March 8, 2007 4:00 AM PST

In search of scientific inspiration at TED

MONTEREY, Calif.--It began with a parade by a marching band and ended with a health professor swallowing a Swedish bayonet sword.

It's not a circus. It was just the opening two-hour session of TED, the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference held here Wednesday at the Monterey Convention Center.

In fact, this highly exclusive conference, which runs through Saturday, can be jarring to the uninitiated. If it's not the list of celebrated speakers--physics Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Mann, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and former President Bill Clinton--then it's all the notable attendees hanging around that can unnerve a newbie, or "TED virgin," as organizers call them.

Where else can you eat a bag of Kettle chips--courtesy of Google--while brushing up against actors Forrest Whitaker, Cameron Diaz and Meg Ryan?

People don't come here for the celebrities, however. They come for inspiration. As attendee Alisa Miller, president of Minneapolis-based Public Radio International, put it: "Here, you're a rock star if you know science."

To be sure, the first TED talk featured Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist who wowed the audience with first-ever photos of Saturn, its moons and a view of Earth from outer orbit, thanks to the Cassini spacecraft that's orbiting Saturn. Porco leads the team of imaging scientists investigating the planet, so she shared some of the group's findings since the rover launched in 2004.

The highlight of Cassini, she said, has been the deployment of a probe on Titan, one of the dozens of moons around Saturn and a body whose atmosphere is believed to be much like Earth's. The probe is capturing images of Titan's surface. "It should have been celebrated with ticker tape parades," she said.

Porco also cast her work in a broader context. "The investigation of this system has enormous cosmic reach," she said. "The journey back to Saturn (since the first time in the '80s) is a metaphor for a much larger human voyage to understand how everything is connected."

Of course, Porco's vision could also be a metaphor for the 11-year-old TED conference: attendees are unwittingly asked to figure out how the talks fit together, how they themselves are connected to this seemingly cultlike community and how they can affect change in the world. (Many people are repeat attendees.) Chris Anderson, the event's organizer, admitted in the day's opening that this year's event, called "Icons, Geniuses and Mavericks," didn't really have a theme. So in that light, much of the four-day event will be for people to find meaning for themselves.

The first day certainly caused a stir.

David Bolinsky, medical director at Xvivo Scientific Animation, showed off medical animations of how a cell functions internally. Xvivo has teamed up with Harvard University to create graphical animations of biological processes so that students can better picture how life works and, thus, have their imaginations sparked, Bolinsky said. For example, he showed a short animated video of colorful cell "machines," or transporters carrying proteins inside the trillions of cells in your body.

"No matter how lazy you feel, you're not really doing nothing," he joked.

Jeff Han, a New York University professor and founder of graphical interface company Perceptive Pixel, demonstrated his multitouch screen interface technology for the second time in two years. (Han astounded TED-goers in 2006, when he first unveiled the interface.) But this year, after founding Perceptive Pixel, Han showed off the technology on a screen 8 feet wide and 8 feet tall, where he and a partner could manipulate pictures, maps and animations in myriad ways.

Then there was Hans Rosling, a global-health professor at Sweden's Karolinska Institute who plunged a steel sword down his throat while wearing a regalia-decorated black tank top. Rosling is founder of Gapminder, a nonprofit aiming to change global data into graphical animations that can tell a story about how different countries and the world have changed in the last century. Rosling showed off these illustrations in a lively talk at TED 2006, and he gave a repeat performance this year.

Sword-swallowing is apparently part of the culture in Africa, where Rosling has worked to stop poverty. He talked about how people can effect change in Africa in part through technology and by promoting human rights.

And he sought to prove his point with the sword. "This is my message: the seemingly impossible is possible," he said.

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