the Hackney Attic, a very nice venue with some very good food. The group will have a bright future, I highly recommend it!

Ignite Liverpool 8 was held on December 1st, and I volunteered myself to give a 5 minute talk on ATP. I was a little nervous this time, as I did try and introduce a lot of tricky concepts (like enzymology and active transport) all in just 20 slides! The whole evening was fun and informative, if you missed it you can view a video of the entire event here.

This Monday (December 12th) I took my “Scientific Method” talk to the York Skeptics. Once again I was well looked after, and as it was a bit of a homecoming for me (I did my first two degrees there) I got to catch up with friends old and new. Big thanks to Rob, Drew and the rest of the organising committee for putting the event on. They’ve got Simon Singh coming up in January, so keep an eye on their web site.

It has to be said that the star of the evening in York was my old mate Paul Hopwood. Rob had revealed on Twitter that he was bringing some placebo bands, so I asked at dinner if anyone knew the ‘applied kinesiology’ tests. Paul revealed that he’d demonstrated them the day before, and was happy to do it in front of an audience. He commanded the stage with aplomb, and carried out the tests pretty much flawlessly on a willing victim volunteer. Hopefully Paul will demonstrate his skills again at an open mic night!

As I’ve still got some strong ties to York, and one June Tranmer engaged in a debate on acupuncture on the event’s Facebook page, I thought I’d take a look at alternative medicine in York. It was slightly depressing to see just how much woo there is there. Obviously there are the ghost tours, but they are all about theatrics, drama and storytelling. They are an art form and not masquerading as science, so I don’t have a problem with them. The same can’t be said for June’s clinic. They offer 27 (count them) different therapies, covering all sorts of evidence-free ‘treatments’. My old university isn’t free from it either. I looked into the Complementary Medicine Research Group, and found their opening paragraph to be rather pro-woo. Not only that, I learned that Dr Hugh MacPherson from the group also works as an acupuncturist. At that point, someone in the crowd offered up a very telling anecdote about Dr MacPherson, but I won’t repeat it here in case it’s libelous!

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone involved in all the talks I given over the last two weeks. I’m always available to do more, so if you’d like me to speak about science at your society just drop me an email: tom at Cheers!

Catch me speaking about the scientific method at Liverpool Cafe Scientifique

This coming Tuesday, October 11th, I’ll be giving my “Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses” talk at Liverpool Cafe Scientifique. It’s held at the Hope Street Hotel, and will be kicking off at 7:30pm. I believe anyone who turns up gets 10% off at the bar!

In the talk I will cover the scientific method itself, various scientific frauds and how they were uncovered. I’ll also talk about how medical treatments are tested with double blinded randomized controlled trials, and how it’s possible to manipulate meaningless data. I’ll need a few volunteers for this, so turn up early if you want to get involved. Hope to see you there!

My flag talk at Ignite Liverpool 7

Last week, I gave a talk on flags at Ignite Liverpool 7. It’s an exciting format, with each speaker given 5 minutes and 20 slides to talk about whatever they want. The slides progress automatically every fifteen seconds, so you don’t have control and it’s very easy to lose your place. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in public speaking, and I’m already planning for Ignite Liverpool 8 in December. But anyway, here’s my talk which opened Thursday evening. Enjoy!

A fascinating evening from Ignite Liverpool and the Merseyside Skeptics

Ignite LiverpoolLast night saw a fantastic double header of speaking events in Liverpool, kicking off with Ignite 7 and ending with Stuart Ritchie giving a critical analysis of pornography at the Merseyside Skeptics Society.

The Ignite format was new to me, each speaker gets 5 minutes to give a 20-slide slide show on any subject that they think will interest the crowd. I volunteered to give a talk, and I thought I’d step outside of my comfort zone of science and talk about flags, another one of my interests. I was trying to show what the flags of the UK tell us about our own country, and I believe that if you apply a bit of skepticism to the topic you can unearth some very interesting stories. To my surprise I was put on first! It’s an odd experience as the slides advance automatically after 15 seconds, so it’s easy to lose your place. Not only was the event streamed live, but the talks were recorded and should be up on youtube soon. So, if you want to see me frantically talking about the flags of the UK, watch this space!

The Ignite talks were very diverse and I enjoyed them all, but my highlights were Lydia Bates talking about etymology, Alistair Haughton with a whistle-stop tour of the world’s cathedrals and Phil Moneypenny sharing his experiences of studying in Antarctica. My favourite talk was Barry Kushner, who in 5 minutes managed to very clearly and elegantly explain the state of our economy, and why we are going in the wrong direction with it. I even gave a little whoop of approval at the end! The next Ignite Liverpool is scheduled for December 1st, and I can highly recommend it for anyone who is passionate about public speaking. I’m already planning my next talk, I’m thinking about doing it on the flags of revolutions, or I could go back to my comfort zone and talk about ATP, arguably one of the most important molecules in nature.

Stuart Ritchie

Stuart Ritchie

Once Ignite had finished, I hurried on down to the Head of Steam to catch the monthly talk from the Merseyside Skeptics Society. I turned up about half way through the talk from Stuart Ritchie, who was taking us through the evidence for whether pornography was harmful or not. Obviously it’s a pretty taboo subject for a lot of people, but I thought Stuart spoke with great aplomb and it was a very credible academic presentation. What made the talk extra interesting however, was the presence of a handful of people who I gathered were anti-pornography campaigners. They seemed angry that Stuart hadn’t properly considered some anecdotal evidence against pornography at the start of his talk, and it made for some nice, stimulating discussion afterwards. I always enjoy a good debate, and it was a welcome and somewhat unexpected change of pace compared to most other skeptic nights. Good stuff!


Catch me at Ignite Liverpool!

Ignite LiverpoolThis Thursday (September 15th 2011) I’ll be giving a 5 minute talk on flags (yes, flags) at Ignite Liverpool. The event is upstairs at Leaf on Bold Street, starting at 6pm. I’ve not been to one of these events before, but it sounds like great fun. Lots of speakers have 5 minutes and 20 slides each to talk about whatever they want. So, if you’d like to know a bit more about the origins and meanings of the flags of the UK, make sure you turn up for my talk!

ipadio: A Reading Of A Homeopathic Medical Article

Listen to my latest phonecast

OK, this phlog turned out to be a strange and overly long experiment! Having seen a particularly tantalizing tweet from @TredinnickMP talking about shamanistic homeopathy, I became dazzled by this article from the bad BHA, and for some reason I thought it would be a good exercise to read it out and commit it to iPadio. It ended up being quite an exhaustive exercise, taking over twenty minutes (all in one go) to record! However, if you stick through it you’ll be treated to some particularly batty homeopathic nonsense!

My first ‘phlog’ via iPadio

I thought I’d try out iPadio, a free service available from which allows you to record your phone conversations and publish them as ‘phlogs’ on the iPadio website. You can also sync them up to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or in my case my WordPress blog.

My first foray is just a little introduction about myself and what I do. As it appears to have worked, I’ll be using it to do a series of interviews at the upcoming QED conference in Manchester (February 5th and 6th, but of course you all know that by now!). If you want to share your thoughts with me at conference, feel free!

I’m giving my talk on the Scientific Method next Tuesday

Liverpool talkThis Tuesday, the first one after TAM London, I will be giving my talk on the Scientific Method at the Liverpool University Guild of Students. I’ve been invited by the HASA society, and the talk is the same one I gave to the Leeds Skeptics a few months ago.

I don’t want to give too much away, but my talk will cover the scientific method itself, how people like quacks and creationists abuse it, and what can happen when it isn’t followed. I also cover randomized double blinded controlled trials, and show how seemingly random data can be manipulated to support outrageous claims.

The venue is right next to the Metropolitan Cathedral, and it would be great to see you there!

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