Tribute as Teaching Lesson: TEDx at CalTech

Photo by David Markland

It may seem impossible that a conference with topics as far reaching as astronomy, nanotechnology, quantum physics, and an appearance by Stephen Hawking himself, could be overshadowed by the legacy of a university professor who died 22 years ago, but that's exactly what happened last Friday at CalTech's first ever TEDx event.

TEDx is a program allowing independent groups to create events similar to the exclusive TED conferences that feature multi-day lineups of high level speakers and presentations that have included Jane Goodall, Steve Jobs, Al Gore, and JJ Abrams.

TEDxCalTech operated on the same basic model, but with a framework built around the legendary Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist and popular CalTech professor who died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1988. Dubbed "Feynman's Vision: The Next 50 Years," the speakers at TEDx CalTech included numerous students and associated of the professor. While the professor is credited with helping develop the atom bomb and other scientific breakthroughs, the presentations referenced Feynman largely for his passion making science accessible and his passionate and addictive curiosity.

Feynman quotes were included in nearly every 10 minutes talk, while much of the day was devoted to a line found on his blackboard after he passed away: "What I cannot create, I do not understand."

Microsoft's Bill Gates, whose appearance was pre-recorded, told about how he and a college buddy were searching for a movie to kick back and watch, and stumbled onto a filmed lecture Freyman had given on physics. A lecture! Gates said they were so engrossed they watched the film multiple times, then sought out more in what they discovered was a series.

Gates has since taken these films and made the Feynman Lectures available online, free, through the Microsoft Tuva project. (note: the lectures appear to only be able to viewed on Internet Explorer).

The name for the Tuva project comes from Freyman's well known obsession with the former Asian country, which was the subject of another on stage performance by a Feynman reenactor, dressed in traditional Tuvan clothing. After speaking about his love for the exotic country, the Feynman reenactor introduced a Tuvan musician, who demonstrated his ability to sing two notes at once.

During a "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" style sketch, if the question wasn't about Freyman, then the answer was usually a quote attributed to him. When the contestants, stumped on one question, used the "phone a friend" lifeline, they called on Stephen Hawking. Speaking to Freyman's clout, Hawking didn't just phone it in - he made a surprise appearance in the auditorium. The standing ovation by the surprised audience was longer than his actual appearance. (Hawking appeared at CalTech a few days later, as KCET's Richie Duchon wrote.)

Physicist Don Eigler said that while utilizing a microscope to view atoms, he discovered he could use the instrument to actually move the small items as he wished. He was spooked when, soon thereafter, he stumbled onto writings by Feynman speculating that manually moving around atoms was entirely possible, in spite of previous scientific assumptions.

Towards the end, Danny Hillis told a story that summed up one of Freyman's greatest visions pertaining to his own legacy. Taking a walk with the professor, nearing the end of his battle with cancer, Hills recalled Feynman saying that he was comforted by knowing that long after he was gone his presence would still be felt. There was no better theorem for this than TEDx CalTech.

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