“There’s Don Quixote, there’s Fissure, there’s Spoon, Equis and Abraxis,” Gale McCullough ticks off, turning her head towards the ocean as though she might catch a glimpse of one of the whales she’s been tracking pass by. It’s a brisk day and we’re interviewing her on the deck of the Waterfront Restaurant in Camden, Maine.
“My mind is out there just about half the time and it’s following these individuals, sometimes with great sadness and worry. So my involvement with the ocean is very personal, because it’s with them.” McCullough’s concerns about their welfare range from oil spills to noise to pollution and plastic. “I mean what’s not to worry about. And knowing individual animals makes this all mean a whole lot more.”
McCullough, a former nursery school teacher and old-fashioned naturalist, recently discovered a whale that had journeyed an unprecedented 6,000 miles from Brazil to Madagascar. The technology she used? Flickr. Through the photo sharing website where people post their “I-went-on-a-whale-watch-trip” photos, she found matching photos of the whales.
“I think scientists are going to have to make room for devoted people,” she said regarding the increasingly important role of citizen scientists. “If we can do that, ordinary people will know more about the scientific process and how carefully you have to look, but also there are so many eyes that will be out there that aren’t there now.”
Hot off the press from last weekend’s conference in Camden is the first batch of PopTech 2010 videos. All three of them — neuroscientist David Eagleman, radio producer Jad Abumrad, and citizen scientist Gale McCullough — touch on this year’s theme, Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs. Check back soon as more videos will be coming shortly.
The PopTech team wanted to share the latest conference highlight with you: OK Go, performing with bells on.
When it comes to science, you walk to the edge of the pier of what we definitely know and you encounter everything we don’t know. “Every generation adds more slats to the pier,” David Eagleman, neuroscientist and best-selling author of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, continued. But “what we know is so vastly outstripped by what we don’t know.”
Scientists don’t have the capacity to gamble beyond available data. They can make up hypotheses and tolerate many of them at once, but “some questions are beyond the scientific toolbox and ambiguity is accepted as part of the relationship we have with mother nature.”
According to Eagleman, we know too little to commit to strict atheism, but we know too much to commit to a strict religious story. Holy books were written millennia before we knew about the big bang, computation, or mechanical landscapes. Moreover, there’s a sense that people are weary of the false certainty about what’s known to which many religions subscribe, a “false dichotomy of god or no god.”
Enter Possibilianism: an 18-month old philosophy fleshed out by Eagleman that rejects the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground. Possibilians import the tools of science to embrace what we do know. And where that leaves off, Possibilians are open to the examination of new, unconsidered possibilities. With Possibilianism, it’s okay to embrace what we don’t know and not feel obligated to commit to any particular story.
When it comes to “cowboy-ing up,” or firmly committing to what we know about the universe around us, Eagleman says he’d rather “geek out than cowboy up,” deferring to science with an openness to uncertainty.
(Photos: Kris Krüg)
2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow Sarah Fortune, Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is trying to figure out why the turberculosis microbacteria is so resistant. Her team has been studying the disease and the way it responds to various eradication efforts. Despite its virtual eradication in the States, it remains a significant health risk for millions of people worldwide.
“What you see is that we can always kill almost all of the bacteria,” she told the PopTech audience Saturday. “Yet there are always a few that remain. Whenever we relieve the stress on them, they come back.” Fortune reached out to the tech savvy crowd for help in her fight. “I want to crowdsource this issue,” she said. “Reach out to your networks, tell people about what we’re doing, and get back to us. We need everyone’s help.”
(Photos: Kris Krüg)
When Rajesh Panjabi was nine years old, a war erupted in his home country of Liberia. When the war encroached on his hometown, his family had to leave. On the airport’s tarmac, Panjabi, his sister, and mother were separated on the tarmac from poorer Liberians. His family got on the plane and out of the country. The less fortunate did not. That memory stuck with him. Years later, as a trained medical professional, he returned to Liberia and saw the lasting mass destruction and utter lack of healthcare. This prompted him to co-found Tiyatien Health (TH).
TH builds relationships between rural health centers and their surrounding communities, working towards greater equality in healthcare delivery. The organization leverages community health workers who accompany patients through their illness and beyond – providing the sick with home-based care, a designated caregiver to help them navigate the medical system, and links to social and economic support. TH hopes to scale the program to redefine how healthcare is provided throughout Liberia.
(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)
Pieter Hoff is renewing a tried-and-true environmentalist mission: saving the world by planting trees. But Hoff has the technology to go with it; he’s engineering new ways to nurture trees in some of the world’s driest, harshest climates.
He begins by identifying a problem: millions of people are already going hungry, and 10 billion more will be coming as the world’s population grows. He asks: “Is there a possibility that we can feed those people?” He then identifies another problem: an excess of CO² in the atmosphere and the resultant global warming.
His solution to both is the Groasis Waterboxx: a device that “drinks from the air” by collecting condensation and storing it, therefore becoming a sort of “water battery.” He says the biggest challenge for plants in arid climates is not the amount of rain, but the consistency: it’s the dry seasons that kill any chance of growth. The Waterboxx proposes to solve that by creating a continuous source of water from occasional rainfalls.
Social Innovation Fellow Brian Elliot describes himself as being “professionally gay”. He confesses that it is not what he set out to do, but as someone who can be legally fired in 29 states, evicted in over 30 and denied over 1,000 federal rights just by the nature of whom he chooses to love, he felt he didn’t have a choice.
Elliot stated that over 77% of Americans have a friend who is gay or transgendered. Operating under the principle that friends tend to support their friends, he started the site Friendfactor after receiving an enormous show of support from over 19,000 friends (and strangers!) on his Facebook page when he posted about gay rights. Friendfactor allows gay and straight people who want to support changing discriminatory laws denying basic rights, to network, find information, and organize.
“We can change the way this chapter in history is being written,” said Elliot, “just by being a good friend.”
(Photos: Kris Krüg)
2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow Justin Gallivan is amazed by bacteria. You can get them to do almost anything. For instance, Gallivan, associate professor of chemistry at Emory University, told the PopTech crowd Saturday that he can program e. coli bacteria to eat atrazine, a widely used herbicide that can contaminate ground water. The key is to be able to turn the gene on and off. Using a molecule called Riboswitch allows him to do just that. “We want to be able to program the bacteria to send it after atrazine,” he said. “Turns out we can do that.”
2010 Social Innovation Fellow Nina Dudnik told the crowd that her company, Seeding Labs, is taking discarded lab equipment from the United States to needy labs in other countries. “Talent is everywhere,” she said. “We need to train more scientists to be better everywhere.” As part of that commitment, Dudnik said Seeding Labs has also launched a program to connect scientists from the U.S. with their counterparts in Africa and South America. “Just 48 hours ago, the first group of science ambassadors landed in Nairobi,” she said. “Putting scientists from different walks of life together makes everyone’s work better.”
(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)
Psychologist and neuroscientist Chris Chabris studies the numerous ways our intuitions fool us. Chabris is the co-creator of the famous “gorilla experiment” and author of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. He explores six “everyday illusions” that demonstrate the mistaken beliefs that we all hold about how our minds work.
For example, Chabris says that we often suffer from an “illusion of attention,” thinking that we see the world as it really is when in fact we are making all kinds of assumptions that shape how we perceive the real world. We also tend to have too much confidence in our own skills and abilities, and the least skilled tend to be the most overconfident. Another illusion that Chabris discusses is the illusion of cause: we tend to inaccurately connect cause and effect, when what really exists is accident or correlation.
You can also try a few of the experiments discussed in Chabris’ book.