TED roundup: saving the oceans

I spent last week at TED@PalmSprings, the cheaper, more intimate (and, we PSers liked to imagine, cooler) simulcast of the famed TED conference going on in Long Beach. TED is an intense, immersive experience with a hugely varied program: 50 18-minute talks or performances, plus 36 three-minute presentations, in three and a half days--not counting pre-conference tours (I visited a windmill farm) and, at Palm Springs, two mornings of TEDDIY sessions during which attendees gave still more three-minute talks.

It would be insane to try to summarize the conference (for detailed talk summaries see Ethan Zuckerman's blog) but a couple of themes did emerge.

If TEDsters are half as influential as speakers kept telling us, the next big environmental issue will be saving the oceans. Talk after talk testified to the importance, beauty, and fascination of oceanic life.

Producer Jake Eberts gave TEDsters a sneak preview of magnificent footage from Oceans, a new film by Jacques Perrin (of Winged Migration fame) and Jacques Cluzaud. Scheduled for French release in October and U.S. release in April 2010, the film took eight years and $75 million to make. Filmmakers developed special cameras and other technology to allow them to track aquatic animals at their own speeds, giving the viewer the sense of really swimming with these creatures. The image I found most striking was of a squid--not an animal I normally think of as attractive, much less beautiful--billowing along like a gorgeous silk in the breeze.

Psychologist Jennifer Mather argued that we can find "non-terrestrial intelligence" in the personalities, playfulness, and problem-solving of the octopus, a creature that quickly turns a bobbing plastic bottle into a toy for tossing back and forth. In one of the conference's most surprising talks, science journalist Margaret Wertheim began with the story of how she and her sister developed an art project sculpting coral reefs with crochet. From that consciousness-raising craftiness, she segued into a discussion of hyperbolic geometry, for which she argued both coral reef creatures and crocheting patterns provide models.

After a passionate speech on threats to oceans and aquatic wildlife, TED Prize winner Sylvia Earle won the crowd's cheering support for her wish: "I wish you would use all means at your disposal -- films! expeditions! the web! more! -- to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet." By the next day, she'd received a $1 million pledge from one TEDster, along with ideas for launching film contests and other publicity efforts. (Attendees seemed notably less inspired by SETI Institute Director Jill Tarter's wish. Outer space is so 20th century.) But the real test of TEDster dedication is how many people give up sushi to save the fish.