SAN DIEGO—Not everything you try will work, but you need to try lots of ideas. That was advice here from Nathan Myhrvold, founder of Intellectual Ventures and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, on the opening evening of the TEDMED conference, held from October 27 through 29. Myhrvold and the other speakers offered plenty of ways to solve challenging problems.

For instance, he noted the tremendous number of infections in hospitals: 1.7 million cases per year. A device that beams ultraviolet light on surfaces can kill bacteria. In another challenge, Myhrvold said that 99.9 percent of X-ray energy is wasted, but backscattering, or reflecting, it back can make more use of that energy—and capture better images in the process.

Nathan Wolfe, a professor at Stanford University and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (and Scientific American scientist adviser), spoke of a different challenge: combating the onset of possible pandemics. Wolfe said that a suite of "interconnectivity" factors have led to a high risk because they have created opportunities for infection: viruses jumping species when prey (such as monkeys) are eaten by predators (such as chimps), past inoculation campaigns that used shared needles, blood transfusions, living in dense populations and mass worldwide transportation. "Perhaps the most important and critical event in human history [for virus transmission] is the development of mass transportation," Wolfe added.

From a "virus's perspective," there's now a single human population, said Wolfe, whose global network effort is seeking to add novel types of data in the hunt for outbreaks. [See his 2009 article “How to Prevent the Next Pandemic.” and the story "PlagueBusters".] "Big data has an incredible capacity for public health,” he added. Among the possible sources are Google searches for words such as “fever," drug-purchase patterns, medical records—even Twitter activity.

The "E" in TED is for "entertainment," and soprano Charity Tilleman-Dick offered a mixture of beautiful songs and poignancy as she described her struggles with pulmonary hypertension, leading to a lung transplant a year before. Afterward, transplant surgeon Shaf Keschavjee, director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program, wheeled onstage a machine that could improve transplant success by keeping lungs awaiting implant surgery at room temperature (instead of cold) and feeding them a nutritive solution. The machine had a living pair of healthily pink pig lungs, clearly expanding with air and then contracting. Keschavjee invited a few audience members to touch it. "It’s very soft," noted Tilleman-Dick.