When I first saw him, he was in the queue to see The Infinite Monkey Cage (Prof Brian Cox's Radio show) at the Cheltenham science festival. I noticed him immediately, in the queue, carrying a laptop under his arm.
In the cluttered teenage bedroom that is my brain, I tried to work out where I recognised him from. He wasn't my year 7 biology teacher, although they look strangely similar. Then it clicked. After 10 whole seconds of staring at him, and him smiling back.
But at this point it was irrelevant. If I stared for a second longer, I'm pretty sure I would look like a gormless psychopath. I didn't want to offend one of my favourite scientists, so I peeled off quickly, trying not to be more of an embarrassment than I already was.
I spent all of 5 minutes wondering what I would have said to him, and cursing myself for not being quick or bold enough to start a conversation. But at ChelSci there really isn't much time to dwell on things like that, and soon I was off to the next talk. I probably wouldn't get another chance to meet him, so it was best not to dwell.
However, after one of the lectures I decided to get some reading material for the 3 hour journey back to London from Cheltenham. Luckily, they had opened up a Waterstones at the science festival, so I could go in and get a copy of a book that I'd heard a lot of good publicity about.
And right by the entrance, I saw the man I had accidentally glared at earlier.
PZ myers was in waterstones, peering at a shelf of books. For those of you who don't know, PZ is probably the best blogger still remaining at scienceblogs.com and an outspoken proponent for atheism.
And now was my chance to have a conversation with him, a golden opportunity, although probably not as good as when he was bored waiting in a queue. But still, I'll take what I could. I wouldn't squander this opportunity like I had with Richard Dawkins.
When I was a lowly undergraduate in my first year of study, there was an interesting event happening at the museum adjacent to my campus. There was a discussion over the full extent of evolution in our daily lives, which I thought would be fascinating. I tried to get my friends to go, but they didn't really go for it.
At the end of the discussion, I bumped into Richard Dawkins whilst he was waiting for his cab. He had been one of the speakers, and had talked a fair bit about stuff from his book, the extended phenotype. However, at this point in time, I had little or no idea who Sir Richard Dawkins was. All I knew was that one of his books was listed on the syllabus (the selfish gene) and that he was an inspiring speaker. I knew he was an important person, but i didn't quite grasp why. It was because of this that I had a conversation with Sir Richard Dawkins about.... the english weather.
when I got back to halls, and mentioned this, I was met with uproar and hand wringing. firstly, how come I didn't tell them that Richard Dawkins was part of this talk, and secondly how I wasted an opportunity to talk to him.
But this time would be oh so different. and it was, I knew exactly who PZ myers was, and I'm sure I would have something interesting to talk with him about. Inside my brain, a little homunculus was putting together all of the folders marked "pharyngula" together with an aim to put everything together for a conversation.
"Hi are you PZ myers? "
"I read your blog"
"oh, and who are you?" he said raising an inquisitive eyebrow. The tiny homunculus in my brain frantically attempts to find intelligent responses, but defaulted to the truth
"[--insert name here--]" there was a silence "I am a PhD student studying infection" i didn't know what that information contributed, except another short pause, which I dutifully filled with more words. The homunculus pressed the stream of consciousness emergency button, which is always a tricky manoeuvre.
"I'm not sure the right way to introduce myself, or whether i should define myself by my qualifications"
"oh, don't worry about that"
Great, now the initial awkwardness is out the way , conversation can start. The homunculus proudly opens the "pharyngula" folder of conversation topics. Funny, I thought there would be more stuff in here. Ah, PZ is an american. My prejudices tell me that americans don't often leave america. let's go with that.
"oh, I didn't expect to see you in england"
"Oh well, I've been doing talks in glasgow and other places. I'm just taking some time off and enjoying the sites"
My internal homunculus realises that almost all of the pharyngula facts strewn over then floor of the office of my brain. "Stall for time whilst I get these together," it would have told me if it existed.
"Oh, did you catch the Infinite monkey Cage" I said, wryly accessing my short term memory.
"Oh yes" PZ replied "a little too much physics for my liking, not enough biology"
"Well" I improvised " Biology is the language of love "
Jesus, where did I get that corny line from ? Was I coming on to him? I definitely didn't want to come on to him. I didn't want to frighten the old gent.
"oh" PZ responded " I never thought about it like that"
"oh, and it's responsible for hate and other emotions "
Well on the bright side he definitely knew I wasn't coming on to him. On the downside I was failing to conceal my lunacy.
"Oh, well I'd better get back"
"Oh yes, of course" Thank god. Who knows what bullshit I'd've said next.
"Nice meeting you" he said
"you too, and thank you for blogging"
To which he smiled and gave a polite reply, before taking his place in front of the books. Perhaps I should have opened with that, but never mind, the moment had passed.
I walked off glad the pressure of the conversation was over. I was about to walk out, but then I remembered that I still needed to get that book. It was the psychopath test by Jon Ronson. He was speaking later in the conference, and I had read a bit of the publicity spiel for it, and it seemed like it would be a good read. I turned back and saw that it was on the very same shelf PZ was looking at. Having already said my goodbyes , I didn't want to invading his personal space once again, or worse get into another painful conversation.
I could have waited until he left. But wouldn't that be even more suspicious, wringing my hands and glaring just on the periphery of his vision ? I'd probably get arrested.
Instead I decided to go past and grab the book as quickly as I could hopefully without him noticing. In my mind I was a book grabbing ninja, but in reality I was the twat who barged past PZ myers to get a book. My escape may not have been graceful, or cunning but it was hasty.
And this was how I ended up with a copy of The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. In retrospect, my odd behaviour around PZ myers left me in the perfect state of mind to read this book, for it was about how craziness, ranging form the mild to the severe, affects each of us and how it affects society on a larger scale.
It was one of those books that I simply could not put down. It begins with a simple story of the author investigating the erratic behaviour of one individual, and how that behaviour affected a number of different people in interesting ways. From there, he diligently investigates people with personality disorders, and how the treatment and diagnoses of these individuals have affected us.
Through his research, he met an individual who faked madness to avoid prison, and ended up indefinitely detained in broadmoor. Funnily enough, most of his doctors knew he faked psychosis, but determined that this was a symptom of psychopathy. And through this story we enter the strange kafkaesque world of the madness industry.
It was at this point in reading the book on the way from London to cheltenham that I finally give in. You see, a large part of the time I spent reading this book on the train, a loud mob of cricket fans have sat next to me in the carriage. In particular, a very inebriated individual whom I would come to know as "Nobby" sat down next to me, with a half pint still in his hand. From his red features and slurred speech, I presumed that this was not his first one. The train guard had noticed that Nobby was carrying a beer on public transport, but wisely didn't harass him about it when he wasn't making a fuss. In fact, none of these events were enough to tear me away from the book. The fascinating story of Emmanuel "toto" constant, a Haitian mass murderer inexplicably living with his mother in a New York suburb verged on the unbelievable.
However, for around half an hour, "Nobby" had been loudly announcing to the train carriage that he needed to go take a piss. He went to the train loos, and found that all of them were locked. Still I read the book.
Nobby then started complaining that he'd piss himself, and he needed a bottle. It was when one of his friends suggested that he should take this opportunity to"top up his pint" that I cracked up. And that was how I got into a conversation with "Nobby".
admittedly, all I could really get out of him was how incredibly desperate he was for the loo, and how he couldn't believe that not only both the loos were occupied, but that they were occupied for so long. He was right not to, so it transpired. The train guard eventually noted the mans distress, and unlocked the lavatories. The were empty all of this time.
Apparently, the policy of british rail is to lock all lavatories on some local journeys to stop vandals from destroying them. And that was why Nobby nearly pissed himself. And it was why, a notably more relieved nobby, was still furious with the train guard. The train guard to his credit took the verbal abuse with good humour, and did his best to not inflame the situation.
Eventually nobby cools down a bit, and notices that I'm reading a book. I say that it's about madness. He looks straight at where I presume he thought my face was, winked blearily and said "well, everyones a bit mad. I'm mad. I'm definitely mad, but I guess you've noticed that. Everyone's a bit mad"
Which is funnily enough, one of the conclusions you can take from the psychopath test. In the book, the author, Jon Ronson learns the art of diagnosing psychopaths. And he meets a number of characters, from a ruthless corporate executive, to an overly rude concierge, each of whom are described on the psychopathic spectrum. He demonstrates the old adage that a hammer wielder sees a world made of nails. Once armed with the "psychopath test" he sees madness everywhere. And so will you.
The point is that when you have these tests, one tends to extrapolate from the most extreme bits of behaviour. Nobby was not a lunatic, despite behaving like one. In this extreme situation, where he was both too drunk to stand, and suffering from a strained bladder, and surrounded by equally drunk (if more restrained) friends, he behaved like an impulsive mad man. But I am only observing him at his most extreme edge. I have no idea what he's like the rest of the time, so I can't make a solid diagnosis based on this.
Having finished this book , I went into a joint session on the human mind, with Richard Wiseman and Jon Ronson. Anyway, it was nearing the end of the question and answer session that a distressed lady came up to the microphone. She had not read the book, but had read in various reviews that it took a light hearted and comical view of mental disorders. Having suffered from mental disorders herself, she was not happy with what she saw as the trivialisation of these diseases.
It was for this reason I hung out at waterstones afterwards, so that if she turned up to attack him, I'd at least get a good view.
Whilst I was waiting for this event to occur (It didn't) I thought a bit more about her statement. Evidently, it was never the authors intention to trivialise mental disease. He references cases of people who genuinely suffered terribly from psychiatric disorders, and how doctors struggled to find ways to "cure" them. But this book isn't just about psychopaths, and those who we regard as mad. It is how we respond to madness in the modern era, and how this response affects us and our society as a whole.
What I'm saying is that I highly recommend that people read this book. In fact I would recommend you read it as I did, fumbling through a conversation with a personal idol, and then whilst absently consoling a drunken yob whose only real desire was a working lavatory.
Sixty-four years later: How Watson and Crick did it
17 hours ago in The Curious Wavefunction