First Reflections on TED Global 2012

I am in Amsterdam now, doing research for Eye of the Beholder, having traveled directly here after TED Global ended on Friday. I had thought I would blog throughout the meeting, but it was all so intense and non-stop that I preferred to just live it and reflect on it afterwards. Just a few thoughts now, and more later as they come to me.

It was a whirlwind of talks, social events, and chatting with new friends. Many of the talks I heard were mind-blowing in some way or another; I met a large group of amazing, intelligent, curious, and accomplished people; and the parties (and after-parties) were lavish!

By the time of my talk I was still nervous, but I had already seen that the audience is so receptive and eager to hear what the speakers have to say. As I climbed the stairs to the large stage after being introduced I felt so much positive energy washing over me. As I looked out at the huge audience I recognized many of my new friends, and saw how ready everyone was to hear my story about the philosophical breakfast club. It was so much fun to tell it, and the feedback afterwards was amazingly positive. What was thrilling was how fascinated this group of non-academics and non-historians were by the philosophical and historical story I wove for them.

Bruno Giussani introducing me on the stage of TED

Bruno Giussani introducing me on the stage of TED

You can see the description of my talk—and two photos of me while on the stage—on the TED blog here.

I’ll have more pictures soon, and—with luck—a video to share.

TED Bookstore

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

The folks at TED invited me to be a “guest curator” of the bookstore onsite during the TED Global meeting next week. The bookstore stocks books by the speakers as well as those selected by a few guest curators. I put together a thematically connected list of ten books (fiction and non-fiction) and wrote up small blurbs about each one, as well as a brief “curation philosophy.” I decided to go for a fun list that reflected what I’ve been reading lately and a few old favorites, rather than something more scholarly and mundane. I’ll post the full list and the connection between them next week during the conference. As a taste, here’s the first book on my list:

1. Waterland, Graham Swift
Takes place in the Fen country of East Anglia, in bleak marshlands wrested from the sea—a sea that wants the land back. Spanning 240 years, the book weaves a tale of empire-building, sluice-minding, eel reproduction, brewing, incest and madness, adding up to a thoughtful reflection of the nature of history and memory. Both history and memory, like the sea, are fluid and ever-changing. A magical book.

I’ve also been asked to do a book-signing for The Philosophical Breakfast Club in the bookstore the morning after my talk. The TED bookstore will be seeing a lot of me!

Notes on Preparing for TED Global

I have been preparing to take the stage at the TED Global conference—now only 19 days away, as the website helpfully reminds me! As it is for almost everyone who speaks at TED for the first time, this is a completely new challenge for me. One thing I’ve discovered in the process is that

No podium
+ No notes (or PowerPoint bullets)
+ Audience of 800+ people
+ Only 15 minutes
= Sheer Terror!

At least I know I’m not alone! As bestselling author Susan Cain described it in a lovely essay for the New York Times Book Review a little while back, at the speakers’ briefing the day before the TED conference she realized that “I probably wasn’t the only one trying to figure out how to get onstage without falling down or throwing up!”

On the more positive side, I’ve realized how useful this process has been for me. Not only has my practice with giving a talk without notes or any kind of crutch begun to make a difference in my other speaking engagements (and I’m sure it will perk up my teaching as well), but I have also found it to be intellectually invaluable. There has been a bit of an epidemic of TED-bashing lately (mostly by people who have not been invited to speak at TED conferences, I might add, or those who went but did not deliver stellar talks). But for me, whatever happens on the TED stage, it has been a wonderful experience in learning how to find the most important message in my own work, and to present it in a fully accessible—and brief—way. I’ve always believed that if you can’t explain your ideas to an interested and educated (though not necessarily specialist) audience—either your students or a general public—then you need to work on clarifying those ideas. Even complex scientific and philosophical concepts can be explained; perhaps not in all their specialist and technical glory, but enough so that others can grasp the nature of those ideas and why they are important. That belief has been underscored by working on my TED talk. And I would now add that anyone working on something that fascinates himself or herself should be able to come up with a 15 minute talk about why it is so fascinating. I hope I have managed to do that. We’ll see soon enough!

Happy Birthday, William Whewell (1794-1866)!!


William Whewell (1794–1866)

William Whewell (1794–1866)

On this date in 1794, the British natural philosopher, mathematician, all-around polymath (and inventor of the word “scientist”) William Whewell was born. I first heard of Whewell in my first year of graduate school, and it is no exaggeration to say that the event changed my life: it led me to write my two books, and indeed to change course in my scholarship, as well as helping to bring about my dream of writing books that people other than scholars would want to read.

The first time Whewell was mentioned in my presence was in a lecture on philosophy of science. Whewell was then mainly known (if at all) as the foil for the (now) more famous British philosopher J.S. Mill. Whewell and Mill famously disagreed about scientific method. Philosophers of Science would at that time routinely refer to Mill as the “winner” in their debate, the one who better understood how science actually worked, casting it as an argument between an inductive view of science and a non-inductive viewpoint, with Whewell in the role of the non-inductivist. I couldn’t help but wonder why a non-inductivist would write a book called Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences! This led me to an intense study of the two philosophers, which resulted in my first book, Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. I argued there that, in fact, Whewell was proposing an inductive, evidence-based scientific method, in the tradition of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Mill was changing the meaning of induction by introducing a vision of inductive reasoning that held it impossible to have knowledge of anything unseen, such as the unobserved entities and properties part of any scientific law. Mill was the one who did not understand the way science worked.

Mill was not particularly concerned about scientific method; his massive and mostly misunderstood work, A System of Logic, was written as a political tract. The English author and critic (and father of Virginia Woolf) Leslie Stephen said the book was recognized by students of the time as being a treatise on the Utilitarian moral and political philosophy. In Reforming Philosophy I argued that Mill’s scientific method was meant to counter what he considered to be reactionary political and moral views—such as those he, somewhat unfairly, associated with Whewell. So in that book I examined not only the scientific and logical views of Mill and Whewell, but also their positions on moral philosophy, politics, and economics.

That interdisciplinary approach brought me back to my origins as a student not only of philosophy but of history, and particularly the history of thought. The research for that book also led me to a letter received by Whewell when he was Master of Trinity college–a letter that referred back to the “philosophical breakfasts” held in John Herschel’s rooms.

“Philosophical Breakfasts?” I remember thinking, “with Herschel and Babbage? Now this would make a great book!”

A few years later, I finally had the opportunity to write that book, and to write it the way it should be written—in an accessible narrative style. And since the publication of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many people about Whewell and his friends, and the revolution in science they helped bring about. This relationship with Whewell has brought me to a wonderful place in my life. So, for selfish reasons, I celebrate his birthday today.

Talk at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum

I so enjoyed my visit to Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Although I lived in the Boston area for a number of years, I had never been, and it is lovely. I was thrilled to have a special tour of the grounds with landscape preservationist Maggie Redfern, who filled me in on the history of the grounds. The rain stopped just in time!

The azaleas were in full bloom!

The azaleas were in full bloom!

I also enjoyed my visit to the lovely library of the Arboretum—it was real a treat to see documents relating to E.H. Wilson’s plant expeditions in eastern Asia between 1907 and 1922. And my tour of the new Weld Research Center of the Arboretum was terrific—my interest was especially captured by their new, state-of-the-art 3-D microscope!

My talk on Wednesday night was well-attended and the Q & A was lively. Thanks to Ned Friedman, director of the Arboretum, and Pam Thompson, Manager of Adult Education, for the invitation and the hospitality!

Thursday I was thrilled to meet Sara Schechner, the Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard. We had a great talk about early microscopes and telescopes. I’ll be going back to Harvard soon for some work with microscopes old and new with Sara and Ned.

The Philosophical Breakfast Club at TED Global This June!!!

I am incredibly excited to announce that I will be giving one of the famous 14-minute TED talks at the TED Global meeting in Edinburgh this June.

The theme of the TED Global meeting this year is “Radical Openness,” and the program reflects the eclecticism of that idea. I will be leading off Session 10, titled “Reframing,” which also features an artist (and President of the Rhode Island School of Design), a “computational architect,” a “femtophotographer” (photographs light), a musician, and a behavioral economist!

See the complete program here.

The organizers have put together a fabulous group—I am eager to learn from each and every speaker, and am thrilled to be able to share with the 900 attendees my story about the men who helped invent the modern scientist.

I’ll have more to say about TED Global and my preparations for it in the coming weeks.

Photos from Cambridge in America Event



I had such a fun time at the “Food for Thought” lunch at the Century Club on Thursday! The group of Cambridge alumni and their guests were so receptive to my story about another group of Cambridge alumni. The book seller at the event even ran out of copies of The Philosophical Breakfast Club!

Below are some photos from the event.





Coming this week….

. . . photos from my Cambridge in America event at the Century Club, possibly the video as well, and a really, really exciting announcement!

Tomorrow: The Philosophical Breakfast Club at the Century Association, New York City

Century Association

Century Association

I am looking forward to tomorrow’s “Food For Thought” luncheon and talk at the Century Association in New York City, sponsored by Cambridge in America. There is still time for Cambridge University alumni and guests to register at! For more information, and to register, see here.

Photos from Writing Biography Luncheon

I had a fabulous time yesterday at the Writing Biography Luncheon held on the campus of St. John’s University. The crowd was large and lively, the food was good, and I signed lots of copies of The Philosophical Breakfast Club!

Signing books before the presentation

Speaking about the trials and tribulations of writing biography

More books to sign afterwards!