Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rediscovering TED.

A couple of years ago, I spent a few days completely absorbed with TED Talks. I watched several of them and really enjoyed them, but for whatever reason (probably one involving my short attention span) I stopped watching and forgot they existed.

Last weekend, we bought an Apple TV unit. Besides letting us watch television and movies via iTunes, it lets us watch video podcasts. And that's how I rediscovered TED Talks. We've been watching one or two before bed. They run about 18 minutes a piece, although some are slightly longer and others are significantly shorter. No matter the topic, be it the nature of humanity in the cosmos (David Deutsch, TEDGlobal 2005), a study of the trickster in culture (Emily Levine, TED 2002), or nerdcore comedy (Ze Frank, TED 2005), the talks are engaging, interesting and inspiring.

Last night we watched two talks. The first, from David Deutsch discussed how we as humans are both typical and not typical. How the primary function of our existance is the search for knowledge, and that all that is needed to create knowledge is, basically, matter, energy and evidence. Even in deepest space, he says, where it seems as nothing exists, is matter, energy and evidence. The only thing that keeps us as humans from being about to turn empty space into, say, a particle excelerator, is that we don't know how to do it.

The second was a talk from Richard Dawkins about how the human size and experience limits our understanding of the universe. He discussed that we humans live in what he described as the "middle world" where we can't comprehend things of very large or very small size. For example, even a dense rock is mostly empty space, but our perception of the particles is a solid mass. To something very small - say, the size of an atom, the rock would appear as mostly empty space. Our perception makes up our reality. He describes us has having "software" that builds the model of the world we live in - a monkey needs software that builds a model to help it climb and swing, while a bird needs software to model a world in which it can fly. He asks the question, is it possible for us to retrain our brains to see the empty spaces? Is it possible for us to intruduce children to the concept of the very small at a young age through the use of computer programs so that they can learn to see the world differently?

Fascinating stuff, really.

Over the weekend we watched a talk on SETI, which inspired me to install it on my computer and help in the search of extraterrestrial communication. On Monday, we watched the creator of Wikipedia describe how the online encyclopedia thrives because of, not in spite of, its "anyone can edit anything" existence.

There are dozens and dozens more talks to see, and more are given every year. The range and scope of TED is incredible, and is (and I know I am in peril of sounding too schmaltzy) a true gift to humanity.

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