Philosophical Breakfasts, Lunches, Dinners…and More

At TEDGlobal, intellectually engaging talks take place onstage—and off.

When I headed to Edinburgh for my first TEDGlobal meeting, I little realized how much the experience would mirror the phenomenon I had depicted in the book that was bringing me to TED as a speaker.

My book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club, traces the lives and work of four brilliant men—Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Richard Jones and William Whewell—whose Sunday morning “philosophical breakfasts” at Cambridge University in 1812–13 led to their invention of the modern scientist. One lesson I learned while writing the book was that something very special happens when you get a group of remarkable people in the same room, even if only for casual conversation over food and drinks. Virtual meetings online or via conference call are no substitute—they just don’t have the same energy or synergy, and can never create the same kind of intellectual and personal sparks as face-to-face encounters.

Writing the book also taught me that an incredible serendipity can arise when different points of view, and expertise in different disciplines, are aimed at the same problem. Fueled by ample breakfasts—complete with free-flowing ale—the philosophical breakfast club brought together insights from the many different fields that excited its members—science, history, art, poetry and economics—and used these insights to bring about a scientific revolution in the 19th century.

TEDGlobal, it turns out, is the philosophical breakfast club writ large and in the modern day. At TEDGlobal 2012, 850 intelligent and intellectually curious men and women from different endeavors—artists and architects, scientists and entrepreneurs, musicians and inventors, along with the occasional novelist and historian/philosopher—who most likely would never have met out in the “real world,” came together for learning, listening, talking, drinking, eating and, yes, dancing. And sparks flew.

At the sessions, during the breaks, at the parties and after-parties (and, let’s be honest, the after-after-parties) the attendees exemplified this year’s conference theme, “Radical Openness”: We were all radically open to new ideas and new people. But TEDGlobal is also about radical connectivity (as suggested, to me at least, by the backdrop of the stage in the Edinburgh International Conference Center this year, which looked like nothing so much as glowing red neurons sparking and connecting ideas).

What kinds of ideas were connected? Every kind, it seemed to me, over the five exhilarating and exhausting days in Edinburgh. One session alone—in which I spoke—we heard two amazing musicians and learned about a moment when the modern “scientist” was created, by analogy with (and, at the same time, separating the concept from) “artist.” We saw trendsetting computer art from the early days of PCs, watched a new (and surprisingly lovely) phenomenon of quantum levitation, saw beautiful photographs of light photons speeding through a Coke bottle, learned how biological ideas are being used to create gorgeous architectural forms, and witnessed how language influences the way we understand our world and act within it. A seemingly random assortment of ideas, and yet…the session was united by the common theme of attempting to represent reality through art, science, music, language and numerous adventurous combinations of these disciplines. Most of these talks converged even more closely in shared exploration of the relation between natural science and artistic endeavors.

At least, that’s the connection I made between those talks. I left Edinburgh with still-lingering thoughts about the relation between art and science, and I continue to mull over how to say more about this in my next book. Others, no doubt, drew their own connections from this set of talks and the others—and who knows what new work will arise from their musings?

When you put 850 people into a room at TEDGlobal, things happen: Friendships are made, ideas are spawned, projects are funded and, most thrillingly, connections between seemingly disparate topics and disciplines are drawn. Will TEDGlobal 2012, like the philosophical breakfasts held at Cambridge 200 years ago, lead to a new scientific revolution? Only time will tell. I, for one, wouldn’t bet against it.

Laura J. Snyder, a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, is the author of The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World. She is writing a book about the relation between science—especially optics—and art. She was a 2012 TEDGlobal speaker.

Radical Openness

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