Village Hall Talks at Wootton-By-Woodstock
 

The Wootton TED-Style Talk


The Wootton TED-Style Talk
(Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences under the slogan "ideas worth spreading". Speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can. Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and many Nobel prizewinners.

TED was founded in 1984 as a one-off event and its annual conference began in 1990, in Monterey, California. TED events are now held throughout the U.S. and in Europe and Asia, offering live streaming of the talks.

They address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture - and there are over 1,000 talks on the TED website. For the first Wootton TED-style evening, three eminent speakers presented magisterial talks and delighted a packed hall with their ability to condense huge and complex subjects into just 18 minutes.


LEN SEYMOUR (Pictured Left Above) lives in Wootton and is Professor of Gene Therapies at Oxford University and Director of Pharmacology within the Department of Oncology. In his talk - called Genes & Gene Therapy – what can we expect? - Len told us the essential feature of DNA is not its double helical structure - rather it is the sequence of "bases" displayed along it. There are four possible bases, and their sequence is "translated" in groups of three, by the cellular machinery, to encode all the proteins in the body.


Each building block of protein (an amino acid) is encoded by a specific ‘"triplet" code of three bases - however, simple errors in the DNA can have disastrous consequences for protein structure, he said. The human genome contains about 23,000 genes, and we now know that mutations in about 4,000 of them can cause observable diseases – known as "single gene disorders". In recent years, scientists have been successfully supplementing the cells of patients with mutated genes, providing healthy copies that can effectively treat the single gene disorders. Len told us there has been great success with Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID, ‘bubble boy disease’), adrenoleukodystrophy (‘Lorenzo’s Oil’), haemophilia and some forms of congenital blindness. Gene supplementation is now established as an effective medicine for several diseases.

Cancer is also a genetic disease, although most of the gene mutations are acquired in the lifetime of the individual and are not inherited, added Len. Because cancer cells contain dozens of mutations, it is hard to treat the disease by gene-supplementation approaches. Therefore, scientists are now exploiting similarities between cancer cells and virus-infected normal cells, to identify aspects of virus activity that are not needed in cancer cells. In this way, said Len, it is possible to produce viruses that recognise and kill cancer cells directly, but are not dangerous to normal cells. Len added that he and his colleagues are developing this approach in Oxford and they are very optimistic about possible therapeutic benefits


BRUCE LEVELL (Pictured Right Above) worked for Shell Oil for 34 years until his retirement last year, filling several senior executive positions, including chief geologist - and he is now Visiting Professor of Earth Sciences at Oxford University.Through a series of charts and graphs. Bruce showed that the global energy system is both huge and complex. It controls the flow of 520 exajoules of energy from concentrated sources to the various services we all use - and matches supply and demand of the amount of energy and the type of energy on a range of time-scales from years to seconds.

This is achieved in the face of a rapid rise in human population (in his lifetime alone, Bruce told us this had risen from 2.7 to 7 billion people), in addition to development and urbanisation - and the consequent changes in demand. Crucially, Bruce added that the supply of energy will soon need to service up to 9 billion people - but at considerably lower levels of carbon emissions.

Analysis of past data suggests, with a surprising consistency, that new energy technologies grow at about a factor of 10 in market share in a decade and take 20-30 years to reach just one per cent of primary energy use. Despite investment levels that have increased nearly fifty-fold over 15 years to $300 billion, and are now close to 50 per cent of those in the oil and gas exploration and production industry, Bruce pointed out that renewable energies are still growing at this rate - towards a collective 20-25 exajoules.

Therefore, like it or not, fossil fuels will be needed during the remaining decades of the growth period of renewables. He added that a combination of maximising prior investment, future system integration costs, and simply energy per tonne of emitted carbon all argue for gas as opposed to coal during this period. While shale gas may in the end not suit the UK, or even Europe, Bruce suggested that jeopardising its use as a global energy source through indulgence in an end-justifies-the-means style of debate runs the risk of favouring the default option - which is the increased use of cheap coal.


CONRAD WOLFRAM lives in Wootton and is a physicist, mathematician and technologist, as well as strategic director and European co-founder and CEO of the Wolfram Group of companies. He is one of the world's leading advocates for a fundamental shift of maths education to be computer-based, arguing that this is the only way to solve the global maths education crisis.

Conrad.suggested that learning by rote is not the answer; instead, unlocking the creative power of problem-solving is the way to enthuse schoolchildren. Recently, the newspapers have been full of stories of British children lagging behind Asian countries in maths tests, but Conrad said that the problem is not the difference between Britain and Shanghai – but the worldwide difference between maths in education and maths in the real world. Everywhere, Conrad claimed, we are teaching largely the wrong maths. In the real world, he said, we use computers for calculating, almost universally; in education we use people for calculating - almost universally. This growing chasm, he claimed, is a key reason why maths is so despised in education and yet so powerful and important in real life. We have confused rigour at hand-calculating with rigour for the wider problem-solving subject of maths.

At its heart, Conrad said, maths is the world's most successful system of problem solving. The point is to take real things we want to work out and then apply maths to get the answer. The central change in real-world maths over the past 50 years is that we automated a lot out of calculating and computers now do a much better job than people – even well-trained ones – in almost all cases.

In school, most of us learn the formula for solving a quadratic equation, but not a cubic. Conrad suggested we must seriously question why we are spending years of our students' lives failing to be able to compute what his phone could accomplish in seconds. Instead, they should be grappling with real problems and applying maths to them. Defining questions and abstracting them to maths are crucial steps that Britain's (and other countries') schools spend woefully little time on, because students laboriously practise obsolete hand calculating skills. "What a waste of human endeavour when the world's population is spending 20,000 student lifetimes a year learning hand-calculating," he said..

Instead of rote learning long-division procedures, Conrad said, we should get get students applying the power of calculus, picking holes in government statistics, designing a traffic system or cracking secret codes. All are possible, all train both creativity and conceptual understanding and have practical results - but they need computers to do most of the calculating – just like we do in the real world.

Estonia is the first country to use the computer-based maths education system. School students will be working on problems such as "Am I normal?", "Are girls better at maths?" "Will it rain tomorrow?" and "Should I insure my laptop?" They will be using real, large datasets with all the difficulties that entails. They'll be doing coding and some of the maths they will be handling is traditionally taught only at university. Where Estonia leads, others will follow – not just in the process of learning but in the subject matter, he added. Even better, Conrad believes British culture makes us rather good creative problem-solvers, potentially world-beating if successfully tethered to the power of computer-based maths.

"What an amazing evening - three brilliant minds coming together in Wootton Village Hall to condense years or research into just 18 minutes each and yet never losing the basic force of their themes. All three talks were totally different in subject-matter and yet the speakers shared that rare ability of putting across complex ideas in an accessible and engaging way. Thank you for providing such stimulating and captivating entertainment - Ian Fazey, Banbury

 

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John Lloyd & John Mitchinson Talk, Summer 2009

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