IdeaFestival 2012 concluded on Saturday. Kris Kimmel, the event organizer, reminded crowds that they can continue the IdeaFestival experience locally and in Lexington by enrolling in IdeaFestival University, a series of small pop-up classes that began in April and will continue throughout the year. Kimmel also announced the dates for IdeaFestival 2013 (September 25-28).
Friday’s talks included a presentation (with opera) by a theoretical particle physicist and an entrepreneur’s new vision for the bicycle in Tanzania.
Lisa Randall: ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’
George Gamow was one of the most forward-thinking physicists of the early- to mid-1900s, but in 1947, Gamow wrote, “we have actually hit the bottom in our search for the basic elements from which matter is formed.” Despite being wildly advanced in his theories, Gamow still believed that the study of physics was finite and that we were approaching the end of what we could discover about the known—and even the unknown—universe.
Lisa Randall is a theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist at Harvard University. She studies both the smallest and the largest known (and theoretical) objects in the universe. Randall was the first tenured female professor in Princeton’s physics department and the first tenured female theoretical physicist at both MIT and Harvard.
Randall also wrote the libretto for an opera about physics, “Hypermusic Prologue: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes,” in collaboration with the composer Hèctor Parra, which was performed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. She gleefully shared a snippet of this work with the audience at the end of her presentation, to the delight of the crowd.
Randall’s most recent book is called “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.” Her presentation focused on the nature and goals of the the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the enormous particle accelerator below the border of France and Switzerland, as well as recent ideas underlying cosmology and current dark matter experiments.
No one knew about blood cells or DNA until we had technology that advanced with theoretical ideals, explained Randall. The LHC is another instrument we can use to advance our theoretical understanding of the universe. It is a 27km-circumference underground ring that serves as a proton-to-proton collider. The purpose of the LHC is not to test particular theories or conduct specific experiments, but to perform these proton-to-proton collisions and collect as much data as possible.
Randall says that we are due for another radical scientific leap like the leap from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics—and the LHC may provide the basis.
Already, the LHC has given us evidence of the Higgs boson, a new type of particle with no spin (a quantum mechanical phenomenon of momentum). As far as we know, everything else in nature has spin or is made of particles that have spin. The Higgs boson is the first zero-spin particle. In Randall’s “physics lifetime,” this is the only particle to be discovered when we didn’t know where to look. This discovery happened (courtesy of the LCH) surprisingly fast.
In the Q&A session, an audience member asked Randall how the discoveries made using the LHC would impact our daily lives. Her answer was surprisingly frank.
They won’t, she explained. “You can go through your day without these discoveries making any difference in your life at all,” she said. “Physics is not important.”
But she added, “But it is human nature to be curious. A lot of what we’ve discovered in physics didn’t reveal itself as immediately important… but it was important.”
Jodie Wu and the Entrepreneur’s Rough Road
After the Q&A session, Jodie Wu was asked how old she was. The answer was 25. That question never ceases to disappoint me. It suggests that what Wu has accomplished is somehow more remarkable because of her age; young people accomplish staggeringly amazing things all the time. And it also suggests that if the answer had been 65, the strides Wu has made with her work would be less impressive. I expect better of IdeaFestival.
Wu is founder and CEO Global Cycle Solutions. As an undergraduate at MIT, she and her team won the 2009 MIT 100K Business Plan Competition. When she graduated, she moved to Arusha, Tanzania, to launch a company that creates an adaptor for bikes that allows people to use their bicycles to perform various manual tasks.
The inspiration for her 100K Business Plan entry came from time she spent in Tanzania observing farmers grinding maize in tedious and wasteful ways. Natives beat the maize with a stick or shelled it by hand. Both efforts destroyed the outer layer of the maize, which lead to significant material loss.
At first Wu brought a contraption she encountered in Nicaragua to Tanzania. Called the Bicimilliana, it was a bicycle that had been converted to a stationary machine that you pedaled to grind corn. But the machine cost $200—too much for the Tanzanians—and was a waste of a perfectly good bike, the primary mode of transportation in the rural areas.
The next iteration of Global Cycle Solutions involved retrofitting existing bikes with an adaptor that could be fitted with any number of interchangeable tools. So while natives pedaled from place to place, they could also be using the motion of the bike chain and the adapted tool to grind corn, purify water or charge batteries. Wu describes the bike adaptor as allowing the bike to become like an iPhone, where the tools serve like aps.
Wu said that she wished that she could say that her experience with entrepreneurship was a rosy tale of success. But her business was affected by long term droughts as much as her customers’ businesses were. Last fall, she said, her personal bank account dipped below $100, and she was forced to lay off seven of her ten employees in Tanzania. Her board told her to choose one thing that her business did and focus on doing that thing the best that she could.
Wu said, “I took my ‘little bet,’ as Peter Sims said.” Sims presented on “Little Bets” on Thursday.
With less than $5k in the company accounts, Wu chose to put all of that money into purchasing high quality solar lanterns that sold for $50 each. These lanterns not only stored enough power to provide light after dark, they were powerful enough to charge batteries and cellphones. They were a hit. She’s now selling upwards of 1,000 lanterns a month. And it’s these lanterns that are keeping her bicycle-to-tool adaptor business alive.