Originally published by The Stanford Daily, May 12, 2014)
Over 700 people from Stanford and the surrounding community gathered on Saturday for the third annual TEDx Stanford conference. The event featured 31 speakers and performers — including a student professional racecar driver, one of the world’s leading experts on climate change and Stanford alumni musicians.
The daylong event aimed to take the audience “above and beyond,” both inside Cemex Auditorium during the event and after the conference. Like other TEDx events, TEDx Stanford followed the model of the independently organized and non-profit TED conferences.
According to Melinda Sacks ‘74, producer of the conference and director of media initiatives for the Office of Public Affairs, this year’s conference sold out in a record 14 minutes.
“The student team worked hard to distribute fliers to every corner of campus,” she said.
However, Sacks also explained that the high-profile conference did not need much publicity. Sacks decided to focus more heavily on arts and humanities, mirroring “Stanford’s art explosion.”
Stanford’s Talisman a cappella group opened the conference with a vocal performance. The group is dedicated to storytelling through music, and their surprisingly upbeat song was a Zulu funeral song that they learned from housekeepers they met while travelling in South Africa.
Steps to saving our planet
Director of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, Stephen Palumbi, spoke about the extreme creatures of the sea, explaining that bowhead whales can be over 110 years old and black coral is the record-holder with a life expectancy of over 4,270 years.
Palumbi believes that understanding these extreme creatures will motivate others to save the planet from further climate disruptions and species extinctions.
Later in the session, climate change expert and Stanford Associate Professor Noah Diffenbaugh explained the different implications of a four degree Celsius versus a two degree Celsius rise in the Earth’s temperature by 2100.
“I believe we can create a world where every person has access to the same level of well-being I enjoy and still preserve our climate system,” Diffenbaugh said.
Class of 2014 makes appearances
Representing the graduating Class of 2014 were Julia Landauer ‘14, Jessica Anderson ‘14 and Taylor Kinney ‘14.
Landauer, who started racing go-carts at the age of 10, has risen to the ranks as a professional NASCAR driver. She spoke about how biology does not prevent men and women from competing together in races. However, she believes that girls in today’s society are taught not to push themselves, not to fall and not to pick themselves back up.
“Racing is not scary for me,” Landauer said. “Breaking centuries of negative stereotypes of women is scary, but so important.”
Anderson’s original musical “High Ground” debuted at Stanford two months ago. The TEDx Stanford audience saw a short, powerful scene from the piece that was set in the antebellum south. The musical showed how gospel music helps forge a community.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child … a long way from home,” the actors sang in their roles as slaves.
Anderson completed the entire musical in one year and explained that she hopes to take it to theaters outside Stanford.
Also representing the performing arts was ballroom dancer Kinney. She and her partner Daniel Lee Tran are the undefeated United States Amateur Ballroom Champions. They performed onstage at the event, and despite working on a stage much smaller than what they were accustomed to, made moves that required sheer strength look effortless.
Science above and beyond
“We’re just a biological speculation/Sittin’ here, vibratin’/And we don’t know what we’re vibratin’ about,” sang founder of Stanford’s bioengineering major and assistant professor of bioengineering Drew Endy.
Endy also spoke about his current research.
“Evolution is not selecting for systems that are easy to understand,” he said in an interview to The Daily after the conference.
To avoid this problem, Endy works to “design and build living organisms to solve problems,” rather than relying on existing systems. In his talk, he showed the audience a pine cone he had picked up on his way to the event. He explained that his current project works to reprogram the pine tree to grow computer chips.
While Endy is innovating on the DNA level, Debbie Bard, research associate at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, aimed to expand the audience’s knowledge of the universe.
Upon taking a “census of the universe,” researchers found that galaxies are not evenly distributed, she explained. While the Hubble can stare at the same patch of sky for a long time, using it to examine the universe is like trying to “light up a room with a laser pointer.”
The telescope that Bard is helping to build is a “cosmic excavator.” Called the large synaptic survey telescope, it sits on a mountaintop in Chile with predictable weather. It has the biggest digital camera the world has ever seen, with 500 times more pixels than an iPhone.
TEDx Stanford is produced and directed by the Stanford University Office of Public Affairs in partnership with the University’s School of Earth Sciences, Graduate School of Business, Woods Institute for the Environment, Precourt Institute for Energy, School of Medicine and the School of Humanities and Sciences.