TEDx Warwick — Interviews

### Sir Roger Penrose

TEDx Warwick 2010 was honoured to welcome one of the most influential living mathematical physicists. To those of us who are less scientifically inclined, the name might be most familiarly attached to drawings of impossible objects like the Penrose Triangle or Penrose Stairs, which he created in his early career.

However, to science students (including Tom, my slightly star-struck RaW co-interviewer), Sir Roger Penrose is better known for his diverse scientific work, including winning the Wolf Prize in 1988 along with Professor Stephen Hawking. His talk at the event had the ambition to match his reputation.

“Well it’s about cosmology,” he says. “It’s basically an idea I had four or five years ago. The Big Bang is normally thought of as the origin of the universe. A few years ago there was the idea called the Steady State Model, which is that this universe is more or less the same all the time, but that got shot down.

“Basically one of the most impressive reasons is what was called the microwave background: this radiation coming in which was about three degrees absolute, which sometimes gets called the flash of the Big Bang.”

To question this of course does seem like it would take more than 18 minutes (and in fact Sir Roger did overrun by some time, but nobody seemed to care ever so much).

The main thing that has been troubling me for many years is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us that the universe is getting more and more random. According to this, if you go back in time, it should get less and less random, and the Big Bang should be very “unrandom.” What you get instead is “thermal entropy, one of the most random things you can have.”

He explains this is using conformal geometry to go behind the Big Bang. He describes the universe as “forgetting how big it is”.

How exactly this works is too complex to fully explicate in the space of this feature; however, if you are interested, keep an eye out for publication of Sir Roger’s fascinating research.

### Simon Berry

“ColaLife puts two facts together,” the man who founded the campaign tells us. “The first fact is that Coca-Cola can be obtained no matter where you go in the world, even in remote areas in developing countries. Yet in the same areas, and this is the second fact, one in five children doesn’t make it to their fifth birthday.”

Simon Berry spent his 18 minutes telling the audience about ColaLife, an idea he originally had in the eighties but which, thanks to social networking technology, has taken off in the last couple of years. The basic idea is to take advantage of Coca-Cola’s distribution networks in the developing world to get what he calls “social products” – medical supplies, rehydration salts, condoms and so on – to the regions that need them most. However, it’s about more than just foisting a pre-ordained aid package upon people.

“The key thing about the project is that we don’t want to dictate at all what comes into the crates or in the wedge-shaped pods that fit between the bottles,” Simon says. “We just want to give that tool to the local public health institutions – the people locally who have the knowledge and responsibility for local long-term health. So what goes in the pods would be determined by local people who know what the requirements are.”

Of course, the ethics of the Coca-Cola Corporation are questioned enough to bring doubts into the minds of any humanitarian. Simon is aware of this, but stresses the need for a “positive engager”. As far as the campaigns against Coke go, he says that it is “all essential stuff, and it needs to happen. It’s just not what I’m doing. I can see that there’s a bunch of the human race, who happen to work for Coca-Cola, who are brilliant at distribution. That’s something the NGO sector has never been able to crack. So why not work together to solve a problem that is really a bit of a disgrace?”

One final chilling stat from Simon: the statistic about the number of children dying under the age of five is the same now as when he worked in Zambia – over 20 years ago.

### Angie Hobbs

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“Keep strumming your blue guitars.” So ended Angie Hobbs’ talk on Plato and censorship, in a reference to Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’. In the poem, a man is lambasted by the people in his green world for playing a blue guitar, which cannot possibly play things as they are.

“In Plato’s Republic,” she tells us, “the character Socrates lays down one of the toughest challenges to art and artists that has ever been made. Initially he has these arguments for very strict censorship, and finally will get rid of nearly all the arts altogether. For somebody like me who loves art and worships artists, it’s really important to have challenges like these.”

For Dr Hobbs, this challenge is like the challenge put by the green people to the man with the blue guitar; it demands that artists justify their art and tell us why it belongs as part of our world. While she does not completely agree with the conclusions Socrates comes to (though points out that these may not entirely be Plato’s views), she feels it is still an important debate.

“I think a lot of artists welcome the chance to reintroduce the Ancient Greek debate which is not in terms of rights but in terms of various kinds of goods and benefits,” she says.
In addition to her role as a philosophy lecturer here at Warwick, Dr Hobbs has recently been appointed as a Senior Fellow in the Public Understanding of Philosophy. For her, keeping the ancients in mind when we tackle modern issues is imperative.

“It gives us more tools in our toolbox. If we lose that, we lose a huge range of resources for tackling our future problems. Yes, I love ancient Greek philosophy; I love it because it’s fascinating and it’s fun and wacky, but also because I think it helps us with the future and the present. That’s the main reason.”

### Steve Martin

*Yes!* is certainly an attention grabbing book title, and you would you expect little else from someone who specialises in how to influence people. Steve J Martin, co-author of *Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion*, was in Warwick to tell us about the keys to persuading people to do what you want.
“For almost 60 years now, social scientists have been studying what are the factors in a communication that cause people to respond to it,” he says.
“This is particularly important when you consider that we live in a world that is the most information- overloaded that it has ever been.”
Martin identifies six “decision triggers”: reciprocation, liking, scarcity, authority, consistency and consensus. While he touched briefly on each, due to the short time of the TEDx talks he focused upon the last of these.
“The principle of consensus or social proof,” he calls it. “The idea that people will often decide the best course of action not by deciding themselves and weighing up the pros and cons, but by simply following what the majority of people around them are doing.”
He used a variety of examples in his talk. For instance, the authors of the book performed a trial with California energy companies by putting out bills which not only showed the payee’s energy usage but also the efficiency of his or her neighbours, and finally his or her most efficient neighbour. They found that the least efficient households became gradually more efficient.
However, there was a slight problem: the most efficient households became *less* so to match their neighbours energy usage, making the net effect zero. How did they change the bills of those efficient households to stop them letting go? “A simple smiley face.”

### Brenda King

Brenda King is the founder of African Caribbean Diversity, an organisation that helps students from ethnic minorities in disadvantaged areas to make the right choices through school in order to live up to their aspirations. Perhaps an unexpected speaker to come to a Russell Group university where students have already gone through all these choices, but Brenda thinks it’s important to get the message out.

“I’m trying to motivate universities to take action,” she tells us. “A lot of universities have widening participation programmes, but a lot of them tend to be where you come in, take the students for one day, send them away and hope that in two or four years’ time, somehow, they end up here, even if they don’t have the information to make the right choices.” She compares it to sending someone on a one-day course and expecting them to speak fluent Japanese by the evening.

In her talk, Brenda discussed her reasons for moving from graduate recruiting to targeting young teenagers, recounting the tale of a student who was hoping to be a scientific researcher off the back of A levels including Media Studies and Business Studies. However, while AC Diversity generally focuses on the students instead of recruiters, the process works both ways.

“There was a young Muslim girl, I remember she’s saying to me, ‘I get the impression that [graduate recruiters] want a middle class white boy but with the appearance of being female and Muslim,’” she says. “They don’t want to make any changes from the way they do things because they’ve always done things that way, but they want all the changes to come from the other side. ‘We want this package, and we want it across everyone, and then we’re being diverse.’ But you’ve got to ask the question: are you really being diverse?”

### Andrew Thorp

“People-ism” – the word used by business speaker Andrew Thorp to describe how he would like the business world to be.

“It is a plea for people who are looking at the world of business to remember that it’s not really about spreadsheets and turnovers and profit and loss and GDPs, but it’s about people,” he tells us. “It’s really nailing down the human element; looking at the micro level and not just the macro.”

Andrew took his personal experience of a bad business relationship to learn lessons, and to take them to people who will listen. He preaches networking and talking to people with “business antennae tuned in”. Sounds utopian, but Andrew is convinced that it can be sold to top business people.

“I think if they lose sight of how their figures are made, they’re on a sticky wicket there,” he says. “The best CEOs and managers usually pin it down to the human element.” He invokes the Dale Carnegie self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People as a paradigm example of the people-focused attitude.

But it’s not just about business. “If you’re a manager, a parent, the owner of a business, you’re trying to influence people’s behaviour. You’re trying to get a teenager to tidy their room, you’re trying to convince your wife that you should go and see Avatar and not The Green Zone. You want to get your own way, but you’re only going to get your own way if you present a compelling argument so they see the benefit of acting in that fashion.”

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