Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Who Are We?

TED's theme for this year is "The Big Questions". The first session was called "Who Are We?"
Although there are 50 headline speakers, part of the magic of TED is the little 'treats' that we are served up in between. This year, we started with a wonderful actor from the New York Public Theatre, Michael Stubog (sp?) doing "to be or not to be - that is the question". It was fantastic and a great start.

Then Louise Leakey, of the famous Leakey family, attacked the question of who we are by placing homo sapiens in the long line of hominids. She brought home how fortuitous it was that any fossils are found. First, there has to be an environment where the fossils get preserved, and then a second situation that brings them to the surface to be found. She described the vast territory over which they've been searching - thousands of square kilometers - and then showed a picture of ground where a fossil had been found. Despite the clear resolution of the photo, until she highlighted the fossil, we would never have seen anything at all! Then she showed the first discovery by one of their team of a piece of skull that led to their greatest discovery - his hand dwarfed the skull fragment. The actual skull was on stage and Leakey held it up for us to see. I came away with a new respect for paleoanthropologists.

She ended with a comment on humans in general as a polluting, wasteful, aggressive species, with just a few good things thrown in. As she pointed out that most species last about 1M years, and we're half way through that period, her big question was where we'd end up.
Wade Davis, an anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, showed phenomenal pictures of the indigenous cultures he studies. His point was that these cultures were not failed attempts at being modern, but cultures with a different world view. He described The Navigators in Polynesia, who can name 250 different stars in the sky and 'see' islands beyond the horizon by analyzing wave patterns that were formed many miles away. He talked about Tibetans who spend years on a study of the mind, as opposed to Western science which is responsive to our most trivial needs. And he described the Elder Brothers of Peru, who spend 18 years in an isolated compound contemplating and praying for the universe. They believe their prayers are responsible for keeping the universe in balance. He emphasizes these are dynamic living cultures that are being driven out of existence by us.
Chris Jordan showed some of the art that he uses to try to convey large (and ugly) numbers. He is striving to make the unconsious conscious. For instance, his first picture looked like a bunch of intertwined pipes, but was actually 1M clear plastic cups, the number used every 6 hours on airplanes, with absolutely no recycling. He showed 2.3M prison uniforms neatly folded and stacked, representing the prison population of the US, which accounts for 1 in 4 of the prisoners in the world. This photo takes 4 10'x4' panels to show all the uniforms. He showed a close-up of Barbie dolls arranged in a circle. As he panned out, the 32,000 Barbies formed the portrait of a pair of breasts. 32K represents the number of breast augmentation operations in the US each month. Jordan's art work can be seen at You really have to view to understand the impact. Jordan's goal is to translate mere data that's hard to relate to into images we can feel about. His big question was "How do we change?"
After an amazing performance by Sxip Shirey creating an amazing array of sounds with a few instruments and his mouth, we had the first big surprise of the day.
Stephen Hawking - yes, that Hawking, author of The History of Time - gave a presentation that had been recorded earlier in the day in Cambridge. He laid out what he thought were the three big questions and provided his answers:
1. Where did we come from? He says we know the Big Bang was 15B years ago, and we have recently learned that the universe can actually create itself out of nothing.
2. Are we alone in the universe? He is convinced that we are the only species, at least within several hundred light years.
3. What is the future of the universe? He described humanity as selfish and aggressive and likely to destroy the planet. Thus the only chance for humanity to survive is to colonize space.
When Chris Anderson asked him to elaborate on the last question, he pointed out that his answer took Hawking 7 minutes to deliver. It humbled us all to know how much effort it took for Hawking to make this presentation to TED.
As if Hawking weren't enough, the last speaker, Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist from Harvard, was stunning. She started by pulling out a human brain and pointing to the great divide between the left and right hemispheres. The right hemisphere is where we live in the present, we learn kinesthetically, and we are energy beings connected to the universe. The left hemisphere is linearly rigid and methodical, where we worry about the past and the future, where we pick out the details, categorize things and think with an "I am" voice.

She then went on to describe in painful detail a stroke she'd had. She lost the left hemisphere of her brain in the stroke, and she described the sensation of flux as her left hemisphere would kick in and out. When she was operating exclusively in her right hemisphere, she felt lighter, with all external stress gone - as she put it she lost 37 years of emotional baggage. She was no longer the choreographer of her own life, and felt a spirit of surrender, as her spirit soared free like letting a genie out of a bottle. She felt she'd found Nirvana.

She choked up as she tried to describe this feeling to the audiance, that if people could come to this space any time, step to the right side of their brain so to speak, the world would be a better place. We would feel the connected life force of the universe instead of being just a separate individual. Her big questions were "which side of the brain do you choose to use, and when". It's hard to describe the emotional impact she had on the audience, as they leapt out of their chairs in a standing ovation, many with tears trickling out of their eyes.

And so ended the first session.

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