The larger TEDx movement, started two years ago, is an attempt to bring the classic TED talks down to the local level. TED talks are given in annual conferences in California and in Scotland, but have become popular online; the TEDx program is a way to let people all over the world experience TED more directly than through their internet.
Paul Fletcher-Hill, PC ‘15, one of the two curators of the conference, said that the greatest challenge in preparing the event was to find the right lineup of speakers. “The most difficult thing is to convince them that it’s worthwhile,” he said. He and his co-curator, Grier Barnes, SM ‘14, also tried to balance the more famous speakers with local and unknown voices.
The event featured Ronan Farrow, LAW ’09, whose claims to fame are many and varied—he is the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, was admitted to Yale Law School at age 15, graduated at 21, and got a job at the State Department only a year later. A number of Yale undergraduates spoke alongside figures of this stature. The bigger names sell tickets, said Fletcher-Hill, but “most often, the best talks are from the people you haven’t heard of.”
The event created other challenges for the organizers. TEDxYale is among only a few university TEDx programs. Fletcher-Hill accredits this limited number to the enormous effort required for each event. The all-day commitment of a TED conference is also an unusual thing for college undergraduates to have time for—while 300 Yale College students bought tickets, only 200 actually attended the event. Despite the lower-than-expected turnout of undergraduates, Saturday’s event was well attended by Yale graduate students, as well as students from Connecticut College, the University of Connecticut, and even Columbia.
Fletcher-Hill said the event itself went smoothly: “On Friday and Saturday we really stepped back, and enjoyed it as audience members.”
The theme of the conference, “solve for ‘y,’” emerged as a result of Barnes and Fletcher-Hill’s desire to come up with something universally relatable. The ‘y,’ Barnes said, is the “key ingredient” of the speakers’ work. “They all have a passion: we want them to explain what that is. We’re looking for the extraordinary purpose behind these extraordinary people.” This is the way in which the diversity of topics—from ornithology to particle physics—was made accessible and relevant to the audience. “That’s the TED challenge,” they said: not to convey “cocktail knowledge,” but a more personal connection.
Each speaker encouraged the audience to ‘consider their y,’ even if some were more explicit about doing so than others. Associate professor of physics Dan McKinsey’s talk about the LUX dark matter experiment, for example, was more simply a description of the experiment and what it could reveal about dark matter; he said he had not considered the ‘solve for y’ theme itself while preparing. But asking these “big questions,” he said—questions about what the universe is made of—“are part of what it takes to be an educated person.” Adjunct professor of mathematics Michael Frame’s talk, on the other hand, more obviously addressed the audience; his speech moved from talking about principles of fractal geometry, to his close relationship with the renowned, late mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, to personal reflections on death and the legacy of one’s work. In the end he suggested that the best comfort against the fact of mortality is to know that your work has helped others.
Like McKinsey and Frame, every speaker made an effort to use his or her personal story as a basis for talking about larger, more important, more relatable ideas. Ocean rower and environmentalist Roz Savage urged audience members to redefine and internalize success, in order to save the planet. Survivor of the Rwandan genocide Clemantine Wamariya, TD ‘14, reflected on the importance of stories and the imagination. Artificial intelligence expert and Jeopardy alum Sam Spaulding, JE ‘13, posed questions about the nature of human intelligence, and about what makes humanity unique. Graphic designer Eddie Opara underscored the happiness and value that comes with “taking the off-road approach to whatever you’re doing—it doesn’t have to be design.”
It wouldn’t be a complete Yale event without a healthy dose of a capella, here in the form of Shades and the Duke’s Men. Four slam poets from Yale’s Teeth also performed, in addition to the Yale Dancers. Interspersed among the standard TED talks were several video presentations. Such diversity of medium was valuable because, according to Hannah Carrese, PC ’16, who attended the conference,“we get to our ‘y’ in different ways.”
Barnes and Fletcher-Hill were committed to making the conference relatable and engaging. Such a goal is unique to the TEDx conferences, because most TED talks are viewed individually and on the computer. “Attending a normal TED conference can cost $4,000,” they said, but going to TEDxYale was far cheaper, especially for students. Once they were admitted in the conference, each audience member was given a printed nametag, and attendees were encouraged to meet with those whose nametags with the same color, to engage with someone new and find out what they had in common. During the break for lunch between sessions, Barnes and Fletcher-Hill urged people to have lunch with a stranger—all in the spirit of creating an experience and fostering a dialogue beyond the talks themselves.
The TEDx Yale model promoted by Barnes and Fletcher-Hill presents something new for undergraduates. Carrese said that her strategy of “picking and choosing” speakers she wanted to listen to throughout the day was misguided. “Next year I’ll definitely stay for the whole time, to get the holistic experience they’re trying to provide,” she said. For her, she says, TEDxYale has a valuable role on campus not only because of the accessibility of the speakers, but also because the conference presents a unique opportunity to see a range of speakers she wouldn’t normally get to see. The TED talks actively inspire her to think of her own ideas, much different from attending a normal lecture or campus speaker. The TED conference is therefore meant to engage the individual and the Yale community to solve for ‘y,’ first for the individual and then, Carrese said, “as a species on this planet.”