Sciencegeist: TEDxCaltech Recap: Part 1

Originally posted January 25, 2011

“I see your sleepy kitty and raise you EVERYTHING!”

January 25, 2011

Wow. TEDxCaltech totally blew my mind. So much so, that it’s been hard to organize my thoughts over the past week into anything resembling a coherent ScienceGeist post! This will, by no means, be a comprehensive account of the event; rather I hope it will serve as a decent representation. So please bear with me…

My awesome day with TED, Part One:

TEDxCaltech took place in the Beckman Auditorium on Friday, January 14, 2011 with the theme “Feynman’s Vision: The Next 50 Years“. The event was hosted by an absolutely brilliant poet by the name of Rives. I wanted to mention this first because I initially thought that the host would be nearly inconsequential in comparison to the speakers themselves. However, in addition to keeping things running smoothly, Rives seamlessly threaded heartfelt introductions, witty jokes and myriad complex ideas into something I can really only describe as a brain-storm tapestry. He expertly (and often hilariously) guided us through a maze of science, art, music and technology, ultimately helping us recognize Feynman’s Vision!

TEDxCaltech started like so many other conferences: checking in at 9am, putting on our name tags, idly chatting over free pastries and coffee in a courtyard. Except it just felt different. We (all 1,150 of us) didn’t know exactly what to expect, but we knew it would be different.

The line was loooong, wrapping around 3 buildings…

And different it was.

The program began with the eerie, somewhat discordant music of what was later dubbed “the TEDxCaltech Jam Band”. Headed up by Lyle Mays, the 5 membered group holding 11 Grammy Awards between them, took us on our first trip into Feynman’s Vision. Although this first performance often struck me as slow, arhythmic and downright strange, those 5 minutes of sound stripped away the outside world and prepared me to focus entirely on the inhabitants of that room.

One of the overarching themes was that of “accessibility” and it was beautifully addressed in the first session: “Conceptualization and Visualization in Science”

Richard Feynman, our unwitting inspiration, was a visionary extraordinaire. But more importantly, he was dedicated to communication and to simplification. While discussing how to answer many fundamental problems in biology in his famous talk entitled, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”, he says “You just look at the thing!

Richard Feynman in the classroom.

Well, okay. But HOW?

In the world of TED, the answer lies somewhere in the mix of these ideas…
-galaxy zoo
-art preservation
-the 4th paradigm of learning
(just to list a few)

Curtis Wong started us off with a bang! As the founder of the Next Media Group at Microsoft and the co-creator of, he guided us through the technology that seamlessly stitches together 2D images from both ground and space telescopes into a 3D world. You can download this free program to your computer and explore Mars, deep sea earthquakes, distant galaxies… basically EVERYTHING! You know that it’s cool, because I’m actually endorsing something from Microsoft…

From there we heard from Alex Szalay, Shuki Bruck, George Djorgovski and Eric Heller, all of whom drew our attention in their own way to the immediate need for new ways to handle data.

Alex Szalay works with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a robotic telescope that collects and stores digital images of our sky for the 3-D mapping of more the 930,00 galaxies and 120,000 quasars. Taking a cue from another “computing@home” project (see previous ScienceGeist article) called StarDust@home, the GalaxyZoo project uses data from SDSS and asks for help from the public. These “internet-astronomers” were asked to look at images and classify about a million galaxies. No problem. “Within 24 hours of launch, the site was receiving 70,000 classifications an hour…” with 150,000 people contributing 50 million classifications in the first year.

Szalay framed all this with a discussion of the “evolution of science”, noting that one thousand years ago we were driven by empirical observation, one hundred years ago by equations, decades ago by computation and simulations. Today we are data-driven. Calling for a “datascope”, he says we need a new instrument to view both the large and small scale of this “explosion of data”.

George Djorgovski, a Caltech professor, later echoed this in his talk where he described the 4th paradigm of learning as “data mining and exploration”. He spoke of empowerment. He spoke of a shift from “ownership of data” to “ownership of expertise”, where scientific analysis is no longer limited to the laboratory. If you have the intelligence and expertise, you can have access to the data and draw meaningful conclusions.

–As an aside–

It’s hard for me to think about this level of data distribution and analysis without drawing comparisons to the “blogosphere”. Here we are, with varying degrees of credentials, posting away. The internet is full of critics, politicians and scientists. How do we filter out the BS? I recently read a post from Alice Bell about her take on “Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries” and how she looks at “Science and its spam filter”. Food for thought…

–Back to TEDx–

In addition to the “datascope”, we need to examine how we think about the data, how we draw connections.

Sanjoy Mahajan led the charge on this (sub)topic. As a professor at MIT and the author of “Street-Fighting Mathematics”, he has honed his skills of thinking differently”, and more importantly, in the spirit of Feynman, of thinking “simply”. Claiming “rules are for fools”, he stood on a chair, holding nothing but two paper cones (think shaved ice) of different sizes, and proceeded to figure out the physics of drag. Mahajan described how scientific rigor can sometimes lead to paralysis (“rigor-mortis”, haha) and encouraged us to focus on “making connections”.

Within the scope of “Conceptualization and Visualization in Science”, Pamela Bjorkman, Dennis Callahan and Drew Berry brought down the house with their “vision” of science in the last part of Session One.

Callahan, a graduate student and multiple winner of Caltech’s “Art of Science” competition, reminded us of the inherent beauty of science. Comparing images of Ansel Adams’ photography with stunning SEM and TEM images from his lab, he urged us to take responsibility for preserving our art. He reminded us that the aesthetics of science can often lead us to truth, noting that sometimes “it’s so pretty, it has to be right”.

Bjorkman, a Caltech biology professor, has spent much of her research studying the interplay between the structure and function of biomolecules and has pioneered work on how the immune system recognizes targets. As a biochemist, I am well-versed in the language of her work and was initially concerned that she would either dumb it down or simply stick to the comfortable vernacular of her field. She did neither. Bjorkman gave us the bare-bones of the molecular challenges presented by HIV and then took us along on a journey through her “thought process”. She neatly illustrated how Feynman’s imperative to “just look at the thing!” can be used to engineer antibodies with “longer arms” capable of targeting the less dense and mutable receptors of HIV. Despite the technical nature of her talk, the use of Elmo from Sesame Street helped us all understand her point!

Elmo to the rescue!

And finally, Drew Berry gave us the incredible pleasure of watching clips of his biomolecular animation. Trained as a biologist and spectroscopist, Berry weaves together current mechanistic knowledge with actual molecular structures and microscopic data to give us an inside look at how nature moves, interacts and replicates. It’s hard to describe in words, so I will just point you to one of his videos found on YouTube (there are many!)

As the session began with music, so it ended. Feynman had a long-standing infatuation with Tuva, a small republic in the far south of Siberia. In honor of his desire to reach Tuva, TEDxCaltech brought us Kongar-ol Ondar, a master Tuvan throat-singer. Throat singing (or overtone-singing) is where the singer creates multiple notes simultaneously. The result is stunning. No video clip will do justice, but here is one anyway: Ondar performing on the Letterman Show

Overall, the first session of TEDxCaltech left me dazed. I literally walked out of the auditorium and felt blinded (after all, it was awfully bright outside). I felt inspired and alive and ready for the future. Mostly, I felt an overwhelming desire to communicate…

– to be continued–