Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Brunch with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

So, this is pretty long, and there may not be many who will enjoy it. But if you've ever met one of your heroes, perhaps you will relate...

On May 1, 2013, I attended an event at a swanky hotel in downtown Toronto, Ontario. I found out about the event on Sunday. When I saw the announcement, I almost fell off my chair in my rush to email my bosses and ask if I could have Wednesday off. Then I waited on tenterhooks for 24 hours -- 24 hours!! -- for an answer.

Yes, sure! Take the day, came the answer.

I swooned with delight and rushed to send in my registration online. I opted for the premium registration, for which I would receive a free book and preferred seating at the event. It was ridiculously expensive, even for the regular registration, but I reasoned that I would possibly never have such an opportunity again, and I didn't want to cheap out and deprive myself of the full experience. We're talking about the level of event of a lifelong hockey fan meeting his hero, Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky, that's how big these guys are to me, and I didn't want to miss out on anything.

So, I drove down to Toronto on Tuesday night and stayed in a Holiday Inn downtown. In the morning I got up early and went to find the other hotel where the event was taking place (I couldn't afford to stay there, which would have been was $450 a night!). As I entered the hotel, who did I pass within two feet of but one of the two fellows I'd gone down there to see. Almost fainted with excitement and didn't have the presence of mind to say hello.

The next two hours or so were waiting to get into the event room and then waiting for things to really begin. The man sitting next to me had the same surname as I do (I guess the organizers thought we were related). Lucky you will see very soon. The woman across from me was doing her best to have a terrible time. The moment she sat down, all she did was sniff her nose at the measly trade paperback she got for free because it wasn't the hard-cover, colour, illustrated version, which she already owned anyway, and dug around in the little goodie bag we each got and criticized everything in it (it was a wee bottle of Magic Water...very cute LOL). She just sat there saying how cheap the organizers were and being a total cunt. I just watched her. I couldn't believe anyone could be such a high-toned bitch. Didn't ruin MY day though, no sir! LOL She probably went home and whined about everything. I went home walking three feet off the ground. Can you guess who had a better time?

Finally the big moment arrived and the two guests of honor walked into the room to a rousing standing ovation...there were only fifty or sixty people, so the noise we made was quite astonishing.

Professors Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist, and Lawrence Krauss the American theoretical physicist.

I almost wet myself with excitement. Richard Dawkins!!!! He of "The God Delusion" and "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker" and many other wonderful books. One of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheist movement (the other three being Dan Dennet, Sam Harris, and the sadly departed Christopher Hitchens). The only way I could possibly have been more excited would have been if Hitchens was still alive and there in the room with us.

Lawrence Krauss was quite a thrill to see also. I have only more recently become aware of him. He's kind of moved in to fill the gaping hole left in the atheist community by the death of Hitchens. He's a wonderful communicator.

So these two men moved through the middle of the room and walked right past me to the front. (By the way, I was seated at the very front, centre of the room, just five feet away from where Dawkins and Krauss would be seated). SO glad I bought the premium ticket!!

As they reached the front, Dawkins did a double take at the man next to me who shared my surname and made a beeline for him with his hand out. "I remember you! We met in Oxford!" And so began a five or ten minute conversation between the two, with me sitting right there nodding and smiling and just totally basking in the fact that Richard Dawkins...RICHARD DAWKINS!! Was chatting with a guy right beside me. The guy, who said he was a friend of P.Z. Myers, another American biologist extremely well known in the atheist world, had gone with P.Z. to Oxford to meet with Dawkins to discuss their differences about evolution. Oh, how I wish I'd had time to chat with my seatmate about all that fascinating stuff.

Krauss eventually came around to our table also and used the empty part of it to sign peoples' books and stuff. I got him to sign my event agenda. He even asked my name and wrote his own name out in printing as well, as he knew people would doubt who it was since the signature itself was unintelligible LOL. See? Fangirl!

Eventually everyone got back to their seats and the formal part of the event began. Krauss spoke first, for about 15 minutes because he had to leave at 10:15. But I found him to be a wonderful communicator who was really enjoyable to listen to. His childlike excitement about the things he studies, about the wonders of the cosmos, was truly a delight to witness, and totally infectious. He's like the new Carl Sagan, I swear...but he's funnier than Sagan, which is really groovy. You could think of Krauss as the love child of Carl Sagan and Woody Allen (except without Allen's annoying self-deprecation). Small, very casual, and with a face so severely pock-marked by teenaged acne scars you can't help wondering how he even survived those years with the teasing he must have gotten. Pizza-face doesn't even begin to describe it. His skin must have resembled raw hamburger.

Dawkins presents a much more elegant picture. You could maybe call it shabby elegance. He wears his hair in such a way that it always seems to be floating around his head, a little bit uncontrolled, and his tentative smile is given out very selfishly, perhaps because of a ingrained British reticence, or maybe it's those bad British teeth. He has a very appealing, soft voice, very cultured...and don't British people always just *sound* smarter?? LOL

Dawkins was at the podium for at least an hour and a quarter, almost all of which was answering questions from the audience, which was really much more enjoyable than just sitting and watching him deliver a prepared speech. He does have an excellent sense of humour also...more ironic, dry and sardonic than Krauss's, but I guess that's to be expected from a Brit.

Truly, I barely remember a thing either of them said. I was just so thrilled to be there, hearing them speak live, interacting with the people around me. There was a guy there videoing the whole thing, so I hope that's available soon to be viewed online. If/when it is, I may post a link here.

After all the speaking was done, there was another hour or so of mingling. I got Dawkins to sign my copy of his book "The Magic of Reality" which I received as a gift for my premium registration. Squee!!! I was so excited I got tongue-tied just saying "So happy to meet you, Profess..fessor Dawkins." LOL

After a while, Dawkins went back to his seat at the head table to sign more books, and I noticed some people were giving their digital cameras and cell phones to the event photographer and going to sit next to Dawkins to have their photo taken with him. So, I braved up and did the same and now I'm tickled pink to have a really nice photo of myself sitting right beside him. He stopped signing and posed with nice. I'm going to have it printed on nice paper and framed. (It'll go right next to my only other famous-person photo, the pic of me with now-ex-Canadian-prime-minister Paul Martin on the day he took office).

I confess, once I got the photo taken, I didn't really see a point in sticking around. There were so many people crowding in front of him I couldn't see him anyway, so at that point I left. Driving home, I had this wonderful feeling of euphoria, which still lingers a little today.

There are very few people on this planet who I can say would affect me in such a way. If Hitchens were still alive and I got to meet him, I swear I'd probably break down and cry like a teenager at a Beatles concert (though I wouldn't scream...that wouldn't be seemly LOL). I saw Stephen King interviewed live in Toronto one time a couple of years ago, and I was just as excited to see that giant of my reading world sitting right there thirty feet from me on the stage. Got a little teary, I did! Dawkins and Krauss was so much better though because I got to meet them, shake their hands, get their signatures, say a word with them. So freaking awesome. I'll never forget it.