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.