Thursday, February 28, 2008

TED Wednesday: Literally, a Stroke of Luck

Each TED is framed around a theme that allegedly drives the agenda, though most presentations can be adapted to the theme of the day. The theme of TED2008 is The Big Questions. Yesterday's afternoon sessions were titled Who Are We? and What is our Place in the Universe?Ted08leakey

Louise Leakey started off with a history of our and related species, as developed from the fossil record. A third generation fossil hunter, Leakey shared stories of slowly and routinely combing over African landscapes for days at a time searching for that rare piece of ancient hominid skull.

Stanford particle physicist Patricia Burchat taught us, in clear and simple words, how it is that we identify and quantify the "dark matter" that comprises 25% of our universe's mass, and the "dark energy" that comprises 70% of our universe. She illustrated the way that stars cluster in spheres of dark matter, as evidenced by the rings we see around them from background stars whose light bends around them in radial symmetry.

Artist Chris Jordan presented his art, contemporary images that, upon closer scrutiny, are actually made up of thousands or millions of some other image. His aim is to assist us in getting our minds around the massive numbers that we cannot otherwise fathom, such as the eleven hundred Americans whom cigarettes kill everyday, the 4 million plastic cups used every day on commercial airlines, or the 2.3 millions uniforms issued in 2005 to US prisoners, who account for 25% of the world's prison population (partial zoom on the right).

Stephen Hawking presented next by televideo. From his specialized wheelchair he presented a talk on the history of our universe, the likelihood of finding alien intelligent life, and the importance of space colonization for the survival of our species. Incredibly, he presented his comments, and the answers to questions, through a voice-generating computer mechanism controlled only by Hawking's mouth twitches.

Anthropologist Wade Davis presented a collage of images and stories from disappearing cultures. Preachy, a little new age, and hardly memorable. Moving right along...

Paleontologist Peter Ward presented the thesis of his book Rare Earth, which paints a more pessimistic outlook for finding intelligent alien life than Hawking did.

As we contemplated our place in the universe, John Hodgman (John Stewart cast member who plays the PC in Apple's commercials) told the story of his four encounters with aliens. Hodgman kept us in stitches. I wish I could relay the highlights, but you'll have to watch it on TED's site or on their DVD. (Or you can buy his book.)

Another highlight of the day was the story of Harvard-trained Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. Inspired by mental health disease in her own family, Taylor became a professor of brain anatomy at Indiana U. Med School. But in a literal stroke of luck that was both terrible and ultimately beneficial, Taylor suffered a stroke at home that took her eight years to recover from. Her recollection of that morning in 1996 is most enlightening: while she sensed the shutdown of her left hemisphere (the serial conductor of thought and language), she experienced first-hand a glimpse into the right hemisphere of the brain. In the spirit of neuropathologist Oliver Sacks (Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, Musicophilia), Taylor examined her own pathology from the inside, developing a unique understanding of how the right hemisphere functions as a parallel processsor of our sensory inputs. Even in the the throes of a painful cerebral hemmorhage that deprived her the ability to speak or comprehend language, Dr. Taylor still deliberately observed and studied her cognitive experience. She keenly sensed internal bodily signals that normally fade into background. Relieved of temporal awareness, Taylor lost all sense of past and future, of stress and work, of responsibility and risk. It was fascinating to hear her description of feeling euophoria ("I felt at one with the universe") and dis-connectedness from her body--highly reminiscent of the feelings commonly reported in near-death situations when the left hemisphere is likely to have shut down.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar the spiritual teacher was (I hope) the lowlight of TED. His yogic message "All you need is love" wasn't any more compelling than his new age breathing techniques. I want my 18 minutes back.

For the sake of blog etiquette, I'll refrain from reviewing the musical performances, Shakespearean monologue, and short stories that punctuated the feature presentations. But I will point out that these diversions greatly enrich the TED experience, breaking up the heavy regimen of mental exercise.

Bottom line: Stephen Hawking, Chris Jordan, John Hodgman, and Jill Taylor were the highlights of the day.

Photo credits: Bruno Giussani

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  1. Let's say that if you borrow pictures from other blogs, it would be decent to mention and thank them and maybe even link to them.

  2. Bruno,

    Well, I guess I'm just indecent!

    I didn't think it would be necessary to specifically credit TED staff for each and every every photo from the conference. I stand corrected. I have accommodated your demand for a credit and link.

    Can TED members get access to the speakers' photos, like you do?