Longtime TEDsters know that sometime during the second day attendees give up hope of taking in everything that is shooting their way. There’s just too much to keep up; every 15 or 20 minutes, there’s another talk that directs an axe toward something you have assumed was true your whole life.
It wasn’t just ideas that were shooting out. One of the biggest crowd pleasers on Thursday (I’m writing this Friday before the first morning session) was former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold. He’s the prototypical TED polymath — several years ago he talked about how waves off the coast of Hawaii could take out the state of California (alas, not posted on the TED site) — and he spoke this year on the work his firm is doing to battle malaria. He offered some possible solutions, and then he got to his big idea to battle the terrible disease: shoot mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers. And, this being TED, we were treated to a demo of just such a malaria-eradication plan. Much of a TED audience grew up on Captain Kirk and Han Solo, so you don’t have to guess what the reaction was to scientific advance that involved a green laser and a very satisfying wisp of smoke after the laser hit its target.
There were other dramatic moments. Kevin Bales, director of Free the Slaves, spoke soberly about the state of slavery on the planet: slaves as destroyer of the environment, political corruption as the primary reason slavery persists, and the dark economics that show how some people have gotten so cheap. Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson and longtime environmentalist Stewart Brand tried something new for TED: a debate over whether nuclear power should have a role in America’s power mix. Brand, the mind behind The Whole Earth Catalog, has in recent years converted to a pro-nuclear position, and the crowd was with him at the beginning. Jacobson was no match for Brand’s presentation techniques, but he had pulled some more of the crowd his way by the end. Also on the nuclear tip, Valerie Plame Wilson spoke about nuclear disarmament. She’s best-known for having been outed as an undercover CIA agent, but even those of us who followed her story didn’t really know what she worked on for the CIA. Turns out it was nuclear disarmament; she was part of team that brought down Pakistani proliferation criminal A.Q. Khan. This being TED, Plame was also there to promote Countdown to Zero, a documentary film about the ongoing attempt to eliminate nuclear weapons.
There was more. Elizabeth Pisani, who several years ago wrote The Wisdom of Whores, spoke incisively about the ramifications of various AIDS policies, and Seth Berkeley showed how far we are — and how far we have to go — down the road to creating a AIDS vaccine. And Mark Roth earned a standing ovation when he detailed his work in suspended animation.
And there was an enormous amount of fun. League of Extraordinary Dancers lived up to their name, performing a daring aerial ballet with enough gravity-ignoring moves and seemingly impossible slow motion that it felt like watching a live-action version of The Matrix. Thomas Dolby’s stage-setting covers with the string quartet Ethel continued to marvel, and Microsoft unveiled a new version of bing maps that lets you explore a landscape with a historical overlay or a real-time overlay. One of the most intense responses was after a demo of the Google “Nexus One” phone, when TED curator Chris Anderson announced that all attendees would be getting a free one. Amazing: the vast majority of this audience has no problem either paying for (or getting their company to pay for) a very expensive conference, but they were screaming their happiness about getting a free phone.
This summaries leaves out more than half of the able presenters. Some that you must see when they go live on the TED site in the weeks ahead: Nicholas Christakis talked brilliantly about obesity clustering, David Byrne mused on whether artists create more based on context than passion, Jim Daly talked about man-eating plants, Jane McGonigal found what was good in video games, Sam Harris confused science for religion, Kirt Citron imagined the news thousands of years from now, and Michael Specter, celebrating the scientific method, trying things out, seeing what works, fixing what doesn’t, as the greatest achievement of humanity, nothing then when “people wrap themselves in their beliefs, they wrap them so tightly they can’t break themselves free.” Every few minutes, it’s another insight, another surprise, another jaw dropped. In some ways, it’s intellectual camp. Time for another day…