Carolyn Porco is the head of the imaging team for NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn, which has placed a spacecraft in orbit around the planet. She is the opening speaker at TED2007. Of all the places in the solar system that we may go to search for answers, there is Saturn, whose investigation has been increasingly detailed since the Cassini spacecraft neared the planet in 2004 and became the more distant of our outposts. The journey to Saturn, she says, is part of and a metaphor for a human voyage to
understand who we are and our relation to the solar system. She shoes breathtaking images (like the one on the right) of the planet and of the collection of moons that accompany it.
She discusses the deployment of the Huygens probe into the surface of Saturn in January 2005, which was the first human-made device that ever landed on the outer solar system, and shows pictures that reveal an unexpected surface, a desert with what are probably shapes of water ice pebbles, dunes, lakes, fractures. So there are possibly liquid water, organic materials and excessive heat on Saturn and its moons. Which means that Saturn could be a place were life is possible.
If we can demonstrate that Genesis has happened not once [Earth] but twice [Saturn], she said, then we can infer that it has happened hundreds of thousands of times across the solar system. If we can demonstrate that Genesis has happened not once [on Earth] but twice [including Saturn] in the solar system, she said, then by inference that means it has occurred a staggering number of times across the universe in its 13.7 billion year history".
We quickly zoom in from the Universe to the human cell. David Bolinsky is a medical illustrator and runs Xvivo, a 3D scientific animation studio in Connecticut. He describes his job as a way to help understand truth and beauty in the biological sciences, by using animations, and shows incredible images of the "inner life" of a human cell (like the one below).
Philippe Starck, the famous and prolific French designer of streamlined looks for mass-market goods (his best-known design is a lemon squeezer for Alessi - picture left - that doesn't work very well), interiors and houses. He has reportedly been commissioned to design the Virgin Galactic "spaceport" in New Mexico, but doesn't discuss that. Actually, he almost doesn't discuss his work at all, and he doesn't show any image. "I believe in general that my job is absolutely useless; but now, after Carolyn and these guys, I feel like shit", he says, with an astonishingly heavy French accent. There are cynical designers that design only for profit; narcissistic designers, who designs only for other fantastic designers; and there are people like me who try to make the object for the result, for the benefit of the person that will use it. The big challenge in front of us: there is no human production that exists out of the "big image": our long history, our poetry, our romanticism. We are mutants, and if we don't understand that then we don't understand our humanity. We are at a turning point. If barbarism comes back, then forget design and art, there will be urgency, we will have to go back to politics, to radical discussion, that's why today I'm ashamed of be doing this job, it's not the right time for it. Our civilization is unfinished. It won't take much to finish it, but we will have to do the right things, and then we can pass it on to our children and tell them to invent their own story. (Yes, Starck's rant was difficult to follow, so forgive if this graph is difficult to make sense of).
Stephen Pinker (formerly at MIT, now at Harvard; author of "How the mind works") is the man who has brought the ideas of evolutionary psychology to a broader audience. He shows images of the Auschwitz concentration camp, which have been seared into our conscience in the XX century. During that century we witnessed a series of atrocities, from Stalin and Hitler to Mao and Rwanda. And the XXI century has not started better (Darfur, Iraq). But despite this perception of inhuman violence in the last 100 years, truth is that our ancestors were far more violent that we are, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful times in history.
The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, says Pinker, you can see it over millennia, centuries, decades (although there may have been a tipping point an the onset of the Age of Reason on the XVI century):
- Millennium scale - Until 10'000 years ago all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, without permanent settlement or government. But recent research has revealed that the likelihood of violent death (that a man would die at the hands of another man) was of 50-60%. If we consider later civilizations such as the ones described in the Bible (about 3000 years ago), well, the Bible itself contains several passages like the one about "slaying all the males" (Numbers, 31).
- Century scale - Violence was common in European Middle ages and early modern times (while is rare or absent today): mutilations and torture were routine criminal punishments; death penalty was a sanction for a long list for nonviolent crimes; slavery; sadistic capital punishment (burning at the stake); cruelty as entertainment. One-on-one murder: criminologist Manuel Eisner searched historical records in Europe for homicide rates in the Middle Age, and determined a decline of at least two orders of magnitudes in homicides since then.
- Decade scale - Since 1945 in Europe and Americas steep decline in wars, armed conflicts, number of deaths per war per year. Since end of Cold War: similar trends.
So why are we so wrong about something so important? One of the reason is that we have better journalistic reporting which creates a cognitive illusion: memorable events are judged to be more probable (if we read every day about suicide bombers, we believe that's the norm); guilt; change in standards outpaces change in behaviour. Why has violence declined? Nobody really knows, but:
- Maybe Thomas Hobbes got it right, he said that life in the state of nature was brutal and short, that in a state of anarchy there is a strong temptation to invade others before they invade you, or to kill the other before they kill you. Hobbes' solution, the Leviathan, was that monopoly of violence should be invested in a single authority (state), which is consistent with the rise of centralized state in modern times
- In many times and places there is a widespread sense that "life is cheap". When suffering and early death are common in one's life, one has fewer compunction to threaten other people's life.
- Non-zero sum games: in certain circumstances, cooperation benefits both parties in an interaction (splitting the "peace dividend" - the advantages of not having to fight all time, for ex); tech increases the number of positive-sum games
- The expanding circle (put forth by philosopher Peter Singer) posits that evolution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy. By default we apply it only to friends and family, but over time the circle expands to the village, the tribe, the nation, other races, both sexes, other species, etc. This expansion is powered by increasing reciprocity and cosmopolitanisms which allows to project yourself into the life of other people.
Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has implications. Because it's not only about doing less wrong, but also doing right. And it would be interesting to find out what we are doing right. (Pinker doesn't mention it, but let me point you to it: to the Human Security Report, published in October 2005 and largely ignored by the press but which contains figures such as: the number of armed conflicts has declined by more than 40 percent since 1992; that of military coups and attempted coups has declined by some 60 percent since 1963; and another quantity of important data).
Choreographer and self-taught breakdancer Kenichi Ebina provides a break (you can see some videos of his performances on his website).
Hans Rosling is a Swedish professor and founder of Gapminder, he was at TED last year and captivated the audience with his fast-paced discussion of demographic and social development data (see video or summary) calling for a wider access to mass of demographic data that are trapped into UN and other databases (since his speech, the UN has apparently relaxed its rules). He shows a graph mapping fertility rates against life expectancy at birth. In 1950 there were huge differences in the world, but things have changed and (Africa aside) most countries now present high life expectancy. In another, he plots child morality against GDP per capita. In 1820 Austrian and Sweden, the only countries keeping statistics, had a mortality rate of 1 of every 5 children; no country is "down there" (at the bottom of his graph) today. In 1915 the US had an economy similar of today's Philippines, but almost 1 child in 10 died in the US then, while only about 1 in 50 dies today in the Philippines. There is a 30-years-gap between economic development and health development, he says, and education development comes even later. There are many dimensions of development: human rights; environment; governance; economic growth; education; health; culture. My experience in Africa, he says, is that the seemingly impossible is possible. Even bad governments have gone in the last 50 years from pre-medieval situation to sometimes decent infrastructure and conditions. To understand how Rosling works and uses data, go to the Gapminder page and download a few of his visualizations. Look at the "Has the world become a better place?" (ZIP file) and at "Dollar Street" (ZIP file). "You can believe statistics when you can relate them to your grandmother", he says. By which he means that he has mapped his family history comparing the situation of Sweden in the different years in which his family members lived to that of different nations of the world today. His great-great mother born in the early 1800 lived in a country similar to today's Sierra Leone; his g-g-mother in one that looked like Mozambique; his g-mother's living conditions were close to that of Ghana today; his mother lived in the equivalent of Egypt. "And I am a Mexican", he says, while his kids were born when Sweden was similar to today's Chile and, in the case of the youngest one, like Singapore. (Now, that's the most interesting way of describing one's family history that I've seen).
And then... surprise. Rosling is a serious demographer but he is also (another deadly serious activity) one of the few sword-swallowers active in Sweden, and he does it -- he strips his clothes back revealing a circus disguise and shouts "bring me my sword!"; an assistant hands him a short (30 cm I would say) and heavy (2 kg) Swedish bayonette.
Which (picture right) he swallows after asking for silence but without hesitation. A "TED moment". Standing ovation.