Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jan 8 Reporters: Fair, Balanced and Gullible?

Saturday, Jan 8, 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm

Bob Hirshon , Senior Project Director in
the Directorate for Education and Human
Resources Programs at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS) and Principal Investigator for
the NSF-supported Kinetic City project

A public talk. Free.
Refreshments & Socializing until 3:45

National Science Foundation, Room 110 
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA (Map) (Flyer)

The job of a journalist is to investigate news stories to report the facts, as well as they can be discerned, to the public. As such, reporters should be our nation’s leading skeptics. Yet newspapers are rife with stories of clearly fraudulent claims, reported as matter of fact, no different than sports scores and weather reports. Bob Hirshon rips the lid off this sensational story, emerging from his years as a mole within the labyrinth of journalistic secret societies, revealing the dark secrets no one has ever dared tell — until now! 

Bob Hirshon is Senior Project Director in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He is Principal Investigator for the NSF-supported Kinetic City project for children, featuring the Codie Award winning, web-based Kinetic City After School program, Peabody Award-winning Kinetic City Super Crew radio show, and McGraw-Hill book series. Hirshon hosts Science Update, a daily radio feature now in its 23rd year on the air. He also created and oversees the Science NetLinks project for K-12 science teachers, with nearly 400,000 user sessions per month. 

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Dec 11 Arboreal Mind: Finding Self in Nerve Cell Branching

Saturday, Dec 11, 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm

Giorgio Ascoli, Ph.D., 
Computational Neuroanatomy Group, 
Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, 
George Mason University, VA 

A public talk at the lay level. Free.
Refreshments & Socializing until 3:45

National Science Foundation, Room 110 

4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA (Map) (Flyer)

The importance of neuronal morphology, i.e. the tree-like shape of nerve cells, in modern neuroscience is rooted in two foundational aspects. On the one hand, dendrites and axons mediate respectively the functional input and output of neurons. On the other, they constitute the essential substrates for network connectivity. To connect this level of scientific analysis to the philosophical problem of the mind-brain relation requires a radical shift in the current research paradigm to include first-person (subjective) experience as a legitimate topic of empirical investigation. To date, the exact neural correlates are not yet known for any conscious function. However, two general principles are commonly (if implicitly) believed. First, mental states (thoughts, feelings, memories, intentions, etc.) consist of spatio-temporal activity patterns in networks of neurons. Second, learning, meant as the acquisition of the potential to instantiate a previously unknown mental state, corresponds to the formation of new connections among neurons, enabling the activation of the new spatio-temporal pattern underlying said mental state. In this talk, Dr. Ascoli will introduce the notion that the branching structure of neurons provides a fundamental physical underpinning for a key cognitive function, namely the capability to learn. In particular, he will explain that this capability is far from trivial and that any individual can typically only acquire a fraction of the relations that can in principle be known. Moreover, he will illustrate how the spatial architecture of axons and dendrites provides a crucial constraint (and insight) on the capability to acquire knowledge.

This talk will be presented at a lay level because subjective experience and tree shapes are accessible to all humankind.

Dr. Ascoli is head of the Computational Neuroanatomy Group at the Krasnow Institute. The group's main effort is to model neuronal morphology (the "shape" of brain cells) and its influence on network connectivity and electrophysiological activity. One of the products of that group is L-Neuron, a modeling tool that generates and describes realistic neurons. Among the current research projects of the Computational Neuroanatomy Group are anatomically plausible neural networks and autobiographic memory. He edited the scientific book, Computational Neuroanatomy: Principles and Methods, which defines Computational Neuroanatomy in broad terms. His main long-term scientific and philosophical goal consists in establishing a working model for the highest cognitive functions such as human consciosuness. His current consciousness model is fundamentally based on associative learning.

On the experimental side, Dr. Ascoli's research involvement is primarily in neuroanatomy, but his scientific background is biochemistry. As a researcher at the former Laboratory of Adaptive Systems of the N.I.H., he worked on the structural characterization of a learning-associated neuronal protein, Calexcitin, and on the Prion protein, the infective agent of Mad Cow disease. He received his M.Sc. (Laurea) from the University of Pisa, and his Ph.D. from the Scuola Normale Superiore, in Italy, where he investigated drug-protein binding.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sep 18 Radiation From Your Cell Phone a Health Hazard?
Risk vs. Reality

Saturday, Sep 18, 1:30 pm - 4:30 pm

Prof. Christopher Davis, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Maryland

Bethesda Library, 7400 Arlington Rd, Bethesda, MD 
Near Bethesda metro
(map) (directions)  Flyer (Video)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nov 20 NCAS Talk: Physics Nobel Laureate John Mather
Big Bang, Webb Space Telescope & Alien Life

Dr. John C. Mather, Nobel Laureate in Physics 

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Observational Cosmology Laboratory

Saturday, Nov 20, 1:30 pm - 4:30 pm
Big Bang, Webb Space Telescope & Alien Life

National Science Foundation, Room 110 
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA (Map) (flyer)

A public talk at the lay level. Free.

The history of the universe in a nutshell, from the Big Bang to now, and on to the future – John Mather will tell the story of how we got here, how the Universe began with a Big Bang, how it could have produced an Earth where sentient beings can live, and how those beings are discovering their history. He will explain Einstein’s biggest mistake, show how Edwin Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe, how the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission was built, and how its data support the Big Bang theory. He will also show NASA’s plans for the next great telescope in space, the James Webb Space Telescope. It will look even farther back in time than the Hubble Space Telescope, and will peer inside the dusty cocoons where stars and planets are being born today. Using the stellar transit technique, the JWST is capable of examining Earth-like exoplanets, where follow-on missions may find signs of life. Currently planned for launch in 2014, the JWST may lead to another Nobel Prize for some lucky observer. 

Dr. John C. Mather is a Senior Astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. His research centers on infrared astronomy and cosmology. As a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Mather led the proposal efforts for COBE (1974-76), and came to GSFC to be Study Scientist (1976-88), Project Scientist (1988-98), and also the Principal Investigator for COBE’s Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS). Presently he is Senior Project Scientist for the JWST. Mather earned his B.A. in Physics from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2006, Mather shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with George F. Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mandelbrot, father of fractal geometry, dies

AFP news service article, Oct 16, 2010

Oct 10-25 Inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival DC

The USA Science and Engineering Festival is coming up.  And while the Expo on the Mall Oct. 23 & 24 is getting the most publicity, there are a bunch of free science lectures and other events starting Oct. 10. Here is the full schedule:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Oct 3 NCAS Co-sponsors First SkeptiCamp DC at UMD

NCAS Members, please consider participating in this first SkeptiCamp DC conference, which is co-sponsored by NCAS, and where the emphasis is on participants providing short informal talks or other creative contributions focused on critical thinking or science. Find out more information and register at

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Oct 9 Making Informed Decisions about Dietary Supplements:
Efficacy, Safety and Quality

Saturday, Oct 9
, 1:30 pm - 4:30 pm

Making Informed Decisions about Dietary Supplements:
Efficacy, Safety and Quality

Paul Thomas, Ed.D.

Bethesda Library, 7400 Arlington Rd., Bethesda, MD
Near Bethesda metro
(map) (directions) (flyer

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Autism: Made in the USA" Free film showing and discussion

Monday Aug 16, 7 pm
New Deal Cafe
113 Centerway
Greenbelt, MD 20770

The Greenbelt Reel and Meal monthly film series has invited NCAS Members and Friends to participate in a FREE viewing and post-viewing discussion of the controversial conspiracy theory film "Autism: Made in the USA". The film was produced by Gary Null. Beyond putative causes of Autism, the film also makes many wide-ranging claims about several dubious alternative medicine practices (homeopathy, etc.),
NCAS invites you to come to this free viewing and contribute your own fact-based views to a respectful discussion of the film, which will be lead by a local proponent and defender of the film.
There is an optional vegan buffet dinner at 6:30 PM.
Autism: Made in the USA (YouTube 101 minutes)
Autism & Vaccines: How Bad Science Confuses the Press & Harms the Public (YouTube 40 minutes) A Nov 8, 2008 talk for NCAS at the National Science Foundation by Steven Salzberg, Ph.D., University of Maryland, Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology,

Thursday, May 13, 2010

July 8-11 The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 in Las Vegas & DS T-Shirts

Going to The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas this July?

NCAS is co-sponsoring a special Drinking Skeptically event Thursday, July 8 at the South Point Casino's "Silverado Lounge."

Commemorative Drinking Skeptically T-shirts are available NOW for pre-order.
Order T-shirts by the end of May to be sure you don't miss out.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

May 8 Quantum Mechanics & Spooky Action at a Distance

Saturday, May 8, 1:30 pm - Public & Free

Quantum Mechanics & "Spooky Action at a Distance" 

Prof. Allen Stairs, University of Maryland,  Philosophy Department, Associate Chair

Bethesda Library, 7400 Arlington Rd., Bethesda, MD
Near Bethesda metro  (map(directions)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Apr 24 NCAS Philip J. Klass Award Presentation to Ray Hyman

Ray Hyman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Oregon
Will be presented the NCAS Philip J. Klass Award 2010

Special Guest D.J. Grothe, President, James Randi Education Foundation
Saturday, April 24 , 1:30 pm - 4:00 pm

National Science Foundation, Room 110

4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA (Map)

A skeptical conversation with Ray Hyman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Oregon about his many decades of widely respected skeptical critique of Psychics and Psychical Research, such as the CIA's 1990's "Star Gate" remote viewing project. Professor Hyman will be interviewed by  D.J. Grothe,  President of the James Randi Foundation.  NCAS will be honoring Professor Hyman with the 2010 Philip J. Klass Award for outstanding contributions in promoting critical thinking and scientific understanding. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Self-Nominations Due March 31 for NCAS Board Election

The annual election of NCAS Board directors is fast approaching. NCAS members who want to take a leadership role are encouraged to nominate yourself by sending a brief bio sketch by email to by March 31, for inclusion in the forthcoming ballot for NCAS Board Directors.

Hearing through the smoke and mirrors

Saturday, March 20, 1:30 pm - 4:00 pm

Poppy Crum, Ph.D., Research Scientist in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

National Science Foundation, Room 110 
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA (Map)

Making sense of the natural world often leads us to live in a constant state of illusion. For example, if one hears a crying baby in a noisy environment or rustling leaves in a forest as a bear lumbers nearby, the brain has a daunting task. It must determine which frequencies of the acoustic waveform belong to the baby or nearby grizzly, identify where these auditory events are located, integrate this information with cues from other sensory modalities - such as the visual location if available, and finally determine what sort of action is required (e.g. both require some worry and likely generate a shift in one’s heart rate, but reacting inappropriately in one instance could have much more complicated consequences!) The problem of scene analysis in a busy visual and acoustic environment is complex, and offers many possibilities for our sensory systems to get it wrong.  But, maybe getting it wrong is a way of making sure we get it right when it matters most – and the grizzly bear is left foraging for his berries.

This talk will focus on how we have evolved to experience a non-veridical world and the contextual fluidity of perceptual hearing.

Poppy Crum is a research scientist in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her work investigates neural circuits in the auditory cortex involved in hearing in a complex acoustic environment. Dr. Crum completed her PhD at the University of California Berkeley with an emphasis in neuroscience and psychoacoustics and her masters degree at McGill University with an emphasis in auditory scene analysis. She also holds a degree in violin performance through studies at the University of Iowa and McGill University. During this time she spent many hours involved in the recording arts as both a performer and engineer. In addition to her scientific research, Dr. Crum frequently presents lectures at national and international conferences that offer an understanding of psychoacoustic phenomena through an integration of the underlying anatomy and physiology of the auditory system.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Neuroscience -- Brains, Minds, and Selves:
What is it like to be a bat, and what does it matter?

Saturday, February 20, 1:30 pm - 4:00 pm

James Giordano Ph.D, M.Phil., Director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies, and Chair of Academic Programs at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, VA

National Science Foundation, Room 110
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA (

The field of neuroscience has achieved considerable insight to the workings of the brain. While the most essential question – how brains produce consciousness and mind – remains enigmatic, what is becoming increasingly evident is that even simple brains enable a variety of complex functions – including the capacity to think, feel pain and be self-aware. Thus, it appears that if an organism has the neurological “wetware” – that is, a brain of some sort – it is likely, if not probable that they will be able to run a “program” that produces a mind.

In this lecture, Dr. James Giordano, a neuroscientist and neuroethicist, argues that the cornerstone question is not if other organisms have a mind, but what kind of mind they have. He discusses whether neuroscience and technology can provide some insight to philosopher Thomas Nagel’s metaphorical query, “what is it like to be a bat?” In other words, now that science has privileged a realization that non-human minds can exist, will technology allow us to know what it is like to be another being, and what can we -or perhaps more importantly, should we do with such knowledge?

Dr. Giordano discusses key questions and issues that have arisen in, and from modern neuroscience, including: “Do all brains give rise to minds?”; “Do all minds give rise to a “self”?; “How much brain is required to evoke and sustain a mind or self?”and “How much brain must be changed to change a mind or self?” He discusses how both these questions and their potential answers really do matter, as they force us to confront long-held, somewhat dogmatic views about the nature of consciousness, what it means “to be”, the uniqueness of humans, the ubiquity of pain, and the moral implications and consequences of our regard and actions.

Giordano addresses how things “neuro” can be misinterpreted, misperceived and misused by the public, market and socio-political agendas. In cautioning against such misdirection, he argues for a neuroethics that enables science and society to use current knowledge in ways that prudently inform and guide our treatment of both human and non-human “selves”.

James Giordano Ph.D, M.Phil., is Director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies, and Chair of Academic Programs at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, VA, and is Senior Research Associate of the Wellcome Centre for Neuroethics, and Uehiro Centre for Practical Philosophy at the University of Oxford, UK. He is IGERT Professor of Science, Technology, Ethics and Policy at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Neuroscience and Neuroethics at Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelm’s Universit├Ąt, Bonn, Germany, and is Chair of the Capital Consortium on Neuroscience, Ethics, Legal and Social Issues (

Dr. Giordano’s most recent books include Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives in Neuroethics (with Bert Gordijn, Cambridge University Press); Pain, Mind, Meaning and Medicine (PPM Press), and Pain Medicine: Philosophy, Ethics, and Policy (with Mark Boswell; Linton Atlantic Books). He is the Editor-in-Chief of the journals Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine, and Synesis: A Journal of Sceince, Technology, Ethics and Policy; Associate Editor of the international journal Neuroethics, and Series’ Editor of Advances in Neurotechnology: Ethical, Legal and Social Issues, published by CRC Press. The author of over 130 papers on neuroscience, neurotechnology, and neuroethics, Dr. Giordano’s ongoing research is focused upon the neuropathology of chronic pain, and the moral, ethical and social issues evoked by the use of novel neurotechnologies in the study and treatment of pain.

He and his wife Sherry, a naturalist, writer, and artist, “commute” between Old Town Alexandria, VA and Oxford, UK. (For further information, please see:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Creation - The Movie

On Saturday January 23, the Landmark E Street theater will host a discussion--after the 7:30pm show--featuring Toni Van Pelt, Director of Public Policy for the Center for Inquiry. The Center promotes science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

"Creation", the new film about Darwin starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, premieres on Friday, January 22, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, DC.

The movie is based on "Annie's Box" ("Creation: Darwin, His Daughter & Human Evolution" in the U.S.), written by Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great-grandson. As you can imagine, creationists are already starting to huff and puff about the film. But as NCSE's Genie Scott notes, "Creation" is a "thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public--for the better."

Olivia Judson, in the New York Times, adds: "Too often, Darwin is depicted as a kind of fossil: an old man with a huge beard looking as though he’s 350. It’s refreshing to see him looking young and handsome...more to the point, Bettany shows Darwin as a man rather than icon, imbuing him with life and love, gentleness and anxiety, tears and laughter. This alone makes it an important film."

Author Randal Keynes sums up his great-great-grandfather: "[Darwin's] love for his wife; his observations of his children; his friendships with gardeners, schoolteachers and pigeon fanciers; his fears about death, revolution, bankruptcy, inbreeding...all these things found their way into his theory. He was the most inclusive of thinkers."

"Creation" opens on Jan 22 at the Landmark's E Street Cinema,
555 11th St NW, Washington, DC

For more info about the movie, trailers, schedules, etc., check:

The official site

The Facebook page

The Twitter feed

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Go Green: Switch Off the Shadow Light

Starting in September 2010, NCAS stopped mailing a paper version of our Shadow of a Doubt monthly calendar of events and articles. At the same time, the Shadow Light postcard was developed as a comparatively low-cost method for announcing to members and contacts the release of each new Shadow of a Doubt as posted at and e-mailed to addresses on file.

Shadow Light recipients are invited to help NCAS "go green" by opting out of postal notification entirely. Switch off Shadow Light by e-mailing your name and postal address to with subject line "NCAS Go Green." You'll receive each new Shadow of a Doubt and other NCAS notices in your e-mail inbox.

Non-members can receive the Shadow of a Doubt by subscribing to the NCAS-Announce e-mail list here.