21 JULY, 2009
By: Maria Popova
Tiny objects, supermassive holes, and everything in between.
Coming from anyone else, an event titled The Substance of Things Not Seen would come off as anything from wishy-washy to obnoxiously self-important. But it’s coming from TED — it’s the title of this year’s TEDGlobal conference, which opened today in Oxford, and it’s the kind of brave and aspirational promise only TED can make, and only TED can deliver on.
Session 1, titled What We Know, opened with philosopher Alain de Botton, who pondered the issue of snobbery.
A snob is someone who takes a small part of you and uses that to paint a complete picture of who you are.
He went on to decry “job snobbery” — the tendency to judge others by their career choices — stressing that it’s impossible to know what someone’s true value is.
Next up, iconic graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister (whom you may recall) showcased some of his recent work, including a table made out of 320 compasses and an incredible piece of logo-generation software connected to a scanner that takes any image you put in and colors the logo graphic in complementary colors based on the image. Sagmeister used the software to create the identity for Portugal’s Casa da Música, which is based on the building’s architectural shape.
His latest project is a film called The Happy Film, shot in Bali and set to release in 2011.
Actor, author and web personality Stephen Fry followed with a somewhat messy and unfocused yet utterly engaging talk about the importance of developing and harnessing all sides of the human mind — art together with science, the intellectual together with the emotional — rather than compartmentalizing ourselves.
He gave an example of a C. P. Snow lecture given nearly 50 years ago, decrying the snobbery on the art side where ignorance of science was acceptable in a way that ignorance of humanities on the science side was unacceptable.
Next up, 17-year-old virtuoso Matthew White wowed the crowd with his euphonium magic.
What came next was a complete wildcard no one had anticipated — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown took the stage, for a talk about the unique age we live in, shaped by new media and modern technologies, which are becoming a tool of social change.
We are the first generation which is in a position to form a truly global society.
Although a bit formulaic and expected, Brown’s points were interesting to hear from a politician — perhaps an indication that Brack Obama’s tremendously smart use of social media, as well as the grassroots case study of Twitter use in Iran last month, have set the pace for politics’ new sociocultural relationship with emerging media.
The talk was followed by an intense Q&A session with TED’s relentlessly inquisitive curator, Chris Anderson.
In Session 2, titled Seeing Is Believing?, astronomer Andrea Ghez talked — with enormous charisma and wonderful energy — about the fascinating phenomenon of supermassive black holes, which have 4 billion times the mass of the Sun and may exist at the center of every galaxy, including ours. She spotlighted a technology known as adaptive optics and stressed the need for more research in order to build bigger, better, more powerful and sophisticated tools to investigate the phenomena we know the least about.
Following was one of the gawk-inducing highlights of the day: Microsculptor Willard Wigan, whose art takes the word “miniature” to new levels. A typical piece consists of a tiny object — a house, a person, Homer Simpson — built on top of a pinhead or inside a needle ear, and takes 5-8 weeks of incredibly painstaking work.
Inspired by an early childhood fascination with the microcosm of ants, Wigan’s work is a true reflection of the conference theme of the substantial but unseen.
Nothing doesn’t exist. Because there’s always something.
Next, optical innovator Josh Silver asked for a show-of-hands to see how many people in the audience wear glasses or contacts. Amazingly, the majority of hands were raised.
Which shouldn’t come as a surprise since, as Silver pointed out, 60% of world has some sort of vision correction — but few can actually afford something we in the Western world take for granted.
Over one billion people would see their world change if they had glasses.
Silver’s organization, the Center for Vision in the Developing World, came up with a solution: Adspecs, a pair of DIY glasses that anyone in the world can make and use. Prototyped in 1985, there are now 13,000 pairs in use. And although, at $19, Adspecs are far cheaper than other corrective eyewear, Silver reminded us that the main target for this product is a population living on $1 per day, urging for more research to drive the cost down into truly affordable levels.
Next, professional stuntman Steve Truglia, whom you may have (not) seen in many a Bond movie, introduced his new project, Space Jump — an ambitious effort to make the world’s biggest stunt by jumping from 120,000 feet, breaking the sound barrier with his body at over 700mph. He demoed the weight suit intended for use in the stunt, a neo-Jetsonian outfit of questionable color choice.
The day’s final speaker was the incredible Mark Johnson of Playing For Change fame. The project became, deservingly, a viral sensation several months ago, with its moving ability to illustrate the power of music in acting as global social glue.
Johnson was also the only speaker to get a real TED standing ovation — well-deserved recognition for a brave and brilliant grassroots experiment in promoting peace through one of the greatest, most universal human passions: music.
For full live coverage throughout the remaining 3 days of the conference, stay tuned on Twitter and keep an eye out for our daily highlights here.