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7 things learned from a day spent watching TEDxCERN

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Wednesday marked the second-ever TEDxCERN, the event organized by the folks at CERN, the famed particle physics research center in Geneva, Switzerland, responsible for bringing us the World Wide Web, the Large Hadron Collider, and confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson. You know, just a few minor things.

TEDxCERN brought together a mix of experts from across the sciences and the world, people all working to answer the question: “What are the big ideas in science that will help us address tomorrow’s major global problems?” Particle physicist (and three-time TED speaker) Brian Cox served as quippy host, while more than a thousand attendees watched live, in a giant tent nearby CERN’s iconic Globe of Science and Innovation.

If you weren’t one of the lucky thousand, or were too swamped with work to catch the live webcast, don’t despair. We watched for you. And created a list of things we learned.

  1. Water is weird. So says water molecule expert Marcia Barbosa, who defended the continued study of the molecule by explaining that it has 70 anomalies—much more than that of silicon, a “sexier” subject due to its role in technological innovation. Barbosa closely studies the properties of water flow; and her research involving water and nanotubes could lead to better, faster methods of desalinating ocean water to meet future water demands (as science writer Marcos Pivetta explains here).
  2. Thanks to a particle detector mounted on the International Space Station, scientists are keeping tabs on a lot of cosmic rays. The number is over 54,000,000,000, and is increasing every second. CERN physicist Veronica Bindi explains how and why in this TED-Ed lesson.
  3. A surprising threat to the rainforest? Noise. When speaker Topher White began working to combat illegal logging in Sumatra, he and his team were stymied by the constant din provided by resident monkeys, birds and other creatures, which actually drowned out the sound of chainsaws being used by unauthorized loggers. To solve the problem, he invented a solar-powered device out of recycled cell phones that detects chainsaw noise and sends an alert to users’ inboxes. (Read about the device here.)
  4. The future of antibiotics may lie in silver nanoparticles. Oxford University’s Sonia Trigueros is one of the many people who has put considerable study into the material, which benefits from both silver’s natural antibacterial properties and its ability to kill unwanted cells via hydroxyl radicals. (Read a quite-technical analysis of her and others’ attempts to stabilize the nanoparticles in solution.)
  5. Cardiovascular medicine is becoming easier to get in Cameroon. This is thanks to young inventor Andrew Zang, who has created the Cardiopad — an electronic tablet that enables an electrocardiogram (ECG) to be performed on a patient almost anywhere, even in some of the most remote villages, with the results transmitted wirelessly for a specialist to assess. In a country where, in 2013, there was only one physician for every 12,500 people, this is a big deal.
  6. We owe our lives to aerosol particles. This has to do with clouds, sun and temperature, and not so much hairspray. TED-Ed explains it best in this enlightening lesson by CERN physicist Jasper Kirkby, member of the CLOUD experiment at CERN, which — appropriately — is searching out fantastic new information about our cumulus, cirrus and other cloud friends.
  7. Despite what it may seem at times, we are living in a hugely exciting moment. Julien Lesgourgues is a cosmologist and author of The Cosmic Linear Anisotropy Solving System (CLASS), a code cosmologists use in simulating the universe. Lesgourgues spoke of the massive thrill of living in a world where we are able to glean so much information about our universe from data, and encouraged the audience to “enjoy the privilege of being part of the first generation of humans who understand the secrets of our universe.” Though we’d bet money that there are more secrets to uncover.
Brian Cox hosted TEDxCERN, entertaining an audience of 1200 as well as an online audience around the globe. Photo: Courtesy of @TEDxCERN

Brian Cox hosted TEDxCERN, entertaining 1200 attendees plus an online audience from around the globe. Photo: Courtesy of @TEDxCERN

The Globe of Science and Innovation at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The famed science hub celebrated its 60th anniversary, just as TEDxCERN was held. Photo: Courtesy of CERN

The Globe of Science and Innovation at CERN, aka the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The famed science hub celebrated its 60th anniversary, just as TEDxCERN was held. Photo: Courtesy of CERN


Topher White, creator of Rainforest Connection’s solar powered noise detectors. Photo: @TEDxCERN