Third session of TED2006 (background): running notes.
Alan Russell is pioneering the science of regenerative medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and goes on stage at TED talking about "converting fear into hope" - he means the fear of diseases, particularly debilitating diseases, and the hope that they can be treated differently. Large parts of today's medical research goes into treating symptoms or patching them with devices; Russell's work focuses instead on regenerating parts of the body to make it healthy again.
Regrowing limbs is an extreme idea, but "if newts can regenerate a lost limb, why can't we?", he asks showing a time-lapse video of an amphibian regrowing a leg. Salamanders for example can regrow limbs, tail, spinal cord, retina and parts of the brain and heart: human embryos share similar abilities until about 6 months old. Hence, "what we need is to learn to speak the body's language and switch on processes that we knew when we were fetuses and then we lost". And this is actually happening. Through the application of engineered tissues, for example: Russel shows pictures of the hand of a 78-year old man who lost the end of his finger; in the first, the fingertip is cut off; in the second it is "regrown" and looks quite normal. Through genetic therapy (stem cells). Or through smart devices: he shows an example of soldiers coming back from Iraq with heavy burns, and how cells can be "sprayed" with a new device over the skin to regenerate it.
Continuing the life science theme, next is Joe DeRisi from the University of California in San Francisco. He is a molecular biologist. Has built a microchip (he calls it ViroChip) that can be used to detect most viruses. He put the DNA sequence of all known viruses on the chip (over 20'000 sequences: insect viruses, marine viruses, etc). Because each virus has a specific genetic signature, by comparison the chip can quickly and cheaply characterize virus samples.
Einstein is an African grey parrot. She lives at the Knoxville zoo (Tennessee) and is a star on animal TV shows. This seems to be turning into a standard feature of the TED program: last year there was another parrot on stage, but had laryngitis and didn't really say much (I'm not making that up). Einstein instead is a blast: she imitates all sorts of animals, replies with (her sort of) wit to the questions and prompts of Stephanie, the woman trainer, dances and moves and sings "Happy birthday", says entire sentences - this parrot is very funny. And if you're wondering what a talking parrot is doing on stage at TED, well, the "E" stands for entertainment.
TEDster Nick McKeown, prof at Stanford, gets three minutes on stage, and uses them to recite the first 200 digits of Pi ("a small number with a long tail") while juggling balls. That would be the following sequence:
Nick even stops a couple of times along the way and then starts over. No mistakes. Standing ovation.
Neil Gershenfeld of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT talks about the FabLab program. "Instead of bringing information technology to the masses, the FabLab brings information technology development", he says. FabLabs are cheap, self-contained fabrication and design centers "used to personalize fabrication rather than computation". There are half a dozen already in operation in the world, from America to India.
Closing the session is Penelope Boston, a cave specialist (or, as she says, a specialist "of the hidden planet beneath our feet"). She explores extreme cave environments, but she also studies cave formation mechanisms on other planets - "a natural extension of our work on Earth". When the Viking lander landed on Mars, "that dot in the sky became a landscape, and a destination", she says. She believes there is life on Mars: the chance "that there was life on Mars is 25-50%". A quite bold statement. If the chance is so high, why is Martian life so difficult to find? "It's probably microscopic, probably hiding, and may be very different from what we are looking for" (chemistry, size/scale, etc). Terrestrial extreme cave environments, full of bacteria and gases and metals, she suggests, may be somehow similar to other planet's environments.
(tags TED2006 - TED 2006) (TED site - flickr photos)