Jason Padgett, an aspiring mathematician and number theorist, is one of very few individuals in the world with acquired savant syndrome. He wasn't always this way.
He scraped by in high school by copying the work of his friends, and only graduated because one of those friends did his homework for him for a final.
Padgett: "That gives you an idea about how seriously I took school.... I had a very shallow life."
But one night outside of a karaoke bar, his life was changed dramatically. He was severely beaten in a mugging gone wrong.
"Immediately, everything," quite literally, "looked different." He explains that he began to see motion as a series of discreet events, much like how a mechanical flip book might display moving images.
One day, obsessively drawing fractals and Pi, he heard Daniel Tammet talk about synesthesia. Padgett realized that Tammet's experience was much like his, and that the experience of seeing the world as start and stop, as a series of shapes and numbers, was not unique. While the attack had left him with serious post-traumatic stress syndrome and in self-imposed exile away from anyone and everyone outside his home, the feeling he had for the first time in a long time was one of overwhelming relief. His condition had a name.
As he explained, "I didn't want to be that crazy guy who didn't know he was crazy."
He put some of his mathematical drawings online tagged with the word "synesthesia," and an expert on the condition contacted him. Functional MRIs later revealed that he had "conscious access," in his words, to parts of the brain that most humans "don't have access to." Physical changes in his brain could explain his attraction to Pi and his intense interest in mathematics.
Watching Padgett talk, it's clear that the recovery process, understandably, is ongoing. No longer that disinterested young man - his words - content to get by, he has a curiosity about the world around him. He explains that he feels much more deeply than he did in his old life. Moreover, he connects the interior landscape smeared with numbers and a developing skill in advanced mathematics to a person that has been changed for the better.
Describing why the Doppler effect is the result of compressing sound waves, which we hear as a higher pitch sound as they approach and a gradually lowered pitch noise as they expand and move away, he connects that phenomenon to special relativity. Using the wave-like property of light, astronomers, he explains, are able to measure "red shift" to approximate the immense distances in the universe. In a poetic turn, he says that if an observer were able to stand with him while he rushed away at the speed of light while another were to remain stationary, the blue shirt he was wearing today would appear red to person left behind, while his companion would continue to see blue. Relativistic physics are well established in that regard. But "in fact," he adds, "if everyone in the universe could see him" at that moment, his shirt would be every color.
His point: we need every kind of mind.
In the following question and answer session, Padgett tells the audience in evident disbelief that a movie of his life will be opening in the next year or so. Channing Tatum will play him. "And," he adds, a bit chuffed at the idea, "he is taking math classes to prepare for the role."
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Arthur C. Clarke
Lee Billings is the author of Five Billion Years of Solitude and is speaking today at the IdeaFestival. He starts at the VERY beginning.
It's been 13.8 billion years. "Let me congratulate you on the improbable achievement of being here.... Most of the universe is empty space."
Spreading his arms wide, he suggests that if all of time were contained within his reach, human existence could be scraped away with a nail file. Moreover, cosmically speaking, we are perhaps nearer the end of complex life on earth than its beginning. And if we want to have a future after the next 500 million years, when planetary life will become untenable because of the changes in our sun, we might want to think of alternatives. We're capable, he says, of "choosing our own cosmic fate."
In the meantime, the search for life elsewhere "can give valuable context to life right here on this small cosmic speck of dust." Turning to the subject of his talk today, he points out that science and technological progress tell us that planetary formation is common.
In fact, planets are now "pouring out of the sky." He believes that 10,000 confirmed finds will soon be in the exoplanet catalog, which only came into existence in the past 20 or so years. Plotting those finds on a graph overhead, he points to "walls of worlds" discovered in just the past three or four years thanks to the space telescope Kepler. Interestingly, he says, Kepler has told us that OUR planetary system is atypical.
Billings walks the audience through two basic exoplanet detection techniques, the transiting and radial velocity methods. "Wobbles give you size. Transiting gives you mass." Kepler uses the transiting method.
The data so far, he is quick to add, doesn't support some of the wilder claims for habitable Earths that have reached the popular press. We're just in the formative stages of a new science. He explains that as late as the 1950's, many informed scientists believed that Venus might be a terrific place to live. It's emblematic, he says, of where exoplanetology is today.
Since direct observation of worlds tens of thousands of light years away is problematic because the competing light from the host star overwhelms the reflected light from nearby planets, we know what we know about the suitability of worlds for life based, in part, on how light interacts with chemicals as it passes through a planet's atmosphere on its way to our telescopes. Those signatures can be teased out in spectrographic prints to tell us what what molecules are present above the host body.
Thanks to that technique and the evidence offered by robotic explorers, we now know that Venus' crushing atmosphere is suffering from a runaway greenhouse effect. It would be a terrible place to live.
In the next few years, the enormous James Webb telescope will be able to peer at nearby stars to look for water vapor. And we could fund additional searches, but the trade-offs in a time of budget cuts are hard. One proposed exoplanetary telescope, for example, was killed in favor of funding two more Space Shuttle missions.
Meanwhile, "the planets are piling up." Asked during Q&A about what it would mean to find microbial life in our own planetary neighborhood, Billings believes it would be "disconcerting." If primitive life thives nearby, it means that, like planatary formation, it too is a common phenomenon.
And since we haven't heard from intelligent life elsewhere, is there a "filter" along this developmental path that prevents intelligent civilizations from flourishing?
Thrivals is using Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist as the basis of Thrivals 4.0, using everything from evolutionary biology to economics to study the principle of exchange, and in particular, asking and answering the question, how do ideas develop?
They have sex of course.
And they are emergent.
Dr.Sugata Mitra, whose Hole in the Wall project inspired Slumdog Millionaire asks "can children, left to themselves, teach themselves?"
As it happens, he has some experience with that question. Feeling unhappy with the vast slums surrounding him in India while he was teaching privileged children, many years ago began experimenting. He first put a DIY ATM (since banks had experience with outdoor computers) in a building wall.
Then he left the country.
Coming back in few months, Dr. SugataMitra, chuckling at the thought, said that the children immediately told him "they wanted a faster processor, a better mouse." But because they had been given a computer that only spoke English, they had also, to his surprise, learned English. He shows the Thrival attendees at IdeaFestival 2011 pictures of a 10 year old boy and his seven year old pupil clustered around the terminal, learning.
At the end of five years, from 1999 - 2004, the children's literacy shot up in every location where Hole in the Wall operated - "to the level of an average office secretary."
He next challenged school children to speak well enough so that speech-to-text software on a computer would output understandable English. In his absence, the students had, again, made use of the Internet downloading software with English speakers, and taught themselves the speak the language with an English - not Indian - accent.
He recounts how Tamil-speaking children in southern India taught themselves advanced genetic concepts, and heard from one misguided child such student that "apart from the knowledge that the improper replication of the DNA causes disease, we have understood nothing else."
Dr. Mitra clearly believes in the value of the "grandmother effect," and uses it to great effect, asking children to act as grandmothers - to simply nod affirmatively behind students and say, "isn't that it wonderful. How did you arrive at that?"
C.C. Chapman tweeted a video of the Granny Cloud linked above.
Children will self organize around the big questions, not what is the Eiffel Tower? But who built the Eiffel Tower and why? Why do we dream? "You know," they've said, "there's this Freud and he...."
Self-organizing systems that discuss big questions and important ideas? Sounds a lot like the IdeaFestival.
Over time, Dr. Mitra has come to believe based on his work that "education is a self-organizing system with learning as an emergent phenomena," and that 1) reading comprehension, 2) information searching and 3) systems of belief are the three parts critical to the success of an education. But if "children can learn to read by themselves, then the educational system can be turned upside down."
Paul Gilster reflects on the latest information from the space-based observatory Kepler, which in a period of months has trebled the number of planets outside of our own solar system. Its haul of 1,200+ candidate bodies includes five that are believed to be near-Earth sized planets in the "habitable zone" of their parent suns, or orbits where liquid water is likely to be present. Follow up observations on the ground will further characterize these finds.
Above left is the field of view for Kepler. And at right, candidate planets are identified by their approximate location in the field of view. To put this in perspective, fifteen years ago we knew of no other worlds besides the nine described textbooks. Isn't it amazing that as soon we are able to detect planets elsewhere in the Milky Way, there they are?
Images: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech (l) and NASA/Wendy Stenzel (r)