Multiplying Dimensions at TEDxCERN

Yesterday was the first ever TEDxCERN event. I was lucky enough to take part as a volunteer in the social media team. [1] I spent the day live-tweeting and live-blogging about the event, as well as generally running around helping speakers, stage managers and so on. It was a lot of fun, and got me thinking about lots of new ideas.

Alex Brown in the social media booth at TEDxCERNCredit: Alex Brown


If you go down to the woods today...

For those of you who don't know, TED is a conference all about "ideas worth spreading". Although not without its critics, TED generally brings great ideas to a wide audience. TEDx conferences are independently organized events, which are lent the power of the main conference's brand in return for following a certain number of guidelines.

TEDx logo and slogan

Credit: TEDx

For instance, recent advice from TEDx for their community of organizers has highlighted the importance of properly vetting speakers, particularly those claiming to present ideas supported by science. This helps avoid the embarrassment of unjustifiable claims being made, such as those of that unrelenting peddler of spiritualist nonsense Deepak Chopra made during his appearance at the TED-MED conference in 2010 [2]


You're in for a big surprise...

As you might guess, TEDxCERN was hosted at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The talks took place in the stunning Globe of Science and Innovation, with a simultaneous broadcast (via the web) in the less snappily-named Main Auditorium. The online broadcast was also shown in several of CERN's partner institutions around the world.

The Globe at CERN

The Globe of Science and Innovation at CERN. Credit: Jean-Claude Rifflard / CERN

There was an awe-inspiring line-up of speakers from a range of disciplines beyond particle physics, as well as some very high-profile guests and frankly amazing musical performances. Personally, I also took great interest in the TED-Ed animations being premiered, as I am often asked how best to communicate some of the complicated notions around CERN's particle physics research. Indeed, despite my not actually working in communications (I'm actually in admin), and my not knowing all that much about physics (at least, relatively speaking, considering where I am!), a lot of my friends seem to expect me to be some kind of expert on the subject. At least now I can point them in the direction of these videos. They are all very clear and informative, though I particularly like "The beginning of the Universe, for beginners" by Tom Whyntie.

'cause today's the day...

In my volunteer role, I contributed pictures, quotes and impressions for the event's official Twitter feed and wrote a set of blog posts throughout the day, so that people who were in neither live nor streaming audiences could follow the action online regardless. You can read the official posts I wrote on the TEDxCERN website: there was an introduction and the reviews of sessions One, Two and Three.

A close-up of TEDxCERN lanyards
Credit: Alex Brown

In the run-up to and during the event, we [3] asked people online and in the partner institutions to submit questions to which the answer would be themed around "multiplying dimensions". There were a few obvious mentions of string theory, as well as some more light-hearted contributions about trying to juggle the many tasks a busy modern life demands. Several people asked general questions about the value of large-scale scientific collaboration, bridging the gap between the "two cultures" of science and the humanities, and so forth.These are all valid questions, and interesting interpretations of the "multiplying dimensions" theme.

"Looking and not finding is not the same as not looking"

There were quite a few good quotes throughout the event. Credit: Laurent Egli / CERN


The TEDdy-bears have their picnic...

For my part, the theme resonated with my personal interest in languages. I would say that "by multiplying dimensions of understanding" is a reasonable answer to the question:

"How does learning languages benefit scientists?"

By learning and using languages, scientists can open themselves up to new worlds of understanding and experience. This is precisely what I hope to illustrate on this blog. Science and languages are both integral parts of culture, and making the most of either depends on a reasonable grasp of the other. This was made all the more salient to me yesterday. Walking around the drinks reception at the end of the day, my mind brimming with the day's new ideas, I overheard half a dozen conversations in five different languages on seven different scientific fields within the space of just one minute. Multiplying dimensions indeed!


crowd at TEDxCERN

Credit: Alex Brown Conversations during the TEDxCERN were rather interesting, to put it mildly.


[1] Although I work at CERN and was privileged enough to take part in this TEDx event, I would like to point out that my participation had no relation to my actual job. The views I express here are purely my own and do not necessarily represent those of TED or CERN in any way.
[2] Here's the video - it starts off OK, give-or-take the shameless plugging of his book and app, but the outrageous claims and banal pseudophilosophical platitudes start at 3:45

[3] I was not alone in this endeavour; I owe thanks in particular to my colleagues and friends Sara and Achintya for giving me the opportunity and for being a great team throughout!


Over to you:

  • Were you a volunteer at the event? What was your role? What were your impressions?
  • Did you watch TEDxCERN? If so, were you in the live audience, following a webcast in a partner institution, or watching online? Which was your favourite talk?
  • What do you do in your life which involves "multiplying dimensions"?
  • Have you attended other TEDx events? What did you think of those?
  • How does learning languages benefit you in your working life?


Will I Am makes a surprise appearance at TEDxCERN

Oh, and Will.I.Am turned up. Click the image for more pictures from the event. Credit: Max Brice / Laurent Egli / CERN

5 Responses to “Multiplying Dimensions at TEDxCERN”

  1. Becky Wragg Sykes Reply | Permalink

    Hi Alex, really relate to your thoughts about language and science, something I really love about working in archaeological research is its internationality, so stimulating to work with people from many countries and cultures.
    My French skills from A-Level have ended up invaluable in my career. Much literature on Neandertal archaeology is in French, so my reading is pretty good.
    And although my speaking is still a bit rudimentary, it's certainly going to give me a good start for my first postdoc at Universite Bordeaux (Marie Curie Fellowship working on Neandertal open air sites from the Massif Central). On the other hand, apparently pain au chocolat are called chocolatines in the SW, so there's still regional idiosyncracies to look out for!
    The next one to learn would be German, home of the Neandertals ;-)

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Hi Becky, thanks for your comment - interesting insight into a field I'm not particularly familiar with yet.

      You're right about regional differences - pains au chocolat are also sometimes just called petits pains, although that term can also be used for viennoiseries more generally, too!

      Have fun in Bordeaux, I've never been there but I'm told it's quite nice!

  2. Anna Reply | Permalink

    Hi Alex,

    Loved reading your blog post. It gives a great background not only for TEDxCERN but TED in general. For instance, I didn't know they addressed the "scientificity" the way they did...

    Since I was inside the Globe as part of the public, my recap has a slightly different perspective, but I am sure you can relate as well ;) : TEDxCERN: about science, research and consciousness

    PS: Kudos to you and your colleagues for your great Social Media work!

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Hi Anna,

      Thanks for your comment - I enjoyed your post, too. I particularly like the way you reclassified the "multiple dimensions" to group the talks by the emergent themes you noticed.

      I think it is especially important for an organization such as CERN, with its international reputation for scientific excellence, to have proper science featured in its events; that was certainly achieved on Friday.


  3. Anna Reply | Permalink

    PS: A propos "pain au chocolat" and regional differences - there was a map on that topic! Original website is down, but details can be found e.g. here

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