IF Conversations - Cameron Sinclair

Cameron Sinclair, Co-founder and executive director of Architecture for Humanity on "Humanitarian Relevance In Architecture"
From: IFTV
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Jason Padgett - We Need Every Kind of Mind

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."


Lee Billings - "Planets Pour Out of the Sky"

“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?

The question lingers.


Kenn Parks, Our One Planet

Following his presentation at the 2008 ideafestival, Kenn Parked talked about how the creative use of technology can connect people in new and bigger ways leading to more sustainable, positive global impacts.
From: IFTV
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Time: 02:56 More in Nonprofits & Activism

IF Conversations - David Mohney

In this ideafestival Conversation, David Mohney, Dean Emeritus, College of Design Professor, University of Kentucky, talks about the unique Curry Stone Prize for humanitarian design. The first annual $100000 award was handed out at the 2008 ideafestival, Louisville, Kentucky.
From: IFTV
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Time: 03:36 More in Nonprofits & Activism

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