7 things learned from a day at TEDxCERN 2015

TEDxCERN 2015 took place on site at the CMS Experiment, one of the two experiments responsible for discovering the Higgs boson (Photo: TEDxCERN)

TEDxCERN 2015 took place on site at the CMS Experiment, one of the two experiments responsible for discovering the Higgs boson (Photo: TEDxCERN)

This month, 600 people sat 100 meters above a 14,000-ton underground particle detector in Cessy, France, to watch talks (and performances) investigating the most pressing issues in science today. This was TEDxCERN, the third annual TEDx event from the world’s premiere particle physics lab.

The team behind the event transformed the surface assembly hall of the CMS Experiment – the giant warehouse where the 21-meter-long particle detector was assembled and then lowered into the ground in sections — into a theater for talks.

Dry-ice cocktails were served and fun was had in the spaces where, years ago, meters-long shafts were bored into the ground — by freezing the water of underground water tables with liquid nitrogen and digging through the walls of ice – to construct one of the main detectors of the famed Large Hadron Collider.

TEDxCERN brought together physicists, biologists, engineers, artists, and big thinkers of all kinds to explore the theme: “Breaking the Rules.” Below, seven things we learned from these rule breakers and boundary pushers at TEDxCERN:

  • 1. Mini-brains are a thing. Madeline Lancaster of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the U.K. grows brain “organoids” — cell structures that resemble real human organs, just in a dish. Growing brains is a lot easier than scientists originally thought, she explained at TEDxCERN: to get a “mini-brain” to grow, she just has to take stem cells, put them in favorable conditions and let them do their thing. No big deal. You can read more about Lancaster’s work here.
Madeleine Lancaster makes mini-brains in her lab in the U.K. (Photo: TEDxCERN)

Madeleine Lancaster makes mini-brains in her lab in the U.K. (Photo: TEDxCERN)

  • 2. The next big thing in particle accelerators? Small. Right now, to look for new physics at high energies, scientists have to create bigger and bigger particle accelerators (even bigger than the 17-mile Large Hadron Collider). Edda Gschwendtner wants to change that. The project leader of CERN’s new Advanced Wakefield Experiment (AWAKE), Gschwendtner is hoping that a new method of acceleration, sending charged particles through plasma, will make compact high-energy accelerators possible. Just this month, scientists used a plasma wakefield accelerator to create the shortest electron bunches ever.
Edda Gschwendtner explains the principles of particle acceleration at TEDxCERN (Photo: TEDxCERN)

Edda Gschwendtner explains the principles of particle acceleration at TEDxCERN (Photo: TEDxCERN)

  • 3. There are more than 30,000 particle accelerators operating worldwide. Yup.
  • 4. Gold is extraterrestrial. In a special TED-Ed lesson made for TEDxCERN, CERN scientist David Lunney explained how gold travels from space to Earth. Watch the delightful lesson here.
TEDxCERN and TED-Ed teamed up to make the lesson, "Where does gold come from?" (Photo: TED-Ed)

TEDxCERN and TED-Ed teamed up to make the lesson, “Where does gold come from?” (Photo: TED-Ed)

  • 5. Carbon dioxide sensors may help stop you from eating spoiled food. Aleksandra Lobnik is an unabashed fan of sensors. The founder of the Centre for Sensor Technology at University of Maribor, Lobnik studies how sensors can help us live better, safer lives. One way? Detecting spoilage in our food before we attempt to eat it. Scientists like Lobnik are currently developing sensors designed to change color based on CO2 levels in food packaging. Learn more here.
Aleksandra Lobnik talks sensor applications at TEDxCERN (Photo: TEDxCERN)

Aleksandra Lobnik talks sensor applications at TEDxCERN (Photo: TEDxCERN)

  • 6. A cool (yet creepy) accessory to your future video calls? A live, moving model of your caller’s hand motions. Sean Follmer and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab made such a thing, the inFORM shape display, which uses a Kinect camera and a 3D shape display (made of 900 pins) to visualize what the camera sees. Watch inFORM in motion here.
  • 7. You may finally get to travel inside a cell like that Magic School Bus episode thanks to VR. Or at least get to use some very fancy microscopes. Michael Bodekaer has made a VR program that simulates the world’s foremost research labatories to teach students about life sciences — without ever having to step into a lab. Learn more about his program, Labster, here.
Michael Bodekaer demos Labster at TEDxCERN (Photo: TEDxCERN)

Michael Bodekaer demos Labster at TEDxCERN (Photo: TEDxCERN)

Read about last year’s TEDxCERN on the TED Blog.

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