TEDxCERN: about science, research and consciousness

TEDxCERN aka TEDxTent

TEDxCERN aka TEDxTent

Science and research, particle physics and astronomy, talks and music… On Friday, I had the honour and pleasure of spending a very special day at CERN: a guided visit plus TEDxCERN.

For those of you who are not familiar with this acronym: it stands for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire and has been a bit in the news lately for discovering a new particle, most probably the Higgs boson (cf. understandable explanations of the Higgs boson).

Back to my very special day: the morning was dedicated to visiting the impressive CMS experiment facility and in the afternoon, the TEDx conference took place. We were welcomed in a tent, but the actual event was held in the beautiful Globe of Science and Innovations.

It was not my first TEDx experience, and I enjoyed the scientific emphasis. Below, I will share my personal thoughts and highlights, but would like to underline that the whole program was on a very high level.

Science and marketing

One of my favourite catch phrase comes from entertaining Marc Abrahams and goes more or less like this:

If you do research and you know what you are going to find, you’re not doing research – you’re doing marketing.

Abrahams must know: he has been following improbable research for a long time, awarding studies that first makes you laugh, then think, with the IgNobel Prize since 1991. (A quick heads-up for people based in Geneva: an IgNobel-show will take place on May 7!)

Science and findings

Unsurprising for a science-heavy program, there were several speakers sharing their journey from not knowing to actual findings:

Maya Tolstoy, a marine geophysicist with an impressive track record, spoke about her noticing oddly recurrent signals in her data – which would then pave the way for the discovery of correlations between tides and seafloor seismicity. Theoretical physicist Gian Giudice showed the impact of the discovery of the Higgs boson on the calculation of the stability of the universe. (Bad news, by the way: with Giudice’s current premises, the calculations reveal a highly unstable universe; however, it seems we don’t have to worry since our sun will blow up anyway before anything happens to our universe.)

And cosmologist Hiranya Peiris, wonderfully starting off the TEDxCERN talks with a whodunnit about the beginning of the universe, reminded us that all research – even when not revealing a ground-breaking discovery – trumps never leaving the point of not knowing:

“Looking and not finding is not the same as not looking.” (H. Peiris)

Science and resources

The focus of TEDxCERN was, accordingly, not only on the outcome of research, but also on science itself, and on the very importance of enabling and undertaking research:

Computer scientist Ian Foster, who is to be credited with the analogy between research and journey (and, accessorily, grid computing), explained very well how an “ocean liner” such as CERN may be best adapted for certain kinds of research-journeys – but not for all kinds of research-journeys. And scientists who are not aboard an ocean liner (but a sailboat, for example) need to get ahead, too…

“Today, a person can run a company from a coffee shop thanks to cloud computing… what about labs?” (I. Foster)

He presented many cloud platforms empowering small-scale labs and researchers, notably Globus online which allows scientists to focus on the data content rather than data storing, sharing and maintenance.

On the other hand, TED veteran Lee Cronin stressed the need for his field, chemistry, to advance not only in sailboats, but to engage and collaborate on ocean liner scale in order to discover the origin of life.

Science and tomorrow’s scientists

Accidentally or not, two of the most personal talks were dedicated to the situation of young academics – although each one from a very different viewpoint: Becky Parker is a teacher of physics and astronomy at Simon Langton School, acting along the lines of the “radical” idea that interest in science can be sown and supported by engaging students in actual scientific projects. LUCID proves her right. Her innovative approach and personal enthusiasm has triggered many “I wish I had had a teacher like her” thoughts and tweets.

In a society where Becky Parkers are an exception rather than a rule, insatiable curiosity and personal experience may make up for a lack of intellectual stimulation in school: Brittany Wenger began studying neural networks (by herself!) when she was just 13 years old, learnt programming and is now providing Cloud4Cancer, a service to detect breast cancer less invasively than standard methods.

The special guest scheduled right after Brittany Wenger’s talk, Will.I.am, also advocated for young scientists: on direct via webcam, he explained why he is fascinated by science and why he encourages young people, no matter what neighbourhood they grow up in, to learn about science and programming. He underlined the importance of engaging every kid in education and science, no matter their background.

(Unfortunately, I spotted some of the white grey-haired men in the public frown upon hearing a black musician (read: “non-scientist”) talking about science in his own words – kudos to the TEDxCERN curators for not sharing this elitist mindset.)

Science and collaboration

SESAME transnational scientific cooperation TEDxCERN

SESAME: transnational scientific cooperation

A propos science and elitism: astronomer Chris Lintott‘s talk was a perfect illustration of the benefits scientist can gain from considering laypeople as a complement rather than an opposition. His Zooniverse, regrouping citizen science projects, makes for a great POC of collaborative and/or crowdsourced science.

Collaboration of another kind is at the heart of SESAME, presented by Zehra Sayers and Eliezer Rabinovici: much like CERN has been a unique transeuropean venture in Europe post world war II, SESAME is a unique undertaking and aspires international cooperation across cultural and political divides through first-class science in the Middle East.

Science and subjectivity

By affinity, I guess – I am a sociologist – the talks addressing objectivity/subjectivity in science and research were the talks I personally liked best:

John Searle explained that ignoring consciousness was science’s biggest fallacy, which contributed to upholding, unfortunately, the wrong dichotomy of objective science as opposed to subjective consciousness. He argued for the objectivity in subjectivity (and vice versa!) and, accessorily, trashed behaviorism. Which makes me think: for subsequent editions of TEDxCERN, it would be a great addition to give more room to research about science.

Many of the examples mentioned in Londa Schiebinger‘s talk were a perfect illustration of how objectivity and subjectivity co-exist – and thus why science and innovation need to be inclusive of diversity in subjectivity in order to be as objective as possible.

“Gender bias in society create gender bias into knowledge.” (L. Schiebinger)

(For instance: childless urban planners modelled people’s movements by categorising each trip as “work”, “shopping”, “leisure”, “visits” etc. This might work for them. However, for people with care obligations who often zig-zag around the city – bring one child to school, the other one to day-care, and pass by the dry-cleaners etc. … all this on their way to work – single, finite categories for each trip simply didn’t work. For more examples and resources cf. Schiebinger’s project Gendered Innovations at Stanford.)

Science and soprano (and other music)

Listening to Maria Ferrante singing about galaxies and C8H10N4O2 was pure delight and fit the overall program very well. So did the re-edition of the first interplanetary transmitted song Reach for the stars, performed by Collège International de Ferney-Voltaire Choir and International School of Geneva Chorus. Yaron Herman and Bijan Chemirani played together at the very end of TEDxCERN. I remembered Yaron Herman from when he played at TEDxHelvetia at EPFL, a few months ago, where he also shared his fascinating story. A pleasure listening to him again, especially in harmony with Bijan Chemirani.

Last but not least

I need to mention geneticist George Church‘s talk, but I am not embarrassed to admit that I was not able to follow everything he said. What I understood and recall: DNA bears immense potential; transdisciplinary research is the future.

Big thanks to CERN, the TEDxCERN team and everyone else involved for a well-curated, diverse yet coherent program. Thanks to the speakers for making me think, and laugh.

By the way: another account of the TEDxCERN day can be found on TEDxCERN volunteer Alex Brown’s blog.

Oh, and you might want to have a look at the TED Ed videos co-produced with CERN. My favorites:

and

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