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Science of synchronization: Are we talking of Chinese swimmers?

“Your pacemaker is not a single cell. It’s this democracy of 10,000 cells that all have to fire in unison for the pacemaker to work correctly”

I was trying to think, how is sync connected to happiness, and it occurred to me that for some reason we take pleasure in synchronizing.

We like to dance together, we like singing together. And so, if you’ll put up with this, I would like to enlist your help with a first experiment today.

The experiment is — and I notice, by the way, that when you applauded, that you did it in a typical North American way, that is, you were raucous and incoherent. You were not organized. It didn’t even occur to you to clap in unison.

Do you think you could do it? I would like to see if this audience would — no, you haven’t practiced, as far as I know — can you get it together to clap in sync?

I mean, I expected you could synchronize. It didn’t occur to me you’d increase your frequency. It’s interesting.  

1:23 So what do we make of that?

First of all, we know that you’re all brilliant. This is a room full of intelligent people, highly sensitive. Some trained musicians out there. Is that what enabled you to synchronize?

let’s ask ourselves what are the minimum requirements for what you just did, for spontaneous synchronization. Do you need, for instance, to be as smart as you are? Do you even need a brain at all just to synchronize?

Inanimate objects might spontaneously synchronize themselves. It’s real.

In fact, I’ll try to explain today that sync is maybe one of the most pervasive drive in all of nature. It extends from the subatomic scale to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. It’s a deep tendency toward order in nature that opposes what we’ve all been taught about entropy.

 I’m not saying the law of entropy is wrong — it’s not. But there is a countervailing force in the universe — the tendency towards spontaneous order. And so that’s our theme.

to get into that, let me begin with what might have occurred to you immediately when you hear that we’re talking about synchrony in nature, which is the glorious example of birds that flock together, or fish swimming in organized schools.

these are not particularly intelligent creatures, and yet, as we’ll see, they exhibit beautiful ballets. This is from a BBC show called “Predators,” and what we’re looking at here are examples of synchrony that have to do with defense.

When you’re small and vulnerable, like these starlings, or like the fish, it helps to swarm to avoid predators, to confuse predators.

Let me be quiet for a second because this is so gorgeous. For a long time, biologists were puzzled by this behavior, wondering how it could be possible. We’re so used to choreography giving rise to synchrony. These creatures are not choreographed. They’re choreographing themselves.

only today is science starting to figure out how it works.

I’ll show you a computer model made by Iain Couzin, a researcher at Oxford, that shows how swarms work. There are just three simple rules.

First, all the individuals are only aware of their nearest neighbors.

Second, all the individuals have a tendency to line up. And

Third, they’re all attracted to each other, but they try to keep a small distance apart.

And when you build those three rules in, automatically you start to see swarms that look very much like fish schools or bird flocks. Now, fish like to stay close together, about a body length apart. Birds try to stay about three or four body lengths apart. But except for that difference, the rules are the same for both.

all this changes when a predator enters the scene.

There’s a fourth rule: when a predator’s coming, get out of the way. Here on the model you see the predator attacking. The prey move out in random directions, and then the rule of attraction brings them back together again, so there’s this constant splitting and reforming. And you see that in nature.

Keep in mind that, although it looks as if each individual is acting to cooperate, what’s really going on is a kind of selfish Darwinian behavior.

Each is scattering away at random to try to save its scales or feathers. That is, out of the desire to save itself, each creature is following these rules, and that leads to something that’s safe for all of them.

Even though it looks like they’re thinking as a group, they’re not. You might wonder what exactly is the advantage to being in a swarm, so you can think of several.

 if you’re in a swarm, your odds of being the unlucky one are reduced as compared to a small group. There are many eyes to spot danger. And you’ll see in the example with the starlings, with the birds, when this peregrine hawk is about to attack them, that actually waves of panic can propagate, sending messages over great distances.

You’ll see — let’s see, it’s coming up possibly at the very end — maybe not. Information can be sent over half a kilometer away in a very short time through this mechanism. Yes, it’s happening here. See if you can see those waves propagating through the swarm. It’s beautiful.

The birds are, we sort of understand, we think, from that computer model, what’s going on. As I say, it’s just those three simple rules, plus the one about watch out for predators.

There doesn’t seem to be anything mystical about this. We don’t, however, really understand at a mathematical level. I’m a mathematician. We would like to be able to understand better.

I showed you a computer model, but a computer is not understanding. A computer is, in a way, just another experiment. We would really like to have a deeper insight into how this works and to understand, you know, exactly where this organization comes from. How do the rules give rise to the patterns?

There is one case that we have begun to understand better, and it’s the case of fireflies. If you see fireflies in North America, they tend to be independent operators. They ignore each other. They each do their own thing, flashing on and off, paying no attention to their neighbors.

But in Southeast Asia — places like Thailand or Malaysia or Borneo — there’s a beautiful cooperative behavior that occurs among male fireflies. You can see it every night along the river banks. The trees, mangrove trees, are filled with fireflies communicating with light.

Specifically, it’s male fireflies who are all flashing in perfect time together, in perfect synchrony, to reinforce a message to the females. And the message, as you can imagine, is “Come hither. Mate with me.”

In a second I’m going to show you a slow motion of a single firefly so that you can get a sense. This is a single frame. Then on, and then off — a 30th of a second, there. And then watch this whole river bank, and watch how precise the synchrony is.

On, more on and then off. The combined light from these beetles — these are actually tiny beetles — is so bright that fishermen out at sea can use them as navigating beacons to find their way back to their home rivers. It’s stunning.

For a long time it was not believed when the first Western travelers, like Sir Francis Drake, went to Thailand and came back with tales of this unbelievable spectacle. No one believed them. We don’t see anything like this in Europe or in the West.

And for a long time, even after it was documented, it was thought to be some kind of optical illusion. Scientific papers were published saying it was twitching eyelids that explained it, or, you know, a human being’s tendency to see patterns where there are none. But I hope you’ve convinced yourself now, with this nighttime video, that they really were very well synchronized.

the issue then is, do we need to be alive to see this kind of spontaneous order, and I’ve already hinted that the answer is no.

Well, you don’t have to be a whole creature. You can even be just a single cell. Like, take, for instance, your pacemaker cells in your heart right now. They’re keeping you alive. Every beat of your heart depends on this crucial region, the sinoatrial node, which has about 10,000 independent cells that would each beep, have an electrical rhythm — a voltage up and down — to send a signal to the ventricles to pump.

Now, your pacemaker is not a single cell. It’s this democracy of 10,000 cells that all have to fire in unison for the pacemaker to work correctly.

I don’t want to give you the idea that synchrony is always a good idea. If you have epilepsy, there is an instance of billions of brain cells, or at least millions, discharging in pathological concert.

So this tendency towards order is not always a good thing. You don’t have to be alive. You don’t have to be even a single cell. If you look, for instance, at how lasers work, that would be a case of atomic synchrony.

In a laser, what makes laser light so different from the light above my head here is that this light is incoherent — many different colors and different frequencies, sort of like the way you clapped initially — but if you were a laser, it would be rhythmic applause. It would be all atoms pulsating in unison, emitting light of one color, one frequency.

1Now comes the very risky part of my talk, which is to demonstrate that inanimate things can synchronize. Hold your breath for me.

What I have here are two empty water bottles. This is not Keith Barry doing a magic trick. This is a klutz just playing with some water bottles. I have some metronomes here. Can you hear that? All right, so, I’ve got a metronome, and it’s the world’s smallest metronome, the — well, I shouldn’t advertise. Anyway, so this is the world’s smallest metronome.

I’ve set it on the fastest setting, and I’m going to now take another one set to the same setting. We can try this first. If I just put them on the table together, there’s no reason for them to synchronize, and they probably won’t.

Maybe you’d better listen to them. I’ll stand here. What I’m hoping is that they might just drift apart because their frequencies aren’t perfectly the same. Right? They did. They were in sync for a while, but then they drifted apart. And the reason is that they’re not able to communicate.

Now, you might think that’s a bizarre idea. How can metronomes communicate? Well, they can communicate through mechanical forces. So I’m going to give them a chance to do that. I also want to wind this one up a bit.

How can they communicate? I’m going to put them on a movable platform, which is the “Guide to Graduate Study at Cornell.” Okay? So here it is. Let’s see if we can get this to work. My wife pointed out to me that it will work better if I put both on at the same time because otherwise the whole thing will tip over.

All right. So there we go. Let’s see. OK, I’m not trying to cheat — let me start them out of sync. No, hard to even do that. So before any one goes out of sync, I’ll just put those right there.

 that might seem a bit whimsical, but this pervasiveness of this tendency towards spontaneous order sometimes has unexpected consequences. And a clear case of that, was something that happened in London in the year 2000.

The Millennium Bridge was supposed to be the pride of London — a beautiful new footbridge erected across the Thames, first river crossing in over 100 years in London.

There was a big competition for the design of this bridge, and the winning proposal was submitted by an unusual team — in the TED spirit, actually — of an architect — perhaps the greatest architect in the United Kingdom, Lord Norman Foster working with an artist, a sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro, and an engineering firm, Ove Arup.

And together they submitted a design based on Lord Foster’s vision, which was — he remembered as a kid reading Flash Gordon comic books, and he said that when Flash Gordon would come to an abyss, he would shoot what today would be a kind of a light saber.

He would shoot his light saber across the abyss, making a blade of light, and then scamper across on this blade of light. He said, “That’s the vision I want to give to London. I want a blade of light across the Thames.”

So they built the blade of light, and it’s a very thin ribbon of steel, the world’s — probably the flattest and thinnest suspension bridge there is, with cables that are out on the side.

You’re used to suspension bridges with big droopy cables on the top. These cables were on the side of the bridge, like if you took a rubber band and stretched it taut across the Thames — that’s what’s holding up this bridge. Now, everyone was very excited to try it out.

On opening day, thousands of Londoners came out, and something happened. And within two days the bridge was closed to the public. So I want to first show you some interviews with people who were on the bridge on opening day, who will describe what happened.

16:13 Man: It really started moving sideways and slightly up and down, rather like being on the boat.

16:21 Woman: Yeah, it felt unstable, and it was very windy, and I remember it had lots of flags up and down the sides, so you could definitely — there was something going on sideways, it felt, maybe.

16:31 Interviewer: Not up and down? Boy: No.

16:33 Interviewer: And not forwards and backwards? Boy: No.

16:35 Interviewer: Just sideways. About how much was it moving, do you think?

16:38 Boy: It was about —

16:40 Interviewer: I mean, that much, or this much?

16:42 Boy: About the second one.

16:44 Interviewer: This much? Boy: Yeah.

16:46 Man: It was at least six, six to eight inches, I would have thought.

16:49 Interviewer: Right, so, at least this much? Man: Oh, yes.

16:51 Woman: I remember wanting to get off.

16:53 Interviewer: Oh, did you? Woman: Yeah. It felt odd.

16:55 Interviewer: So it was enough to be scary? Woman: Yeah, but I thought that was just me.

17:01 Interviewer: Ah! Now, tell me why you had to do this?

17:04 Boy: We had to do this because, to keep in balance because if you didn’t keep your balance, then you would just fall over about, like, to the left or right, about 45 degrees.

Interviewer: So just show me how you walk normally. Right. And then show me what it was like when the bridge started to go. Right. So you had to deliberately push your feet out sideways and — oh, and short steps?

17:30 Man: That’s right. And it seemed obvious to me that it was probably the number of people on it.

17:37 Interviewer: Were they deliberately walking in step, or anything like that?

17:41 Man: No, they just had to conform to the movement of the bridge.

17:45 Steven Strogatz: All right, so that already gives you a hint of what happened. Think of the bridge as being like this platform. Think of the people as being like metronomes. Now, you might not be used to thinking of yourself as a metronome, but after all, we do walk like — I mean, we oscillate back and forth as we walk.

And especially if we start to walk like those people did, right? They all showed this strange sort of skating gait that they adopted once the bridge started to move.

And so let me show you now the footage of the bridge. But also, after you see the bridge on opening day, you’ll see an interesting clip of work done by a bridge engineer at Cambridge named Allan McRobie, who figured out what happened on the bridge, and who built a bridge simulator to explain exactly what the problem was.

It was a kind of unintended positive feedback loop between the way the people walked and the way the bridge began to move, that engineers knew nothing about. Actually, I think the first person you’ll see is the young engineer who was put in charge of this project.

18:46 (Video) Interviewer: Did anyone get hurt? Engineer: No.

18:48 Interviewer: Right. So it was quite small — Engineer: Yes. Interviewer: — but real?

18:51 Engineer: Absolutely. Interviewer: You thought, “Oh, bother.”

18:54 Engineer: I felt I was disappointed about it.

18:57 We’d spent a lot of time designing this bridge, and we’d analyzed it, we’d checked it to codes — to heavier loads than the codes — and here it was doing something that we didn’t know about.

Interviewer: You didn’t expect. Engineer: Exactly.

19:09 Narrator: The most dramatic and shocking footage shows whole sections of the crowd — hundreds of people — apparently rocking from side to side in unison, not only with each other, but with the bridge. This synchronized movement seemed to be driving the bridge.

But how could the crowd become synchronized? Was there something special about the Millennium Bridge that caused this effect? This was to be the focus of the investigation.

19:35 Interviewer: Well, at last the simulated bridge is finished, and I can make it wobble. Now, Allan, this is all your fault, isn’t it? Allan McRobie: Yes.

19:46 Interviewer: You designed this, yes, this simulated bridge, and this, you reckon, mimics the action of the real bridge?

19:51 AM: It captures a lot of the physics, yes.

19:53 Interviewer: Right. So if we get on it, we should be able to wobble it, yes?

Allan McRobie is a bridge engineer from Cambridge who wrote to me, suggesting that a bridge simulator ought to wobble in the same way as the real bridge — provided we hung it on pendulums of exactly the right length.

20:09 AM: This one’s only a couple of tons, so it’s fairly easy to get going. Just by walking. Interviewer: Well, it’s certainly going now.

20:15 AM: It doesn’t have to be a real dangle. Just walk. It starts to go.

20:18 Interviewer: It’s actually quite difficult to walk. You have to be careful where you put your feet down, don’t you, because if you get it wrong, it just throws you off your feet.

20:27 AM: It certainly affects the way you walk, yes. You can’t walk normally on it.

20:32 Interviewer: No. If you try and put one foot in front of another, it’s moving your feet away from under you. AM: Yes.

20:37 Interviewer: So you’ve got to put your feet out sideways. So already, the simulator is making me walk in exactly the same way as our witnesses walked on the real bridge.

20:45 AM: … ice-skating gait. There isn’t all this sort of snake way of walking.

20:48 Interviewer: For a more convincing experiment, I wanted my own opening-day crowd, the sound check team. Their instructions: just walk normally. It’s really intriguing because none of these people is trying to drive it.

They’re all having some difficulty walking. And the only way you can walk comfortably is by getting in step. But then, of course, everyone is driving the bridge. You can’t help it. You’re actually forced by the movement of the bridge to get into step, and therefore to drive it to move further.

21:31 SS: All right, well, with that from the Ministry of Silly Walks, maybe I’d better end. I see I’ve gone over. But I hope that you’ll go outside and see the world in a new way, to see all the amazing synchrony around us. Thank you.

Patsy Z shared this link TED
Mathematician Steven Strogatz shows how flocks of creatures (like birds, fireflies and fish) manage to synchronize and act as a unit
— when no one’s giving orders.|By Steven Strogatz

How can we make love statistics? Interactive graphs?

Think you’re good at guessing stats? Guess again. Whether we consider ourselves math people or not, our ability to understand and work with numbers is terribly limited, says data visualization expert Alan Smith. Smith explores the mismatch between what we know and what we think we know.

Alan Smith. Data visualisation editor
Alan Smith uses interactive graphics and statistics to breathe new life into how data is presented. Full bio
Filmed April 2016

Back in 2003, the UK government carried out a survey. And it was a survey that measured levels of numeracy in the population.

And they were shocked to find out that for every 100 working age adults in the country, 47 of them lacked Level 1 numeracy skills. Now, Level 1 numeracy skills — that’s low-end GCSE score. It’s the ability to deal with fractions, percentages and decimals.

this figure prompted a lot of hand-wringing in Whitehall. Policies were changed, investments were made, and then they ran the survey again in 2011. So can you guess what happened to this number? It went up to 49.

0:57 And in fact, when I reported this figure in the FT, one of our readers joked and said, This figure is only shocking to 51 percent of the population.”

But I preferred the reaction of a schoolchild when I presented at a school this information, who raised their hand and said, “How do we know that the person who made that number isn’t one of the 49 percent either?”

1:20 (Laughter)

So clearly, there’s a numeracy issue, because these are important skills for life, and a lot of the changes that we want to introduce in this century involve us becoming more comfortable with numbers. (Can’t learn numeracy without using a pen and pencil?)

it’s not just an English problem. OECD this year released some figures looking at numeracy in young people, and leading the way, the USA — nearly 40 percent of young people in the US have low numeracy. Now, England is there too, but there are seven OECD countries with figures above 20 percent. That is a problem, because it doesn’t have to be that way. If you look at the far end of this graph, you can see the Netherlands and Korea are in single figures. So there’s definitely a numeracy problem that we want to address. (It is the method used to learning numeracy)

 as useful as studies like these are, I think we risk herding people inadvertently into one of two categories; that there are two kinds of people: those people that are comfortable with numbers, that can do numbers, and the people who can’t.

And what I’m trying to talk about here today is to say that I believe that is a false dichotomy. It’s not an immutable pairing. I think you don’t have to have tremendously high levels of numeracy to be inspired by numbers, and that should be the starting point to the journey ahead.

one of the ways in which we can begin that journey, for me, is looking at statistics. Now, I am the first to acknowledge that statistics has got somewhat of an image problem.

2:52 (Laughter)

It’s the part of mathematics that even mathematicians don’t particularly like, because whereas the rest of maths is all about precision and certainty, statistics is almost the reverse of that.

But actually, I was a late convert to the world of statistics myself. If you’d asked my undergraduate professors what two subjects would I be least likely to excel in after university, they’d have told you statistics and computer programming, and yet here I am, about to show you some statistical graphics that I programmed. (You think you comprehended probability and statistics, but you forget them if Not practiced)

 what inspired that change in me? What made me think that statistics was actually an interesting thing? It’s really because statistics are about us.

If you look at the etymology of the word statistics, it’s the science of dealing with data about the state or the community that we live in. So statistics are about us as a group, not us as individuals. And I think as social animals, we share this fascination about how we, as individuals, relate to our groups, to our peers. And statistics in this way are at their most powerful when they surprise us.

there’s been some really wonderful surveys carried out recently by Ipsos MORI in the last few years. They did a survey of over 1,000 adults in the UK, and said, for every 100 people in England and Wales, how many of them are Muslim? Now the average answer from this survey, which was supposed to be representative of the total population, was 24. That’s what people thought. British people think 24 out of every 100 people in the country are Muslim. Now, official figures reveal that figure to be about five. So there’s this big variation between what we think, our perception, and the reality as given by statistics. And I think that’s interesting. What could possibly be causing that misperception?

I was so thrilled with this study, I started to take questions out in presentations. I was referring to it. Now, I did a presentation at St. Paul’s School for Girls in Hammersmith, and I had an audience rather like this, except it was comprised entirely of sixth-form girls.

And I said, “Girls, how many teenage girls do you think the British public think get pregnant every year?” And the girls were apoplectic when I said the British public think that 15 out of every 100 teenage girls get pregnant in the year. And they had every right to be angry, because in fact, I’d have to have closer to 200 dots before I could color one in, in terms of what the official figures tell us.

And rather like numeracy, this is not just an English problem. Ipsos MORI expanded the survey in recent years to go across the world. And so, they asked Saudi Arabians, for every 100 adults in your country, how many of them are overweight or obese? And the average answer from the Saudis was just over a quarter. That’s what they thought. Just over a quarter of adults are overweight or obese. The official figures show, actually, it’s nearer to three-quarters.

5:56 (Laughter)

5:57 So again, a big variation.

I love this one: they asked the Japanese, for every 100 Japanese people, how many of them live in rural areas? The average was about a 50-50 split, just over halfway. They thought 56 out of every 100 Japanese people lived in rural areas. The official figure is seven.

So extraordinary variations, and surprising to some, but not surprising to people who have read the work of Daniel Kahneman, for example, the Nobel-winning economist. He and his colleague, Amos Tversky, spent years researching this disjoint between what people perceive and the reality, the fact that people are actually pretty poor intuitive statisticians. (I read many of their research papers in the late 80’s)

And there are many reasons for this. Individual experiences, certainly, can influence our perceptions, but so, too, can things like the media reporting things by exception, rather than what’s normal. Kahneman had a nice way of referring to that. He said, “We can be blind to the obvious” — so we’ve got the numbers wrong — “but we can be blind to our blindness about it.” And that has enormous repercussions for decision making.

at the statistics office while this was all going on, I thought this was really interesting. I said, this is clearly a global problem, but maybe geography is the issue here.

These were questions that were all about, how well do you know your country? So in this case, it’s how well do you know 64 million people? Not very well, it turns out. I can’t do that. So I had an idea, which was to think about this same sort of approach but to think about it in a very local sense. Is this a local? If we reframe the questions and say, how well do you know your local area, would your answers be any more accurate?

I devised a quiz: How well do you know your area? It’s a simple Web app. You put in a post code and then it will ask you questions based on census data for your local area. And I was very conscious in designing this. I wanted to make it open to the widest possible range of people, not just the 49 percent who can get the numbers.

I wanted everyone to engage with it. So for the design of the quiz, I was inspired by the isotypes of Otto Neurath from the 1920s and ’30s. Now, these are methods for representing numbers using repeating icons. And the numbers are there, but they sit in the background. So it’s a great way of representing quantity without resorting to using terms like “percentage,” “fractions” and “ratios.”

So here’s the quiz. The layout of the quiz is, you have your repeating icons on the left-hand side there, and a map showing you the area we’re asking you questions about on the right-hand side. There are 7 questions. Each question, there’s a possible answer between zero and a hundred, and at the end of the quiz, you get an overall score between zero and a hundred.

And so because this is TEDxExeter, I thought we would have a quick look at the quiz for the first few questions of Exeter. And so the first question is: For every 100 people, how many are aged under 16? Now, I don’t know Exeter very well at all, so I had a guess at this, but it gives you an idea of how this quiz works. You drag the slider to highlight your icons, and then just click “Submit” to answer, and we animate away the difference between your answer and reality. And it turns out, I was a pretty terrible guess: five.

How about the next question? This is asking about what the average age is, so the age at which half the population are younger and half the population are older. (This is the definition of the median) And I thought 35 — that sounds middle-aged to me.

9:35 (Laughter)

9:39 Actually, in Exeter, it’s incredibly young, and I had underestimated the impact of the university in this area. The questions get harder as you go through. So this one’s now asking about homeownership: For every 100 households, how many are owned with a mortgage or loan? And I hedged my bets here, because I didn’t want to be more than 50 out on the answer.

 these get harder, these questions, because when you’re in an area, when you’re in a community, things like age — there are clues to whether a population is old or young. Just by looking around the area, you can see it. Something like homeownership is much more difficult to see, so we revert to our own heuristics, our own biases about how many people we think own their own homes.

the truth is, when we published this quiz, the census data that it’s based on was already a few years old. We’ve had online applications that allow you to put in a post code and get statistics back for years. So in some senses, this was all a little bit old and not necessarily new. But I was interested to see what reaction we might get by gamifying the data in the way that we have, by using animation and playing on the fact that people have their own preconceptions.

It turns out, the reaction was more than I could have hoped for. It was a long-held ambition of mine to bring down a statistics website due to public demand.

11:06 (Laughter)

This URL contains the words “statistics,” “gov” and “UK,” which are three of people’s least favorite words in a URL. And the amazing thing about this was that the website came down at quarter to 10 at night, because people were actually engaging with this data of their own free will, using their own personal time.

I was very interested to see that we got something like a quarter of a million people playing the quiz within the space of 48 hours of launching it. And it sparked an enormous discussion online, on social media, which was largely dominated by people having fun with their misconceptions, which is something that I couldn’t have hoped for any better, in some respects. I also liked the fact that people started sending it to politicians. How well do you know the area you claim to represent? (All candidates to public office must go through such quizzes in their locality and the nation)

 then just to finish, going back to the two kinds of people, I thought it would be really interesting to see how people who are good with numbers would do on this quiz. The national statistician of England and Wales, John Pullinger, you would expect he would be pretty good. He got 44 for his own area.

12:16 (Laughter)

Jeremy Paxman — admittedly, after a glass of wine — 36. Even worse. It just shows you that the numbers can inspire us all. They can surprise us all.

12:31 So very often, we talk about statistics as being the science of uncertainty. My parting thought for today is: actually, statistics is the science of us. And that’s why we should be fascinated by numbers. 

Patsy Z shared this link · 7 hrs

“Whether we consider ourselves math people or not, our ability to understand and work with numbers is terribly limited.”

A talk from TEDxExeter.
#TED #TEDx #TEDxTalks #SKE #TEDxSKE #Salon #TEDxSKESalon #TEDxExeter #Statistics #Numbers #Facts

Alan Smith explores the mismatch between what we know and what we th…

The Failed Experiment That Changed The World

In science, we don’t simply perform experiments willy-nilly. We don’t put things together at random and ask, “what happens if I do this?” We examine the phenomena that exist, the predictions our theories make, and look for ways to test them in ever-greater detail.

Sometimes, they give extraordinary agreement to new precision, confirming what we had thought. Sometimes, they disagree, pointing the way to new physics. And sometimes, they fail to give any non-zero result at all.

In the 1880s, an incredibly precise experiment failed in exactly this fashion, and paved the way for relativity and quantum mechanics in doing so.

Ethan Siegel, Contributor

The orbits of the planets and comets, among other celestial objects, are governed by the laws of universal gravitation.

Kay Gibson, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp

The orbits of the planets and comets, among other celestial objects, are governed by the laws of universal gravitation.

Let’s go even farther back in history to understand why this was such a big deal. Gravitation was the first of the forces to be understood, as Newton had put forth his law of universal gravitation in the 1600s, explaining both the motions of bodies on Earth and in space.

A few decades later (in 1704) Newton also put forth a theory of light — the corpuscular theory — that stated that light was made up of particles, that these particles are rigid and weightless, and that they move in a straight line unless something causes them to reflect, refract or diffract.

Light's properties, such as reflection and refraction, appear to be corpuscular-like, but there are wave-like phenomena it exhibits as well.

Wikimedia Commons user Spigget

Light’s properties, such as reflection and refraction, appear to be corpuscular-like, but there are wave-like phenomena it exhibits as well.

This accounted for a lot of observed phenomena, including the realization that white light was the combination of all other colors of light. But as time went on, many experiments revealed the wave nature of light, an alternative explanation from Christiaan Huygens, one of Newton’s contemporaries.

Light's properties, such as reflection and refraction, appear to be corpuscular-like, but there are wave-like phenomena it exhibits as well.

Wikimedia Commons user Lookang

When any wave — water waves, sound waves, or light waves — are passed through a double slit, the waves create an interference pattern.

Huygens proposed instead that every point which can be considered a source of light, including from a light wave simply traveling forward, acted like a wave, with a spherical wavefront emanating from each of those points.

Although many experiments would give the same results whether you took Newton’s approach or Huygens’ approach, there were a few that took place beginning in 1799 that really began to show how powerful the wave theory was.

Light of different wavelengths, when passed through a double slit, exhibit the same wave-like properties that other waves do.

MIT Physics department Technical Services Group

Light of different wavelengths, when passed through a double slit, exhibit the same wave-like properties that other waves do.

By isolating different colors of light and passing them through either single slits, double slits or diffraction gratings, scientists were able to observe patterns that could only be produced if light was a wave. Indeed, the patterns produced — with peaks and troughs — mirrored that of well-known waves, like water waves.

The wave-like properties of light became even better understood thanks to Thomas Young's two-slit experiments, where constructive and destructive interference showed themselves dramatically.

Thomas Young, 1801

The wave-like properties of light became even better understood thanks to Thomas Young’s two-slit experiments, where constructive and destructive interference showed themselves dramatically.

But water waves — as it was well-known — traveled through the medium of water. Take away the water, and there’d be no wave! This was true of all known wave phenomena: sound, which is a compression and rarefaction, needs a medium to travel through as well.

If you take away all matter, there’s no medium for sound to travel through, and hence why they say, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

In space, sounds that are produced on Earth will never travel to you, since there's no medium for sound to travel through between the Earth and you.

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Centre

In space, sounds that are produced on Earth will never travel to you, since there’s no medium for sound to travel through between the Earth and you.

So, then, the reasoning went, if light is a wave — albeit, as Maxwell demonstrated in the 1860s, an electromagnetic wave — it, too, must have a medium that it travels through. Although no one could measure this medium, it was given a name: the luminiferous aether.

Sounds like a silly idea now, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t a bad idea at all. In fact, it had all the hallmarks of a great scientific idea, because it not only built upon the science that had been established previously, but this idea made new predictions that were testable! Let me explain by using an analogy: the water in a rapidly moving river.

The Klamath River, flowing through a valley, is an example of a rapidly moving body of water.

Blake, Tupper Ansel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Klamath River, flowing through a valley, is an example of a rapidly moving body of water.

Imagine that you throw a rock into a raging river, and watch the waves that it makes. If you follow the ripples of the wave towards the banks, perpendicular to the direction of the current, the wave will move at a particular speed.

But what if you watch the wave move upstream? It’s going to move more slowly, because the medium that the wave is traveling through, the water, is moving! And if you watch the wave move downstream, it’ll move more quickly, again because the medium is moving.

Even though the luminiferous aether had never been detected or measured, there was an ingenious experiment devised by Albert A. Michelson that applied this same principle to light.

The Earth, moving in its orbit around the Sun and spinning on its axis, should provide an extra motion if there's any medium that light travels through.

Larry McNish, RASC Calgary

The Earth, moving in its orbit around the Sun and spinning on its axis, should provide an extra motion if there’s any medium that light travels through.

You see, even though we didn’t know exactly how the aether was oriented in space, what its direction was or how it was flowing, or what was at rest with respect to it, presumably — like Newtonian space — it was absolute. It existed independently of matter, as it must considering that light could travel where sound could not: in a vacuum.

So, in principle, if you measured the speed at which light moved when the Earth was moving “upstream” or “downstream” (or perpendicular to the aether’s “stream”, for that matter), you could not only detect the existence of the aether, you could determine what the rest frame of the Universe was!

the speed of light is something like 186,282 miles-per-second (Michelson knew it to be 186,350 ± 30 miles-per-second), while the Earth’s orbital speed is only about 18.5 miles-per-second, something we weren’t good enough to measure in the 1880s.

But Michelson had a trick up his sleeve.

The original design of a Michelson interferometer.

Albert Abraham Michelson, 1881

The original design of a Michelson interferometer.

In 1881, Michelson developed and designed what’s now known as a Michelson interferometer, which was absolutely brilliant. What it did was built on the fact that light — being made of waves — interferes with itself. And in particular, if he took a light wave, split it into two components that were perpendicular to one another (and hence, moving differently with respect to the aether), and had the two beams travel exactly identical distances and then reflect them back towards one another, he would observe a shift in the interference pattern generated by them!

You see, if the entire apparatus was stationary with respect to the aether, there would be no shift in the interference pattern they made, but if it moves at all in one direction more than the other, you would get a shift.

If you split light into two perpendicular components and bring them back together, they'll interfere. If you move in one direction versus another, that interference pattern will shift.

Wikimedia commons user Stigmatella aurantiaca

If you split light into two perpendicular components and bring them back together, they’ll interfere. If you move in one direction versus another, that interference pattern will shift.

Michelson’s original design was unable to detect any shift, but with an arm length of just 1.2 meters, his expected shift of 0.04 fringes was just above the limit of what he could detect, which was about 0.02 fringes.

There were also alternatives to the idea that the aether was purely stationary — such as the idea that it was dragged by the Earth (although it couldn’t be completely, because of observations of how stellar aberration worked) — so he performed the experiment at multiple times throughout the day, as the rotating Earth would have to be oriented at different angles with respect to the aether.

The null result was interesting, but not completely convincing. Over the subsequent six years, he designed an interferometer 10 times as large (and hence, ten times as precise) with Edward Morley, and the two of them in 1887 performed what’s now known as the Michelson-Morley experiment.

They expected a fringe-shift throughout the day of up to 0.4 fringes, with an accuracy down to 0.01 fringes.

Thanks to the internet, here are the original 1887 results!

The lack of an observed shift, despite the necessary sensitivity and the theoretical predictions, was an incredible achievement that led to the development of modern physics.

Michelson, A. A.; Morley, E. (1887). “On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Ether”. American Journal of Science 34 (203): 333–345

The lack of an observed shift, despite the necessary sensitivity and the theoretical predictions, was an incredible achievement that led to the development of modern physics.

This null result — the fact that there was no luminiferous aether — was actually a huge advance for modern science, as it meant that light must have been inherently different from all other waves that we knew of.

The resolution came 18 years later, when Einstein’s theory of special relativity came along. And with it, we gained the recognition that the speed of light was a universal constant in all reference frames, that there was no absolute space or absolute time, and — finally — that light needed nothing more than space and time to travel through.

Albert Michelson won the Nobel Prize in 1907 for his work developing the interferometer and the advances made because of his measurements. It was the most important null result in scientific history.

Nobel foundation, via

Albert Michelson won the Nobel Prize in 1907 for his work developing the interferometer and the advances made because of his measurements. It was the most important null result in scientific history.

The experiment — and Michelson’s body of work — was so revolutionary that he became the only person in history to have won a Nobel Prize for a very precise non-discovery of anything. The experiment itself may have been a complete failure, but what we learned from it was a greater boon to humanity and our understanding of the Universe than any success would have been!

Astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel is the founder and primary writer of Starts With A Bang! Check out his first book, Beyond The Galaxy, and look for his second, Treknology, this October!

Quest for immortality? Daughter, wife, robots

The founder of Sirius XM satellite radio, Martine Rothblatt now heads up a drug company that makes life-saving medicines for rare diseases (including one drug that saved her own daughter’s life).

Meanwhile she is working to preserve the consciousness of the woman she loves in a digital file and a companion robot. In an onstage conversation with TED’s Chris Anderson, Rothblatt shares her powerful story of love, identity, creativity, and limitless possibility

Martine Rothblatt Transhumanist?
Whether she’s inventing satellite radio, developing life-saving drugs or digitizing the human mind, Martine Rothblatt has a knack for turning visionary ideas into commonplace technology. Full bio
Filmed march 2015

Chris Anderson: So I guess what we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about your life, and using some pictures that you shared with me. And I think we should start right here with this one. Okay, now who is this?

0:25 Martine Rothblatt: This is me with our oldest son Eli. He was about age five. This is taken in Nigeria right after having taken the Washington, D.C. bar exam.

CA: But this doesn’t really look like a Martine.

MR: Right. That was myself as a male, the way I was brought up. Before I transitioned from male to female and Martin to Martine.

( I saw a week ago a movie set in 1930 where a married man in Denmark changed to a women. The first operation was successful, but implanting a vagina killed him) 

0:54 CA: You were brought up Martin Rothblatt.  And about a year after this picture, you married a beautiful woman. Was this love at first sight? What happened there?

1:04 MR: It was love at the first sight. I saw Bina at a discotheque in Los Angeles, and we later began living together, but the moment I saw her, I saw just an aura of energy around her. I asked her to dance. She said she saw an aura of energy around me. I was a single male parent. She was a single female parent. We showed each other our kids’ pictures, and we’ve been happily married for a third of a century now. (Applause)

1:37 CA: And at the time, you were kind of this hotshot entrepreneur, working with satellites. I think you had two successful companies, and then you started addressing this problem of how could you use satellites to revolutionize radio. Tell us about that.

1:52 MR: I always loved space technology, and satellites, to me, are sort of like the canoes that our ancestors first pushed out into the water. So it was exciting for me to be part of the navigation of the oceans of the sky, and as I developed different types of satellite communication systems, the main thing I did was to launch bigger and more powerful satellites, the consequence of which was that the receiving antennas could be smaller and smaller, and after going through direct television broadcasting, I had the idea that if we could make a more powerful satellite, the receiving dish could be so small that it would just be a section of a parabolic dish, a flat little plate embedded into the roof of an automobile, and it would be possible to have nationwide satellite radio, and that’s Sirius XM today.

2:45 CA: Who here has used Sirius? So that succeeded despite all predictions at the time. It was a huge commercial success, but soon after this, in the early 1990s, there was this big transition in your life and you became Martine. tell me, how did that happen?

MR: It happened in consultation with Bina and our four beautiful children, and I discussed with each of them that I felt my soul was always female, and as a woman, but I was afraid people would laugh at me if I expressed it, so I always kept it bottled up and just showed my male side. And each of them had a different take on this.

Bina said, “I love your soul, and whether the outside is Martin and Martine, it doesn’t it matter to me, I love your soul.”

My son said, “If you become a woman, will you still be my father?” And I said, “Yes, I’ll always be your father,” and I’m still his father today.

My youngest daughter did an absolutely brilliant five-year-old thing. She told people, “I love my dad and she loves me.” So she had no problem with a gender blending whatsoever.

4:27 CA: And a couple years after this, you published this book: The Apartheid of Sex.” What was your thesis in this book?

4:34 MR: My thesis in this book is that there are seven billion people in the world, and actually, seven billion unique ways to express one’s gender.

And while people may have the genitals of a male or a female, the genitals don’t determine your gender or even really your sexual identity. That’s just a matter of anatomy and reproductive tracts, and people could choose whatever gender they want if they weren’t forced by society into categories of either male or female the way South Africa used to force people into categories of black or white.

We know from anthropological science that race is fiction, even though racism is very real, and we now know from cultural studies that separate male or female genders is a constructed fiction. The reality is a gender fluidity that crosses the entire continuum from male to female.

5:33 CA: You yourself don’t always feel 100 percent female.

5:36 MR: Correct. I would say in some ways I change my gender about as often as I change my hairstyle.

5:42 CA: (Laughs) Okay, now, this is your gorgeous daughter, Jenesis. And I guess she was about this age when something pretty terrible happened.

5:54 MR: Yes, she was finding herself unable to walk up the stairs in our house to her bedroom, and after several months of doctors, she was diagnosed to have a rare, almost invariably fatal disease called pulmonary arterial hypertension.

6:12 CA: So how did you respond to that?

6:14 MR: Well, we first tried to get her to the best doctors we could. We ended up at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The head of pediatric cardiology told us that he was going to refer her to get a lung transplant, but not to hold out any hope, because there are very few lungs available, especially for children.

He said that all people with this illness died, and if any of you have seen the film “Lorenzo’s Oil,” there’s a scene when the protagonist kind of rolls down the stairway crying and bemoaning the fate of his son, and that’s exactly how we felt about Jenesis.

6:55 CA: But you didn’t accept that as the limit of what you could do. You started trying to research and see if you could find a cure somehow.

7:03 MR: Correct. She was in the intensive care ward for weeks at a time, and Bina and I would tag team to stay at the hospital while the other watched the rest of the kids, and when I was in the hospital and she was sleeping, I went to the hospital library. I read every article that I could find on pulmonary hypertension.

I had not taken any biology, even in college, so I had to go from a biology textbook to a college-level textbook and then medical textbook and the journal articles, back and forth, and eventually I knew enough to think that it might be possible that somebody could find a cure.

So we started a nonprofit foundation. I wrote a description asking people to submit grants and we would pay for medical research. I became an expert on the condition — doctors said to me, Martine, we really appreciate all the funding you’ve provided us, but we are not going to be able to find a cure in time to save your daughter. However, there is a medicine that was developed at the Burroughs Wellcome Company that could halt the progression of the disease, but Burroughs Wellcome has just been acquired by Glaxo Wellcome. They made a decision not to develop any medicines for rare and orphan diseases, and maybe you could use your expertise in satellite communications to develop this cure for pulmonary hypertension.

8:36 CA: So how on earth did you get access to this drug?

8:39 MR: I went to Glaxo Wellcome and after three times being rejected and having the door slammed in my face because they weren’t going to out-license the drug to a satellite communications expert, they weren’t going to send the drug out to anybody at all, and they thought I didn’t have the expertise, finally I was able to persuade a small team of people to work with me and develop enough credibility.

I wore down their resistance, and they had no hope this drug would even work, by the way, and they tried to tell me, “You’re just wasting your time. We’re sorry about your daughter.” But finally, for 25,000 dollars and agreement to pay 10% of any revenues we might ever get, they agreed to give me worldwide rights to this drug.

9:33 CA: And so you put this drug on the market in a really brilliant way, by basically charging what it would take to make the economics work.

9:44 MR: Oh yes, Chris, but this really wasn’t a drug that I ended up — after I wrote the check for 25,000, and I said, “Okay, where’s the medicine for Jenesis?” they said, “Oh, Martine, there’s no medicine for Jenesis. This is just something we tried in rats.”

And they gave me, like, a little plastic Ziploc bag of a small amount of powder. They said, “Don’t give it to any human,” and they gave me a piece of paper which said it was a patent, and from that, we had to figure out a way to make this medicine. A hundred chemists in the U.S. at the top universities all swore that little patent could never be turned into a medicine. If it was turned into a medicine, it could never be delivered because it had a half-life of only 45 minutes.

10:29 CA: And yet, a year or two later, you were there with a medicine that worked for Jenesis.

10:37 MR: Chris, the astonishing thing is that this absolutely worthless piece of powder that had the sparkle of a promise of hope for Jenesis is not only keeping Jenesis and other people alive today, but produces almost a billion and a half dollars a year in revenue.

10:58 (Applause)

11:01 CA: So here you go. So you took this company public, right? And made an absolute fortune. And how much have you paid Glaxo, by the way, after that 25,000?

11:14 MR: Yeah, well, every year we pay them 10 percent of 1.5 billion, 150 million dollars, last year 100 million dollars. It’s the best return on investment they ever received. (Laughter)

11:25 CA: And the best news of all, I guess, is this.

11:29 MR: Yes. Jenesis is an absolutely brilliant young lady. She’s alive, healthy today at 30.

You see me, Bina and Jenesis there. The most amazing thing about Jenesis is that while she could do anything with her life, and believe me, if you grew up your whole life with people in your face saying that you’ve got a fatal disease, I would probably run to Tahiti and just not want to run into anybody again. But instead she chooses to work in United Therapeutics. She says she wants to do all she can to help other people with orphan diseases get medicines, and today, she’s our project leader for all telepresence activities, where she helps digitally unite the entire company to work together to find cures for pulmonary hypertension.

12:15 CA: But not everyone who has this disease has been so fortunate. There are still many people dying, and you are tackling that too. How?

12:23 MR: Exactly, Chris. There’s some 3,000 people a year in the United States alone, perhaps 10 times that number worldwide, who continue to die of this illness because the medicines slow down the progression but they don’t halt it. The only cure for pulmonary hypertension, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, COPD, what Leonard Nimoy just died of, is a lung transplant, but sadly, there are only enough available lungs for 2,000 people in the U.S. a year to get a lung transplant, whereas nearly a half million people a year die of end-stage lung failure.

CA: So how can you address that?

MR:  I conceptualize the possibility that just like we keep cars and planes and buildings going forever with an unlimited supply of building parts and machine parts, why can’t we create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs to keep people living indefinitely, and especially people with lung disease.

So we’ve teamed up with the decoder of the human genome, Craig Venter, and the company he founded with Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize, to genetically modify the pig genome so that the pig’s organs will not be rejected by the human body and thereby to create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs. We do this through our company, United Therapeutics.

13:54 CA: So you really believe that within a decade, that this shortage of transplantable lungs maybe be cured, through these guys?

14:02 MR: Absolutely, Chris. I’m as certain of that as I was of the success that we’ve had with direct television broadcasting, Sirius XM. It’s actually not rocket science. It’s straightforward engineering away one gene after another. We’re so lucky to be born in the time that sequencing genomes is a routine activity, and the brilliant folks at Synthetic Genomics are able to zero in on the pig genome, find exactly the genes that are problematic, and fix them.

14:31 CA: But it’s not just bodies that — though that is amazing. (Applause) It’s not just long-lasting bodies that are of interest to you now. It’s long-lasting minds. And I think this graph for you says something quite profound. What does this mean?

14:51 MR: What this graph means, and it comes from Ray Kurzweil, is that the rate of development in computer processing hardware, firmware and software, has been advancing along a curve such that by the 2020s, as we saw in earlier presentations today, there will be information technology that processes information and the world around us at the same rate as a human mind.

15:19 CA: And so that being so, you’re actually getting ready for this world by believing that we will soon be able to, what, actually take the contents of our brains and somehow preserve them forever? How do you describe that?

15:35 MR: Well, Chris, what we’re working on is creating a situation where people can create a mind file, and a mind file is the collection of their mannerisms, personality, recollection, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values, everything that we’ve poured today into Google, into Amazon, into Facebook, and all of this information stored there will be able, in the next couple decades, once software is able to recapitulate consciousness, be able to revive the consciousness which is imminent in our mind file.

16:11 CA: Now you’re not just messing around with this. You’re serious. I mean, who is this?

16:17 MR: This is a robot version of my beloved spouse, Bina. And we call her Bina 48. She was programmed by Hanson Robotics out of Texas. There’s the centerfold from National Geographic magazine with one of her caregivers, and she roams the web and has hundreds of hours of Bina’s mannerisms, personalities. She’s kind of like a two-year-old kid, but she says things that blow people away, best expressed by perhaps a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Harmon who says her answers are often frustrating, but other times as compelling as those of any flesh person she’s interviewed.

17:01 CA: And is your thinking here, part of your hope here, is that this version of Bina can in a sense live on forever, or some future upgrade to this version can live on forever?

MR: Yes. Not just Bina, but everybody. You know, it costs us virtually nothing to store our mind files on Facebook, Instagram, what-have-you.

Social media is I think one of the most extraordinary inventions of our time, and as apps become available that will allow us to out-Siri Siri, better and better, and develop consciousness operating systems, everybody in the world, billions of people, will be able to develop mind clones of themselves that will have their own life on the web.

17:46 CA: So the thing is, Martine, that in any normal conversation, this would sound stark-staring mad, but in the context of your life, what you’ve done, some of the things we’ve heard this week, the constructed realities that our minds give, I mean, you wouldn’t bet against it.

18:03 MR: Well, I think it’s really nothing coming from me. If anything, I’m perhaps a bit of a communicator of activities that are being undertaken by the greatest companies in China, Japan, India, the U.S., Europe. There are tens of millions of people working on writing code that expresses more and more aspects of our human consciousness, and you don’t have to be a genius to see that all these threads are going to come together and ultimately create human consciousness, and it’s something we’ll value.

There are so many things to do in this life, and if we could have a simulacrum, a digital doppelgänger of ourselves that helps us process books, do shopping, be our best friends, I believe our mind clones, these digital versions of ourselves, will ultimately be our best friends, and for me personally and Bina personally, we love each other like crazy. Each day, we are always saying, like, “Wow, I love you even more than 30 years ago. And so for us, the prospect of mind clones and regenerated bodies is that our love affair, Chris, can go on forever. And we never get bored of each other. I’m sure we never will.

19:16 CA: I think Bina’s here, right?

MR: She is, yeah.

CA: Would it be too much, I don’t know, do we have a handheld mic? Bina, could we invite you to the stage? I just have to ask you one question. Besides, we need to see you.

Come and join Martine here. I mean, look, when you got married, if someone had told you that, in a few years time, the man you were marrying would become a woman, and a few years after that, you would become a robot — (Laughter) — how has this gone? How has it been?

19:58 Bina Rothblatt: It’s been really an exciting journey, and I would have never thought that at the time, but we started making goals and setting those goals and accomplishing things, and before you knew it, we just keep going up and up and we’re still not stopping, so it’s great.

20:13 CA: Martine told me something really beautiful, just actually on Skype before this, which was that he wanted to live for hundreds of years as a mind file, but not if it wasn’t with you.

20:30 BR: That’s right, we want to do it together. We’re cryonicists as well, and we want to wake up together.

20:35 CA: So just so as you know, from my point of view, this isn’t only one of the most astonishing lives I have heard, it’s one of the most astonishing love stories I’ve ever heard. It’s just a delight to have you both here at TED. Thank you so much.

“What we’re working on is creating a situation where people can create a mind file, and a mind file is the collection of their mannerisms, personality, recollection, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values, everything that we’ve poured today into Google, into Amazon, into Facebook, and all of this information stored there will be able, in the next couple decades, once software is able to recapitulate consciousness, be able to revive the consciousness which is imminent in our mind file.” – Martine Rothblatt
In a brilliant onstage conversation with TED’s Chris Anderson, Martine shares her powerful story of love, identity, creativity, openness and limitless possibility.

The founder of Sirius XM satellite radio, Martine Rothblatt now heads up a drug company that makes life-saving medicines for rare diseases (including one drug…

The boring future we’re building? Elon Musk

Elon Musk discusses his new project digging tunnels under LA, the latest from Tesla and SpaceX and his motivation for building a future on Mars in conversation with TED’s Head Curator, Chris Anderson

Elon Musk. Serial entrepreneur is the CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors and the CEO/CTO of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). Full bio

Filmed April 2017

Chris Anderson CA: Elon, hey, welcome back to TED. It’s great to have you here. In the next half hour or so, we’re going to spend some time exploring your vision for what an exciting future might look like, which I guess makes the first question a little ironic: Why are you boring?

0:32 Elon Musk EM: I ask myself that frequently. We’re trying to dig a hole under LA, and this is to create the beginning of what will hopefully be a 3D network of tunnels to alleviate congestion. So right now, one of the most soul-destroying things is traffic. It affects people in every part of the world. It takes away so much of your life. It’s horrible. It’s particularly horrible in LA.

CA: I think you’ve brought with you the first visualization that’s been shown of this. Can I show this?

EM: Yeah, absolutely. So this is the first time — Just to show what we’re talking about. So a couple of key things that are important in having a 3D tunnel network. First of all, you have to be able to integrate the entrance and exit of the tunnel seamlessly into the fabric of the city. So by having an elevator, sort of a car skate, that’s on an elevator, you can integrate the entrance and exits to the tunnel network just by using two parking spaces. And then the car gets on a skate.

There’s no speed limit here, so we’re designing this to be able to operate at 200 kilometers an hour. So you should be able to get from, say, Westwood to LAX in six minutes — five, six minutes.

 CA: So possibly, initially done, it’s like on a sort of toll road-type basis.

 EM: Yeah.  I don’t know if people noticed it in the video, but there’s no real limit to how many levels of tunnel you can have. You can go much further deep than you can go up. The deepest mines are much deeper than the tallest buildings are tall, so you can alleviate any arbitrary level of urban congestion with a 3D tunnel network. This is a very important point.

So a key rebuttal to the tunnels is that if you add one layer of tunnels, that will simply alleviate congestion, it will get used up, and then you’ll be back where you started, back with congestion. But you can go to any arbitrary number of tunnels, any number of levels.

CA: But people — seen traditionally, it’s incredibly expensive to dig, and that would block this idea.

EM: Yeah. Well, they’re right. To give you an example, the LA subway extension, which is — I think it’s a two-and-a-half mile extension that was just completed for two billion dollars. So it’s roughly a billion dollars a mile to do the subway extension in LA. And this is not the highest utility subway in the world. So yeah, it’s quite difficult to dig tunnels normally. I think we need to have at least a tenfold improvement in the cost per mile of tunneling.

Actually, if you just do two things, you can get to approximately an order of magnitude improvement, and I think you can go beyond that. So the first thing to do is to cut the tunnel diameter by a factor of two or more. So a single road lane tunnel according to regulations has to be 26 feet, maybe 28 feet in diameter to allow for crashes and emergency vehicles and sufficient ventilation for combustion engine cars.

But if you shrink that diameter to what we’re attempting, which is 12 feet, which is plenty to get an electric skate through, you drop the diameter by a factor of two and the cross-sectional area by a factor of four, and the tunneling cost scales with the cross-sectional area.

So that’s roughly a half-order of magnitude improvement right there. Then tunneling machines currently tunnel for half the time, then they stop, and then the rest of the time is putting in reinforcements for the tunnel wall.

 if you design the machine instead to do continuous tunneling and reinforcing, that will give you a factor of two improvement. Combine that and that’s a factor of eight. Also these machines are far from being at their power or thermal limits, so you can jack up the power to the machine substantially.

I think you can get at least a factor of two, maybe a factor of four or five improvement on top of that. So I think there’s a fairly straightforward series of steps to get somewhere in excess of an order of magnitude improvement in the cost per mile, and our target actually is — we’ve got a pet snail called Gary, this is from Gary the snail from “South Park,” I mean, sorry, “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

So Gary is capable of — currently he’s capable of going 14 times faster than a tunnel-boring machine. He’s not a patient little fellow, and that will be victory. Victory is beating the snail.

CA: But a lot of people imagining, dreaming about future cities, they imagine that actually the solution is flying cars, drones, etc. You go aboveground. Why isn’t that a better solution? You save all that tunneling cost.

6:09 EM: Right. I’m in favor of flying things. Obviously, I do rockets, so I like things that fly. This is not some inherent bias against flying things, but there is a challenge with flying cars in that they’ll be quite noisy, the wind force generated will be very high. Let’s just say that if something’s flying over your head, a whole bunch of flying cars going all over the place, that is not an anxiety-reducing situation.

You don’t think to yourself, “Well, I feel better about today.” You’re thinking, “Did they service their hubcap, or is it going to come off and guillotine me?” Things like that.

CA: So you’ve got this vision of future cities with these rich, 3D networks of tunnels underneath. Is there a tie-in here with Hyperloop? Could you apply these tunnels to use for this Hyperloop idea you released a few years ago.

7:13 EM: Yeah, so we’ve been sort of puttering around with the Hyperloop stuff for a while. We built a Hyperloop test track adjacent to SpaceX, just for a student competition, to encourage innovative ideas in transport. And it actually ends up being the biggest vacuum chamber in the world after the Large Hadron Collider, by volume.

So it was quite fun to do that, but it was kind of a hobby thing, and then we think we might — so we’ve built a little pusher car to push the student pods, but we’re going to try seeing how fast we can make the pusher go if it’s not pushing something. So we’re cautiously optimistic we’ll be able to be faster than the world’s fastest bullet train even in a .8-mile stretch. It’s either going to smash into tiny pieces or go quite fast.

8:20 CA: But you can picture, then, a Hyperloop in a tunnel running quite long distances.

8:26 EM: Exactly. And looking at tunneling technology, it turns out that in order to make a tunnel, you have to — In order to seal against the water table, you’ve got to typically design a tunnel wall to be good to about five or six atmospheres. So to go to vacuum is only one atmosphere, or near-vacuum. So actually, it sort of turns out that automatically, if you build a tunnel that is good enough to resist the water table, it is automatically capable of holding vacuum.

CA: And so you could actually picture, what kind of length tunnel is in Elon’s future to running Hyperloop?

9:12 EM: I think there’s no real length limit. You could dig as much as you want. I think if you were to do something like a DC-to-New York Hyperloop, I think you’d probably want to go underground the entire way because it’s a high-density area. You’re going under a lot of buildings and houses, and if you go deep enough, you cannot detect the tunnel.

Sometimes people think, well, it’s going to be pretty annoying to have a tunnel dug under my house. Like, if that tunnel is dug more than about three or four tunnel diameters beneath your house, you will not be able to detect it being dug at all. In fact, if you’re able to detect the tunnel being dug, whatever device you are using, you can get a lot of money for that device from the Israeli military, who is trying to detect tunnels from Hamas, and from the US Customs and Border patrol that try and detect drug tunnels.

So the reality is that earth is incredibly good at absorbing vibrations, and once the tunnel depth is below a certain level, it is undetectable. Maybe if you have a very sensitive seismic instrument, you might be able to detect it.

10:28 CA: So you’ve started a new company to do this called The Boring Company. Very nice. Very funny.  How much of your time is this?

10:42 EM: It’s maybe … two or three percent.

10:48 CA: You’ve bought a hobby. This is what an Elon Musk hobby looks like.

EM: I mean, it really is, like — This is basically interns and people doing it part time. We bought some second-hand machinery. It’s kind of puttering along, but it’s making good progress, so —

11:11 CA: So an even bigger part of your time is being spent on electrifying cars and transport through Tesla. Is one of the motivations for the tunneling project the realization that actually, in a world where cars are electric and where they’re self-driving, there may end up being more cars on the roads on any given hour than there are now?

11:33 EM: Yeah, exactly. A lot of people think that when you make cars autonomous, they’ll be able to go faster and that will alleviate congestion. And to some degree that will be true, but once you have shared autonomy where it’s much cheaper to go by car and you can go point to point, the affordability of going in a car will be better than that of a bus. Like, it will cost less than a bus ticket. So the amount of driving that will occur will be much greater with shared autonomy, and actually traffic will get far worse.

12:11 CA: You started Tesla with the goal of persuading the world that electrification was the future of cars, and a few years ago, people were laughing at you. Now, not so much.

12:23 EM: OK. I don’t know. I don’t know.

12:29 CA: But isn’t it true that pretty much every auto manufacturer has announced serious electrification plans for the short- to medium-term future?

12:39 EM: Yeah. Yeah. I think almost every automaker has some electric vehicle program. They vary in seriousness. Some are very serious about transitioning entirely to electric, and some are just dabbling in it. And some, amazingly, are still pursuing fuel cells, but I think that won’t last much longer.

13:00 CA: But isn’t there a sense, though, Elon, where you can now just declare victory and say, you know, “We did it.” Let the world electrify, and you go on and focus on other stuff?

13:12 EM: Yeah. I intend to stay with Tesla as far into the future as I can imagine, and there are a lot of exciting things that we have coming. Obviously the Model 3 is coming soon. We’ll be unveiling the Tesla Semi truck.

13:31 CA: OK, we’re going to come to this. So Model 3, it’s supposed to be coming in July-ish.

13:38 EM: Yeah, it’s looking quite good for starting production in July.

13:42 CA: Wow. One of the things that people are so excited about is the fact that it’s got autopilot. And you put out this video a while back showing what that technology would look like.

13:57 EM: Yeah. There’s obviously autopilot in Model S right now. What are we seeing here? Yeah, so this is using only cameras and GPS. So there’s no LIDAR or radar being used here. This is just using passive optical, which is essentially what a person uses. The whole road system is meant to be navigated with passive optical, or cameras, and so once you solve cameras or vision, then autonomy is solved. If you don’t solve vision, it’s not solved. So that’s why our focus is so heavily on having a vision neural net that’s very effective for road conditions.

14:42 CA: Right. Many other people are going the LIDAR route. You want cameras plus radar is most of it.

14:47 EM: You can absolutely be superhuman with just cameras. Like, you can probably do it ten times better than humans would, just cameras.

14:55 CA: So the new cars being sold right now have eight cameras in them. They can’t yet do what that showed. When will they be able to?

15:07 EM: I think we’re still on track for being able to go cross-country from LA to New York by the end of the year, fully autonomous.

15:17 CA: OK, so by the end of the year, you’re saying, someone’s going to sit in a Tesla without touching the steering wheel, tap in “New York,” off it goes.

15:27 EM: Yeah.

15:28 CA: Won’t ever have to touch the wheel — by the end of 2017.

15:33 EM: Yeah. Essentially, November or December of this year, we should be able to go all the way from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during the entire journey.

CA: Amazing. But part of that is possible because you’ve already got a fleet of Teslas driving all these roads. You’re accumulating a huge amount of data of that national road system.

EM: Yes, but the thing that will be interesting is that I’m actually fairly confident it will be able to do that route even if you change the route dynamically. So, it’s fairly easy — If you say I’m going to be really good at one specific route, that’s one thing, but it should be able to go, really be very good, certainly once you enter a highway, to go anywhere on the highway system in a given country. So it’s not sort of limited to LA to New York. We could change it and make it Seattle-Florida, that day, in real time. So you were going from LA to New York. Now go from LA to Toronto.

CA: So leaving aside regulation for a second, in terms of the technology alone, the time when someone will be able to buy one of your cars and literally just take the hands off the wheel and go to sleep and wake up and find that they’ve arrived, how far away is that, to do that safely?

17:06 EM: I think that’s about two years. So the real trick of it is not how do you make it work say 99.9 percent of the time, because, like, if a car crashes one in a thousand times, then you’re probably still not going to be comfortable falling asleep. You shouldn’t be, certainly.

It’s never going to be perfect. No system is going to be perfect, but if you say it’s perhaps — the car is unlikely to crash in a hundred lifetimes, or a thousand lifetimes, then people are like, OK, wow, if I were to live a thousand lives, I would still most likely never experience a crash, then that’s probably OK.

17:53 CA: To sleep. I guess the big concern of yours is that people may actually get seduced too early to think that this is safe, and that you’ll have some horrible incident happen that puts things back.

18:04 EM: Well, I think that the autonomy system is likely to at least mitigate the crash, except in rare circumstances. The thing to appreciate about vehicle safety is this is probabilistic. I mean, there’s some chance that any time a human driver gets in a car, that they will have an accident that is their fault. It’s never zero. So really the key threshold for autonomy is how much better does autonomy need to be than a person before you can rely on it?

18:38 CA: But once you get literally safe hands-off driving, the power to disrupt the whole industry seems massive, because at that point you’ve spoken of people being able to buy a car, drops you off at work, and then you let it go and provide a sort of Uber-like service to other people, earn you money, maybe even cover the cost of your lease of that car, so you can kind of get a car for free. Is that really likely?

19:02 EM: Yeah. Absolutely this is what will happen. So there will be a shared autonomy fleet where you buy your car and you can choose to use that car exclusively, you could choose to have it be used only by friends and family, only by other drivers who are rated five star, you can choose to share it sometimes but not other times. That’s 100 percent what will occur. It’s just a question of when.

19:32 CA: So you mentioned the Semi and I think you’re planning to announce this in September, but I’m curious whether there’s anything you could show us today?

19:42 EM: I will show you a teaser shot of the truck. That’s definitely a case where we want to be cautious about the autonomy features. Yeah.

CA: We can’t see that much of it, but it doesn’t look like just a little friendly neighborhood truck. It looks kind of badass. What sort of semi is this?

EM: this is a heavy duty, long-range semitruck. So it’s the highest weight capability and with long range. So essentially it’s meant to alleviate the heavy-duty trucking loads. And this is something which people do not today think is possible. They think the truck doesn’t have enough power or it doesn’t have enough range, and then with the Tesla Semi we want to show that no, an electric truck actually can out-torque any diesel semi. And if you had a tug-of-war competition, the Tesla Semi will tug the diesel semi uphill.

CA: That’s pretty cool. And short term, these aren’t driverless. These are going to be trucks that truck drivers want to drive.

 EM: Yes. So what will be really fun about this is you have a flat torque RPM curve with an electric motor, whereas with a diesel motor or any kind of internal combustion engine car, you’ve got a torque RPM curve that looks like a hill. So this will be a very spry truck. You can drive this around like a sports car. There’s no gears. It’s, like, single speed.

CA: There’s a great movie to be made here somewhere. I don’t know what it is and I don’t know that it ends well, but it’s a great movie.

EM: It’s quite bizarre test-driving. When I was driving the test prototype for the first truck. It’s really weird, because you’re driving around and you’re just so nimble, and you’re in this giant truck.

21:52 CA: Wait, you’ve already driven a prototype?

21:56 EM: Yeah, I drove it around the parking lot, and I was like, this is crazy.

21:59 CA: Wow. This is no vaporware.

22:02 EM: It’s just like, driving this giant truck and making these mad maneuvers.

22:06 CA: This is cool. OK, from a really badass picture to a kind of less badass picture. This is just a cute house from “Desperate Housewives” or something. What on earth is going on here?

22:17 EM: Well, this illustrates the picture of the future that I think is how things will evolve. You’ve got an electric car in the driveway. If you look in between the electric car and the house, there are actually three Powerwalls stacked up against the side of the house, and then that house roof is a solar roof. So that’s an actual solar glass roof.

EM: That’s a picture of a real — well, admittedly, it’s a real fake house. That’s a real fake house.

CA: So these roof tiles, some of them have in them basically solar power, the ability to —

22:56 EM: Yeah. Solar glass tiles where you can adjust the texture and the color to a very fine-grained level, and then there’s sort of microlouvers in the glass, such that when you’re looking at the roof from street level or close to street level, all the tiles look the same whether there is a solar cell behind it or not. So you have an even color from the ground level. If you were to look at it from a helicopter, you would be actually able to look through and see that some of the glass tiles have a solar cell behind them and some do not. You can’t tell from street level.

23:42 CA: You put them in the ones that are likely to see a lot of sun, and that makes these roofs super affordable, right? They’re not that much more expensive than just tiling the roof.

23:50 EM: Yeah. We’re very confident that the cost of the roof plus the cost of electricity — A solar glass roof will be less than the cost of a normal roof plus the cost of electricity. So in other words, this will be economically a no-brainer, we think it will look great, and it will last — We thought about having the warranty be infinity, but then people thought, well, that might sound like were just talking rubbish, but actually this is toughened glass. Well after the house has collapsed and there’s nothing there, the glass tiles will still be there.

CA: I mean, this is cool. So you’re rolling this out in a couple week’s time, I think, with four different roofing types.

24:44 EM: Yeah, we’re starting off with two, two initially, and the second two will be introduced early next year.

24:50 CA: And what’s the scale of ambition here? How many houses do you believe could end up having this type of roofing?

24:58 EM: I think eventually almost all houses will have a solar roof. The thing is to consider the time scale here to be probably on the order of 40 or 50 years. So on average, a roof is replaced every 20 to 25 years. But you don’t start replacing all roofs immediately. But eventually, if you say were to fast-forward to say 15 years from now, it will be unusual to have a roof that does not have solar.

25:36 CA: Is there a mental model thing that people don’t get here that because of the shift in the cost, the economics of solar power, most houses actually have enough sunlight on their roof pretty much to power all of their needs. If you could capture the power, it could pretty much power all their needs. You could go off-grid, kind of.

25:55 EM: It depends on where you are and what the house size is relative to the roof area, but it’s a fair statement to say that most houses in the US have enough roof area to power all the needs of the house.

26:10 CA: So the key to the economics of the cars, the Semi, of these houses is the falling price of lithium-ion batteries, which you’ve made a huge bet on as Tesla. In many ways, that’s almost the core competency. And you’ve decided that to really, like, own that competency, you just have to build the world’s largest manufacturing plant to double the world’s supply of lithium-ion batteries, with this guy. What is this?

26:43 EM: Yeah, so that’s the Gigafactory, progress so far on the Gigafactory. Eventually, you can sort of roughly see that there’s sort of a diamond shape overall, and when it’s fully done, it’ll look like a giant diamond, or that’s the idea behind it, and it’s aligned on true north. It’s a small detail.

27:04 CA: And capable of producing, eventually, like a hundred gigawatt hours of batteries a year.

27:11 EM: A hundred gigawatt hours. We think probably more, but yeah.

27:14 CA: And they’re actually being produced right now.

27:17 EM: They’re in production already.

CA: You guys put out this video. I mean, is that speeded up?

27:21 EM: That’s the slowed down version.

 CA: How fast does it actually go?

27:27 EM: Well, when it’s running at full speed, you can’t actually see the cells without a strobe light. It’s just blur.

CA: One of your core ideas, Elon, about what makes an exciting future is a future where we no longer feel guilty about energy. Help us picture this. How many Gigafactories, if you like, does it take to get us there?

27:52 EM: It’s about a hundred, roughly. It’s not 10, it’s not a thousand. Most likely a hundred.

27:59 CA: See, I find this amazing. You can picture what it would take to move the world off this vast fossil fuel thing. It’s like you’re building one, it costs five billion dollars, or whatever, five to 10 billion dollars. Like, it’s kind of cool that you can picture that project. And you’re planning to do, at Tesla — announce another two this year.

28:24 EM: I think we’ll announce locations for somewhere between two and four Gigafactories later this year. Yeah, probably four.  We need to address a global market.

CA: This is cool. I think we should talk for — Actually, double mark it. I’m going to ask you one question about politics, only one. I’m kind of sick of politics, but I do want to ask you this. You’re on a body now giving advice to a guy —

29:18 EM: Who?

29:20 CA: Who has said he doesn’t really believe in climate change, and there’s a lot of people out there who think you shouldn’t be doing that. They’d like you to walk away from that. What would you say to them?

29:31 EM: Well, I think that first of all, I’m just on two advisory councils where the format consists of going around the room and asking people’s opinion on things, and so there’s like a meeting every month or two. That’s the sum total of my contribution. But I think to the degree that there are people in the room who are arguing in favor of doing something about climate change, or social issues, I’ve used the meetings I’ve had thus far to argue in favor of immigration and in favor of climate change.

And if I hadn’t done that, that wasn’t on the agenda before. So maybe nothing will happen, but at least the words were said.

CA: So let’s talk SpaceX and Mars. Last time you were here, you spoke about what seemed like a kind of incredibly ambitious dream to develop rockets that were actually reusable. And you’ve only gone and done it.

30:46 EM: Finally. It took a long time.

30:47 CA: Talk us through this. What are we looking at here?

30:50 EM: So this is one of our rocket boosters coming back from very high and fast in space. So just delivered the upper stage at high velocity. I think this might have been at sort of Mach 7 or so, delivery of the upper stage.

CA: I thought that was the sped-up version. But I mean, that’s amazing, and several of these failed before you finally figured out how to do it, but now you’ve done this, what, five or six times?

31:28 EM: We’re at eight or nine.

31:31 CA: And for the first time, you’ve actually reflown one of the rockets that landed.

31:35 EM: Yeah, so we landed the rocket booster and then prepped it for flight again and flew it again, so it’s the first reflight of an orbital booster where that reflight is relevant. So it’s important to appreciate that reusability is only relevant if it is rapid and complete. So like an aircraft or a car, the reusability is rapid and complete. You do not send your aircraft to Boeing in-between flights.

32:07 CA: Right. So this is allowing you to dream of this really ambitious idea of sending many people to Mars in, what, 10 or 20 years time, I guess.

32:17 EM: Yeah.

32:19 CA: And you’ve designed this outrageous rocket to do it. Help us understand the scale of this thing.

32:24 EM: Well, visually you can see that’s a person. Yeah, and that’s the vehicle.

CA: So if that was a skyscraper, that’s like, did I read that, a 40-story skyscraper?

32:40 EM: Probably a little more, yeah. The thrust level of this is really — This configuration is about four times the thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket.

32:55 CA: Four times the thrust of the biggest rocket humanity ever created before.

33:00 EM: Yeah. Yeah. In units of 747, a 747 is only about a quarter of a million pounds of thrust, so for every 10 million pounds of thrust, there’s 40 747s. So this would be the thrust equivalent of 120 747s, with all engines blazing.

33:25 CA: And so even with a machine designed to escape Earth’s gravity, I think you told me last time this thing could actually take a fully loaded 747, people, cargo, everything, into orbit.

33:37 EM: Exactly. This can take a fully loaded 747 with maximum fuel, maximum passengers, maximum cargo on the 747 — this can take it as cargo.

33:51 CA: So based on this, you presented recently this Interplanetary Transport System which is visualized this way. This is a scene you picture in, what, 30 years time? 20 years time? People walking into this rocket.

34:08 EM: I’m hopeful it’s sort of an eight- to 10-year time frame. Aspirationally, that’s our target. Our internal targets are more aggressive. While vehicle seems quite large and is large by comparison with other rockets, I think the future spacecraft will make this look like a rowboat. The future spaceships will be truly enormous.

34:42 CA: Why, Elon? Why do we need to build a city on Mars with a million people on it in your lifetime, which I think is kind of what you’ve said you’d love to do?

34:55 EM: I think it’s important to have a future that is inspiring and appealing. I just think there have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Like, why do you want to live? What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future? And if we’re not out there, if the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multiplanet species, I find that it’s incredibly depressing if that’s not the future that we’re going to have.

 CA: People want to position this as an either or, that there are so many desperate things happening on the planet now from climate to poverty to, you know, you pick your issue. And this feels like a distraction. You shouldn’t be thinking about this. You should be solving what’s here and now. And to be fair, you’ve done a fair old bit to actually do that with your work on sustainable energy. But why not just do that?

35:58 EM: I think there’s — I look at the future from the standpoint of probabilities. It’s like a branching stream of probabilities, and there are actions that we can take that affect those probabilities or that accelerate one thing or slow down another thing. I may introduce something new to the probability stream. Sustainable energy will happen no matter what.

If there was no Tesla, if Tesla never existed, it would have to happen out of necessity. It’s tautological. If you don’t have sustainable energy, it means you have unsustainable energy. Eventually you will run out, and the laws of economics will drive civilization towards sustainable energy, inevitably. The fundamental value of a company like Tesla is the degree to which it accelerates the advent of sustainable energy, faster than it would otherwise occur.

So when I think what is the fundamental good of a company like Tesla, I would say, hopefully, if it accelerated that by a decade, potentially more than a decade, that would be quite a good thing to occur. That’s what I consider to be the fundamental aspirational good of Tesla.

Then there’s becoming a multiplanet species and space-faring civilization. This is not inevitable.

It’s very important to appreciate this is not inevitable. The sustainable energy future I think is largely inevitable, but being a space-faring civilization is definitely not inevitable. If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 you were able to send somebody to the moon. 1969. Then we had the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit. Then the Space Shuttle retired, and the United States could take no one to orbit. So that’s the trend.

The trend is like down to nothing. People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves. It does Not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better, and actually it will, I think, by itself degrade, actually. You look at great civilizations like Ancient Egypt, and they were able to make the pyramids, and they forgot how to do that. And then the Romans, they built these incredible aqueducts. They forgot how to do it.

38:39 CA: Elon, it almost seems, listening to you and looking at the different things you’ve done, that you’ve got this unique double motivation on everything that I find so interesting.

One is this desire to work for humanity’s long-term good. The other is the desire to do something exciting.

And often it feels like you feel like you need the one to drive the other. With Tesla, you want to have sustainable energy, so you made these super sexy, exciting cars to do it. Solar energy, we need to get there, so we need to make these beautiful roofs. We haven’t even spoken about your newest thing, which we don’t have time to do, but you want to save humanity from bad AI, and so you’re going to create this really cool brain-machine interface to give us all infinite memory and telepathy and so forth. And on Mars, it feels like what you’re saying is, yeah, we need to save humanity and have a backup plan, but also we need to inspire humanity, and this is a way to inspire.

39:44 EM: I think the value of beauty and inspiration is very much underrated, no question. But I want to be clear. I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior. That is not the — I’m just trying to think about the future and Not be sad.

 CA: Beautiful statement. I think everyone here would agree that it is not — None of this is going to happen inevitably. The fact that in your mind, you dream this stuff, you dream stuff that no one else would dare dream, or no one else would be capable of dreaming at the level of complexity that you do. The fact that you do that, Elon Musk, is a really remarkable thing. Thank you for helping us all to dream a bit bigger.

40:33 EM: But you’ll tell me if it ever starts getting genuinely insane, right? 

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“I think it’s important to have a future that is inspiring and appealing. I just think there have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Like, why do you want to live? What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future? And if we’re not out there, if the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multiplanet species, I find that it’s incredibly depressing if that’s not the future that we’re going to have.” – Elon Musk

#TED #TEDTalks #TEDx #SKE #TEDxSKE #Salon #TEDxSKESalon #Space #Solar #Sustainability #TechSolutions #Tech

The boring future we’re building? Elon Musk
Elon Musk discusses his new project digging tunnels under LA, the latest from Tesla and SpaceX and his motivation for building a future on Mars in conversation with TED’s Head Curator, Chris Anderson.

Are you obsessed with symmetry?

On the 30th of May, 1832, a gunshot was heard ringing out across the 13th arrondissement in Paris.

A peasant, who was walking to market that morning, ran towards where the gunshot had come from, and found a young man writhing in agony on the floor, clearly shot by a dueling wound. The young man’s name was Evariste Galois, a mathematician who started modern math. He was a well-known revolutionary in Paris at the time. Galois was taken to the local hospital where he died the next day in the arms of his brother. And the last words he said to his brother were, “Don’t cry for me, Alfred. I need all the courage I can muster to die at the age of 20.”

0:55 It wasn’t, in fact, revolutionary politics for which Galois was famous. But a few years earlier, while still at school, he’d actually cracked one of the big mathematical problems at the time. And he wrote to the academicians in Paris, trying to explain his theory. But the academicians couldn’t understand anything that he wrote. (Laughter) This is how he wrote most of his mathematics.

the night before that duel, he realized this possibly is his last chance to try and explain his great breakthrough. So he stayed up the whole night, writing away, trying to explain his ideas.

And as the dawn came up and he went to meet his destiny, he left this pile of papers on the table for the next generation. Maybe the fact that he stayed up all night doing mathematics was the fact that he was such a bad shot that morning and got killed.

But contained inside those documents was a new language, a language to understand one of the most fundamental concepts of science — namely symmetry. Now, symmetry is almost nature’s language. It helps us to understand so many different bits of the scientific world. For example, molecular structure. What crystals are possible, we can understand through the mathematics of symmetry.

In microbiology you really don’t want to get a symmetrical object, because they are generally rather nasty. The swine flu virus, at the moment, is a symmetrical object. And it uses the efficiency of symmetry to be able to propagate itself so well. But on a larger scale of biology, actually symmetry is very important, because it actually communicates genetic information.

I’ve taken two pictures here and I’ve made them artificially symmetrical. And if I ask you which of these you find more beautiful, you’re probably drawn to the lower two. Because it is hard to make symmetry. And if you can make yourself symmetrical, you’re sending out a sign that you’ve got good genes, you’ve got a good upbringing and therefore you’ll make a good mate. So symmetry is a language which can help to communicate genetic information.

Symmetry can also help us to explain what’s happening in the Large Hadron Collider in CERN. Or what’s not happening in the Large Hadron Collider in CERN.

To be able to make predictions about the fundamental particles we might see there, it seems that they are all facets of some strange symmetrical shape in a higher dimensional space.

I think Galileo summed up, very nicely, the power of mathematics to understand the scientific world around us. He wrote, “The universe cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.”

it’s not just scientists who are interested in symmetry. Artists too love to play around with symmetry. They also have a slightly more ambiguous relationship with it. Here is Thomas Mann talking about symmetry in “The Magic Mountain.” He has a character describing the snowflake, and he says he “shuddered at its perfect precision, found it deathly, the very marrow of death.” 

what artists like to do is to set up expectations of symmetry and then break them. And a beautiful example of this I found, actually, when I visited a colleague of mine in Japan, Professor Kurokawa. And he took me up to the temples in Nikko. And just after this photo was taken we walked up the stairs. And the gateway you see behind has eight columns, with beautiful symmetrical designs on them. Seven of them are exactly the same, and the eighth one is turned upside down.

And I said to Professor Kurokawa, “Wow, the architects must have really been kicking themselves when they realized that they’d made a mistake and put this one upside down.” And he said, “No, no, no. It was a very deliberate act.” And he referred me to this lovely quote from the Japanese Essays in Idleness” from the 14th century, in which the essayist wrote, “In everything, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.” Even when building the Imperial Palace, they always leave one place unfinished.

if I had to choose one building in the world to be cast out on a desert island, to live the rest of my life, being an addict of symmetry, I would probably choose the Alhambra in Granada.

This is a palace celebrating symmetry. Recently I took my family — we do these rather kind of nerdy mathematical trips, which my family love. This is my son Tamer. You can see he’s really enjoying our mathematical trip to the Alhambra. But I wanted to try and enrich him. I think one of the problems about school mathematics is it doesn’t look at how mathematics is embedded in the world we live in. So, I wanted to open his eyes up to how much symmetry is running through the Alhambra.

You see it already. Immediately you go in, the reflective symmetry in the water. But it’s on the walls where all the exciting things are happening. The Moorish artists were denied the possibility to draw things with souls. So they explored a more geometric art. And so what is symmetry? The Alhambra somehow asks all of these questions. What is symmetry? When [there] are two of these walls, do they have the same symmetries? Can we say whether they discovered all of the symmetries in the Alhambra?

 it was Galois who produced a language to be able to answer some of these questions. For Galois, symmetry — unlike for Thomas Mann, which was something still and deathly — for Galois, symmetry was all about motion. What can you do to a symmetrical object, move it in some way, so it looks the same as before you moved it? I like to describe it as the magic trick moves. What can you do to something? You close your eyes. I do something, put it back down again. It looks like it did before it started.

for example, the walls in the Alhambra — I can take all of these tiles, and fix them at the yellow place, rotate them by 90 degrees, put them all back down again and they fit perfectly down there. And if you open your eyes again, you wouldn’t know that they’d moved. But it’s the motion that really characterizes the symmetry inside the Alhambra. But it’s also about producing a language to describe this. And the power of mathematics is often to change one thing into another, to change geometry into language.

I’m going to take you through, perhaps push you a little bit mathematically — so brace yourselves — push you a little bit to understand how this language works, which enables us to capture what is symmetry.

let’s take these two symmetrical objects here. Let’s take the twisted six-pointed starfish. What can I do to the starfish which makes it look the same? Well, there I rotated it by a sixth of a turn, and still it looks like it did before I started. I could rotate it by a third of a turn, or a half a turn, or put it back down on its image, or two thirds of a turn. And a fifth symmetry, I can rotate it by five sixths of a turn. And those are things that I can do to the symmetrical object that make it look like it did before I started.

for Galois, there was actually a sixth symmetry. Can anybody think what else I could do to this which would leave it like I did before I started? I can’t flip it because I’ve put a little twist on it, haven’t I? It’s got no reflective symmetry. But what I could do is just leave it where it is, pick it up, and put it down again. And for Galois this was like the zeroth symmetry. Actually, the invention of the number zero was a very modern concept, seventh century A.D., by the Indians. It seems mad to talk about nothing. And this is the same idea. This is a symmetrical — so everything has symmetry, where you just leave it where it is.

 this object has six symmetries. And what about the triangle? Well, I can rotate by a third of a turn clockwise or a third of a turn anticlockwise. But now this has some reflectional symmetry. I can reflect it in the line through X, or the line through Y, or the line through Z. Five symmetries and then of course the zeroth symmetry where I just pick it up and leave it where it is. So both of these objects have six symmetries. Now, I’m a great believer that mathematics is not a spectator sport, and you have to do some mathematics in order to really understand it.

 here is a little question for you. And I’m going to give a prize at the end of my talk for the person who gets closest to the answer. The Rubik’s Cube. How many symmetries does a Rubik’s Cube have? How many things can I do to this object and put it down so it still looks like a cube? Okay? So I want you to think about that problem as we go on, and count how many symmetries there are. And there will be a prize for the person who gets closest at the end.

 let’s go back down to symmetries that I got for these two objects. What Galois realized: it isn’t just the individual symmetries, but how they interact with each other which really characterizes the symmetry of an object. If I do one magic trick move followed by another, the combination is a third magic trick move. And here we see Galois starting to develop a language to see the substance of the things unseen, the sort of abstract idea of the symmetry underlying this physical object. For example, what if I turn the starfish by a sixth of a turn, and then a third of a turn?

I’ve given names. The capital letters, A, B, C, D, E, F, are the names for the rotations. B, for example, rotates the little yellow dot to the B on the starfish. And so on. So what if I do B, which is a sixth of a turn, followed by C, which is a third of a turn? Well let’s do that. A sixth of a turn, followed by a third of a turn, the combined effect is as if I had just rotated it by half a turn in one go. So the little table here records how the algebra of these symmetries work. I do one followed by another, the answer is it’s rotation D, half a turn. What I if I did it in the other order? Would it make any difference? Let’s see. Let’s do the third of the turn first, and then the sixth of a turn. Of course, it doesn’t make any difference. It still ends up at half a turn.

And there is some symmetry here in the way the symmetries interact with each other. But this is completely different to the symmetries of the triangle. Let’s see what happens if we do two symmetries with the triangle, one after the other. Let’s do a rotation by a third of a turn anticlockwise, and reflect in the line through X. Well, the combined effect is as if I had just done the reflection in the line through Z to start with. Now, let’s do it in a different order. Let’s do the reflection in X first, followed by the rotation by a third of a turn anticlockwise. The combined effect, the triangle ends up somewhere completely different. It’s as if it was reflected in the line through Y.

it matters what order you do the operations in.

And this enables us to distinguish why the symmetries of these objects — they both have six symmetries. So why shouldn’t we say they have the same symmetries? But the way the symmetries interact enable us — we’ve now got a language to distinguish why these symmetries are fundamentally different. And you can try this when you go down to the pub, later on. Take a beer mat and rotate it by a quarter of a turn, then flip it. And then do it in the other order, and the picture will be facing in the opposite direction.

Galois produced some laws for how these tables — how symmetries interact. It’s almost like little Sudoku tables.

You don’t see any symmetry twice in any row or column. And, using those rules, he was able to say that there are in fact only two objects with six symmetries. And they’ll be the same as the symmetries of the triangle, or the symmetries of the six-pointed starfish. I think this is an amazing development. It’s almost like the concept of number being developed for symmetry. In the front here, I’ve got one, two, three people sitting on one, two, three chairs. The people and the chairs are very different, but the number, the abstract idea of the number, is the same.

we can see this now: we go back to the walls in the Alhambra. Here are two very different walls, very different geometric pictures. But, using the language of Galois, we can understand that the underlying abstract symmetries of these things are actually the same.

For example, let’s take this beautiful wall with the triangles with a little twist on them. You can rotate them by a sixth of a turn if you ignore the colors. We’re not matching up the colors. But the shapes match up if I rotate by a sixth of a turn around the point where all the triangles meet. What about the center of a triangle? I can rotate by a third of a turn around the center of the triangle, and everything matches up. And then there is an interesting place halfway along an edge, where I can rotate by 180 degrees. And all the tiles match up again. So rotate along halfway along the edge, and they all match up.

 let’s move to the very different-looking wall in the Alhambra. And we find the same symmetries here, and the same interaction. So, there was a sixth of a turn. A third of a turn where the Z pieces meet. And the half a turn is halfway between the six pointed stars. And although these walls look very different, Galois has produced a language to say that in fact the symmetries underlying these are exactly the same. And it’s a symmetry we call 6-3-2.

Here is another example in the Alhambra. This is a wall, a ceiling, and a floor. They all look very different. But this language allows us to say that they are representations of the same symmetrical abstract object, which we call 4-4-2. Nothing to do with football, but because of the fact that there are two places where you can rotate by a quarter of a turn, and one by half a turn.

this power of the language is even more, because Galois can say, “Did the Moorish artists discover all of the possible symmetries on the walls in the Alhambra?” And it turns out they almost did.

You can prove, using Galois’ language, there are actually only 17 different symmetries that you can do in the walls in the Alhambra. And they, if you try to produce a different wall with this 18th one, it will have to have the same symmetries as one of these 17.

these are things that we can see. And the power of Galois’ mathematical language is it also allows us to create symmetrical objects in the unseen world, beyond the two-dimensional, three-dimensional, all the way through to the four- or five- or infinite-dimensional space. And that’s where I work. I create mathematical objects, symmetrical objects, using Galois’ language, in very high dimensional spaces. So I think it’s a great example of things unseen, which the power of mathematical language allows you to create.

like Galois, I stayed up all last night creating a new mathematical symmetrical object for you, and I’ve got a picture of it here. Well, unfortunately it isn’t really a picture. If I could have my board at the side here, great, excellent. Here we are. Unfortunately, I can’t show you a picture of this symmetrical object. But here is the language which describes how the symmetries interact.

this new symmetrical object does not have a name yet. Now, people like getting their names on things, on craters on the moon or new species of animals. So I’m going to give you the chance to get your name on a new symmetrical object which hasn’t been named before. And this thing — species die away, and moons kind of get hit by meteors and explode — but this mathematical object will live forever. It will make you immortal. In order to win this symmetrical object, what you have to do is to answer the question I asked you at the beginning. How many symmetries does a Rubik’s Cube have?

 Okay, I’m going to sort you out. Rather than you all shouting out, I want you to count how many digits there are in that number. Okay? If you’ve got it as a factorial, you’ve got to expand the factorials. Okay, now if you want to play, I want you to stand up, okay? If you think you’ve got an estimate for how many digits, right — we’ve already got one competitor here. If you all stay down he wins it automatically. Okay. Excellent. So we’ve got four here, five, six. Great. Excellent. That should get us going. All right.

Anybody with five or less digits, you’ve got to sit down, because you’ve underestimated. Five or less digits. So, if you’re in the tens of thousands you’ve got to sit down. 60 digits or more, you’ve got to sit down. You’ve overestimated. 20 digits or less, sit down. How many digits are there in your number? Two? So you should have sat down earlier. (Laughter) Let’s have the other ones, who sat down during the 20, up again. Okay? If I told you 20 or less, stand up. Because this one. I think there were a few here. The people who just last sat down.

 how many digits do you have in your number? (Laughs) 21. Okay good.

How many do you have in yours? 18. So it goes to this lady here. 21 is the closest. It actually has — the number of symmetries in the Rubik’s cube has 25 digits. So now I need to name this object. So, what is your name? I need your surname. Symmetrical objects generally — spell it for me. G-H-E-Z No, SO2 has already been used, actually, in the mathematical language. So you can’t have that one. So Ghez, there we go. That’s your new symmetrical object. You are now immortal. (Applause)

17:26 And if you’d like your own symmetrical object, I have a project raising money for a charity in Guatemala, where I will stay up all night and devise an object for you, for a donation to this charity to help kids get into education in Guatemala. And I think what drives me, as a mathematician, are those things which are not seen, the things that we haven’t discovered.

It’s all the unanswered questions which make mathematics a living subject. And I will always come back to this quote from the Japanese “Essays in Idleness”: “In everything, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.”

Patsy Z shared this link

“One of the problems about school mathematics is it doesn’t look at how mathematics is embedded in the world we live in.”

The beauty of math is everywhere:

The world turns on symmetry — from the spin of subatomic particles to the dizzying beauty of an arabesque.
But there’s more to it than meets the eye.|By Marcus du Sautoy

Neuroscientists Can Now Read Your Dreams With a Simple Brain Scan

Like islands jutting out of a smooth ocean surface, dreams puncture our sleep with disjointed episodes of consciousness. How states of awareness emerge from a sleeping brain has long baffled scientists and philosophers alike.

For decades, scientists have associated dreaming with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a sleep stage in which the resting brain paradoxically generates high-frequency brain waves that closely resemble those of when we’re awake.

Yet dreaming isn’t exclusive to REM sleep.

A series of oddball reports also found signs of dreaming during non-REM deep sleep, when the brain is dominated by slow-wave activity—the opposite of an alert, active, conscious brain.

Now, thanks to a new study published in Nature Neuroscience, we may have an answer to the tricky dilemma.

By closely monitoring the brain waves of sleeping volunteers, a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin pinpointed a local “hot spot” in the brain that fires up when we dream, regardless of whether a person is in non-REM or REM sleep.

“You can really identify a signature of the dreaming brain,” says study author Dr. Francesca Siclari.

What’s more, using an algorithm developed based on their observations, the team could accurately predict whether a person is dreaming with nearly 90 percent accuracy, and—here’s the crazy part—roughly parse out the content of those dreams.

“[What we find is that] maybe the dreaming brain and the waking brain are much more similar than one imagined,” says Siclari.

The study not only opens the door to modulating dreams for PTSD therapy, but may also help researchers better tackle the perpetual mystery of consciousness.

“The importance beyond the article is really quite astounding,” says Dr. Mark Blagrove at Swansea University in Wales, who was not involved in the study.

The anatomy of sleep

During a full night’s sleep we cycle through different sleep stages characterized by distinctive brain activity patterns.

Scientists often use EEG to precisely capture each sleep stage, which involves placing 256 electrodes against a person’s scalp to monitor the number and size of brainwaves at different frequencies.

When we doze off for the night, our brains generate low-frequency activity that sweeps across the entire surface. These waves signal that the neurons are in their “down state” and unable to communicate between brain regions—that’s why low-frequency activity is often linked to the loss of consciousness.

These slow oscillations of non-REM sleep eventually transform into high-frequency activity, signaling the entry into REM sleep. This is the sleep stage traditionally associated with vivid dreaming—the connection is so deeply etched into sleep research that reports of dreamless REM sleep or dreams during non-REM sleep were largely ignored as oddities.

These strange cases tell us that our current understanding of the neurobiology of sleep is incomplete, and that’s what we tackled in this study, explain the authors.

Dream hunters

To reconcile these paradoxical results, Siclari and team monitored the brain activity of 32 volunteers with EEG and woke them up during the night at random intervals. The team then asked the sleepy participants whether they were dreaming, and if so, what were the contents of the dream. In all, this happened over 200 times throughout the night.

Rather than seeing a global shift in activity that correlates to dreaming, the team surprisingly uncovered a brain region at the back of the head—the posterior “hot zone”—that dynamically shifted its activity based on the occurrence of dreams.

Dreams were associated with a decrease in low-frequency waves in the hot zone, along with an increase in high-frequency waves that reflect high rates of neuronal firing and brain activity—a sort of local awakening, irrespective of the sleep stage or overall brain activity.

“It only seems to need a very circumscribed, a very restricted activation of the brain to generate conscious experiences,” says Siclari. “Until now we thought that large regions of the brain needed to be active to generate conscious experiences.”

That the hot zone leaped to action during dreams makes sense, explain the authors.

Previous work showed stimulating these brain regions with an electrode can induce feelings of being “in a parallel world.” The hot zone also contains areas that integrate sensory information to build a virtual model of the world around us. This type of simulation lays the groundwork of our many dream worlds, and the hot zone seems to be extremely suited for the job, say the authors.

If an active hot zone is, in fact, a “dreaming signature,” its activity should be able to predict whether a person is dreaming at any time. The authors crafted an algorithm based on their findings and tested its accuracy on a separate group of people.

“We woke them up whenever the algorithm alerted us that they were dreaming, a total of 84 times,” the researchers say.

Overall, the algorithm rocked its predictions with roughly 90 percent accuracy—it even nailed cases where the participants couldn’t remember the content of their dreams but knew that they were dreaming.

Dream readers

Since the hot zone contains areas that process visual information, the researchers wondered if they could get a glimpse into the content of the participants’ dreams simply by reading EEG recordings.

Dreams can be purely perceptual with unfolding narratives, or they can be more abstract and “thought-like,” the team explains.

Faces, places, movement and speech are all common components of dreams and processed by easily identifiable regions in the hot zone, so the team decided to focus on those aspects.

Remarkably, volunteers that reported talking in their dreams showed activity in their language-related regions; those who dreamed of people had their facial recognition centers activate.

This suggests that dreams recruit the same brain regions as experiences in wakefulness for specific contents,” says Siclari, adding that previous studies were only able to show this in the “twilight zone,” the transition between sleep and wakefulness. (Why be surprised? What other brain regions could be activated?)

Finally, the team asked what happens when we know we were dreaming, but can’t remember the specific details. As it happens, this frustrating state has its own EEG signature: remembering the details of a dream was associated with a spike in high-frequency activity in the frontal regions of the brain.

This raises some interesting questions, such as whether the frontal lobes are important for lucid dreaming, a meta-state in which people recognize that they’re dreaming and can alter the contents of the dream, says the team.

Consciousness arising

The team can’t yet explain what is activating the hot zone during dreams, but the answers may reveal whether dreaming has a biological purpose, such as processing memories into larger concepts of the world.

Mapping out activity patterns in the dreaming brain could also lead to ways to directly manipulate our dreams using non-invasive procedures such as transcranial direct-current stimulation.

Inducing a dreamless state could help people with insomnia, and disrupting a fearful dream by suppressing dreaming may potentially allow patients with PTSD a good night’s sleep.

Dr. Giulo Tononi, the lead author of this study, believes that the study’s implications go far beyond sleep.

“[W]e were able to compare what changes in the brain when we are conscious, that is, when we are dreaming, compared to when we are unconscious, during the same behavioral state of sleep,” he says.

During sleep, people are cut off from the environment. Therefore, researchers could hone in on brain regions that truly support consciousness while avoiding confounding factors that reflect other changes brought about by coma, anesthesia or environmental stimuli.

“This study suggests that dreaming may constitute a valuable model for the study of consciousness,” says Tononi.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Now, using an algorithm, a team of scientists say they can predict if a person is dreaming with nearly 90 percent accuracy, and roughly parse out the content of those dreams.

Like islands jutting out of a smooth ocean surface, dreams puncture our sleep with disjointed episodes of consciousness. How states of awareness emerge…




May 2017
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