A TED experience

Around one year ago, I unexpectedly received an e-mail asking if I would speak at a local TEDx Youth event themed “Daring Discoveries”.  I hadn’t attended a TEDx conference before (sadly I couldn’t make either of the previous ones held at Caltech).  But I was familiar with the high-profile brand and so enthusiastically accepted the invitation.  A few weeks ago, following a lot of preparation by the speakers and no doubt vastly more by the organizers, the event finally took place.  On many levels it proved to be an unforgettable experience. 

One thing that really struck me was that the conference was organized entirely by a team of local high school students.   I find this truly remarkable, especially given the amount of work involved in putting together this sort of thing.  (Finding speakers, fundraising, obtaining a venue, arranging innumerable technical logistics, putting together a webpage, sifting through applications, etc.  I couldn’t imagine keeping track of all those details, much less at that stage!)  The audience was also noteworthy: mostly other high school students from the area, their families, and other community members.  In total there were about 100 participants.  The vast majority reflected underrepresented groups in the sciences, which made it a particularly appealing outreach opportunity.  

The organizers secured a venue at Puente Hills Mall in City of Industry.  To get the mental juices flowing numerous classic brain teaser decorated the walls near the entrance.  This one was my favorite:  

This is an unusual paragraph. I’m curious how quickly you can find out what is so unusual about it.  It looks so plain you would think nothing was wrong with it! In fact, nothing is wrong with it! It is unusual though. Study it, and think about it, but you still may not find anything odd. But if you work at it a bit, you might find out. Try to do so without any coaching.

Other interesting activities also awaited the participants, including a scavenger hunt and a “big ideas wall” where anyone could jot down ideas they viewed as worth spreading.  It was fun reading what everyone had to say.  

The list of speakers was eclectic and, among others, included a college student/entrepreneur, mathematicians, engineers, and educators.  I found everyone’s talks absolutely riveting and felt really honored to be part of such an accomplished group.  For my part I decided to tell a story about quantum computing—in particular the topological approach (what else?).  Preparing was no easy task.  I had to figure out a way to explain what quantum computers are, what they can do for us, why building one is hard, how “non-Abelian anyons” might one day prove to be the salvation, and why this direction is now looking increasingly promising.  Of course without assuming any prior knowledge of quantum mechanics.  And in about 15 minutes or so.  

Given where we are in the quest for a quantum computer I had no choice but to conclude on a tentative yet optimistic note.  I made sure though to convey what I think is an extremely important message.  Namely, that the journey towards realizing quantum computing technology is as exciting—if not more so—than the finish line.  That journey will undoubtedly be paved with groundbreaking discoveries that reveal spectacular new insights about how the universe works, forcing us to develop new physics paradigms along the way.  It’s the prospect of such discoveries that energizes me to think about how we might achieve mastery over materials on large scales to hopefully overcome one of our generation’s greatest technological challenges.  The Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic below—which I very recently learned about from one of our colloquium speakers— perfectly encapsulates my view on the problem, both as a science advocate and a physicist working in the trenches.  I thought showing this (censorship mine!) was a good message to leave the audience with.


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