They Might Be Giants is an American alternative rock duo consisting of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, that has been around for almost 25 years. They play experimental pop with a techie edge, and don't shy away from podcasting their music for free -- their performance opens the fourth day of TED2007.
Explorer Bill Stone is one of those guys that go where others haven't yet: he has founded and led for almost 30 years the US Deep Caving Team (cave exploration - that's him in the picture at right) but he's also an inventor of underwater mapping systems, of autonomous robotic spacecrafts, and wants to mine resources on the Moon. He takes the audience in an awesome tour of the underworld. Technology has enabled humans to go to places that were previously unexplored and unknown. We can now descend thousands of meters under the Earth, relatively without risk. When he picks people for his team, he looks for competence, discipline, endurance and strength, "but we also value esprit de corps". The deeper you go, the more you run into a conflict with water (underground waterfalls, lakes, siphons). Next year he plans to lead an expedition to the deepest cave of the Americas -- Sistema Cheve in Mexico. It has already been explored down to more than 1 km deep, but they plan to take the exploration to a depth of 2600 meters, 30 km from the entrance of the cave, with the lead crew remaining underground for 30 days straight.
Stone is also involved in the exploration of space, in particular the planned autonomous exploration (by robots) of the sub-surface oceans of Europa, one of the Moons of Jupiter. Because of this hypothesized ocean beneath the ice sheet that covers its surface, Europa is considered one of the most likely places in the solar system to possibly host primitive forms of extraterrestrial life.
Exploring these oceans in space can only be done by autonomous (robotic) probes of course, capable of automated detection, mapping, etc. Which are being developed and tested. For example for the exploration of the world’s deepest known water-filled sinkhole, Cenote Zacatón in Mexico, at a depth of 1000 meters. He shows a clip of the first fully autonomous robotic exploration underground -- producing a 3D rendering of a gigantic underground cave.
By 2016 Stone expects a probe to be sent into Europa. "By 2019 we may have the first evidence of extraterrestrial life". (BG note: the vision is interesting but this seems to me excessively confident). There are three underpinnings for working in space: requirements for transport and places to stay in orbit (both of which are under development), and the final missing piece: a refueling station on orbit. If it existed, it would change all space travel planning and design. Because everything you do in space, you pay by the kilogram. Bringing a bottle of water in orbit costs 10'000 dollars. For further space exploration, we need to figure out ways to move large volumes of payload across space. Stone mentions a little known mission launched by Pentagon 13 years ago to the Shackleton crater on the south pole of the Moon, the floor of which could potentially contain huge quantities of hydrogen in water or ice form.
The traditional approach to space exploration, says Stone, has been to carry all the fuel you need, and to carry everybody back in case of emergency. But to prime the pump, boldness is required: "the first expeditionary team must travel to Shackleton crater without the fuel to come back, and produce it there. It can be done in 7 years, and I intend to lead that expedition. There was a time when people did bold things to open new frontiers. We have collectively forgotten that. Now we are at a time when boldness is required again".
By day Steve Jurvetson (blog) is a Silicon Valley VC but in his spare time he launches rockets. Apparently in the US there is a whole community of rocket hobbyists (that's him on the right in the picture). Dozens of people going off to deserts on weekends to launch homemade rockets (small ones, and big ones, five meters in length). Rockets with significant technology built in, using advanced fuels, etc. Some of them succeed in getting the rockets into orbit. Others fail. He shows pictures and videos of one of these gatherings -- including one of a rocket launch failing, and the rocket coming back smashing into the ground.
Multientrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Megastore, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Mobile, and Virgin everything if it was up to him (his group encompasses more than 300 companies, for a total 25 billion USD in revenues and over 50'000 employees) sits down for an interview with TED curator Chris Anderson. They discuss the different businesses, Branson's exploration bug, the risks he has taken (trying to cross the ocean in a hot air balloon for example, and barely surviving), family life, capitalist philanthropy (Branson last year pledged to invest US$ 3 billion into clean energy research, and is involved in projects in Africa and elsewhere). Branson tells anecdotes -- he's funny -- and discusses his approach to business. "I love learning, I'm incredibly inquisitive, I like taking the status quo and turning it upside down. If I fly somebody else's airline and don't like the experience, like it was 20 years ago, I wonder whether I can maybe create the airline that I would like to fly with".
His most recent venture is called Virgin Galactic and wants to take paying customers into space starting in 2009 (their spaceport in New Mexico is designed by another of this year's TED speakers, Philippe Starck).
Neurologist Vilaynur Ramachandran (he goes by "Rama"). How do you study the brain, a "three pounds mass of jelly", out of which comes human consciousness? One way is to study patients with damages to small parts of it, and map that against functions. He discusses his research into brain injuries that leave all functions intact except that you lose the ability to recognize people's faces; or that you feel a presence of a missing arm ("phantom limb"); or you sense numbers as colors or combine other neurological senses (synesthesia).