TED 09: Julie Lasky’s Thursday wrap-up

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Artist Olafur Eliasson at TED, presenting projects like his Waterfalls

February 6, 2009. Julie Lasky, I.D.’s editor-in-chief, is currently in California for the 2009 TED Conference, from which she’s posting a series of daily reports. Here’s her recap of Thursday’s events: There was sweet irony in the complaint (overheard during a coffee break on TED’s second day) of a long wait for the restroom—the complaint came from a man! The crowd of 1,500 TEDsters at Long Beach doesn’t look overwhelmingly male, and the speakers have represented a broad-minded mix of sexes. The three winners of the $100,000 TED Prize, which is bestowed at the recipients’ wishes to make the world a better place, were people named Jill (Tarter), who directs a center for finding extraterrestrial intelligence, Sylvia (Earle), the remarkable oceanographer I mentioned yesterday, who not only maps ocean floors but also designs submarines, and José Antonio (Abreu), a conductor who has trained thousands of underprivileged Venezuelan children to play music. That’s two to one. Maybe the architect of the conference center where the men’s room lines extend is female too? You go, girl!

The day began with gentle Oliver Sacks explaining that blind people hallucinate at an alarming rate but rarely confess to it because of the fear of being committed. (The phenomenon is purely organic, a result of an understimulated brain apparatus.) Joanne Kuchera-Morin of UC Santa Barbara demonstrated her Allosphere—a building that allows you to be embedded in a giant, animated three-dimensional display of data. In other words, you can stand in the middle of an atom and watch the electrons jump around. The artist Olafur Eliasson presented his own immersive projects, such as his recent Waterfalls in New York. And special effects designer Ed Ulbrich revealed the tortuous technological process that yielded an 80-something Brad Pitt aging backwards in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert discussed the link between creativity and madness

Golan Levin, an artist trained in computer technology, presented high-concept robotic devices, like a machine resembling a giant tube sock that sat above a building entrance and greeted passersby with startled double takes (and yes, apparently a tube sock can look startled). Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist, explained why skin pigmentation provides the best demonstration of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (though Darwin himself never figured this out). Hans Rosling, a guru of statistical analysis and display, offered a subtle analysis of the progression of HIV infection in the world. Louise Fresco, a global expert in food and agricultural, debunked the myth of the happy agrarian society studded with farmers’ markets and advocated a more efficient and benevolent system of food production that makes use of new science and technology. And Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, won the audience’s heart with a beautifully articulated speech about the pesky link between creativity and madness, never once acknowledging the 7 billion writers and artists before her who have discoursed on this subject. You go, girl!

Statistician Hans Rosling presented data on HIV progression

TED is probably the only conference not sponsored by the American Medical Association that presents footage of a prostate being removed–by a minimally invasive robotic tool, no less. And I won’t be saying much about the ingenious device for harvesting bone marrow stem cells. It’s too close to breakfast time in Southern California.

The Mission One electric motorcycle by Fuseproject, unveiled yesterday at TED