Editor’s note: Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln submitted an audition video to TED2013 on March 30. On May 22 he learned that he’d advanced to the next level of the audition process, and last Thursday, June 7, he gave his live audition in front of the TED leadership and insiders in New York City. He tells us how it went down.
Small. That was my first impression of the stage at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. On the walls are photos of people who have performed here before, from Adele’s US debut in 2008, to Bono, to Dolly Parton, to Amy Winehouse. It was the kind of small and intimate nightclub that in another era would have had a jazz trio on the stage and been filled with stylishly dressed couples at small tables, with smoke languorously curling from their fashionable cigarettes. But, in 2012, the smoke was gone and the vibe was more bohemian, with casually dressed young twenty- and thirty-somethings assembled to watch a series of short and eclectic presentations. Following a global search for speakers, about 400 people have been invited to 14 locations around the world to audition for a coveted invitation to make a presentation at TED2013. The big TED conference has hosted newsmakers like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. This year, they have elected to build half of their program with “fresh faces.”
Well, I don’t know if my face really constitutes fresh, but here I am in New York City, one of 30 hopefuls, giving talks masterfully and wittily emceed by TED curator Chris Anderson, whose dry British humor adds a refining and cosmopolitan touch to each performer’s presentation. Each of us has between two and six minutes to make our pitch. Only about three or four of us will be going to Long Beach in February 2013. The subjects range widely, from the high school freshman who developed a test for pancreatic cancer while he was in the eighth grade to the young woman who battled depression by writing love letters to strangers and founded a movement of people who write letters to people they’ve never met to battle this increasingly lonely and isolated world. I’m the only one in the lot who does hard science. (I’m not sure the theoretical physicist and saxophonist who told how John Coltrane was his inspiration for an idea on quantum gravity counts. OK, I’m being catty. His science is good, but his talk was filled with lots of sax riffs. Come to think of it, his talk fit the venue very well.) I’ve elected to use my four minutes to tell the 200 or so people in the audience about how particle accelerators like the Tevatron and the LHC can recreate the conditions immediately after the Big Bang. I’m hoping that this will be a new idea for the audience and amaze them in the same way it amazed me when I first heard it. I don’t know. There are a lot of jaded New Yorkers in the audience, but they’re also ones who embrace new ideas. Are my ideas new enough for them?
The whole experience has been a little unsettling. While I’ve given many hundred public presentations in the past, this is the first where the organizers want to see the script and the multimedia before they’ll let me on the stage. It’s also the first where I needed to audition so I could audition. Each of us had to submit a video for evaluation before being invited to talk at the salon. While the TED people were cagey about the numbers, “many hundred” videos were submitted for the New York event and only thirty were invited. Not only did I have to audition to audition, I had to arrive a day early to rehearse in front of the organizers too. I didn’t have to jump through a hoop or juggle flaming chainsaws, but that could be next. In a way, the scrutiny is comforting, as TED performances have very high production quality, but it’s a lot to go through.
Now that the audition is over, the wait begins. In late June, videos of the 400 or so performances will be put online on the TED website and judged by the worldwide audience. The number of “likes” given to each video will be a factor in which 50 are selected to give an 18 minute-long presentation at TED2013. (In case that was too subtle, that is an invitation for you to tell all your friends, family, acquaintances, neighbors and random strangers to watch them and “like” mine. I’ll make another post when the links to the videos go live.)
Overall, it was a pretty cool experience. I got to meet some fascinating people, both the other speaker-candidates and the TED staff. It’s enjoyable talking with people who believe in the TED credo “Ideas worth spreading.”