Tony Delamothe at TED 2008

The TED conference runs for three days each February in Monterey, California. The acronym stands for technology, entertainment, and design.

Day 1

A pre-recorded Stephen Hawking was on hand to confirm that yes, we might really be alone in the universe. Third generation paleoanthropologist, Louise Leakey, told us that while we’re pretty fantastic among the upright hominids we might end up surviving for less time than any of them. Why are we wrecking our habitat, and those of the world’s other species, at such a horrific pace? We’re all brothers and sisters, we all originally came out of Africa.

The theme of this year’s TED conference was “The Big Questions.” This first day asked “Who are we?” and “What is our place in the Universe.” Punchdrunk by the end, I thought the last words of the Rocky Horror Show were a fair summation:

“And travelling across the planet’s face
Some insects, called the human race
Lost in time, lost in space, and meaning.”

And like the Rocky Horror Show it had been a wild ride. The conference favourite was Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who was attracted to her field by her brother’s schizophrenia. Until one day, as the programme note had it, a blood vessel exploded in her brain. In a well honed cabaret act, Taylor relived the first few hours as half her brain went on and off the blink. She loved it when she was just right brain –she felt powerful and beautiful and in a sort of Nirvana. If only we could kick off the backward looking, forward looking, calculating left brain a bit more we would be happier. It took brain surgery and eight years’ rehabilitation to return her to normal. She was practically in tears by the end of her talk, as were many of those who gave her the first standing ovation of the meeting. Me, I was left seated, wondering where all this left brain/right brain stuff had come from. Obviously, it had arisen some time since I was a neurological registrar. Someone must have written “a history of the idea of” sort of book on the topic by now.

Palaeontologist Peter Ward had a medical angle too. His focus was on mass extinctions of animals like the dinosaurs, in which he believes hydrogen sulphide has played a big part. Because mammals, or the ancestors of mammals, survived the insults (H2S is a very noxious gas) he believes that giving very sick people the gas would drop their core temperature and slow their metabolic rate, which might increase their chances for survival during transfer. I didn’t follow every twist and turn of this – he was rushed for time – but this may not be one to try at home just yet.

Anthropologist Wade Davis (a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence) has been living with many different indigenous peoples throughout his life. His message: other cultures do not represent failed attempts at humanity; we must be the facilitators of human survival. Particle physicist Patricia Burchat took us through dark matter and dark energy, but according to the computer scientist I met on the bus, she dodged mention of the two rival theories that explain the universe (the string theory and the other one) and how they may both be wrong. (And where does that leave us?)

My favourite of the day was photographer Chris Jordan, who tries to do justice to statistics that are too big to comprehend. He showed a photograph of 4.3 million prison uniforms (the number of US citizens in prison at any one time). Another uses thousands of Barbie dolls to represent the number of breast augmentations done in the US, mostly in women under 20. (It’s now the most popular graduation present.) His motivation: “I have this fear that we’re not feeling enough. We’ve lost our anger.” How do we get from contemplating what’s wrong with the world to doing something about it? Righting wrongs starts with ourselves.

When there was a technical problem with the BBC’s World Debate, scheduled at the end of the day, up popped actor Robin Williams for an impromptu riff that had the tears rolling down the audience’s faces (think answer machine with a message dictated by a Xhosa with a stutter gets you halfway there).

As Williams was at pains to say, he was old media. The debate, once it got started, was a sort of whither new media?, and included Google’s Sergei Brin, Queen Noor of Jordan, and All the President’s Men reporter Carl Bernstein. Queen Noor went on at great length at the misrepresentation of Muslim people by the mainstream US media in the run up to the Iraq war. The media had now become constitutive of the problems facing the Middle East. The world needs more queens like her.

For more details of the conference see Later in the year the talks will be available for free downloading from the site (also iTunes).


Day 2

A thirteen hour stretch which had its darker moments but ended on a high.

The first session was entitled “What is life?” and who better than Craig Venter to kick it off. He’s busy synthesising genes – his goal: to program organisms to create fuels that use carbon dioxide as the source of carbon, thus killing the twenty first century’s two biggest birds with one stone. What’s there not to like? Well, according to the corridor conversations, lots. Will all the organisms he creates end up being benign?

Venter was scathing about such criticism. Commenting on the opposition to genetic manipulation, he lampooned Europeans as wanting “DNA free food.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a presidential historian, who described the lives of Lincoln and Johnson. With no idea of an afterlife, Lincoln wanted his achievements to live on after his death. Despite his hardscrabble upbringing, Lincoln loved Shakespeare and the theatre, managing to go 100 times a year (which ultimately proved fatal, of course).

By contrast, LBJ’s life was so taken up with work that in retirement neither family, recreations, or hobbies provided solace and he died alone, unhappy.

“Is beauty truth?” was the topic of the next section. Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Fittest, was indisposed, but there was a fantastic ad from Dove aimed at parents of teenage girls that almost made up for her absence

Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, fleshed out the plans for an arts complex in Abu Dhabi, which made one want to relocate now (branches of the Guggenheim, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Pompidou, Musee Picasso, Yale etc)

Surfer dude, Garrett Lisi, lives in a van on Maui and writes papers with titles like “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything. ” He said we can expect big things from the Hadron particle accelerator at CERN later this year – maybe even the Higgs particle and several others which his model predicts. (It’s based on a mathematical shape called E8, with 248 symmetries.) If he’s wrong it will be like wiping out while surfing, he says, no big deal for Garrett who will return to his idyllic existence in his Kombi by the beach.

I don’t know why TED, or anybody really, cares so much about cosmology.

Someone in some session had said that America had become a fear based society, and I was apprehensive about the next session entitled “Will evil prevail?” The programme featured serious looking faces who were due to discuss rogue nuclear attacks, Islamic terrorism, and Abu Ghraib.

In the event, Irwin Redlener, public health doctor, made a perfectly coherent case for the possibility of a terrorist attack involving nuclear material and how we could take actions to “protect and survive” in its immediate aftermath. He said we’re too influenced by our correct assessment that in a nuclear war such actions would be futile, but if we’re talking of say a single explosion in Manhattan then there’s lots we could do to increase our chances or survival.

Eight hours on I’m still getting flashbacks from Philip Zimbardo’s talk. A social psychiatrist, he was an expert witness at the Abu Ghraib trials. Long before that he led the (in)famous Stanford Prison Study, where Stanford university students were divided up into prisoners and jailers. Such was the inhumanity of the “jailers” and the psychic stress to the “prisoners” that the experiment was abandoned after 6 days.

Fast forward to the Abu Ghraib trials. Zimbardo had access not only to the degrading photos of Muslim prisoners we’d already seen, but to “over a thousand of them,” the really good (bad) ones spliced together to convince us that good US army reservists could do really bad things. While Zimbardo blamed not the individuals or the situation, but the system (man), I was left wondering about the ethics of an expert witness sharing these unbearable images with 1300 strangers. Did Zimbardo have these prisoners’ consent? Wasn’t using them to make a moderately banal point doubly dehumanising? Which led me to wondering about the level of consent for the Stanford Prison Study all those years ago. Three subjects apparently suffered severe psychiatric breakdowns.

And then came a session that restored my faith in mankind: the TED prizes. Each year TED gives three individuals $100 000 to realise their dream. First off was Dave Eggars, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (my inflight reading), who set up 826 Valencia, which provides one to one tuition for students with their English homework. It’s been a phenomenal success, with branches all over the US and one due to open in Dublin soon (under the aegis of Roddy Doyle). It’s a work of staggering genius and emotional too, if not exactly heartbreaking, but you’ll need to see the video of the talk to appreciate that. (I’ll post the link as soon as it’s available.)

Second up was Cambridge based, South African born cosmologist Neil Turok. For the record, he thinks the big bang was explained as a collision between two “brane-worlds,” but his award came for setting up the African Institute for Mathematical Studies (AIMS) in Cape Town. His wish – to set up AIMS all over Africa. (His dream – that the next Einstein will be African.) I think he almost cured me of my Afropessimism, in one fell swoop.

The third TED prizewinner was former nun, Karen Armstrong. Her talk was the sort of sermon I wouldn’t mind going to church to hear. Her message is that if you’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim, forget belief – it only acquired its current meaning in the seveteenth century anyway. Compassion, as enshrined in the Golden Rule, is it. She wants the leading lights of the three Abrahamic religions to come up with a Charter for Compassion.

Scrolling back through the day’s 13 hours of input, that seemed to have a lot going for it.

For more details of the conference see Later in the year the talks will be available for free downloading from the site (also iTunes).


Day 3

After last night’s high of hearing about this year’s TED prizewinners comes a review of what has been achieved by last year’s prizewinners. You choose one of the three and head off to a breakfast meeting (starting at 7am).

I am chasing up entomologist EO Wilson’s wish: to create an online Encyclopedia of Life, which would inspire preservation of the Earth’s biodiversity. And the first stage was triumphantly completed a few days’ earlier: The website is a taster for an ultimate online resource documenting all the world’s 1.8 million known species (plus the millions more that remain to be discovered).

(What is it about entomologists and grand visions? Wilson is the world’s expert on ants; Alfred Kinsey was a specialist on the gall wasp before he took on human sexuality.)

At the breakfast, 78 year old Wilson gave a witty speech quoting Salvador Dali. He talked of the problem of information being “sequestered in a very small number of places” – which is bad for everybody but particularly bad for those in developing countries.

The site will have curators from the scientific community, but anybody will be able to post material. (“Crowdsourcing” was the word used.) There’s a cursor beside each entry which allows users to decide the level of complexity they want to read.

It seemed like a great model for a free online textbook of medicine.

Then back to the meeting proper for the session on “How do we create?” Novelist Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) did her best to explain where it all came from, but ultimately spun out. Every story needs a mystery that needs to be solved, she said, placing a large black bag in front of her on the stage. By the end of her talk, out popped a miniature dog. Slightly bigger than Paris Hilton’s, it accompanied her to the post conference parties. Keeping to the spirit of Amy’s talk, I’d say that the dog had something to do with the brother she lost in childhood (from a brain tumour, in the same year that her father, too, died of a brain tumour).

How much is history destiny? Many speakers this year seemed comfortable to track back their life’s work to formative experiences. Humanist designer, Yves Behar, dwelled at some length on his shared Swiss and Turkish heritage. His output includes the XO laptop for One Laptop per Child. A quotation he heard that changed the course of his career was “Advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal.”

A good point – how much advertising have you seen for Google (or Hotmail, or Skype)?

Origami is undergoing a renaissance, and the difference according to origami artist, Robert J Lang, is math. There are lots of scientific spinoffs from techniques that allow large structures to be shrunk down into the smallest possible space – and then reconstituted. Examples include a heart stent from Oxford’s Zhong You (based on the familiar “blow up box”), and a massive telescope lens that needed to be larger than the diameter of any rocket that could take it into space.

Tod Machover, head of the MIT Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group, talked about music and the brain, and especially his work at longstay Tewksbury Hospital near Boston. And then, providing one of the meeting’s emotional peaks, wheeled onto the stage 34 year old Dan Ellsey, who had severe cerebral palsy. Using Hyperscore and special infrared tracking devices Ellsey played one of the many pieces of music he had written, Eagle Song. Arguably more musically interesting than anything else played that day (with the exception of bits of Chopin and Beethoven) his performance was followed by a 5 minute standing ovation, with hardly a dry eye in the house.

Why was I crying? Honestly? Because I’ve written off the creative capacities of people with the degree of physical impairment that comes with severe cerebral palsy. And I’ve discovered that I’m wrong. And yes, there’s a bit of that sentimentality that powers films about the triumph of the human spirit over disability to the Oscars (Rain Man, My Left Foot).

In the words of the session’s MC, my heart was full and my spirit was soaring, but where was I going to do lunch? Each of the three TED prize wishes had a lunch meeting, where participants were asked to help take things forward. I had a ticket for Dave Eggers’ lunch but a friend had a spare ticket for Neil Turok’s. At such an emotion charged moment I thought the decision would be life changing, maybe even life defining. Egger’s wish was that “you and every creative individual and organisation you know- will find a way to directly engage with a public [ie “state”] school in your area” [see http://www.] Here was my opportunity to (finally) engage in community service, where I was convinced there was a need, and where I had useful skills. I shouldn’t be waiting for retirement to do this.

Then there was Neil Turok’s wish: “to help unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein.” Stick with this one, I thought, and I would finally banish the Afro-pessimism from my heart. The Africans I’d encountered at the meeting had already started me on that journey – supporting Turok’s plans to spread the model of his African Institute of Mathematical Sciences across Africa would finish it. So to Turok’s lunch I went.

Back to the meeting and more cosmology, followed by ocean exploration, mushrooms, crows, and redwoods. Then Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, explained why the normal distribution isn’t a helpful way of thinking about the universe ( 9/11? Google? – the random events that really matter aren’t predictable). Futurist Peter Schwartz dusted off Paul Ehrlich’s formula that impact=population X affluence X technology. He thought the answer was promising – population growth is slowing – “the last doubling of the human population has occurred,” affluence is increasing, and he thinks technology will help us move to cheaper, less destructive sources of energy.

Decision scientist and doctor, Sue Goldie, described just how complicated it was to assess the cost effectiveness of interventions against common virally transmitted diseases such as cervical cancer. Many other speakers at the meeting applied their science with a broad brush stroke; Goldie’s account was appropriately fine-grained – probably too much so for many of the audience, who wanted to be entertained or intrigued or uplifted.

Ex-editor of Time and now CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson pondered the future of narrative. In the beginning of human civilisation he imagined that stories around the campfire were collaborative, iterative, and interactive. Even much later on, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Song of Roland weren’t the works of a single person.

With the invention of the printing press and later film, narratives became fixed. The new digital world hasn’t reinvented narrative (yet). The distribution channels may have changed, but it’s still old wine in new bottles, he said.

He looked at hints of how things might be changing – wikieditorials tried by the Los Angeles Times and avatars in online gaming, whose actions can change the plot. Might we, Isaacson wonders, be returning to our ancestors’ world of collaborative, iterative, and interactive stories?

Helen Fisher is obsessed by romance (I heard her on the subject at TED 2006.) Possibly following on from the BMJ’s report of an MRI of a couple having intercourse, she has been putting couples in various states of love in MRIs and watching their brain activity. Her work on couples very much in love has already been published – it showed increased activity in the ventral tegmental area. She’s since looked at people desperately in love who’ve just been dumped – and found the same increased activity, plus activity in a few more areas. She’s just started scanning people who claim still to be very much in love after 20 years and found the same pattern. (S0 that’s everyone then. I need to read the papers.)

She’s moved on to ponder why people fall in love. She thinks there are four personality types – oestrogenic, testosteronic, dopaminic, and serotoninic, and her dating website has questions that she’s devised to allocate people into one of these four groups. She’s on the brink of analysing the data to see whether this helps explain why people fall in love.

Maybe everything she does stands up to scientific scrutiny. It’s just that she’s pitched her presentation to her audience better than say decision scientist Sue Goldie.

The day ends with Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander, leading the entire audience, on their feet, belting out at the top of their lungs, unaccompanied, Beethoven’s Ode to joy. No, I wouldn’t have believed it either.

The songsheets we are handed read: “FROY-DER, SHER-NER, GETTER-FOON-KEN”

But Zander is careful to explain what Schiller’s words mean, line by line. They’re beautiful, and are all about human possibility.

For more details of the conference see Later in the year the talks will be available for free downloading from the site (also iTunes)


Day 4

The final morning starts on a sombre note with Paul Collier (whose book, The Bottom Billion, was one of the triggers for an editorial in the BMJ last Christmas). What can we do about those stuck in poverty in the world’s poorest countries?

Of course, they need our compassion (one of the key words of the conference). But more importantly, they need to improve their governance. The proceeds of the current boom in commodities is providing a windfall to many of the world’s poorest countries. The new money now outstrips that received as aid. For the average Nigerian, however, that country’s oil and gas bonanza might never have happened. Even yesterday’s incurable optimist, Peter Schwartz, had singled out Nigeria’s dismal performance.

What these countries need is to honour international standards such as extraction revenues transparency, which requires governments reporting to their populations the revenues of extraction. Verified auctions could be used to set prices instead of cosy deals done between government officials and companies. (The British Treasury’s sale of 3G licences was quoted approvingly.)

Al Gore’s sights were set on saving the planet. TED2006 had him presenting his standup version of “An Inconvenient Truth.” Now, a Nobel Peace prize later, he wants people to go beyond changing their lightbulbs to changing their laws. The challenges of global warming require a new “very active citizenship.” He wants the planetary emergency to inspire a sense of “generational mission.”

Bob Geldof’s presentation started with biography – his mother’s early death, his travelling salesman father at home only on weekends, the non-sporty boy’s escape route to the world beyond – Radio Luxembourg. To form a punk rock group, the Boomtown Rats, didn’t seem that surprising. Then came the news report on the 1984 famine in Ethiopia and Band Aid, Live Aid, and Live 8.

Now he’s obsessed by documenting all the remaining cultures on earth before they disappear. In aspiration, it resembled EO Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life (see Day 3). It was a downbeat end to three days by the sea.

For more details of the conference see Later in the year the talks will be available for free downloading from the site (also iTunes).