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Follow This, TEDxColumbus

Scott Gaudi

by Kendra Hovey

Congratulations (x 2) to Scott Gaudi. The 2013 TEDxColumbus lead-off speaker was recently appointed JPL Distinguished Visiting Scientist and, not a month later, he was named the Thomas Jefferson Chair for Discovery and Space Exploration at Ohio State. Illustrious honors, both, but what does it all mean for the Distinguished-Visiting-Scientist–Discovery-and-Space-Exploration-Chair–Professor-of-Astronomy?

More stargazing, for one. Or, to be precise, planet hunting and, even better, planet finding.

Gaudi will also be developing future planet hunts, as well as future planet hunters. At JPL, he’ll be working with NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP) to “get the full science” out of their current and past space-based missions, as well as set priorities for future missions. Luckily for his students here, he’ll be able to do most of this close to home, visiting JPL HQ in California in short stints throughout his two-year appointment. The Jefferson Chair, and the anonymously donated endowment that comes with it, will also support and expand his space exploration efforts, and it will enable him to better train and develop the next generation of Ohio State astronomy students, “some of whom,” he says, “will go on to find new planets of their own.”

Planets_everywhere_artist’s_impression-580x382

The planets Gaudi is looking for are called exoplanets, meaning they are outside our solar system. He’s found nearly a dozen already, including two since his TEDxTalk and a potential third, which, if it passes planet muster, might be his most exciting find yet. And what makes one planet more exciting than another? In this case, it’s the temperature. If it is a planet, it will be the hottest, “as hot as a low mass star,” says Gaudi with hopeful enthusiasm. It’ll also be the ninth planet found with the KELT Survey, which was developed with his former graduate student Thomas Beatty (now at Penn State) and is an acronym for Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope. 

If you’re wondering how they know where to point this extremely little telescope…well, they don’t. As Gaudi explains, “it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, except there are a lot of things that look like needles but aren’t.” It’s laborious work, but for Gaudi the work is a privilege. As he says, “You have to take a step back and say, I just discovered a planet that no one else knew existed, that’s pretty cool, and then occasionally you find something that is not only a new planet but it’s a kind of planet no one even thought could exist or imagined could exist, that’s where things get exciting.” And, of course, there’s the science: “Those systems,” he adds, “inevitably tell us something new about the universe we didn’t expect.”

This is what’s fun about talking to Scott Gaudi about his job: He’s articulate and energetic the way a person is when they are doing exactly what they want to be doing, but also, he’s more than tolerant of a dilettante’s giddy fascination with space, he’s just as fascinated and has the potential, one suspects, to be just as giddy.

PIA18837Take JPL, for instance: Gaudi can tell you it stands for Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s the workplace of 5,000 or so scientists and engineers and it’s primary focus is space exploration. Or, he says, think of it this way: it’s NASA, and all that represents—a place where Voyager actually gets built, where discoveries and exploration actually happen. From mission launches, building new technologies, studying phenomenon in the sky, human space flight, the nitty-gritty work of soldering wires and hard core calculations to dreaming big dreams, JPL is “everything space exploration.”

For fun, you might like to visit jpl.nasa.gov. Like many websites, it has a mission tab, but, of course, JPL’s is literal: Kepler, Magellan, Mars Orbiter, Voyager 1 and 2. More than 100 missions, each with a description, a launch date and a target, some targets are specific—solar wind, asteroid Vesta, Mars—and others are more general: The Universe, for instance.

For Gaudi, both appointments are an honor, an opportunity and also the next logical step in his career. But he feels strongly aware of how lucky he is to be alive at this time of technological advances and to be able to make whatever small progress he can towards answering big questions about the universe. “These answers are not out of reach,” he says, “nor are they only for certain people.” He hopes this is an inspiration to others. “Everyone can contribute to exploration,” he says.

For any reporter, “dumb questions” are a tool of the trade, used to bypass preconceptions and misconceptions, plus, they yield the best quotes. But some of the questions that came to mind for Scott Gaudi I feared were downright idiotic. But, as it turns out, he’s cool with Star Trek references. So one of those dumb question was: Were looking for life as we know it on earth, are we looking for life as we dont know it? Or in Star Trek shorthand: If a planet were inhabited by hortas, would we even know?

Gaudi’s answer: “It’s hard, right? The classic example is if I ask you to describe a dog you could probably do it, if I asked you to describe a not-dog, what would you say? We can imagine alternate forms of life, we can write down requirements for what life means—though even defining life is difficult—but silicon-based life…life that uses ammonia as a solvent instead of water…I think the first step is to try to imagine if that life is even plausible, and researchers here are trying to do that. It’s important to keep our minds open and it’s not that we don’t understand that life might be very, very different than what it is on earth, it’s just that if we want to make any progress we have to have a specific goal in mind. So, for instance, Europa, Jupiter’s moon, shows evidence of an underground ocean, so we’ll likely look there for some form of bacterial life.”

Lastly, I asked: While he’s excited to find other life, there are people who fear such a discovery and its unknown consequences. Does he understand this fear? Or in any way share it?

No.

“The idea that life arose elsewhere gives a profound meaning to the question of Why are we here? Even if it’s microbes, we are not alone,” he says. “The universe is so rich. If we do find life in the next few years, it certainly means that life is abundant, and if life is abundant, doesn’t it just make the universe a much more interesting place? I can’t imagine being afraid of discovery of any kind. Certainly not discovery of life.”

Kendra Hovey is editor at TEDxColumbus: Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

Photo Credits: “Artist’s impression of exoplanets everywhere,” ESO M. Kornmesser, creative commons;  “Artist illlustration of HAT-P-11b passing in front of its star,” NASA/JPL-Caltech   

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Events, Follow This, Speakers, TEDxYouth@Columbus

Austin Channell at TEDxCbus

by Kendra Hovey

If you didn’t see it, you might have heard about it: First standing O of the day . . . 80,290 views online . . . featured on WOSU TV’s TEDxColumbus special . . . The talk, Austin Channell’s A Culture of Obsession: Why taking choir kept me from being valedictorian, was even retweeted by preeminent chorale composer Eric Whitacre—making Channell, for one hot moment, a hero among Central Ohio choir directors.

It all made for an interesting senior year of high school for Austin Channell, who never expected to be juggling his class schedule with an appearance on All Sides with Ann Fisher or piggybacking a college visit onto a speaking engagement in Virginia.

Now a high school graduate, Channell finished third in his class, but was not a valedictorian. As he says, “that would have been awkward.” In the fall, he’ll attend Vanderbilt University, where he plans to study civil engineering.

Austin Channell on all sides with Ann FisherHis TEDx talk, to quickly refresh, grew out of a real life quandary: He could take choir in high school, get an A and, as a result, lower his GPA. Or he could sign up for study hall and end up with a higher GPA. As absurd as this sounds, it’s also built into the educational grading system. As Channell deftly points out, it is possible for a student to “succeed in more areas and be penalized for it.”

It’s not that he had some great ambition to be a valedictorian, as he says, “It was the principle of the thing.” And the problem is bigger than just some nonsensical grade point system. At issue, is the larger and more complicated matter of how we choose to define and measure success, and the resulting effects on college-entrance, and the self-esteem, health and well-being of our youth.

For students, it can lead to some silly scheduling maneuvers—going to art class while officially signed up for study hall. But if college is going to be in the picture, GPA is vital, and even as current business-speak extols the virtues of failure while the social sciences send out alerts about the dangers of perfectionism, students know exactly the fine line they have to walk.

If an A in a non-AP class can reduce GPA or just one B can plummet a class rank from one to one hundred and something, an example Channell shares, why take a risk? Or follow an interest? Maybe the student truly is that much less smart or less studious than before the B, either way, at many colleges, her application’s gone from the top of the pile to the slush pile. Grading—how it varies between districts, schools and teachers and what exactly it measures—is not just a complicated puzzle for administrators. Channell is telling us it’s having real effects, adverse effects, on real lives.

Yet not every high schooler with something important to say, says it on the TEDx stage. In fact, in the history of TEDxColumbus there’ve been exactly two: Austin Channell and Meagan Jones. Channell’s journey began courtesy of his public school, where a posted flyer and a nudge from a teacher led to an internship with TEDxYouth. Working with Andy Aichele for two years, he helped plan, coach and stage manage the event. “We spent a lot of time at a lot of Paneras,” he says. As can happen when working with TED, the question pops up: “What would be your talk?” When Achiele would pose it, Channell, took it as idle musing, at least until the day he began “ranting” about his situation. As he recalls, “Andy said, ‘This is your talk,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah…it is.’ ”

Austin Channell interviewed by CBS News Pittsburg

Once he left the TEDxColumbus stage, it didn’t take long for the tweeting and sharing to start, as well as the dialogue and invitations to speak. He’s been interviewed on various news programs, shared versions of the talk at a school board meeting, at the Ohio Department of Education (twice) and, by invitation of a PTA, as far away as Falls Church, Virginia. The small city, essentially a suburb of DC, is in the wealthiest county in the U.S. and home to supposedly the best high school in the country (though public, admission is selective). In Falls Church, says Channell, “even the middle school librarian has an ivy league degree.” It was there, during the Q&A, that Channell was asked maybe the most heart-breaking question. It came from an 8th grader. To paraphrase, she asked, “What if I don’t feel so driven to succeed, but my parents want it and I don’t want to make them unhappy?”

This child’s question helps explain the strong response to Channell’s talk. Education is not just about student and teacher, but administrators, communities, society, says Channell, and the core relationship between parent and child. “We know education is a hot button issue,” he says, “some relate to what they see as an unfair system, some question how we assess learning, some defend the system, but for parents in particular, the effects on their children are really concerning—I know how hard it was on my own parents to witness the physical toll of my class schedule and academic stress.”

Another reason for the overwhelming response may just be that Austin Channell did a really good job. And were I to add “for his age” it’s not to put a qualifier on his abilities, but to acknowledge age is a factor. Though he doesn’t attempt to offer a solution, and while people are listening and talking no changes have yet been made (though his school board just announced it will be reviewing the valedictorian system), still in Channell’s TEDx talk there is hope. Because despite everything we have left the next generation to grapple with, if they still come out smart, articulate, principled and mature, there’s definitely hope.

Whether Channell agrees with this or not, he can’t deny that people are impressed with his public speaking abilities, because the reality is he gets asked about it all the time. He actually loves this question. He knows exactly where he learned stage presence and how to engage an audience, and he’s happy to share: “It’s theater,” he says, “It’s what the arts can do for you.”

Another question catches him more off-guard. The details vary each time, but it goes something like this: “Would you mind if we drove three hours from Pittsburg to interview you?” Or, “We can pay to fly you and your mom to Virginia, put you up in a hotel, give you a rental car, pay for your food and a travel stipend…would that be okay?” Recounting these today, he still sounds bemused: “It’s one of those questions people would ask, but I’m still not sure . . . who says no to this?”

If this whole experience has been a bit disorienting for Channell, it’s also been humbling and motivating. Amazed by how far and wide the talk has spread, he also wonders if maybe he should have put more into it—more than writing it during an 11th period study hall, he confesses. This concern comes from the perfectionist in him, but also from a real sense of responsibility.

He has no obligation but to go off and be a college student and pursue his interest in civil engineering. But that’s not how he’s feeling. “I don’t know what form it will take or what point in my life it will happen,” he says, but the issue is not behind him. By sheer coincidence, Vanderbilt is home to Peabody College, the best graduate school of education in the nation. He’s already made contact, though just out of curiosity. He does say that, in his mind, from civil engineering to education is not a huge leap. “Civil engineering is about creating and maintaining systems. Though more infrastructure related, it’s borderline policy,” he says. Plus, he’s never been one for purely technical pursuits, being more macro- than micro-focused.

The system of education is one of many things he’s looking forward to potentially exploring in college. But for the moment, he’s got his graveyard shift at a truck parts warehouse. Spending his summer laboring alongside mostly fulltime union workers, ”I put parts in boxes,” he says, “I close the box and put a shipping label on it.” He’s in it for the money—“I know I’ll be poor in college, but my goal is to be less poor in college”—but as a side benefit, he’s listened to a lot of audio books.

One night that audiobook was The Ghost Map about a cholera epidemic in 1854. “If you want to get strange looks from people, just listen to a description of someone suffering from cholera,” he says. When the guys around him asked what he was listening to, it blossomed into a group discussion about medical issues and the scientific process. “Turn it up,” someone suggested, and at 10:00 on a summer night instead of a muffled din of rap, metal and various podcasts, blaring inside this truck parts warehouse was a story about disease and sanitation in mid-19th century London, England. Yet another unexpected and interesting experience in what has been an unexpected and interesting year for Austin Channell.

 

Kendra Hovey is editor at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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Events, Follow This, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

The answers are tallied and submissions (so far) are in. We can now share what TEDxCbusers think of Columbus and what Columbus (+ surrounds) thinks of TEDxColumbus. Before the 2013 event we invited attendees and live-stream viewers—at McConnell Arts, Marion Correctional (MCI), home, office, etc—to write about their Out There experience. Their posts are below (please add your own in the comments).

And during the event, sometime after the aliens, brain pacemakers, cats in code, anti-terrorist dry cleaning and lunch but before the Maillard reaction, tampons, valleys, sewage, healing and “genderbread,” each audience member was given a 3×5 card and asked to answer 3 questions:

  1. Why are you here (at TEDxCbus)?
  2. What are your talents?
  3. Has Columbus provided you the opportunity to share your talents?

543—almost 75% of attendees—responded. Here’s what they said:

Why Here?
The answer to this question typically came in pairs (“to grow and connect”) or in triplicate+ (“to be inspired, enriched, motivated, to make change”). Judging by word count alone, to learn and to be inspired were the top two reasons. And the brain, whether it would think differently, wake up, open up, or be fed or fueled or blown altogether, was the biggest beneficiary, but not the only one: a few came to “open my heart,” “feed my soul” or “to be moved to act differently.” Other reasons, from most repeated to least: Community (connecting, conversing, celebrating); To Support Someone (a speaker, mostly); Personal Growth (motivate, refuel, “clear the cobwebs”); Fun; and To Listen to Others. There was also a sprinkling of “curiosity,” “creativity,” “innovation” and “I love TEDs,” plus one or two outliers: “I am here as a spy.”

What Talents?
Interestingly, in these career-focused times, less than 5% of respondents mentioned a professional title or identity. (Who did the most? The dancers.) Instead, an absolutely overwhelming majority said their talent was helping others. “Others” was usually non-specific, but some subsets emerged, namely youth, community and animals. Parenting and advocacy (#1 environment; #2 arts) were other oft-repeated talents. Many listed personal qualities, such as “kindness,” “modesty,” “loyalty,” “being a good neighbor;” and a few were much more specific, mentioning a talent for “great pastry,” “a bad accent,” “selling a lot of jeans,” “solving puzzles,” and “soup.”

Is Columbus Supporting Our Talents?
YES—say a whopping 87.3%. For 8.7% the answer was NO, while 4% did not answer or were out-of-towners. It is interesting, too, to look at how respondents shared their Yeses and Nos. With variations in size and placement, the bulk (401) of the total yeses (474) were straightforward, unadorned and unqualified. Among the rest that were more detailed in their response (73), the emphatic, superlative, decorated YES (62)—as in, the big bubble-lettered YES, Abso-freakin-lutely Yes, Yes x 10, even Yes x 1,000—beat out the tentative YES (11)—as in, 1/2 Yes; Yes…but barely—by a ratio of nearly 6 to 1. In contrast, just under half of the total NOs (47) were clear-cut (23). Only 1 was a resounding NO! The rest stopped just short with either a “Not Yet” (13) or “Not Fully” (8)—also expressed as “ish” and “meh”—and 2 of the NOs blamed themselves (“I haven’t taken enough advantage…”; “I think the onus is on me now…”)

There you have it. And now, a sampling of what Columbus has to say about Out There:

Brian Crawford, live-stream at MCI
I felt honored to be a part of the TEDxColumbus simulcast here at Marion Correctional. The entire production was great and I got something from every TEDx talk. My favorite talk was the young man (Austin Channell) talking about grade point averages and how the system is flawed. I felt hurt because I have four children in school and this could affect them. I felt like getting up and running to my kids’ school to demand change. As a parent this issue hit me deeply. I absolutely loved the event. I felt free for a few hours.


Doug Dangler, live-stream on computer
Consider these quotations from Michelle Alexander’s talk:

  • During a 30-year period of time, our nation’s prison population quintupled.
  • We have the highest rate of prison incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly repressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran.
  • As of 2004, more black men were denied the right to vote than in 1870.

It’s an overwhelming problem, with the final statistic pointing to the thesis of Alexander’s talk: institutionalized racism is evident in the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, resulting in a new caste of legally disenfranchised and dehumanized people, who are overwhelmingly poor and of color. Alexander said that nothing less than a radical revision of the criminal justice system, with attendant major upheaval and social change, will combat this problem. So she ended with a call to action, asking TEDxColumbus attendees to do the “hard work of movement building.”

I was left feeling that she was right and that changes needed to be made. But how will these changes arise? The changes she’s suggesting—decriminalizing marijuana, restoring voting rights to felons, dramatically shrinking the prison population, etc.—will be an incredibly difficult sell in a nation whose elected officials can’t even keep the government open. I hope her next TEDx talk will lay out specifics of how to accomplish her goals. Clearly, this is a hugely difficult task. But a thinker and speaker as deep and talented as Michelle Alexander may be just the person to do it.


Wayne Snitzky, live stream at MCI
Watching TEDxColumbus live from inside Marion Correctional had the same effect as watching any live event, we felt connected to the event. The difference is that inside a prison the opportunity to feel that connection is few and far between. Watching as a curator is always fun because it is an opportunity to…borrow ideas for our event, and learn from their glitches and glories. My thoughts on the overall event can be summed up in the last thought I had watching the event. When Nancy Kramer gave Decker Moss a hug after his talk I thought: (tongue firmly in cheek) “Oh great, now we’ll have to stock men’s rooms with free tampons!”


David Hooker, live at COSI

One of the most interesting talks for me was a session by Mohamed Ali, the founder of the Iftiin Foundation created to foster innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in Somalia, spurring forward an economy and putting people to work.

He shared stories about bringing a dry cleaning shop to Mogadishu, figuring out how to run cappuccino machines without electricity—in a city with no functioning electrical grid after years of war—and how solar-powered street lights allowed people to stay up after dark to socialize with neighbors, and shops to stay open late. The reemergence of nightlife, missing in Mogadishu for 20 years, speaks to the simple needs and simple solutions that can have a huge impact on a culture.

Ali’s story of terrorists trying to break these streetlamps to drive people back inside and to crush an economy where people have a chance of earning a living instead of turning to illegal work or terror to support their families, speaks volumes. My sense is, his talk, and the work he does, will have great impact in this part of the world for generations to come.

 

Daniel Royston, live-stream at MCI
So…she said in a paraphrased kind of way…”you can’t contemplate what you see or hear unless the signal is degraded.” And it was this, this simple phrase that totally made my TEDxColumbus day. Now I have to confess that I may have missed the next talk or two as I contemplated this metaphorically difficult yet contextually simple sentence she had just shook me with. I mean think about it, have you ever thought about something that went well? Beyond the “This is too good to be true” cliché when things do go well? Or…are you like me and always become fixated on the imperfections we see in everything we do?

I realize that it is moments like these that draw me to TED talks and TEDx events again and again, these small unexpected moments of clarity, bursts of catharsis, or epiphanies with gravity if you will. Dr. Susan Nittrouer was talking about hearing loss, cochlear implants and the deaf learning to speak without impediments. But all I could think about was all the nights I had lain awake, my mind stubbornly refusing to shutdown as I chastised myself for whatever minute mistake I had made and contemplating just how I could avoid doing the same in the future…and then I wondered, why I never find myself in that same place at that same time reliving something incredible that I had accomplished that day and how I should strive to be that good…again…tomorrow. How did I go from contemplating a degraded signal to pondering my daily failings and my obsession with them?

I was watching TEDxColumbus via livestream at our viewing party in Marion Correctional Institution in a room full of men just like myself. Men who are reminded of their own shortcomings and mistakes every morning they wake up and look out the window to see the 20’ tall razor wire fences that surround their current residence, and I find myself thinking about all the little things I have done the last 15 years to improve my own “signal” from the horribly degraded version it was all those years ago. I will always be someone who broke the law, someone that society holds to a different standard than someone who hasn’t. But maybe the work I’ve done has been successful and my signal is no longer degraded as much as it used to be. Maybe society… and by this I mean you…will contemplate my character, my signal, as it is…today.


Matt, live-stream at MCI

I really enjoyed TEDxColumbus. I thought it was very well organized and the overall flow was planned very well. I really was humbled by all of the praise offered to the Marion Correctional team. We are all hopeful of the same future with the same goals: That every man and woman regardless of race or religion will have a voice and the platform to share ideas. Thank you, TED.

 

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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It’s our fifth year.  How did THAT happen?

And while we aren’t going to have someone jump out of plane to celebrate, we are proud to announce what might be our most ambitious line up in the short history of TEDxColumbus.  Join us on October 11 from 9-4 (with happy hour until 5) at COSI to witness this collection of thinkers, researchers, provocateurs, rainmakers, entertainers and game-changers, all of whom, in their own right, are doing things truly OUT THERE. Come join a dynamic crowd of curious folks to be collectively provoked, challenged and inspired, while connecting, conversing and processing it all together.

A few changes from past year’s events:  We have selected more speakers  — but to speak for shorter times, upon audience request.  We’ve curated two special groups to join our expected, provocative talks.  Here is the complete lineup (access their bios and abstracts through the speaker home page here).

For being OUT THERE in their investigations, solutions, ideas, courage or reach.  Talks include:

  • On rebuilding cities, Mohamed Ali.
  • On global warming, David Bromwich .
  • On gender fluidity, Gabrielle Burton.
  • On revolutionizing hacking, Chris Domas.
  • On finding new planets, Scott Gaudi.
  • On giving back out there, when you are in there, Jim Fussell
  • On a basic unmet human need, Nancy Kramer.
  • On the courage to change, Decker Moss.
  • On reaching deep inside the brain, Ali Rezai.
  • On new rules for systems, Joe Simkins.
  • On entertaining us,  Tobin-Wilcox and The Castros.

Five in five.  (Okay, we did want to celebrate being five.)

For being OUT THERE in their passions –  in five minutes each.

  • On writing through logic, Miriam Bowers Abbott.
  • On paying attention, Chris Fraser.
  • On exploring within, Josh Hara.
  • On coming out of the valley, Stephanie Hughes.
  • On a dynamic bike city, Jess Mathews.

Sensory Talks. Playing on the five theme (last time, promise!), we’ve invited a group of speakers to share an incredible range of thinking on our five main senses.

  • On smells in a city, Dax Blake.
  • On our scent and taste memory, Tom Knotek.
  • On saving sight, Kaweh Mansouri.
  • On the power of touch, Lori Guth Moffett.
  • On challenging the ability to listen, Susan Nittrouer.

And we encourage you to move quickly if you’d like to attend.  We expect, as always, tickets to sell out. Tickets can be purchased here.

TEDxColumbus 2013 is made possible with support of the following partners:

Lead Sponsor, resource.

Event Partners, The Columbus Foundation, The Doug and Monica Kridler Fund of the Columbus Foundation, Limited Brands Foundation, Cardinal Health and The Ohio State University.

Presenting Sponsors, GSW Worldwide, Ologie, Crane Group, Glimcher, IntoGreat, Alliance Data, Crimson Cup,

Media Partner, WOSU

Host Partner, COSI and Host Supporter, Susan Leohner Events.

Creative Support is provided by Base Art Co., Spacejunk Media, and BonFire Red.

 

 

 

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