January 9, 2012

Top 25 Science & Technology TED Talks

Yesterday was theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday! We’re celebrating this amazing scientific mind by featuring his 2008 TED talk in which he addresses some of the big questions about the universe such as: How did the universe begin? How did life begin? Are we alone? Along with this TED talk we’ve selected 24 other outstanding TED talks on science and technology to expand you mind. There are talks from science giants like James D. Watson, E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter, along with talks from technology leaders like Jeff Bezos, Jimmy Wales, and Bill Gates. Here are our “Top 25 Science & Technology TED Talks” complete with LearnOutLoud reviews.

1. Stephen Hawking Asks Big Questions About the Universe

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking takes a look at the big questions of the universe and gives the best answers that science has produced to date. He gives insight into how the universe began and how we discovered the universe is still expanding. Hawking also discusses the search for intelligent life and how we haven’t found anything yet in the nearest 100 light years. He cautions about the threats of destruction to life on Earth and feels man needs to keep venturing out into space in the future. He then answers a question about whether he thinks there is life outside of Earth in the Milky Way galaxy.

2. Debunking Third-World Myths with the Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen

Professor of global health Hans Rosling brings data to life in his first TED talk which dispels common myths about the so-called developing world. While many people assume that there is a large gap between technologically advanced western world and the rest of the developing world in terms of health and wealth, Rosling shows some tremendous animated graphs which show that from 1960 to the present day the so-called developing world has made enormous strides in terms of life expectancy, particularly in Asia. He presents a lot of other interesting data showing the rise of a global middle class and how diverse the statistics are in Africa. He hopes that by making data interesting and accessible to the average person it will give us a clearer picture of the way we view the world. And if you liked this one watch all of Hans Rosling’s TED talks.

3. Earth in Its Final Century?

British cosmologist Sir Martin Rees gives a wise talk on the history and future of Earth in this TED Talk. Viewed as a whole the Earth has seen very gradual change in its 4 billion year history. Since the dawn of man though there has been some quite rapid change on the planet particularly in the last 2000 years. And in just the past 50 years the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has begun to rise abruptly, the planet has been emitting radio waves, and small metallic objects have begun orbiting the Earth and some have journeyed out of that orbit. With 6 billion years yet to come on Earth it remains to be seen what sort of life will inhabit it, and we will need the humane wisdom of the elder Albert Einstein to prevent catastrophe.

4. Brian Greene on String Theory

Try wrapping your mind around string theory with this TED talk delivered by physicist Brian Greene. He starts the talk with the story of the German mathematician and physicist Theodor Kaluza who proposed that the universe might have more dimensions than the three-dimensional space apparent in of the physical world. This led much later to the attempt at discovering a unified theory through string theory and superstring theory which proposes 10 dimensions. Brian Greene ends the talk with describing some experiments which are being conducted that could lead to proving the existence of other dimensions.

5. James Watson on How He Discovered DNA

Legendary scientist James D. Watson tells the story of how he and Francis Crick co-discoverered the structure of DNA in 1953. As detailed in his bestselling book The Double Helix, Watson gives an entertaining account of how scientific discoveries are made in the modern world. He goes into some talks on genetics and DNA which may require some basic genetic knowledge to understand, but even without this knowledge one gets a taste for the excitement of scientific discovery. At the end of the talk he looks at the more recent discoveries of the genes that are thought to give predisposition to autism, schizophrenia, and more.

6. Debate: Does the World Need Nuclear Energy?

Listen to this brief debate at the TED conference over nuclear energy between environmentalist and Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand who argues in favor of nuclear energy in the face of global warming and Stanford University environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson who argues for using renewable energy sources of energy instead of resorting to nuclear power. Brand sees nuclear power as the best way to reduce the massive amount of carbon dioxide that coal plants emit. Jacobson provides stats on wind and solar power and warns of the dangers of countries secretly developing nuclear weapons in conjunction with establishing nuclear power.

7. E.O. Wilson on Saving Life on Earth

In this 2007 TED Prize talk biologist E.O. Wilson takes a look at the vastness of the biosphere and points out that the majority of species on Earth we’ve yet to discover. From his studies of insects he has come to understand immense beauty and variation in the smallest living things. Yet he cautions that humanity’s actions are set to destroy over half of the surviving animal and plant species on the planet by the end of the century along with destroying many species of living things before they are even discovered. He sums up these extinctions as being caused by H.I.P.P.O.: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population expansion, and over-harvesting by excessive hunting and fishing. With this destruction of life, we will lose a vast amount of knowledge, along with the potentials of what this life can provide for the world. He wishes for an online encyclopedia of life to be created that researchers all over the world can contribute to in order to catalog our ever-expanding knowledge of life on Earth and value you it enough to avoid its destruction.

8. Richard Dawkins: The Universe is Queerer Than We Can Suppose

In this mind-bending lecture from TED.com, biologist Richard Dawkins examines the universe from the standpoint of contemporary science and finds that our universe is much stranger than we are capable of supposing. He provides many examples in the biological world about how assumptions such as a rock being solid and our bodies being the same throughout our life are incorrect. Stretch your perspective with Dawkin’s case for “thinking the improbable”.

9. Craig Venter is on the Verge of Creating Synthetic Life

Craig Venter is famous for his role in the Human Genome Project and their accomplishment in being the first group to sequence the human genome. In this TED talk he talks about his attempts to create life with a synthetic genome, and in 2010 Venter announced the creation of first self-replicating semi-synthetic bacterial cell. This talk from 2008 describes what they were doing in their attempts to create synthetic life and more importantly why they attempting to create synthetic life. Venter argues that synthetic life can create new forms of energy that convert carbon dioxide to fuel and replace the entire petrol-chemical industry. It’s an ambitious goal from one of the leading figures in genetics.

10. Paul Root Wolpe: It’s Time to Question Bio-Engineering

Bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe shows some of the latest feats in bio-engineering from creating animal hybrids such as the zorse (a zebra-horse hybrid) to genetically creating bio-luminescent animals that glow in the dark. He also covers the advances in cloning, genetically modified foods, and animal-robots which can be controlled by computers. After presenting all these fascinating and sometimes terrifying bio-engineering advances, Wolpe asks some very important ethical questions about the future of bio-engineering.

11. Ray Kurzweil on How Technology Will Transform Us

Futurist Ray Kurzweil takes a look the exponential growth of many forms of technology and where these technologies will take us in the not to distant future. From the spread of the cell phones to the development of nanotechnology, Kurzweil feels this is all leading to a technological singularity. It’s an interesting glimpse into the future with a leading technological thinker.

12. An Inside Tour of the World’s Biggest Supercollider

Physicist Brian Cox talks about the Large Hadron Collider which is the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. Cox talks about how it is hoped that it will explain many of the most fundamental questions in physics. He explains the creation story as know by physics starting with the theory of the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago and taking us through time to the present day.

13. Jeff Bezos on the Next Web Innovation

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos takes a look at the history of internet and compares it to past historical developments. He starts off relating it to the gold rush of the mid 19th century. At first people were skeptical but by a certain point everyone wanted in on the gold rush and the internet riches that were arising the late 20th century. They both had a bust and their excesses led to some tragic losses, but the internet has continued to be resilient in its innovations. Bezos then compares the internet to the development of electricity. By the early 20th century the ground work had been laid for electricity to be delivered to houses in urban areas and immediately people started developing electrical appliances. These rudimentary appliances were a long way away from the ones we know of today and Bezos feels we are at that early stage with the internet where we haven’t even begun to think of all the things we are going to be able to use it for.

14. Jared Diamond on Why Societies Collapse

Scientist Jared Diamond takes a look at the many factors that go into the causes for societies that have collapsed throughout history in this TED talk. He analyzes the Greenland Norse and the many environmental and social factors that led to its societal demise, and then focuses on the modern US state of Montana which, as a society within the United States, is facing many of the same issues. Diamond then points out some ways we can learn from history in order to prevent the collapse of contemporary societies and lead us off our current path of unsustainability.

15. Aubrey de Grey Says We Can Avoid Aging

Theoretician in the field of gerontology Aubrey de Grey looks at how new medical technologies are going to increase the lifespan of humans to the point of “longevity escape velocity” where we will be able to essentially live forever. He addresses a number of the arguments against his theory and provides some projections how old we are going to live on average in the coming years. He quickly addresses some of the scientific research behind his ideas and fields a few questions.

16. Chris Anderson: Technology’s Long Tail

Chris Anderson of WIRED magazine gives his grand unified theory of technology in this TED talk. He points out the four stages of a technology: first they fall below a critical price, then they rise to a critical mass, then they often displace an existing technology, and finally they often become nearly free. He walks us through the stages with the rise of the DVD from the 1990s into the 2000s. This talk was delivered back in 2004 and he does make some predictions with the rise of hybrid cars, free phone calls (Skype), and other technologies that were rising at the time. For the most part Anderson’s theory of technology seems to still hold up.

17. Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Sam Harris, author of the recent book The Moral Landscape, posits that just as there are scientific facts there are also moral facts and science can play a role in determining morality when in comes to the well-being of humanity. He sets up the idea of a moral spectrum of what is optimal for human well-being within a culture and argues that there are universal truths which contribute towards this well-being just as there are truths when it comes to the physical health of a human being. With humor and clarity he questions certain religious practices as being the best way to confront moral dilemmas.

18. The Vision Behind One Laptop Per Child

In this TED talk the founder of the One Laptop per Child Association, Nicholas Negroponte, shares his ambitious vision of distributing $100 laptops to the children of the world. To date his organization has delivered 2 million laptops worldwide. He delivered this talk in 2006 when they were just ramping up their distribution and he tells of the challenges they faced in making a $100 laptop. He also talks about some of the successes they’ve had in the program in aiding the education of children throughout the globe.

19. Jimmy Wales on the Birth of Wikipedia

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales separates fact from fiction regarding the founding of his super popular online encyclopedia and how it operates. He talks about the close knit community which is at the heart of developing Wikipedia and the team of volunteers which have helped it grow technologically and have keep the costs down. Wales discusses some of the controversies and criticisms that have arisen about the Wikipedia project. It’s an interesting look behind-the-scenes at one of the most popular websites on the world wide web.

20. Bill Gates on Energy: Innovating to Zero

In this TED Talk Bill Gates speaks on innovating our energy policy so we reach zero carbon emissions globally by 2050. In this talk Gates provides a simple equation for the increase in carbon dioxide globally and he sees that the only way to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to reduce carbon emissions from the equation. He calls for innovation in all alternative methods of creating energy and says it will take a miracle of innovation to come up with a solution. He suggests one possible “miracle” which he is investing in is a new kind of nuclear power which generates power from what we currently designate as nuclear waste. Listen to this clear and concise talk about how one of America’s top business & technology leaders is looking at solving the climate crisis.

21. Michael Pollan Gives a Plant’s-Eye View

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, talks about how he came to the idea of viewing the world from other species points of view. And while humanity often assumes human consciousness is the end-all and be-all of evolution, he humorously suggests that humanity was maybe grass’s way of getting another species to mow the lawn so there are less trees to prevent its growth. He presents a way of farming that he has discovered in which viewing the farming process from the point of view of other species could produce a new world where it is not a zero sum game of humanity winning.

22. Julian Assange: Why the World Needs WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange sits down with TED’s Chris Anderson at TEDGlobal 2010 for a discussion of his controversial website. Assange talks about the purpose of WikiLeaks which takes highly classified documents and video from whistleblowers and other sources in order to alert the press and public and instigate political change. Assange provides many examples of leaks which his site has released that have had an impact on global politics.

23. Al Gore: 15 Ways to Avert a Climate Crisis

Al Gore lays out 15 ways to avert climate crisis through our personal and professional lives. He plays a brief slide show and provides examples of many of the ways that these steps are being used in action. Speaking to a business audience at the TED conference he also points out important steps that businesses can take to influence climate change.

24. Leonard Susskind: My Friend Richard Feynman

Physicist Leonard Susskind talks about his friendship with the legendary Richard Feynman. Feynman made many contributions to various areas of physics and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. Susskind tells stories of Feynman and his scientific method which sought to eliminate the “baloney” and make physics explainable. Through the many stories Susskind portrays the complexity of this brilliant 20th century physicist.

25. Jane Goodall on What Separates Us From the Apes

In this TED Talk from primatologist Jane Goodall, she discusses her many years spent with chimpanzees in Tanzania and the many ways in which she and other researchers have discovered that chimpanzees are similar to humans. From their ability to make tools to their emotional lives Goodall lays out the characteristics of chimps that may make us second guess how they are treated. She then talks about how chimpanzees are being endangered and she connects this to the many ways in which life and our environment are being threatened. At the end of the talk she gives reasons for hope with telling of some of the courageous acts of young people throughout the world that participate in the Roots & Shoots program she started.

Happy birthday Stephen Hawking!