12/23/2010 08:00:00

Visions of Science at TEDx

Visualizing ideas in science—literally and figuratively—is a pervasive theme of Richard Feynman’s legacy. Whether it’s his famous Feynman diagrams, which he conceived to better picture and understand complex calculations describing particle interactions, or his scientific foresight, perhaps best exemplified by his prophesying the rise of nanoscience, Feynman’s knack for seeing what others couldn’t was part of his genius. The first session of Caltech’s TEDx conference on January 14, entitled “Conceptualization and Visualization in Science,” explores this theme. The speakers include four from Caltech.

Adam Cochran, an associate general counsel at Caltech, will introduce new electronic versions of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a classic text that has influenced physicists and physics students worldwide. The three-volume set is an edited transcript of Feynman’s lectures from when he taught Caltech’s introductory physics courses from 1961 to 1963.

One version is designed for electronic readers like the Kindle or iPad, while a more extensive one for computers will feature exercises, photographs—including those of Feynman’s blackboard summary of each session—and audio recordings of the original lectures, allowing the reader to follow along with the professor himself. “You get the inflection in his voice—and that’s so cool,” Cochran says.

A sample will be available for conference goers to test drive during TEDx. Many details still have to be worked out before you can download the Lectures onto your favorite e-reader or your computer, but when ready, the electronic Lectures will be a new way to experience their clarity, deceptive simplicity, and insightful perspectives on physics.

Biologist Pamela Bjorkman uses high-resolution images to understand the ability—or more often the inability—of antibodies, proteins in the immune system, to neutralize HIV. Exploiting antibodies to fight HIV is critical for developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine, but the antibodies normally used to create a vaccine—those produced by individuals infected with HIV—aren’t very effective.

Recently, X-ray crystallography has shown how antibodies bind to key proteins on the surface of the virus. These proteins, which have evolved to allow HIV to evade antibodies, are crucial in enabling the virus to enter and infect the host cell. The structures of a few, rare antibodies suggest that there are potential routes around the virus’s defenses. But larger-scale imaging shows that the distribution and geometry of the HIV proteins weakens the ability of even these potent antibodies to disable the virus. By understanding the limitations that HIV-neutralizing antibodies face, researchers can design new proteins to combat HIV.

The influence of technology reaches beyond these kinds of visualization techniques, however, as it’s transforming the way science is done. The 21st century’s computation and information revolution is analogous to the industrial revolution and the invention of printing combined, says astronomer S. George Djorgovski, Codirector of the Center for Advanced Computing Research at Caltech. The exponential rise in the sheer volume and complexity of data has ushered in new subfields—dubbed X-informatics, where the X stands for field-specific prefixes like “bio-” or “astro-”—which incorporate computation and information science.

As a result of this revolution, research has migrated to cyberspace, where scientists share and analyze data, collaborate, and even publish. Since information is now available to anyone with an Internet connection, scientific research and education is accessible to more people than ever. “Science and technology stimulate each other,” Djorgovski says. “Both are coevolving with society—and even humanity itself.”

Perhaps on a more philosophical level, Jehoshua “Shuki” Bruck, the winner of the Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2009, will give a talk entitled “Teaching the Past, Dreaming the Future.” Using the history of information as his narrative, from the invention of numbers to the creation of computers, Bruck will discuss the need to teach and to learn the context of scientific and technological developments. Only when we understand the story behind current ideas, Bruck argues, will there be new ones. For progress to continue, we must embrace ignorance and nurture curiosity—values synonymous with Feynman. And most importantly, Bruck urges, we must do what we love in order to succeed in any field. “Feynman loved what he did and I think that’s crucial,” he says.

Much of his talk will echo ideas he tries to instill in his students, but there are some things he won’t divulge. “I won’t tell you what jokes I will tell,” he says. We’ll just have to wait.

Written by Marcus Woo