Murray Gell-Mann won the Nobel prize in physics in 1969 for his work on the theory of elemental particles and the discovery of the quark,
one of the two basic constituents of matter. More recently, he's
researched complex adaptive systems. He states: What is especially
striking and remarkable is that in fundamental physics, beauty is a very successful criterion for choosing the right theory.
In 1957 some of us put forward a theory of the "weak force", in
disagreement with the results of seven experiments. The theory was
beautiful - so it had to be right, and indeed it turned out that the
experiments were all wrong. Einstein was famously indifferent to
suggestions that his basic ideas were contradicted by experiments.
What do we mean by beauty and elegance? Why is beauty or elegance a successful criterion in choosing the correct theory in fundamental physics? Is there any role of human beings and human thinking? (Short answer to the latter: no). A theory appears beautiful or elegant (or simple if you prefer) when it can be expressed concisely in mathematical terms (maths is very simple). Nature obeys laws, and in Newton's words "the business of natural philosophy is to find out those laws". The basic law really takes the form of an unified quantum theory of all the fundamental forces and all the elementary particles. Since it is quantum-mechanical, it predicts probability (some of which are near certainty) for future events, given past ones. The history of the universe is co-determined by fundamental laws and by the many accidents, outcomes of chance events.
Physicists approach that much-desired unified theory, working our way to smaller and smaller distances or higher and higher energies and accuracies, getting closer and closer to this fundamental law. As we peel these skins of the onion, we see that each skin has something in common with the previous and the next one. That is a property of the basic law. The manifestations of the law at different scales exhibit approximate self-similarity. Newton called it "nature conformable to herself". The result is that newly encountered phenomena are described rather simply, and therefore elegantly, by mathematics that is very similar to that of the previous (or the next) "skin". That's why it's so elegant. We believe there is a unified theory and there are three principles that are emergent property of the fundamental laws of physics: the conformability of nature to herself; the applicability of the criterion of simplicity; and the "unreasonable effectiveness" of certain parts of mathematics in describing physical reality. You don't need something more to explain something more.
TEDster Allison Hunt gets 3 minutes on stage. She's the president of Hatch, a branding research firm in Canada and twists the name of the session into "Hipiphany", because she recently got a hip replacement - and after walking on stage on crutches she tells (with comedic accents) the story of how she got this new titanium part of her body.
Jonathan Widom, cell biologist at Northwestern university, has been in the news recently for his discovery, together with several colleagues, of an additional layer of information superimposed on the DNA coding known so far, different from it. A "code beyond genetics". In short: the genetic code specifies all the proteins that a cell makes. This second layer of code sets the placement of the nucleosomes, miniature protein spools around which the DNA is looped, controlling access to it (slide from his dense speech at right). The biological question they're trying to answer: How different kind of cells get their distinct entities. If confirmed, the discovery could lead to a re-evaluation of the way the genome is structured and how it operates.
Last year Jeff Han came to TED, set up a contraption that looked like a table, turned it on, started moving his hands on it, and the audience let out a collective "wooow!" A a researcher at New York University, Jeff has developed a multi-touch computer interface that, basically, dispenses with the common desktop metaphor, replacing it with an intuitive, open-ended space through which users navigate freely with their fingertip (see the video of his TED2006 unveiling of the tech, read my original post, or a feature on Jeff in Fast Company magazine). In the meantime he has created Perceptive Pixel Inc. to commercialize the technology, and is back at TED with his fellow multi-touch-pioneer Phil Davidson to show the next stage of his research: an interaction wall. Here are Jeff and Phil using it:
It's an amazing thing: enlarging a picture requires only touching it with two fingers and moving them apart -- with the file following their movements and spreading on the screen. There is basically no structured interface to his device: they just " navigate" in the information, zooming in and out of maps or tilting them or adding graphic elements or redistributing images on the screen just by moving their fingers on them. They add layers of images -- a map on top of a map, for example, where the one on top acts as a "lens". They have built in dozens of applications, and functionalities that make it even more effective: drawing a circle for example initiates a menu, etc. "The most interesting thing is that when people first use this, they tend to go with one finger, then retract it: we basically have to un-teach people what they have learned so far about computing, and convince them that they can use several fingers, that several people can work on the screen at once, that you can actually use a random number of touchpoints, etc". The Apple iPhone, when it comes out, may help: it will also come with a multitouch screen, although it's so small that it won't make for a very interesting multitouch device (Jeff's "wall" is 8 feet wide). This is a mindboggling breakthrough technology.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a tall tall tall former basketball star (2m19, or 7 feet 2 - picture), one of the most amazing champions this sport has ever had -- I remember following him and "Magic" Johnson when I was a teenager and they were playing for the Lakers.
He's working on a book called "On the shoulders of giants". He tells his story of being born and raised in Harlem, a place of big hopes and changes thanks to the civil rights movement and the Harlem Renaissance. He tells of the teachings of Martin Luther King, of how that inspired him to look inside and explore his own soul -- "and now I hope that the world sees me not 7 feet 2 inches tall, but 7 feet 2 inches deep". He offers the audience his "three most important principles of success". Integrity: for me integrity is best explained through jazz music; musicians that have integrity pursue their vision, not just what the public might want; integrity requires confidence: in our vision, in our capacities. Learning system: focus must be not on how many points you score, but on the system. Execution: you must know your competition, your potential, your strengths, and how to play to your strengths and weaknesses; execution is about preparation, timing, knowing your enemy (strategy) and knowing your enemy's sword (what tools he has).
TEDster Jok Church gets his three minutes on stage. He's a cartoonist and author from San Francisco, he writes for children and the author of “You Can With Beakman" a syndicated newspaper comic strip for kids. He tells a personal story: Jok is openly gay, and as a student he got bashed. A teacher intervened to defend him. Then they lost touch. Until she called him many years later -- from her deathbed -- asking him to travel to Ohio to visit her. He and his partner did, and they assisted her in her last days. "It's like closing the circle: she saved my life, we saved hers".
The session (and the first TED day) ends with blind songwriter and singer Raul Midón, his flamenco-jazz guitar and captivating voice (among others, he sings a song on the "meaning of technology").