My first interaction with TED was viewing a recently published video of a talk by Kees Moelier, curator of the Rotterdam Natural History Museum. The story is thus: one afternoon he witnessed a male duck fly into the museum window and drop dead. Minutes later, another duck, also a male, proceeded to have sex with his deceased friend's body. As far as ornithology and biology stretches, this is quite a unique case, making for a talk that, though rather odd, was captivatingly entertaining. I found myself enveloped in the world of TED. Of course I do not mean a world of dead ducks and necrophilia, but a world of exceptional fascination that staggers the mind intellectually and delights us by prodding at the obscure, heightening curiosity and opening our eyes to a variety of subjects that would otherwise remain in the peripherals of our mind. TEDxUniversityofStAndrews was an event that, in my eyes, went beyond the call of duty: it did not merely indulge our brains with academia and entertainment but also made us proud to be students of the University of St Andrews.
The aesthetic presentation of the event, by student Emma Raventos and graphic design prodigy, was a work that deserves great praise. Walking into the New Medical Building, which acted as our host for the day, a dash of animated colours ran across that stage, depicting St Andrews at its most vibrant: the golf, cathedral, nature and wildlife, among other things. This year our university celebrates its 600th anniversary. It is difficult to truly grasp the meaning of 600 years of academia, how a small seaside town became a hub of research and intellect, imprinting its name forever into the history books; not many students take time to contemplate this milestone - I certainly am guilty. The theme of the event, however, was not simply the 600 years that have come to pass, but the 600 years yet to come. Foresight and the future sparked TEDxUniversityofStAndrews, linking all the talks together: everything from automatons and sustainable fuel to stock markets and indigenous tribes. A sense of circularity drove the day.
The wide array of speakers was enthralling and, most importantly, they took to discussing their fields of expertise with a unique slant, a different perspective. They linked their complex research to everyday life, making the information seem even more relevant to the audience. My bizarre expectation of TED is the speakers' ability to take a multifaceted topic and connect it to an ordinary situation or subject, like Bart Knols' "Cheese, dogs, and a pill to kill mosquitos and end Malaria." I might seem mad, but this inexplicable crux of TED is certainly ever-present and did not fail to appear in St Andrews. Geordie Stewart, a 4th year student and youngest Briton to climb the Seven Summits, led the course of events and introduced Dr. Louise Richardson who talked about terrorism, its definition and its relevance to our everyday lives. An hour later we were treated to a spell of slam poetry by student Carly Brown, whose ballad, called "Texas, I Can't Bring You To Parties Anymore", struck an emotional note much like Principal Richardson; both jogged our memories to harrowing events: the first to the explosions at the Boston marathon and the second to executions, senseless violence and racism in Texas, among other things. We were hooked, and amid the intellectual discussion we suddenly found ourselves moved, perhaps even frightened, by the thought-provoking words of the university principal and a university student. We were on the proverbial "emotional rollercoaster" jumping between past, present and future.
The elegantly disheveled-looking Prof. Henrik Sharfe of Aalborg University, Denmark, came on stage to enlighten us about robots. "There is something eerie about the word... robot", he said. Prof. Sharfe is the first person to have created an ultra-realistic automaton of his own likeness. He amused us with a few curious photos of himself sharing a drink with his twin-robot, then going on to discuss the future of Android robotics, the current struggle of technology to replicate the sophisticated biology of a human being and the technological world that lies ahead. "Would you trust a robot to pick up your children from school?" he asked. Though at the time this thought seemed nothing short of a bad sci-fi movie slogan, Sharfe helped us realise that this is a question we might well have to ask ourselves in a decade's time.
At some point during the day we were undoubtedly to face the topic of the environment, namely its future. Andy Pag and Dr. Juan Pablo, took their turns in front of the microphone: the former travelled the world in a recycled van using nothing but used cooking oil as fuel, while the latter talked of his anthropological studies of the indigenous people of the Amazon, and our differing world views. Never before had I been so intrigued by the question of the environment. The speakers did not hit a particularly profound note or revolutionize our thoughts but orated rational ideas, from first-hand experiences, that certainly refreshed our minds. Without any force or pretense of having discovered a solution, they turned our thoughts to their selected topics: a quality that I have found to be at the very core of TED.
TEDxUniversityofStAndrews was most certainly an experience like no other. In the space of just five hours we reflected, laughed, felt pangs of sadness and ultimately left within a positive out-look. I apologise for omitting certain speakers - the list is just too long. The final orator of the day was Gavin Oattes, an ex-primary schoolteacher and stand-up comedian. His message to us was simple: do not forget the child within. After hours of intellectual discussion he reminded us of the crucial human element that lies in laughter and fun. Towards the end of his talk he said that the next time we walk up to a friend to say hello, we should start a game of "Tag". Surely enough, minutes later I saw two girls burst out of the building, one in pursuit of the other, with the words "Tag, you're it!" left echoing through the walls. The event had a wonderful sense of unison as each talk complimented the other. The audience was without doubt delighted, and I will be waiting impatiently for next year's event.