The TED11 Experience - My Talk

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A few words of introduction. Originally, I wasn't sure whether I was going to post this talk but some people have asked me so that decided it. I can't remember this talk verbatim, and I never wrote it down as a script. I'm writing this over two weeks after I gave it so it's not going to be perfectly identical to the talk I gave, but looking at it now I can say that it's pretty damned close. I may have changed one or two things, but... what the hell, here it is. If you've got any questions about this talk, just email me.

There were no visual aids.

What I said

< Said informally, as a joke - Richard is the conference organiser >

Richard mentioned that I was an astronomer - while am I involved with space, I'm not interested in astronomy. It's an easy mistake to make.

< The actual talk >

I remember when I first heard about the TED conferences around two years ago, from a Mars Society mailing list I was subscribed to. One of the members mentioned that his boss, Kai Krause, had spoken at TED9 and that TED11 would be an excellent opportunity for us to get the word out about the Society. Now, I'd never heard of TED before so I thought it couldn't be that good, but I checked out the website and agreed that it would be a great opportunity. In a fit of naivety, I sent off an email to demanding to know how I might be able to speak at TED11.

For four weeks, I didn't get any answer. In this intervening time, I discovered that you don't ask to speak at TED, TED asks you to speak, and you say yes. So anyway, I became a bit embarrassed about all of this and let it drop.

On the fifth week, a package came through my letterbox inviting me to speak at TED, which is why I'm here. And that little story is a good introduction to what I want to talk about today, which is how the lack of cynicism of the youth will be so important in getting us back into space and to Mars in the next few decades.

I'm currently the Chair of Youth Outreach of the Mars Society, a non-profit organisation with over 4000 members worldwide that advocates the exploration and development of Mars. As the Chair of Youth Outreach, it's my responsibility to get more kids around the world interested in space and Mars. To do that properly, I have to ask myself exactly why aren't there enough people interested already?

And I think there's a very simple answer. As Warren Bennis said on Wednesday, the way in which the youth thinks is reliant on the era in which they grew up in. If we go back thirty or fourty years ago, when we had the Moon Landings and Sputnik and the Mercury Seven, when astronauts were the 'Right Stuff', everyone, the youth included, was hugely optimistic and ambitious about space. They thought that by now, 2001, we'd have cities in space, colonies on the Moon and even Pan-Am would still be flying.

If we go a couple of decades forward, to the post-Apollo era, well, things weren't quite so hot but there was cautious optimism. We had the Mir space-station and the Space Shuttle had just finished construction. It wasn't unreasonable to think that we might have a colony in space and a base on the Moon by the end of the millennium and of course these sorts of things interest the youth.

Another decade further on, and you get to the nineties - my generation. My generation has had... nothing. We've had the Challenger Shuttle disaster, one space-station on the verge of construction for a decade and another space-station on the verge of destruction for the same amount of time. It's hardly awe-inspiring and it's proved pretty terrible in getting any of the youth interested or excited about space.

To their credit, space advocacy organisations, and science outreach organisations in general, are more than aware of this dearth in interest. In fact, they're painfully aware. There was an interesting survey conducted in the UK where researchers asked six to twelve year olds to draw a picture of what they thought a typical scientist looked like. They came back with a bespectacled, balding man with a white coat, bad hygiene and a lack of a social life. I don't know how they managed to draw those last two points, but as someone who wants to become a scientist himself, I don't think I want to know.

So these organisations have been conducting public outreach for some time, in an attempt to fix this problem. In fact, in the UK we have National Science Week coming up, and this might even be National Science Year. Whether these outreach programmes have been successful is subjective; personally, I think that they're doing an adequate job, except when it comes to the youth, where they could be doing so much better.

Why do I think that? Well, these special youth outreach programmes have been happening in all the wrong places. A good example is NASA's latest and largest outreach programme, called the Mars Millennium project. One of the most prominent and expensive adverts for this project was sponsored by the Planetary Society and featured during an episode of Star Trek about Mars. Star Trek, Mars, advert, NASA - you couldn't get a much better combination of words that would excite space advocates. Except for the fact that by definition, everyone watching Star Trek is already interested in space and science. By reaching out to Star Trek viewers, we're simply preaching to the converted. What we should be doing is reaching out to those people who hate Star Trek, and believe me, there's a lot of them.

It's not just the setting that matters with outreach programmes, either. It's also the way in which they're run. One of the old favourites of any outreach programme to the youth is the competition, since you're essentially bribing kids to become interested in your cause. Yet despite the size and funds of some of the space advocacy organisations, they've been bafflingly unambitious with their competitions. They're essay writing competitions. To students, these are like extra homework because no-one wants to write a long, well-researched essay about something they might not even be interested in in the first place, not even for love or money. This strategy simply eliminates 99% of anyone who hears about the competition and you get the ridiculous but true situation of the same few dozen people entering every single space or science essay writing in the country.

I put this to the Mars Society and said that this was an absolutely terrible way to go about youth outreach; it's a waste of time and money and it doesn't do anyone any good. So what I did was start Generation Mars.

Generation Mars is an international outreach project to 11 to 18 year olds around the world, aimed at inspiring and educating the youth about Mars. Our first project is a joint UK/Canada competition sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency and the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

It's a competition, but of course we think that we're doing something new - it's not an essay writing competition for one thing. Instead, it's aimed specifically at those people who are not already interested in Mars, and we're doing this by keeping the scope for entries as wide as possible. We have three categories in the competition, Explore, Dream and Discover. Explore asks entrants to write a story about Mars. It doesn't have to be set on Mars. It doesn't have to be set in the future. It doesn't even have to have warp factors or laser blasters, it just has to be about Mars in some way. Dream is the category for artists - we want them to express what they feel about Mars in painting, drawing, music, song, sculpture or poetry. Finally, Discover is an essay writing category, but that's only because there are some people out there who like that sort of thing.

What we're trying to achieve with this competition is to reward people for doing what they enjoy - storytelling or art, but also tying that in with Mars. We don't expect people to do huge amounts of research on space propulsion or the Martian atmosphere, although we do make resources available to them. People aren't interested in space just because of the science - they aren't interested in the International Space Station because of zero-G protein crystallisation experiments, they're interested in what it represents. Humans in space, permanently. What we hope Generation Mars represents are new ideas, new opportunities and a new world.

The reason I think that Generation Mars can succeed is because I believe that at one time in everyone's lives, they find space exciting and enthralling, and usually it's when they're kids and they say to their parents, 'When I grow up, I want to be a spaceman!' - at least, that's what I said. But whenever this time occurs and however long it lasts for - a day, a year or their lives - it happens. And if Generation Mars can find and foster that enthusiasm, then perhaps we can make the youth look up from their day to day lives and think of what might lie ahead in the future, what they think is a goal worth working towards.

Of course, the main barrier to this happening is peer pressure. The youth is a particularly fickle group when it comes to things like this, and what they do and think really depends on whether it's cool or not. Space and science programmes, since the beginning of time, have been trying to convince the youth that space and science is cool, through cute mascots, slogans and expensive Flash animations. But the youth can see through all of this, because they know perfectly well that everything an adult tells them is either boring or a lie. So how do we convince the youth that space is cool? Easy - infiltrate them using their peers.

And that brings me back to the Generation Mars. Everything within GenMars, the publicity, the fundraising, the posters, the website, the content - everything has been done by the age group it is aimed at, the 11 to 18 range. You might think that this means our website is a horribly amateurish effort with twelve different fonts and clashing colours. Well, I have to disappoint you in that respect. We've found that if you present a compelling enough cause, you won't have to look far to find dozens of extremely talented teenagers who can produce work easily as good as professionals, and what's more, they'll do it for free.

You might not believe me, and if you do you're probably thinking over the cost cutting implications this has for your business. But it's true, and if you have a look at our website - - you'll agree.

I should point out that we have adult advisors. They advise, they don't instruct.

Why do I care so much about reaching out to the youth about Mars? It isn't just because the youth are traditionally good at accepting new ideas, I think it's because of something more profound. At the moment, when my generation grows up, we'll have so many things we can fight against. We can fight against inequality, against pollution and against disease. We can do this for our entire lives, and once we've done the best we can, there's precious little time for us to sit back, take stock and think of what we want to do ourselves.

There's a real danger that we might simply start feeling sorry for ourselves and waste our potential by making trouble for our children. Or instead, we might find something we could fight for, and I think Mars might be that. By sending humans to Mars, my generation could stand to learn so much about its geology, atmosphere and biology, and in turn learn more about Earth. We could create a new branch of human civilisation there and ultimately, transform Mars into a living, breathing world. It's something that my generation can begin which will last forever. Something that we can be proud of handing down to our children, instead of ashamed.

It's ambitious, I'll give you that. But throughout this conference, we've been told that the youth wants to change the world. The only difference this time around is that we want to change two worlds. Thank you.

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