TEDxCAM 2010

A month has passed since TEDxCAM 2010 and yet it as fresh in my memory as the last meal I had. My second TEDx event (after TEDx Warwick) proved to be many times better. It had more speakers, free food and was held in the Cambridge Union. It was a very professionally organised event for which I managed to get tickets only in the last week presumably because of over-subscription.

After a very foggy morning and a 3-hour train journey, I reached Cambridge feeling nippy. The fog was still lingering and all I could think about was reaching the venue on time. I paced myself through the tiny lanes to find the Cambridge Union (CU), and just like Oxford the walk from the train station to the union did not reveal much of the beauty of the town. The Union was located behind a very cute-looking church that was called, very unimaginatively, the ‘Round Church‘. I reached with about ten minutes in hand only to find a long queue of attendees trying to get inside the Union hall. After a brief wait and to my satisfaction, I found a great seat just behind Aubrey de Grey.

After catching some breathe, things started registering in my head. The first thing that struck me was that CU was much smaller than OU, literally one-fourth the size. Even at that size though, it did not lack any grandeur because of its high ceiling, many paintings and classy leather couches for all. Then, I opened the goodies bag that was handed to me as I entered the hall. There was a neatly designed program book with a notepad, pen and some flyers – handy!

The event began with an announcement that the ash-cloud caused by the volcano meant there would be two speakers less at the event. The theme of the conference was Pluripotency (many powers) and already nature’s pluripotency had reduced the number of speakers.

First up was Prof. Stephen O’Rahilly, a world expert on obesity, who gave a quite technical talk on the causes of obesity and ways to reduce it. His point was that human being may not be as ‘in control’ as it might seem. Many a biological factors control (up to 80%) obesity all around the globe. He also highlighted that social issues such as easy availability of food, bigger portion sizes and little exercises are contributing no less to this problem. He suggested that the ultimate cure for obesity will be a combination of biological and dietary factors. He made a very geeky joke – “We’re isolating the obesity gene…only to make fun of it.”

Then it was Bruno Giussani, the European Director for TED conferences, who spoke about the TED journey and it’s impact on the world today and how it has made some people the ‘the rock stars of global knowledge’. He also spoke of how TEDx has become a rage all over the world. He gave the example of TEDxShekhawati, an event organised in the interiors of Rajasthan by a lone woman. He said, “TED is not just about creating ideas, but creating a space for engagement & action.”

Next up was Simon Singh, speaking for the first time after the BCA withdrew their case against him. Although I’ve met him before, this was the first time I was seeing him speak. He is a very lively speaker and he spoke of the extraordinary journey of this libel case which costed him £30,000 and two years of full-time work even though he won it. He also played his Katie Melua song and ranted about chiropractors & homeopathy.

Prof Ron Laskey came next. He gave a very interesting talk on the frontiers of the global fight on cancer. Some statistics that he quoted were quite surprising like mouth cancer was the 2nd most common cancer in the Indian subcontinent. His talk was interesting but brought a somber note to the hall. He did not want to finish at that note and he pulled his guitar and two brilliantly composed songs.

Aubrey de Grey was his usual emphatic self. His message was loud and clear, aging is a disease that we need to cure. Having heard him previously, it was mostly repetition but enjoyable nevertheless. I also got a chance to catch up with him after the talk. After a few sentences he remembered me and we chatted about the new Oxford Transhumanists Society.

I was really looking forward to watch Ken Warwick speak and was left unsatisfied by his talk. He is known in the media as the famous cyborg researcher but all science he spoke about was from some 8-10 years back. He showed how they had managed to integrate a chip that could help humans communicate wirelessly. He had managed to understand that his wife moved her hand by sitting across the Atlantic Ocean. All they had done is inserted a chip inside both of them and that chip had relayed information from one person to the other but the receiving chip had some form of communicating it to the receiving brain. I am highly skeptical about this and will do a follow up sometime soon.

Martin Bloom spoke of the growing solar energy market in China through his own photography. Keen to dismiss the image that Asians are copiers and not innovators, he insisted that people should travel to these nations before deciding where they want to invest their money. The Chinese solar market grew from nothing 5 years ago to being the second biggest in the world today and he believes that any new application has that potential.

I thoroughly enjoyed Carolin Crawford‘s talk on the universe. She is a talented science communicator who confesses that her science provides her with pretty images that capture people’s imagination. I got to talk to her about her views on science communication and she said that it is a service to the society but does not pay very well. She advised that young researchers should not get lured by the instant gratification that science communication provides in terms of the response from the audience.

Tim Coombs was the last live speaker and he is the inventor of the world’s most powerful permanent magnet. His achievement will have applications in reducing the size of the current magnetic resonance imaging technologies. The world is waiting for a portable fMRI to develop the most efficient man-machine interface. The conference ended with the screening of Hans Rosling’s talk on the rise of Asia.

I found the whole conference tremendously impressive and well-organised. I met some interesting people and had fun tweeting about it. I also managed to see a bit of Cambridge with a long spring evenings before heading back to Oxford.

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About Akshat Rathi

Akshat Rathi is a science journalist. He has previously worked at The Economist and The Conversation. His writing has appeared in Nature, The Guardian and The Hindu. He has a PhD in chemistry from Oxford University and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.
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One Response to TEDxCAM 2010

  1. Akshat,
    V. Interesting topics discussed here. Am gonna come back here to read it liesurely. Adding you to my blogroll now.

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