World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Queen of Santa Cruz

It’s Friday night in Puerto Ayora, a town of some 15,000 people on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos archipelago. Avenue Charles Darwin runs from the harbour, filled with tour boats, and past the public plaza where on most nights young men play pick-up games of volleyball. The north side of the street is lined with restaurants, bars, Internet cafes and souvenir shops. Tonight, the street and plaza are alive with lights, music and a throng of hundreds of Galapagueños and tourists. A parade of floats plows its way along the avenue and through the crowd like ships through the surf, toward the stage at one end of the plaza.

The floats are carrying the contestants in the Queen of Isla Santa Cruz beauty pageant, a highlight of the island’s week-long Fiestas celebration. The first is covered with balloons, as well as little Galapagueño girls who wave to the crowd. Standing at the back of the float in front of a ten-foot tall heart made of red balloons is one of the beauty queens. She is dressed in a silver and white, sequin-covered costume. The next float is commanded by a pale-skinned, disinterested, overweight Nemo, complete with trident and crown. But all the attention is on the young beauty queen hopeful, standing in a giant seashell behind him.

Silver queen_2639_1200px         As each float arrives at the end of the plaza, the girls step down and make their way onto the stage. After the final float has come and gone, there are nine young contestants smiling and waving to the crowd. Each represents a different neighbourhood of Puerto Ayora or region of Isla Santa Cruz: Miss Barrio Pelikan Bay, Miss Barrio Pampas Coloradas, and so on. Some represent local companies. There is even a Miss Charles Darwin Foundation.

The girls take their turns greeting the crowd. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know what they’re saying, but my guess is they’re giving their “I want to cure world hunger” speech, which down here might sound more like: “I want to preserve Galapagos as a home for the flightless cormorants and marine iguanas”. Wow. Beautiful, and committed to conservation.

It turns out this isn’t the actual pageant ceremony. So there’s no bathing suit or talent competition, no crowning of a winner, no tiara, flowers or tears. Instead, the winner will be crowned Saturday night. But I and my companions will be leaving Puerto Ayora on a ten-day scientific field trip to another Galapagos island, Isabela, at 5:30 Sunday morning. It’s an early start, so I’ll have to wait until we return to find out the name of the new Queen of Santa Cruz.

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos, Long-form non-fiction, nature

The Angel of New York

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The Intersection of Main and Church Streets is the spiritual heart of the western New York village of Palmyra. Five houses of worship huddle around the crossroads like parishioners chatting after Sunday service. There’s the First United Methodist, First Baptist, Zion Episcopal, Western Presbyterian and St. Anne’s Catholic. So unique is the corner of five churches that in 1938 it appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!.

Main and Church Streets, and the medley of bells calling to parishioners on a Sunday morning, is a reflection of the spiritual heritage of the village. With a population of only 3,500 people, Palmyra’s church directory lists 15 houses of worship.

One of the 15 is unique, even for this community: the Palmyra Latter-Day Saints Temple. It occupies the crest of a low hill a few miles south of the village, surrounded by immaculately manicured lawns bordered by beds of flowers. The temple is a single-story, bright-grey stone structure. From the centre of the roof of this slab of a building rises a thirty-foot column, on top of which stands the brilliant golden figure of Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism.

It is not by chance that Palmyra is a hotbed of worship and that the Mormons are here. In the early 1800s, America was in the throes of the spiritual upheaval of the Second Great Awakening. Western New York was still a frontier in many ways, with a zeal for religious and social experimentation stoked by the commerce and immigration that the newly built Erie Canal carried to the region. The area became known as the Burned-Over District. It was so scorched by the flames of religious fervour that, in time, there were no converts left to fuel more fires; they had all become Millerites, Shakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, Latter-Day Saints, Spiritualists, and so on. American journalist Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, wrote that its inhabitants “surrendered to one religious craze after another.”

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Filed under: atheism, humanism, Long-form non-fiction, religion

Alain de Botton’s TEDTalk: Atheism 2.0

In a recent TEDTalk, Alain de Botton argues convincingly that atheism has much to gain by adopting forms and traditions of religion that satisfy our need as humans for morality, guidance, consolation, community, institutions and ritual. He refers to this new “religion for atheists” as Atheism 2.0.

It’s an excellent talk and I’m in general agreement with de Botton. But he makes a common mistake of framing the conversation as one about religion and atheism (as Erin Anderssen did recently in an article in the Globe and Mail). Instead, we should be talking about Humanism 2.0, not Atheism 2.0. The latter is a world-view based on a non-belief, whereas the former is a world-view based on positive values. (This is why I identify as a humanist and not an atheist.) When framed this way, we see that humanism does indeed provide us with of what we look for in religion, including morality, guidance, consolation and, I would argue, our sense of “something bigger.”

At the same time, a great challenge remains for humanism: it doesn’t provide us with all that we look for in religion, for example community, institutions and rituals. I do not gather with other humanists on a weekly basis to meditate upon our common worldview. I do not perform humanist rituals, nor celebrate any humanist holidays, nor sing any humanist “hymns.” There are no humanist picnics, choirs, yard sales, holiday concerts, etc. to attend with my fellow free-thinkers. What would I hang on my wall or around my neck to identify me as a humanist and signify the bond I have with my kindred spirits?

I believe there are many individuals who self-identify as “religious”, attend church, read a holy book for moral guidance, etc. but who–deep down–do not believe in a supernatural, all-powerful deity responsible for creation. They aren’t believers, but religion satisfies them in these other ways. As such, I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen joke in which a woman complains that her husband thinks he’s a chicken. When her friend asks if they’ve been to a doctor for a cure, she answers, “We would, but we need the eggs.” Many more of us would abandon religion for humanism, but we need the “eggs.”

Filed under: atheism, humanism, religion, , ,

When we see sinister things that aren’t…

On November 22nd, 1963, it was bright and sunny in Dallas, as home movies and photographs taken that day clearly show. Why, then, is a dark-suited man holding an open umbrella aloft just as President Kennedy’s motorcade passes and shots are fired?

In his fascinating short film, The Umbrella Man, Errol Morris explores the question of the sinister figure with the help of Josaih “Tink” Thompson, author of Six Seconds in Dallas.

The Umbrella Man

Filed under: pseudoscience, skepticism, ,

How we know homeopathy doesn’t work

Cory Doctorow today posted the following on the always entertaining, always stimulating “Homeopathy multinational sues blogger over statements that its mythological curative had no ‘active ingredient’.” The blogger is Samuele Riva; the multinational is the largest manufacturer of homeopathic products in the world, a company called Boiron, based in France.

On, Riva makes the claim that Boiron’s product Oscillococcinum has no active ingredient. Understandable, since the company claims the flu remedy is made with oscillococcinum, a substance that doesn’t exist; and understandable since the ingredient is supposedly diluted with a 1:100 dilution 200 times. As Steven Novella writes, that’s “the equivalent of diluting 1ml of original ingredient into a volume of water that is the size of the known universe.” No wonder it’s non-drowsy and has no side effects.


Naturally, many readers’ comments on the story on debunk homeopathy, focusing on the placebo effect, the results of clinical trials, the weakness of anecdotal evidence, and other familiar arguments. Here’s my comment (revised for this posting):

According to the fundamentals of homeopathy, medicines are made “by diluting the remedy and succussing (shaking) it. All homeopathic medicines are ‘potentized’, i.e. diluted and succussed. This method of preparation imparts considerable energy to each substance.” The curative power of any substance is “imprinted” on water through contact and agitation, and its effectiveness is increased by dilution.

But if this is indeed how homeopathic remedies are made, you wouldn’t need to buy Boiron’s Oscillococcinum. In fact, you shouldn’t need to buy any homeopathic remedies at all because a glass of tap water would contain the curative powers of every element and substance on the planet. After billions of years, every element, molecule, compound and substance has been in contact with water at some point, and been subsequently agitated and diluted. Rocks release chemicals into the water of a rushing river; a leaf falls into a lake; rivers pour these dilute solutions into the oceans where they are agitated and diluted even more; and on and on for billions of years.

If homeopathic fundamentals were real, every mouthful of water we drank would provide us with the curative benefit of every substance that any amount of water came in contact with—ever. Every mouthful would contain all the medicinal power of every product in Boiron’s catalog. If homeopathy worked and Boiron truly cared about our welfare, they would simply stop selling their “remedies” and encourage us all—as our mothers did—to drink more water.

Filed under: pseudoscience, science literacy, skepticism

Birthers, Deathers and the End of the World

I’m posting this on May 22nd 2011—which means the planet was not torn asunder by an  apocalyptic earthquake yesterday and the faithful have not been called up into heaven in The Rapture.

It seems Harold Camping, the president of the American Christian radio network, Family Radio, erred in proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS ALMOST HERE! HOLY GOD WILL BRING JUDGMENT DAY ON MAY 21, 2011.” As we all now know, God didn’t bring it, despite Family Radio’s confident declaration that “The Bible Guarantees It.”

Of course, Camping isn’t the first to wrongly foretell the Apocalypse (and he won’t be the last as we’ll see in December 2012); there have been countless dooms-days before this one. In 1954, a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin claimed she was in communication with aliens from a planet called Clarion. According to the extraterrestrials, a great flood would bring an end to our civilization on the morning of December 21st. But the Clarions also reassured Dorothy they would swoop down in a flying saucer at midnight on the 20th to rescue her and other “true believers.” Needless to say, the deluge did not appear—and neither did the flying saucer.

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Filed under: politics, pseudoscience, religion, skepticism

Canadian government muzzling federal scientists

The Ad Astra Science Fiction convention in Toronto might seem an odd setting for the panel discussion, “The Muzzling of Canadian Federal Scientists: Is 1984 Here?”. But, as moderator Pippa Wysong pointed out in her opening remarks, the muzzling of scientists would make a good plot line for a science fiction thriller.

Government control of federally-funded scientists is a growing concern among Canadian science journalists. In years past, the media typically would have unrestricted and immediate access to researchers. The panel, which included science journalists Wysong, Saul Chernos and Janet Pelley, and physicist David Stephenson, offered ample proof that the situation has changed in a disturbing way.

For example, Pelley described an incident at a water quality conference in 2009. Following a presentation on Bisphenol A, she asked the researchers for an interview. The scientists “laughed nervously”, told Pelley they couldn’t answer her questions, and pointed toward a “press-minder” standing nearby. Pelley asked the media officer for permission to interview the scientists but her request was denied. Instead, she was instructed to submit her request to the media office. Needless to say, Pelley didn’t get her interview that day.

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Filed under: media, politics

A Gallery of Galapagos Hawks

This week, the Galapagos National Park resumed its efforts to eradicate from the islands one of the most harmful of invasive species: rats. Using poison bait, the GNP has already succeeded in ridding several islands of these pests. They have now begun releasing the bait on the island of Rabida.

While this approach works, it is not so simple a solution on islands inhabited by the endemic Galapagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis). Rats make up part of the hawks’ diet and the predators could be critically harmed by the poison. So the GNP, in partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center and others, has begun a capture program. The birds will be held captive during the baiting period, then released back into their island homes when it is safe. (You can follow the progress of the program on the Raptor Center blog.)

During my last two visits to the islands, I enjoyed the company of Galapagos hawks on many occasions. As with the sea lions I encountered while snorkeling and scuba diving, it’s hard not to imagine that these creatures are enjoying your company in return. From this small gallery of photographs taken on Santiago and Isabela islands, you can see why I am particularly fond of them and hope the program goes well.

Hawk with Sugar Loaf Volcano in background - Santiago Island

An immature hawk with Sugar Loaf caldera, Isla Santiago

An immature hawk surveys the highlands, Isla Santiago

Just after sunset, Isla Santiago

On the rim of Alcedo volcano, Isla Isabela

Filed under: Galapagos

The Darwin Correspondence Project and other online Darwin resources

Just a post about some online archival resources I’ve found relating to Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species:

The first is the Darwin Correspondence Project, a fascinating website that lets you “read and search the full texts of more than 6000 of Darwin’s letters.” These include letters to and from his grandfather Eramus, Beagle captain Robert Fitzroy, Charles Lyell, T.H. Huxley, John Gould, Alfred Russell Wallace, and many others. Access to the letters is through a well-designed, interactive time-line that lets you browse through years of correspondence or search by name.

Darwin Correspondence ProjectFor example, in a letter to Charles Lyell, dated June 25, 1858, Darwin expresses his anguish at receiving Wallace’s manuscript describing the Welshman’s own thoughts on evolution. Can Darwin in all good conscience publish his “sketch” now that he has seen the other naturalist’s work? He writes, “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.”

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos

Why I Am Not An Atheist

In the November 26th Munk Debate in Toronto, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens squared off on either side of the resolution that religion is a force for good in the world. Former British Prime Minister Blair was introduced as a recently converted Roman Catholic; Hitchens, not surprisingly, as an atheist.

The Munk Debates

Of course, Hitchens is one of the better known “new atheists”, along with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I respect Hitchens’ work—most recently, his reasoned and humane reflections on his experience with oesophageal cancer, but also his writing on religion and atheism, in particular God is Not Great. I haven’t read much by Harris, but I have just cracked open his latest, The Moral Landscape, and look forward to it.

Of the three, I’m most familiar with Dawkins’ work. I’ve especially enjoyed his brilliant writing on evolution, but also respect his views on religion. And I admire his Out Campaign encouraging individuals to openly declare their atheism; I’ve long believed that the presence of religion in society today is all out of proportion to the actual belief (or non-belief) systems of the population and, hence, inflates religion’s influence and significance. In our national anthem, we sing “God keep our land”; during times of public calamity we are enjoined to say a prayer; newscasts cover papal visits and pronouncements as if they meant something to the majority; we mostly get married and buried, regardless of our worldviews, in the “presence” of a god; and the holiday music that has just begun to fill our airwaves and stores is often about “baby Jesus”, angels and three wise men. If atheists “came out”, we might collectively ask: why are we doing all these things?

The OUT Campaign

Nevertheless, there is no “coming out” for me—because I am not an atheist.

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Filed under: atheism, humanism, religion, , ,

About me

I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at, and follow me at


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