TED2008: What's Out There?

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(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. Session eight.)

"What’s out there?" is the question of this session. First to try to give an answer is particle physicist Brian Cox, from the University of Manchester. He also work on the CERN‘s LHC ATLAS, part of one of the most ambitious scientific experiments currently taking place in the world, the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (see my notes and pictures from a visit to the LHC last year, including explanation of the science involved) and spends alot of time trying to make heady scientific concepts understandable to the public.


The Large Hadron Collider will be switched on later this year. It is a particle accelerator 27 km in circonference, being built at an average depth of 100 meters under the Swiss-French border near Geneva. It is fitted with several giant detectors (ATLAS is the one in the photo above, notice the man in the foreground for scale) that are essentially digital cameras, trying to capture the collision of particles as they travel at high speed in opposing directions. With the LHC scientists are trying to re-create the conditions that were present less than one-billionth of a second after the Big Bang. Why do so? Particle physicists are ambitious, and the aim of particle physics is to understand what everything is made of and why it sticks together.
Way back in the early times of the universe, things — we believe — were very simple. It’s made of 12 particles of matters (quarks, protons, gluons, neutrinos, electrons). These particles has been discovered in the last century. The first one, the electron, in 1897. One of the greatest achievements of the XX century is the "standard model", which is a beautiful mathematical equation that explains the universe. Except that there are several "H" in there, which stands for the Higgs particle, that hasn’t been observed yet. It’s a theoretical particle, a prediction for the existence of one. What the Higgs does, it gives mass to the fundamental particles (refer to my earlier post for more). The whole universe is full of Higgs fields. That’s what the LHC is been built to search for. It can also discover other things, including possibly giving evidence to a theory called supersymmetry that suggests that the forces of nature unified together back at the Big Bang.


Particle physics and cosmology has given us a beautiful narrative, almost a creation story, from where the universe started 13.7 billion years ago. (Brian does a two-minutes "history of the universe" based on the image above). The artifacts that surround us are the things that hydrogen atoms do when given 13.7 billion years — and the right laws of physics. If you believe this story, our civilization has emerged purely as the creation of the laws of physics.

Over the last 49 years ocean explorer Robert Ballard has made more than 120 deep-sea expeditions, developing and using cutting-edge technologies to find shipwrecks and unearth their lost histories — including the Titanic and the Bismarck.


"The US has two exploration programs: NASA, tasked with exploring the space, and NOAA, the national oceanic administration. If you compare NASA’s budget, it’s 1600 times bigger than NOAA’s. Why are we ignoring the oceans, 72% of our planet? Most of the southern hemisphere is unexplored. We had more ships down there during Captain Cook era than now. I’ve built several submarine vehicles. On a good day we may have 4 or 5 human beings at the average height of the Earth. In 1975 we went down 9000 thousand feet into the ocean floor, the eternal darkness where you don’t have photosynthesis, therefore no plant life, and little animal life — or so we thought. We discovered that there are tens of thousands of active volcanoes. We discovered a profusion of life that should not exist. Giant tube worms. Large clam beds. Then we started creating robots for accelerating the exploration. And we could find incredible limestone formation, upside-down pools, etc. Recently, diving off in the Gulf of Mexico, we found pools of water, volcanoes of methane, flows of lava. There is more than natural history under the oceans, there are shipwrecks: we realized that the deep see is the largest museum on Earth, ships that sank transporting fabulous artifacts. Fortunately we’ve been able to convince the US Congress and we could get a NOAA ship, and its mission is to go where NOAA has not gone yet, the islands in the Pacific that are under US control — we have maps of Venus but not of the ocean in that regions. The beauty of all this, is that we can disseminate it to children. Through the Jason Project, every year over 1 million students are connected to explorers and scientists, participating live in explorations. We want to create the classes of tomorrow. tech that allows people to follow along as he explores the seas

Andreas Heinecke, a human rights activist from Germany who focuses on overcoming cultural and communication barriers, talks about "Dialogue in the Dark”, an exhibition where participants experience darkness and blind people teach them how to see.

Mycologist Paul Stamets believes that mushrooms could an intergalactic colonizing species. Well, almost. He believes that fungi, and particularly the mycelium (the vegetative part of mushrooms) contains solutions for some of the Earth’s environmental and health-related problems. For instant, fungi produce strong antibiotics; they can be used against flu viruses; mycelium can be used to naturally "clean up" petroleum-saturated soils; revamp pesticides; and generating ethanol (he has patented many of these mushroom-related technologies). Preserving the genome of fungis is absolutely crucial for human health.

Animal behaviorist Joshua Klein is a biological hacker (he also hacks computers), and he talks about crows.
Some species are hyperadaptive to the conditions created by humans — think at rats becoming immune to the poisons we produce. Crows aren thriving. They’re found everywhere on the planet except for the Poles. Crows are intelligent, their brains are proportional in the same way that chimpanzee’s are. He shows a crow that tries to pull something out of a glass, and can’t, so it bends a stick into a crook. Another showing a crow "using" passing cars to crack nuts (putting the nut on the road and waiting for a car to drive over it). Moreover, it turns out that after a while the crows started teaching each-other and imitating each-other how to do these things.
Exploiting the fact that crows are attracted to shiny things, Josh built a machine that trains crows in several stages to pick up lost change and deposit it in a slot in return for peanuts (photo right). The device tests the intelligence of the birds, and Josh wonders whether "they could for example be trained to pick up garbage after sports events" of similar things — the idea being that "we could find useful tasks for these fast-multiplying animals, instead of trying to limit or exterminate them".

Richard Preston is one of the few humans to have climbed Hyperion, a nearly 115-meter-tall redwood tree that is the tallest thing living on Earth. Discovered in 2006, it is located in a remote area of the Redwood National Park in California (the exact location has not been disclosed to protect the tree’s ecosystem). He is the author of "The wild trees", about the still-not-well-known forests of the American Northwest.
The north coast of California has rainforests. Sequoias (photo left) are the tallest organisms on Earth, these are trees that could stand out in midtown Manhattan. The oldest living redwoods are perhaps 2500 years old, roughly the age of the Parthenon. In the 1970s to the early 1990s, most of that forest has been cut down in bursts of logging. Now about 4% of the original rainforest remains — and it’s still under-explored. About 30 feet (10 meters) is the diameter of a big redwood, articulating itself upwards into space for over 330 feet (110 meters). This species moves at "redwood time". To us they seem to be immobile, but they continue to move, to develop. Preston began climbing these threes with his children, sleeping there, discovering a whole ecology in their branches (Preston calls it "canopy soil") with growing complexity, flying buttresses (redwoods grow back into themselves to strengthen the crown of the tree), a fractal-like capacity to reiterate (to repeat their shape again and again), but also deadly parasites that are killing off trees and possibly a whole ecosystem of Eastern hemlocks in the Northwest.
What can the redwoods tell us about ourselves? They can tell us about human time, the flickering and the shortness of it.