PopTech Blog

Nobel Laureate John Mather on planet-hunting giant telescopes and discovering what nobody has yet imagined

This year marks our 20th anniversary in bringing together people from all over the world to explore the ideas, people, and projects that are shaping the future. The countdown is officially on, and we can’t wait to welcome these wildly talented speakers into the PopTech community. Over the next two months, we’ll give you a peek inside their eclectic worlds. Join us October 20-22 at PopTech: Culture Clash to meet them in person.

Meet the speaker: Nobel Laureate Dr. John Mather is the Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST, planned for launch in 2018, will extend the discoveries of the great Hubble Space Telescope, reaching farther back in time, farther out into space, to show us how the expanding universe led to galaxies, stars, planets, and the possibility for life on our tiny Earth. 

What are you working on at the moment?
My main job is to work with the science and engineering teams for the James Webb Space Telescope, to make sure that it functions beautifully in space, and that the scientific world is fully prepared to use it. I also help think about possible new observatories for NASA, ranging from far infrared wavelengths (still almost unexplored) to planet-hunting giant telescopes, to new ways to hunt for gravitational waves.

The James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, has a number of incredible mission goals, including searching for the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang and investigating the potential for life in planetary systems, including our own Solar System. Are there any missions in particular that you are most looking forward to exploring?
For the JWST mission I think the most exciting possibility is that there’s something out there that nobody has yet imagined. We have been surprised over and over in astronomy, whenever we build new and more powerful equipment. Perhaps there is a kind of galaxy that was formed in the early universe, but no longer exists. Perhaps there are planets a lot like Earth out there, but still bizarre and different.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in regards to human presence in space?
We have to breathe, we have to eat, we need gravity to stay healthy, and we don’t do well when we’re bombarded by cosmic rays. All of those can be managed with good engineering, but so far we’ve only had to manage them close to home, at the Space Station, and on our brief but glorious trips to the Moon. When we take longer trips there are so many more ways for things to go wrong in a big way. But we know we can do it anyway.

What were you doing when you received the call that you had received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006? How did you react?
I was just waking up. I knew immediately that my peaceful life had just changed dramatically, and I would have new responsibilities. But the main thing was that our team would know their work had been recognized, and the whole world would now know what they had done and how important it is. 

Describe your immediate reaction to the theme of “Culture Clash”:
I’ve been hearing for decades about how the arts and sciences don’t mix well, but I really think that can change dramatically and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens at PopTech.

What books are on your nightstand?
I’ve got quite a bunch because I’ve started working on my own book and I’m collecting ideas. Our house is full of stacks of books; as Mark Twain said, “you know how hard it is to borrow bookcases." I’ve got one of my favorite physics books, "A Unified Grand Tour of Theoretical Physics” by Ian Lawrie. I’ve got "The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life” by Nick Lane, he’s fabulous. I’ve just bought "Herding Hemingway's Cats: Understanding how our genes work” by Kat Arney. And I’ve got some books on travel to Mallorca, because I’m planning a trip there shortly.

Best song, band, album, or podcast you’ve recently heard:
I subscribe to about a dozen podcasts, mostly about science: “Hidden Brain,” “The Life Scientific,” “Science Friday,” “Science Magazine,” “Scientific American.” I love “Freakonomics” podcasts because they’re full of surprises. I get the BBC “From Our Own Correspondent,” for a different take on the news. I love “TED Radio Hour/Ted Talks,” both for content and for style, as I think about how do to my own. I like “What It Takes”, a series of interviews with people who have overcome much to accomplish amazing things.

Who are you excited to hear speak at Culture Clash?
I’m especially eager to hear Jenna Wortham, since I’ve seen and heard her work before. I love Alan Alda for his work helping scientists communicate. And for the rest I’m eager to be surprised!

You’re hosting a dinner party. Who are your dream guests and why?
I’d be very interested to get together the Founders who wrote the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to see what they think of their work, and how they might suggest modifying it. There’s a fabulous book called "Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different.” The author says several of the Founders were pretty surprised by the way their newly created system worked, especially how partisan it became. I’d be especially thrilled to talk directly with Ben Franklin since he was the architect of so many organizations that still exist today, as well as being a brilliant scientist.

My personal mantra is:
You can’t tell how far you can go, so just get started.

Where do you reach for inspiration?

My superhero power would be:
Imagination to see possibilities.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Ask for help!

We like to karaoke at PopTech. Are you in? Go-to song?
Nope! I can’t sing a bit and I don’t know any songs.

Muhammad Zaman on using his love for politics and science to help the voiceless

This year marks our 20th anniversary in bringing together people from all over the world to explore the ideas, people, and projects that are shaping the future. The countdown is officially on, and we can’t wait to welcome these wildly talented speakers into the PopTech community. Over the next two months, we’ll give you a peek inside their eclectic worlds. Join us October 20-22 at PopTech: Culture Clash to meet them in person.

Meet the speaker: Muhammad Zaman is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of Biomedical Engineering and International Health at Boston University. His current research is focused on developing robust technologies for high-value healthcare problems in the developing world, particularly in the area of maternal and child health. In addition to his research, Professor Zaman is actively engaged in improving access to quality engineering education, with a multi-disciplinary focus on innovation, in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. 

While most of your work is centered around biomedical research, your New York Times op-ed "Dreams of My Muslim Son" gave a view of your life from a different perspective. Do you see an intersection between your childhood love for American politics and justice with your career in the biomedical and global health industry?
For me, my love for science and love for politics comes down to doing my bit to improve the human condition and working for social justice. I am, indeed, fascinated by new discoveries and new ideas, but I am also eager to use them to help others, especially those who are voiceless, or have been rendered voiceless by our actions, all around the world. For me, it comes down to a single question of doing my bit to help the most vulnerable, regardless of who they are or where they live. For me, America has always stood up for these values of justice, social cohesion and fairness - and has given me a scientific platform to further strengthen this. Every now and then, when a crack may appear in that vision, I feel that I should do my best to mend that. My article in the New York Times was an effort to mend that crack wedged largely by bigotry, racism and vile anger - but it is very much driven by the same values that drive my science.

What are you working on at the moment?
Several projects are taking up my time. First, I am very involved in developing new technologies and solutions to detect substandard and counterfeit drugs in low and middle-income countries. These drugs cause the loss of life, financial damage and long-term drug resistance. It’s a global problem that affects the poor and the most vulnerable, including mothers and children. So this is a major project. I am also working on a book on this topic of poor quality medications around the world and what we can do to change that.

Another project, related to the first one, is identifying what the major barriers are for technologies to make impact in low-income countries. Why do so many technologies fail? Is it culture, capacity, corruption or some other “hidden” factors? How can we change that?

Our projects on understanding cancer are also continuing, where we are now focusing on understanding resistance to drugs and also why some communities such as African American and African communities are more vulnerable to specific cancers.

There are other projects as well that bridge many of these. Finally - a thrust in my work has always been to improve the quality of education, in particular higher education in engineering, in developing countries - for example, what would it take to have the Culture Clash in Malawi and not Maine? How do we get there? What can we do with education to help us get there?

Describe your immediate reaction to the theme of “Culture Clash”:
Growing up in Pakistan a culture clash for me, at a certain stage in life, meant clash of cultures in terms of social values - so the term has a special nostalgia associated with it. But I never experienced any culture shock - instead, I found a diversity of opinions, approaches and values. Finally, the biggest shock was about my own self - of things that I held to be true, of ideas that I had and how they were based on false premises and incorrect assumptions.

For me Culture Clash means something similar - a clash of various cultures, of theory and practice, of approaches focused to solve the problems of 1% and the 99%, of doing things that break these barriers of geography, time and space, and through this clash will emerge solutions that work for everyone.

What books are on your nightstand?
It’s more like a mountain of books. It reflects some of my recent trips. Wherever I go, I buy the local author books to get a sense of the local culture. They can be anything – fiction, classics to contemporary crime fiction, travelogues to history, interviews to autobiography. I was in the Netherlands recently so I bought this book called “The Hidden Force” that is about the Colonial attitudes of the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies, now part of Indonesia. It’s a remarkable book and made a huge impact on the Dutch population at the turn of the 20th century. I was in Pakistan recently so I am reading a travelogue about K2 and the base camp at the base of the second highest, and one of the most treacherous, peaks in the world. Also I am almost done with the book “Dinner with Mugabe” which talks about the life and the various events that shaped the presidency of Mr. Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

I am writing to you today from Australia so I have a bunch of books that I am reading right now, including a popular crime fiction series “Phryne Fisher” by Kerry Greenwood, a remarkable book about Tasmanian culture and history called “In Tasmania” by Nicholas Shakespeare, a historical fiction novel of the origin of Australian Football called “The Call,” and this modern Australian classic called “Cloudstreet” - which is just absolutely amazing.

There are a few more as well that are in the hill, next to the mountain, on my bedside table. 

Best song, band, album, or podcast you’ve recently heard:
There was a podcast called “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” that a colleague of mine from UC Riverside told me about. It’s very, very powerful and profound and talks about race, education and bias. It’s really good.

Who are you excited to hear speak at Culture Clash?
Oh this is a hard one - can I choose all of the above? Please?

You’re hosting a dinner party. Who are your dream guests and why?
The list is VERY VERY long - I will name just five here - three living and two deceased.

1) A very famous Pakistani poet - Faiz Ahmed Faiz, for his eloquence, magic with words and why he cared so much about the downtrodden.
2) President Carter - For his work post-presidency and what inspired him.
3) Niels Bohr - I think he was simply an amazing thinker, not just in science but well beyond it. The more I read about him, and how he helped save so many from the Nazis the more inspired I get about science and the true values of science.
4) Geraldine Brooks - I just love her books and her sense of history in her fiction. I have met her once at a library and I was just so mesmerized by her speech.
5) Malala Yousafzai - For everything that she stands up for.

My personal mantra is:
Work for those who I have never met and maybe will never meet. 

Where do you reach for inspiration?
Nurses and community health workers in distant places who care for the needy and the sick without any recognition or thought of reward. I have met so many that inspire me every day when I look at their work all over the world.

My superhero power would be:

What advice would you give your younger self?
Think harder and read more.

We like to karaoke at PopTech. Are you in? Go-to song?
I am the last person you want anywhere near karaoke. 

Jesse Carmichael of Maroon 5 on environmental responsibility and what inspires him

This year marks our 20th anniversary in bringing together people from all over the world to explore the ideas, people, and projects that are shaping the future. The countdown is officially on, and we can’t wait to welcome these wildly talented speakers into the PopTech community. Over the next two months, we’ll give you a peek inside their eclectic worlds. Join us October 20-22 at PopTech: Culture Clash to meet them in person.

Meet the speaker and performer: Jesse Carmichael, best known as a multi-instrumentalist, background vocalist, and founding member of the Grammy Award-winning group, Maroon 5.

What are you working on at the moment?
Currently I’m setting up my home recording studio and I am in the midst of rehearsals for the next Maroon 5 U.S. tour, which begins September 3rd.

You’ve done a lot of work with Reverb, which works with bands and artists to create programs that reduce the environmental impact of tours. How did you get involved? (Editor’s note: Watch this short video about Reverb’s work.)
We did some touring with Guster early in our career and became friends with their singer and multi-instrumentalist Adam and his wife Lauren, the co-founders of Reverb. We were stoked when they reached out to us to help our tours be more environmentally friendly and to put some people on the tour with us who would set up info booths with local volunteers and help spread the good word about environmental responsibility to our fans. 

One of the areas that Reverb focuses on is ending illegal logging, as many instruments are constructed from illegal timber or from practices that are harmful to the environment. You recently traveled with Reverb, Guster, and the Environmental Investigation Agency to the rainforests in Guatemala to learn about the good and bad of logging practices for instruments. What did you walk away thinking and feeling from that trip?
It was a very eye-opening trip to a beautiful country which has had some troubles with illegal logging and is now providing us with a successful model of community run logging businesses being able to reduce the amount of illegal deforestation and sustainably work with the forests to provide products to the rest of the world.

Tell us about your side project, 1863. Any plans for a second phase?
Yes, 1863 is a lifelong project…and each time I record a set of songs it’ll most likely be with a different group of collaborators and document a different phase of my life.  Stay tuned to 1863.com for updates! 

Describe your immediate reaction to the theme of “Culture Clash”:
I love Culture and I love the band The Clash so I’m all for it. But seriously, I think that wonderful new unexpected things can come from diverse cultures coming together to share their unique perspectives on the world and I like to stay away from perpetuating the energy of conflict because I think that there is always a win-win way to negotiate two different agendas. It does seem like there are a lot of polarized belief systems at play in our world today and I hope we can find the compromises that will transform those clashes into causes for celebration.

What books are on your nightstand?
1) “Neuromancer” by William Gibson
2) “Shamanic Journeying” by Sandra Ingerman
3) “A Wife of Noble Character” by Yvonne Georgina Puig
4) “Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter Levine
5) “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” by Matt Ridley

Best song, band, album, or podcast you’ve recently heard:
I Feel Free” by Brittany Howard…the cover of the Cream song produced by Blake Mills for the David O. Russell movie “JOY.”

Who are you excited to hear speak at Culture Clash?
Definitely excited to hear Rahzel and Nicole Prause and Esther Perel...and every speaker seems like they have an interesting subject to speak on. 

You’re hosting a dinner party. Who are your dream guests and why?
This question makes me want to give a shout out to my friend Jon Levy, who introduced me to PopTech, and who puts on fantastic dinner events called The Influencers. 

1) Björk: Because she is the essence of freedom and talent coming together in music.
2) Richard Linklater: Because his movies speak to so many parts of me.
3) Thom Yorke: Because I love him as a musician and a thinker and I love the way he is moved by sound.
4) Madalina Diana Ghenea: Because I just saw her performance in the movie Youth and was smitten by everything about her.
5) Francis Mallmann: Because his episode of Chef’s Table was so full of life and passion and it would be good for us to cook with him. 

My personal mantra is:
It’s not a contest.

Where do you reach for inspiration?
Nature and art.

My superhero power would be:
The ability to play anything I could imagine on any instrument.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t worry.

We like to karaoke at PopTech. Are you in? Go-to song?
I’m in...and will probably start with “Bust A Move” by Young MC.  

New speakers added!

PopTech: Culture Clash is only two months away! We’re thrilled to announce new speakers added to the lineup at our 20th anniversary gathering. 

Joining the diverse mix of perspectives you’ll hear in October include: David Ferrucci, award-winning AI researcher who built and led the IBM Watson team from its inception to its landmark success winning against the best Jeopardy! players of all time; Amy and Ryan Green, husband and wife duo who developed the videogame That Dragon, Cancer to re-tell their son Joel’s four-year fight against cancer through deeply moving, poetic and imaginative gameplay; Asperger’s Are Us, a hilarious comedy troupe consisting of openly autistic people whose precisely worded, dark, observational comedy is balanced with absurd humor; Wayne Kramer of Detroit rock group MC5 and co-founder of Jail Guitar Doors USA, which harnesses the experience of playing music to rehabilitate inmates; behavioral scientist Francesca Gino, whose latest research shows how conformity is costly to our wellbeing and to the organizations we are part of, as it lowers both productivity and innovation; and Revolution Messaging CEO Scott Goodstein, who brought his punk sensibility and online movement making prowess to Obama for America in 2008 and most recently was responsible for the extraordinary online fundraising during Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

This year we’re diving headfirst into the controversial issues infiltrating the news and our daily conversations. You will leave PopTech with a fresh perspective on the current global challenges and be inspired to consider new approaches for change on the ground. We look forward to seeing you in October! 

Nicole Prause on studying orgasms, defying critics, and ideal dinner party guests

This year marks our 20th anniversary in bringing together people from all over the world to explore the ideas, people, and projects that are shaping the future. The countdown is officially on, and we can’t wait to welcome these wildly talented speakers into the PopTech community. Over the next two months, we’ll give you a peek inside their eclectic worlds. Join us October 20-22 at PopTech: Culture Clash to meet them in person.

Meet the speaker: Nicole Prause is a sexual psychophysiologist who uses a combination of neuroscience, custom physiology instruments, and statistical scripting to answer questions about how orgasm forms, the effects of sex films on relationships, whether brain stimulation can alter our sex drive, and how clitoral stimulation from a partner may improve our general health. 

You're one of the few remaining sexual psychophysiologists in the USA due to the challenges of conducting research in this country. What are some examples of the challenges you’ve faced and why do you think they exist?
You are not permitted to have sexual images on computers purchased with federal grant money, so we are not permitted to study sexual images in this country. When I attempted to study orgasm at university, the ethics committee refused to approve the study on the basis that I would not remove the orgasm component without citing any safety or privacy concerns. Whenever I report positive aspects of sexuality, I receive personal threats and hate mail to my colleagues and myself from therapists who depend financially on treating negative aspects of sexuality. There are political, structural, and financial pressures that have forced this research out of the country.

In a similar vein, what drives you to continue to do your work in light of these challenges?
There are two main reasons I continue the work. First, people are being shamed about their sexuality for others' profit. I have a strong visceral response to social justice issues in this area. Second, the best way to get me to do something is to tell me not to do it. That's just personality!

What are you working on at the moment?
We are working on brain stimulation to alter sex drive, physical measurements of orgasm, monitoring the brain response during partnered genital stimulation, debunking myths surrounding sex "addiction", and using sexual response to improve depression symptoms.

Describe your immediate reaction to the theme of “Culture Clash”:
When I saw the theme was culture clash I immediately thought "well, that's why they called!" My job is at the crux of culture clash! 

What books are on your nightstand?
The Rise of Superman, because I am trying to understand how a group I am conducting research on understands "flow."

Best song, band, album, or podcast you’ve recently heard:
I love the weekly Savage Lovecast by Dan Savage, because he tries to integrate science and lead challenging discussions about our assumptions about sexuality in our culture...but I can't pick just one. For song, "My Chick Bad" is my jam before every race I run.

Who are you excited to hear speak at Culture Clash?
Rahzel and Alan Alda. I am totally fascinated by beatboxing and have never had a chance to talk to someone so focused on it about the genre. I also had no idea how involved Mr. Alda was in science advocacy and want to hear his vision for how we retain/regain accurate science communication with the public.

You’re hosting a dinner party. Who are your dream guests and why?
1) Paula Radcliffe: Marathon phenom with tremendous depth of skill, character.

2) Richard McFall: My undergraduate advisor who I still use to judge whether my work is important.

3) Greg Siegle: Close collaborator who brings bizarre, fantastic perspectives to every problem.

4) Eric Garcetti: Mayor of Los Angeles, there is much I do not understand about how to be effective in helping my community.

5) Michael Shermer: Scientist known for his skepticism

My personal mantra is:
Go! I ain't got time for personal mantras!

Where do you reach for inspiration?
The news. I like to keep up with current events and I am inspired by social justice issues around sexuality.

My superhero power would be:
X-ray vision. Do you know how much genital science I could do without worrying about consent?

What advice would you give your younger self?
Masturbate more.

We like to karaoke at PopTech. Are you in? Go-to song?
I will definitely go, I promise to only laugh at others if I sing too.

Speakers announced for Culture Clash

As the cultural barriers that once separated us as people continue to give way, those that remain are both the source of great conflict, and also our greatest possibility.

We’re excited to reveal a few of the many speakers who will come together this October for our 20th anniversary at PopTech: Culture Clash.

Lizz Winstead, co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show and co-founder of Lady Parts Justice; Jenna Wortham, writer for the New York Times Magazine and chronicler of technology's influence on culture, race, education, and health; Alan Alda, Emmy Award-winning actor and recipient of the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal; Esther Perel, psychotherapist recognized as one of the most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures; Platon, world-renowned photographer and human rights advocate; Physics Nobel Laureate John Mather, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; and Grammy Award-winning musician, beatboxer and former Roots member, Rahzel, are just a handful of the eclectic voices you’ll hear from as part of this increasingly relevant discussion. Stay tuned as we share more speaker and program updates! 

Together we’ll examine the provocative issues that dominate the headlines and continue to raise our awareness and challenge our hearts. We will come away with a deeper perspective on what is happening and the possibilities that could come next, as well as the inspiration to take positive action in our communities. Add your voice to the conversation and join us for an unforgettable journey at this unique moment in history. 

Meet us in DC for July ICT4Drinks

Mark your calendar! We’re excited to co-host the July ICT4Drinks with our friends at TechChange and meet members of the Washington, DC ICT4D community. One lucky attendee will win a free ticket to our 20th annual gathering, PopTech: Culture Clash. Hope to see you then. 

When: Wednesday, July 20
Time: 5:30-8:30pm
Where: Piola, 2208 14th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20009
Sign up: Register on Eventbrite

Celebrating a nation of makers

June 17-23 marks this year’s National Week of Making, building on President Obama’s Nation of Makers initiative that began in 2014. As Obama stated, during this weeklong event "we celebrate the tinkerers and dreamers whose talent and drive have brought new ideas to life, and we recommit to cultivating the next generation of problem solvers.”

Coinciding with the National Week of Making is the second annual National Maker Faire, taking place June 18-19 in Washington, D.C. It will feature makers from around the country as well as Federal Agencies such as the Department of Education, National Science Foundation, National Endowment of Arts, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Described as “part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new,” Maker Faire originally launched in the Bay Area in 2006 and has since grown to additional cities.

We’re excited to see what new technologies and inventions emerge from this weekend’s convening. If you’re in the D.C. area, free tickets are still available. More details on tickets, location and logistics can be found on National Maker Faire’s websiteIf you’re not local, follow along @natlmakerfaire and #NMF16. 

PopTech 2016: Culture Clash

A NASA explorer, a presidential joke writer, a sex scientist, a Nobel Laureate, a National Academy of Sciences award winner and a game creator…they will all come together on the PopTech stage this year for our 20th anniversary gathering, Culture Clash!

We will reveal our first lineup of speakers in a few weeks but we wanted to lift the curtain to give you a peek of what you’ll experience this October in the beautiful seaside village of Camden, Maine.

This is a big birthday for us, so we turned to the PopTech community to create the programming, ensuring an exciting mix of talks, performances, and provocative conversations. Hats off to our curatorial advisors and hosts for 2016!

Now, a surprise gift for you! Register before midnight on June 10th and only pay $1500, a 25% discount off the registration fee of $2000. Be sure to secure your place.

Plus, the first 100 people to register by June 10th will get a guaranteed seat in one of the new surprises this year: intimate fireside chats led by a Culture Clash Speaker or Host.

We are delighted to welcome back our longtime sponsors Toyota, Steelcase, National Geographic Society and N Square, and are excited to announce a new partnership with WIRED.

This is a PopTech you cannot miss! Join us for a lively exploration of what divides and unites us in an era of opposition. We promise, you will not be disappointed.

PopTech and Microsoft present: The Changing World of Work

Two years ago PopTech and the Microsoft Office Envisioning team partnered to create a documentary short that captured the forces influencing how we work now and into the future. Our exploration became a rich collaborative learning journey that uncovered a treasure trove of insights from diverse sectors and geographies. As we interviewed artists, futurists and leaders, complex patterns surrounding the very notion of ‘work’ began to emerge.

Enhanced connectivity has increased productivity but for some, threatens to squelch creativity due to constant distractions and a sense of “always being on.” We have the freedom to work from all corners of the globe as digitally connected teams; yet can experience isolation that results in disengagement. Rapid technology advances are creating new opportunities that are generating value faster than at any point in human history, yet provoking fear of massive job loss to automation and robotics.

Patterns gave way to questions: What is the role of a leader, particularly during these changing times? How do we live up to our potential? Are traditional brick and mortar offices constraining creativity? Are they even necessary? How do we create shared space – settings where humans and machines productively collaborate? How do we assess and accordingly act on the ethical challenges presented by advanced technologies?

Please join our exploration as we present what has now evolved into an eight-part video series, The Changing World of Work, a production of Microsoft and PopTech.

This post was co-authored by Leetha Filderman and Beth Cohen