Of course, there would be bongos. And a Tuvan throat singer. And a multimedia performance by a jazz band whose members have 11 Grammys between them. But mostly, there was science, a celebration of the human urge to explore our world and find things out.
Caltech hosted its first ever TED-X conference last Friday, with talks by a diverse lineup of speakers all celebrating famed physicist Richard Feynman: the scientist, the explorer, the visionary, the wacky eccentric, the brilliant explainer of complex topics, and above all, the raconteur. (Videos of the short lectures will eventually be posted here and here.)
There was certainly no shortage of related topics to explore. Feynman shared his Nobel Prize for the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED), but he also gave prescient talks touching on molecular machines, nanotechnology, and quantum computing throughout his career. He loved anything that was “IN-teresting” about how the world worked. I think he would have enjoyed hearing short talks on biocomplexity, spintronics, nanoelectronics, molecular robots, and quantum simulations.
Feynman’s books and physics lectures are legendary, as are his eponymous “Feynman diagrams”: a series of simple line drawings, kind of a mathematical shorthand, that illustrate how electrons interact with photons. The diagrams become very complicated very quickly, and as UCLA physicist Zvi Bern pointed out, some of the associated calculations have yet to be “solved” even with computers.
Still, being able to visualize the myriad possible interactions between electrons and photons has rescued many a physics graduate student from the brink of despair.
Visualization is still critical to our understanding of science. Microsoft’s Curtis Wong demonstrated the World Wide Telescope, billed as “an interactive sky on your desktop,” while Drew Barry wowed the audience with animations of the inner workings of a cell. (Berry’s animations have been featured at the Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art — yes, they’re that good.) Caltech’s own Pamela Bjorkman whimsically illustrated why anti-HIV agents have such a tough time latching onto the virus to combat its spread with a tiny cartoon version of Sesame Street‘s Elmo.
And then there were the stories: the safe-cracking and lock-picking, painting and playing the bongos, frolicking in hot springs with nudists, and scribbling equations on paper napkins in between performances at local strip clubs. (He claimed the atmosphere cleared his thinking.) He was fascinated by the tiny country of Tuva, although he never got the chance to visit before he died. His last words — if the Internet is to be believed — were vintage Feynman: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”
So how could you not love Feynman? Yet in the midst of all the adulation, it was refreshing to hear MIT’s Scott Aaronson humorously take on the man’s larger-than-life persona head on (no doubt the feisty Feynman would have been delighted, too). Aaronson offered a rebuttal to Feynman’s infamous disdain for mathematics, evidenced by a famous quote often attributed to him: “Mathematics is to physics as masturbation is to sex.”
Aaronson specializes in quantum computing, algorithms and computational complexity theory; he’s a math guy. His point was that pure mathematics always has a role to play, because there are always results that are extremely surprising, and might otherwise elude us.
Danny Hillis, co-founder of Applied Minds and The Long Now Foundation, closed the day with a moving tale of his own friendship with Feynman. As a young grad student at MIT, he approached Feynman for suggestions about any promising proteges who might be interested in working with Hillis at his then-fledgling company, Thinking Machines, to build a parallel supercomputer. Feynman offered to collaborate himself, and spent several summers in Boston with Hillis working on the project.
But one year, Feynman couldn’t make the trip, and Hillis visited the physicist in Pasadena instead. They went hiking in the hills, Feynman cracking his usual jokes — only this time, they were all about his ongoing chemotherapy treatments. Hillis found it difficult to laugh, and Feynman finally asked what was wrong.
“Well, I’m sad that you’re dying,” Hillis replied.
Feynman nodded. “Well… I’m sad too. But you know, when you reach my age, you realize the things you’ve said and done have made an impact on other people, and that some day, even though you’re gone, you will continue to exist through them and through what they do.”*
Hillis didn’t need to drive home his point to the packed Beckman Auditorium. We were all there because the things Feynman said and did still resonate with us today.
*I’m paraphrasing Hillis here; and Hillis was probably paraphrasing Feynman. But you get the gist.