Physicists at TED Global Conference

The hallowed halls of Oxford University have been echoing with even more good ideas than usual lately. Last week the venerable institution hosted the 2009 TED Global Conference. A sort of variety show for the mind, the conference featured talks by innovators, thinkers, musicians, artists, architects, scientists, and even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (warning before you click: his talk is about pretty tough stuff, and includes photos from war zones in the first few minutes.)

If you haven’t heard of TED, go right to the website. There you can find videos of talks by anyone from famed primatologist Jane Goodall to engaging string theorist Brian Greene, and former UN director Louise Fresco to aspiring millennium man Ray Kurzweil. The brainchild of WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. It’s like a mini-YouTube for the most daring, unusual, thought-provoking ideas (and thinkers) out there. Think of it like the Harvard classics, except fast paced—each talk lasts less than twenty minutes—and in living color, often with props and not-your-average PowerPoints.

Of course, wherever great thinkers gather you will also find physicists. This year’s global conference included several physicists, astronomers, mathematicians and inventors in their lineup. It’s only fitting; what could be more daring, innovative, and “out there” than quantum computing or energy from plasma fusion? TED will be posting the videos on their site in the next few weeks, so I’ve highlighted some of the ones to look out for:

Marcus du Sautoy is an Oxford mathematician, author, and science ambassador. I like him because he writes and talks about math puzzles and ideas the way the rest of us go on and on about a favorite food. He writes a maths (yes, plural, because he’s British) column for the Times called Sexy Maths, which I find to be an incredible feat in itself, though I’m bewildered as to why it appears online in the women’s section next to articles about casual fashion and divorce parties.
Steven Cowley is a plasma physicist and director of the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Culham Laboratory. Forget about cold fusion; Cowley’s trying to turn fusion into a source of energy, really. That means working with 150-million-degree gases. He says electricity from fusion might be only 20 years away, if we can muster the brain power and the dollars. Because my reaction is initially, “Yeah, that and every other enewable energy idea,” I can’t wait for his talk to go online. I’m looking forward to being convinced.
Garik Israelian is an astrophysicist and is in charge of the world’s largest telescope, located on one of Spain’s Canary Islands. It was inaugurated on Friday under the auspices of the king of Spain, and Israelian had to cut out early from TED in order to celebrate. His talk was about spectroscopy–how matter interacts with electromagnetic radiation. (Israelian’s t-shirt in the video just linked says it all.) Astronomers peer at the universe in infrared, visible, UV, X, and gamma radiation, hunting for the signatures of different elements, our sharpest clues to what’s happening millions of lightyears away.

William Kamkwamba doesn’t have a Ph.D. (he’s only 19, after all), but he’s got all the characteristics of a great physicist–imagination, ingeniousness, and resourcefulness. He’s also living proof of the aphorism, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Kamkwamba, who hails from Malawi, couldn’t afford to go to high school but figured out how to build a scrap-metal windmill to power his house just from looking at a few outdated physics books from the library. I’m really looking forward to seeing his talk. And great news for anyone who wants to meet him: he’ll be making an appearance at Science Chicago’s Labfest on August 21st!
Finally, physics was even part of the musical repertoire of the conference. Lydia Kavina, who, according to her site, “began studying the theremin at the age of 9 under the direction of her great-uncle Léon Theremin himself,” performed for the conference on the world’s only touch-free instrument:

The theremin-player moves his hands near two antennas. The proximity of the right hand to the vertical antenna changes the electromagnetic field thus changing the pitch of the sound over a six-octave range. Left hand controls the volume.

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