At some point I lost track of the number of different presentations during last week’s 2011 TED simulcast. Beyond standard 18-minute TED presentations, there were video segments, 3-minute talks, audience talks, musical interludes (from the house band comprised of teenagers), introductions of TED-related people, and Skype exchanges with remote simulcast locations (BTW, the Swiss had the right idea, holding their simulcast in a winery). Let’s just say there’s no way here to share every talk (that’s what the videos are for), every challenging idea, and every insight which didn’t occur to me until after all the live TED simulcast tweeting was over. To manage the glut of content, today’s post recaps a few of the more innovative science-oriented stand-out presentations. We’ll cover a few more presentations on Thursday (after a Wednesday post on creativity and taking time to reflect). Friday’s post will highlight the big ideas I took away from the 2011 TED simulcast.
The first simulcast session was titled “Deep Mystery,” and it was packed with really smart scientists and one cellist (hey, it’s TED). Scientists don’t talk in natural one-liners; their messages unfold and the big ideas emerge. This makes them tough to live tweet but yields loads of (and by “loads of,” I mean “too much”) blog content. Here are my “it’s been forever since I was in a science class, and when I was, we didn’t cover this stuff” reflections:
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explored what constitutes the conscious mind and our sense of self – the “me” in our minds. The critical connections are between the cerebral cortex (which provides the visual spectacle of our minds) and the brain stem (the grounding for the self), and between the brain stem and the body, which creates the autobiographical self, setting us apart from other life forms. The process depends on the interrelationship between the image-making and memory-forming parts of the brain, and the precise workings between them.
Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a geobiochemist, addressed a wondrous question: How do you know what you’re looking for if you’ve never seen it before? Her focus is identifying alternative microbiological systems both on earth and elsewhere. She claims we look at the tree of life too closely (ignoring many other branches), which causes us to notice great diversity and conclude ALL life must be comprised of the 6 elements making up everything we view as “living.” Wolfe-Simon’s contention is that taking a giant step back to look at the full tree of life opens the view to many other possible life forms. Searching for alternative biochemistries, she began by looking at elements in the periodic table adjacent to those we “know” comprise life, i.e. could a toxin such as arsenic substitute for nearby nitrogen or phosphorous? She indeed found an instance where arsenic does function in a life-supporting role. Her summary, applicable in SO many situations, is what we don’t know easily precludes us from seeing new forms of life all around us.
Physicist Aaron O’Connell discussed the “weirdness of quantum mechanics,” an area which has been confined to explaining small particles, not larger objects. The interplay between his logical and intuitive points of view launched him on a path to find quantum mechanics playing out on a visible scale, i.e., a visible object which could be in two places at once. Again, I won’t delve into the science, but using a small piece of metal, and getting everything around it (air, heat, etc.) away, allowed the metal to act very differently. O’Connell was able to get the metal to both vibrate and not vibrate at the same time – being in two places at once. He pointed out that the scale differences between an atom and the piece of metal is the same as between the piece of metal and humans, opening up a whole new set of considerations about our ability to be in two places at once.
The most accessible of the science presentations was from cognitive scientist Deb Roy whose remarks incorporated multiple elements which draw in audiences – kids, poignancy, and video of both. Roy installed cameras throughout his home to continuously capture activity (200 terabytes of video) with the purpose of better understanding how children (specifically his son) learn language. Through examining video “space time worms” it was possible to look at the connected places, events, and language which led to his son learning words. Roy demonstrated the technique being applied to media analysis to see how people engage and learn from media exposure.
The intriguing take-away for me was the interplay between proximity and connectedness throughout each of these talks. More about this Thursday in the take-away lessons.
Salman Khan, a former hedge fund manager and now YouTube education star, covered the inception and growth of his 12-minute tutorial videos on a variety of mathematical, scientific, and other topics. Growing out of a very informal and convenient means to help tutor his cousins, his videos are now seen by 1 million students monthly. The videos allow for time shifting classroom learning: teachers can use class time for direct student interaction and what is traditionally considered “home” work. Outside class, students are able to review the engaging tutorial videos at their own pace, potentially multiple times, with skills testing that creates enough repetition for a student to have to demonstrate mastery by getting 10 correct answers in a row before moving to the next topic. And since the learning is delivered online, Khan envisions a global classroom community where students around the world are in a position to help each other learn.
The First Big Picture Guy
Historian David Christian is the consummate intellectual integrator, tugging upon a wide range of disciplines to spin the story of “Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity.” The TED simulcast audience received an 18-minute version of the multiple billion year story, focusing on how, in a world governed by the second law of thermodynamics, the universe creates complexity. There’s no way to explain this presentation; it has to be viewed. The big fascinating revelation for me was this: Christian points to six threshold events between the big bang (which he puts at 13.7 billion years ago) and the emergence of the human species just 200,000 years ago. Hmmmmm. Know of any other big story of how we got here with six major time divisions? Coincidence? Probably not.
Thursday we’ll cover some additional 2011 TED simulcast presentations, including the 2011 TED prize winner who invites you to join in changing the world through REALLY big pictures.
What do you think? Are these TED overviews starting to suggest some big ideas for you? – Mike Brown
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