Saturday, October 10, 2009

Richard Dawkins Is Not a Pirate

I had been planning to go to a fantasy festival put on by the Seattle Seafair Pirates and the Seattle Knights up in Washington today, but changed my mind. I'd gotten up very early yesterday to watch the L-CROSS moon mission on NASA TV. The impact was scheduled for 4:31 a.m. Pacific Time, and they started broadcasting at 3:15. There wasn't much to see other than increasingly large views of the targeted crater. No debris plume was visible as had been expected. But they say they got good data. That left my sleep schedule screwed up, so last night I decided not to go to the festival which is about 170 miles away. Also I was still feeling the effects of either a muscle cramp or slight pull from a couple of days ago, so the idea of tramping around a field for several hours was less appealing.

Rachel Maddow had Sarah Vowell on her show last night because Vowell's latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, is just out in paperback. I'd meant to check it out on Amazon and Powell's but forgot until this morning. While checking the Powell's site, I learned she's going to be at their Beaverton store next Wednesday, so I'm planning to go.

While looking around, I also found out that Richard Dawkins was appearing at Wordstock, the annual book fair at the Oregon Convention Center at 3 p.m. He's the author of several books on evolution and also wrote The God Delusion, which I'd read a year or so ago. There'd been some discussion about evolution on a Delphi forum I visit in which reference was made to another of his books, The Blind Watchmaker. I got that last weekend. I decided not to pass up an opportunity to see and hear Richard Dawkins in person.

In order to see him, it was necessary to buy a ticket for $22, which also included a copy of his new book The Greatest Show on Earth. That's less than the $30 cover price, but more than the $16.50 Amazon sells it for, but of course with Amazon I wouldn't see and hear him and the book wouldn't be signed. I couldn't buy a ticket online and when I called it was suggested I get a ticket soon because there had been quite a few calls about his appearance. So I got down to the Convention Center just before 11.

There were still tickets, and there was plenty of time to wander around and see all the booths. Shortly after noon I stopped by a talk being given by Scott Westerfeld, who has a new book, a steampunk novel called Leviathan. It's an alternate history set in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. In his world, Darwin discovered DNA and scientists began making all types of weird animals, some of which were used for military purpose. The "Darwinists" as they were known, developed their war beasts in England, France and Russia. The Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, developed war machines using mechanics, except their machines were very different from what was developed in the world we all know. The Leviathan of the title is a huge 1,000-foot-long sperm whale that creates hydrogen and is used as a huge airship. I was interested enough to buy the book and get it signed.

There was an online comic strip artist, David Malki, who uses bits of illustrations from Victorian-era publications to make his strip. His website is It's strange, but in a good way. He also had a few bumper stickers. One in particular I had to get: "I was an honor student. I don't know what happened." (I was and I don't.)

After an overpriced lunch - I didn't quite have enough time to leave the center to go to a nearby place for lunch - I got in line fairly early for the Richard Dawkins event. Some of the time was spent reading a bit of Leviathan. The doors were supposed to open at 2:30, but that got pushed back as Richard was still busily signing books. I was able to get a seat in the second row on the aisle so I could get some pictures. There was a bit more delay since there were so many people. They ended up opening up more space by sliding a movable wall at the back and getting more chairs. Richard even carried a chair from the stage to the back for someone to use. I suppose it was the Richard Dawkins Chair in Evolutionary Studies.

Eventually things got underway with readings from The Greatest Show on Earth, a book which Dawkins describes as a "missing link" because while his previous books on evolution explained the theory, this one presents the evidence about why evolution is fact. The readings were from various parts of the book, even including the last chapter. He read an interesting and humorous anecdote about the famous neo-Darwinist J. B. S. Haldane who was once confronted by a woman after one of his lectures. She doubted that evolution could have created a human being with all it's complicated structure, trillions of cells, miles of blood vessels and nerves, etc. from a single cell. Haldane replied, "Madam, you did it yourself in nine months."

After his reading, Dawkins answered about a dozen questions. A few were about The God Delusion, then he gently reminded us he was here to promote his latest book. After that, there was an opportunity for people who hadn't had their copies of The Greatest Show on Earth signed to get them signed, along with copies of his other books. I should've brought the copies I have. But I did go up to him and say I'd always thought evolution made sense and thanked him for providing me with good material to work with if I get into conversations with people who don't want to accept it as fact.

It was an interesting day in which Darwin, the Victorian era, evolution and steampunk fiction all mixed in. Even before I found out about Wordstock and Dawkins, there was a hint of things to come when I listened to Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac before I looked up Sarah Vowell's book. He said (and this is from the website):

It was on this day in 1881 that Charles Darwin published what he considered to be his most important book: The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. At the time, most people thought of earthworms as pests, but Darwin demonstrated that they were beneficial, important for soil fertility and consequently for agriculture.

Darwin had published The Origin of Species in 1859, but he thought that this work was more important — and in fact, during his lifetime it sold much better than The Origin of Species, more than 6,000 copies its first year.

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