Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Learning years of science research in five minutes

I spent Friday contemplating nuclear waste, parallel universes, and psychopaths.

Usually I don't jump around thinking about those topics, but during Big Ideas for Busy People, an event preceding the Cambridge Science festival, along with nearly five hundred other attendees I learned about these topics and more all within the course of two hours.

In brief and condensed presentations, ten scientists spoke about whatever they liked in their field of expertise. For example, George Church provided a set of reasons why synthetic life is important; Angela Belcher described how genetic information can be used to make structures without DNA; and Marc Hauser presented us with a philosophical question, asking us whether people who do bad things are actually evil by birth or evil by actions.

What I especially appreciated was that each speaker brought their own style to the talks, not recycling presentations from other events but tailoring what they said to the task of talking to the public for precisely five minutes. Their methods of presenting were all rather different - some used humor to get their point across, others called upon the audience to participate - but everyone was clearly enthusiastic and excited about their topics.

Nearly all the speakers went a few seconds past the five minute buzz, but most skillfully managed to pass along their main points within the time limit. They all spoke fairly quickly, seemingly keeping the time constraint in mind and trying their best to express as much as possible. I wouldn't suggest increasing the time limit though, since the time pressure forced the scientists to focus on concepts instead of getting bogged down in details.

Unlike standard academic lectures, the audience had the chance to ask questions for five minutes after each speaker's presentation. Plenty of good questions came up, some asking for clarification on points, like why universes are spherical, but others asked broader questions such as whether we could just dump nuclear waste in the oceans to be folded into plate tectonics. The audience might have been mostly adults, but one particularly striking question on the number of parallel universes came from the ten year old son of one of the speakers, Max Tegmark.

Given the experimental nature of the event, its location in The Laboratory was particularly well-suited. The large room was filled in front with couches, but as more and more people came chairs were set up to the very back edges. If Big Ideas can draw such a big crowd the first time it runs, maybe if done again it'll have to be in an even bigger setting.

Video of the entire event should be posted on the Cambridge Science Festival's web site in upcoming weeks, and hopefully the Festival will put on another Big Ideas for Busy People next year!


  1. The presentations overall were each very interesting. Some were a bit strange - the speaker on drawing distinctions between "evil people" and "psychopaths" just left me confused, as did several others who didn't quite finish their presentations - but overall it was very enjoyable. It also seemed to have draw a very large crowd and I for one am certainly looking forward to a reprise next year.

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