This was my second day at Convergence.
Our first event of the day was led by Mary, at the Sandbox. The sandbox is a room set aside for hands-on activities — a lot of it is for kids, but some of the events are for adults, too, and some (like this one) are for both. She explained a little bit about owl behavior: they swallow their prey whole, mostly, and digest the tasty bits, and then regurgitate the undigestible stuff (fur and bones) into a pellet they puke out onto the ground. And then people collect these things and study them. So we had about 40 people of various ages in the room, each given a disgusting owl pellet, sharp sticks and forceps, a hand lens, and a guide to identifying the remains of the victims, and they went at it. Everyone was engrossed in it — we had to actually kick people out at the end of our hour so the next event could get started.
I later sat on a panel with Brianne Bilyeu, Laura Okagaki, me, Melissa Kaercher, and Greg Laden to talk about “Grosser than fiction”. Packing the panel with people who all had a biology background was a good idea — my discipline really has the most disgusting stories to tell. We first talked about exactly what this “disgust” thing is; it’s a feeling that clearly has a biological foundation, but what we find disgusting is culturally shaped. So Greg could talk about African pygmies who’d eat a dead monkey crawling with maggots, because they live in a culture with a lot of food anxiety, in which wasting meat is considered deplorable. Each of us biologists could talk about things we do routinely that others might find revolting, while at the same time there are quite common things we find icky. And then we told stories. I’m sorry, I’m not going to repeat them here. You should have registered for Convergence.
My last panel was “Penises of the Animal Kingdom”. This is becoming a bit of a tradition: Skepchickcon always has a session on the biology of sex offered late at night which is always packed and always hilarious. This year we went with penises. Last year it was the female orgasm. Next year, I don’t know, give us some ideas. This one was moderated by Desiree Schell, with Bug Girl (You always want Bug on these panels), Sharon Stiteler, Emily Finke, and me. Note that I was the sole penis-haver; last year it was guys with only one female orgasm-haver, so I guess this is another tradition. We showed pictures. We talked about outre penises. I talked about how penises are not as necessary as you think, and many animals don’t bother with them.
These sessions are always about good teaching, too, which is what I enjoy most about them. There is a tremendous amount of audience participation — we got nonstop questions and suggestions, which is how I wish all my classes worked. An enthusiastic audience asking excited questions about biology? Professorial nirvana. I have heard some complaints from people that they go to panels to hear the experts up front, but I think the best learning experience in the world is to get a lot of intense back-and-forth between students and teachers.
OK, and then back to our party room. This partnership with the Skepchicks is working out well: they had Amanda Marcotte DJing again, their room was full of loud music and people dancing, and the FtB room was a few decibels quieter and at least 10° cooler. Get it all, right there in two rooms!
It goes on today. I only have two events this time, but often Saturday night is the wildest evening for the parties. It’s not too late, come on out!