Friday, September 07, 2012

TED talks

My local public radio station has been repeatedly promoting the TED Radio Hour, which involves (to paraphrase the promo) people having 18 minutes to give the talk of their lives.  The TED folks have certainly gone very far in promotion - they do a great job in making all of their talks look like things worthy of listening.  Looking on the TED site, it's interesting to see what there is that may be relevant to readers of this blog.  Searching on "condensed matter" (without the quotes) returns only a single talk, by the extraordinarily creative George Whitesides.  Searching on "nanoscale" returns eight talks, including one by Paul Rothemund on DNA origami and one by Angela Belcher on her work on nano-enabled batteries.  A search on "solid state" returns nothing relevant at all.  This has made me think about what I'd say if I had the chance to give a talk like this - one where it's supposed to be accessible to a really general audience.  Two topics come to mind. 

First, someone at some point should give a TED talk that really spells out how enormous the impact of solid state physics really is on our daily lives.  This would require a couple of minutes talking about what we mean by "solid state physics", and what it tells us.  This would also require some discussion about the divide between science and engineering,  the nature of basic science, and the eventual usefulness of abstract knowledge.  In the end, you can tie together the ideal gas law (the need to use statistics to understand large numbers of particles), the Pauli principle (which explains the periodic table and how electrons arrange themselves), the need for better telephone amplifiers (Bell Labs and the transistor), all eventually resulting in the cell phone in your pocket, computers, the internet, etc.

Second, I'd love to jump into some of our work that looks at how heating and dissipation happen at the molecular scale.  When you push current through a wire, the wire gets hot.  How does that happen?  What does "hot" mean?  How does energy get from the battery into the microscopic degrees of freedom in the wire?  What happens if the wire is really small, like atomic-scale?  What does it mean for something to be "irreversible"?   This could be a lot of fun.  Of course, the total number of scientists that give these talks is tiny and they are august (e.g., Rothemund and Belcher are both MacArthur Fellows; Whitesides has won just about everything except the Nobel, and that wouldn't be a surprise).  Still, it never hurts to fantasize a bit.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's necessarily that far out of your reach if you settle for a TEDx talk - those also regularly get put up on the TED website!

Anonymous said...

Actually, there was a UCSB physics grad student who gave a TED talk (not TEDx talk) about his research on large scale quantum objects

http://www.ted.com/talks/aaron_o_connell_making_sense_of_a_visible_quantum_object.html

Given that, I think you would be a perfect candidate for the TED talk.

Josh Einsle said...

what my experience with the TED talks, a lot of who gives one does come down to can you meet someone from the TED organization and impress them with a story and about how it is really interesting.

Charles Day said...

The New York Times's Science Times department almost never covers condensed matter physics -- which gives me an idea: Why not submit an op-ed about all the benefits that have resulted from condensed matter research? Here are the submission instructions.

DanM said...

If I were asked to give a TED talk, it would be about the intersection between electronics and photonics, and how that's become such a fruitful area for innovation. That'd be fun to think about.

I wouldn't write an op-ed about it, though.

Zach said...

Here's the problem with TED: it's not generally possible to explain anything interesting to a complete novice in 15 minutes or less. This is why we get lots of talks on gee-whiz evo-psych and whiz-bang design, and none on actually useful research.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon#1 - thanks for the TEDx suggestion. Worth pondering.

Anon#2 - That was a bit exceptional, since he was coauthor on a paper labeled as Science Magazine's breakthrough of the year for 2010. Still very cool that a student did it, though!

Charles - interesting idea. I'd need to think about it. It would require real effort to produce a worthy essay, and I'm sure it'd be a long-shot to appear. When I'm out from under multiple grant proposals, I'll have more time....