What I love about the annual TED gathering in Vancouver is the way science coexists along with art, social justice, popular song and the rest of TED’s eclectic mix. Singers and celebrities may have bigger Twitter followings, but the scientists who come to TED—as newly minted TED Fellows or longtime attendees—do a pretty good job of punching above their weight. Here is my highly idiosyncratic pick of the best science of TED 2015:
Mars came up several times at TED. Science writer Stephan Petranek laid out a good solid case for colonizing Mars for future generations. But Lucianne Walkowicz, an astrophysicist at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, took issue with the idea that Mars could become a viable alternative to Earth. “The way a lot of private space industry talks about Mars, it’s as though Mars is some sort of lifeboat for planet Earth, that if we were to screw up this planet, as we’re well in the process of doing, unfortunately, Mars will be there to save us, and that it will be a backup to humanity,” she told me. The trouble with that reasoning is that if we don’t know how to manage Earth’s environment, we’re not going to be able to figure out how to “terraform” Mars, a planet with wholly different characteristics than our home planet. “If we think we can change Mars and make it habitable, then we should be up to the challenge of keeping Earth habitable, and we should test those ideas here.” We should think about Mars, she says, as a place that can teach us about planet Earth.
Few topics are more melancholy than coral, which are threatened around the world. Talking with Kristin Marhaver, a biologist at the CARMABI Research Institute in Caracao, is enough to make you an optimist. She and her colleagues decided to investigate how Pillar Coral, a species that was put on the endangered list last year, go through the mysterious and complicated process of reproduction. They used moon charts to come to a best guess for where the coral spawn, then made a diving run in the dark to catch them in the act. Then brought back samples and bred them in the laboratory. Marhaver’s primary motivation is to satisfy her curiosity about how coral behave, but her work also gives conservationists a potential tool to help keep the coral viable
Half a billion poor people depend on cassava for sustenance, but the crop is threatened with viruses carried by whiteflies. Laura M. Boykin, a computational biologist at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, got involved in a project to find alternative cassava strains for farmers in East Africa, who have been beset by these pests in recent years. On a recent trip to Kenya, Boykin was moved by the plight of these farmers, who are mostly women, and who work their acre plots with crude shovels while carrying their infants on their backs. Boykin helped identify at least 30 strains of whitefly in East Africa, which will help her colleagues identify breeds of cassava that can resist these pests.
Filmmaking doesn’t usually make my science radar, but the work of Chris Milk, a documentary filmmaker, is an exception. Milk has built a camera designed to take 360-degree video intended to be view through a virtual reality headset. He took his camera, which looks like a ball with lenses sticking out in all directions, to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, and filmed a day in the life of a 12 year old girl as she attended classes, played in the schoolyard and had dinner with her family. These scenes, viewed through a VR headset, established an intimacy and emotional connection with the subject that took me completely by surprise. I can’t help but think that the medium of virtual reality is going to open up new a powerful new way of connecting with audiences.
What if all the worst predictions of apocalypse came true? This is a subject dear to my heart: my book The Fate of the Species enumerated all the ways the human race is putting its own survival at risk. At TED, Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist from University of Leicester, walked us through a thought experiment on how we’d survive a post-apocalyptic world. It may be helpful to know, for instance, that according to Dartnell’s calculations the typical stock of the local grocery store could provide enough canned and dried food to feed one person for 55 years (63 if you can you can bring yourself to eat dog food).
No TED would be complete without a representative of MIT’s Media Lab. This year it was Neri Oxman, who gave a mind-boggling presentation on the notion of combining elements of machines and biology into new designs. In her lab, she’s used 3D printing to build helmets that conform to the contours of an individual’s head, and also use a combination of materials that match the physiological characteristics of human tissue, making the helmet soft where it needs to be soft, and hard where it needs to be hard. She also talked about the possibility of making space suits for astronauts that used micro-fluidics technology to build tiny climate control vesicles into the suit’s fabric. The suits might also incorporate cyanobacteria to capture sunlight and turn it into sugar, and E. coli, to turn the sugar into energy. These suits would be nothing like the bulky spacesuits astronauts now wear: they would be fashionably form fitting.