Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Experience at TEDxKAIST: Happiness for Science and Science for Happiness

Almost all of us know about the TED platform which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design and it is an annual event where world's leading thinkers and doers are invited to share what they are most passionate about. The TED platform gave birth to an accompanying, new initiative called TEDx and this is a new program that enables local communities such as schools, businesses, libraries, neighborhoods or just groups of friends to organize, design and host their own independent TED-like events. Such an event was organized in KAIST on 11th September, 2010 by some students of KAIST and the team was wonderfully led by Mark Whiting, a Masters student at the Department of Industrial Design, KAIST. They called it TEDxKAIST and it turned out to be an energizing event for the hard-working KAIST students.

KAIST is one of the nation's most prestigious science and technology institutions and keeping this in mind the theme was well-thought: "Happiness for Science and Science for Happiness" - its a significant one as KAIST is all about hard-working students actively engaged in scientific contributions and advancement. There is a famous saying for KAIST students that KAIST never sleeps - the KAISTIANs struggle hard to survive in the seeming paradox of hard work and true happiness. The inspiration for the theme came from this excerpt:

"Of the more highly educated sections of the community, the happiest in the present day are the men of science. Many of the most eminent of them are are emotionally simple, and obtain from their work a satisfaction so profound that they can derive pleasure from eating and even marrying." - Bertrand Russell (1930); The Conquest of Happiness

In this blog post I will share my take aways from TEDxKAIST and some of the key points from the speeches that all people associated with science should keep in mind to become a "happy scientist contributing to a happy world." Following is a brief profile of each of the speakers who spoke in TEDxKAIST and gave their view of a happy scientist:
  • Dr. Young Hae Noh who is a Professor at School of Humanities and Social Sciences at KAIST and has also served as dean of multiple departments at KAIST.
  • Dr. Minhwa Lee is the Business Ombudsman who makes a link between government and the small and medium businesses; he is also a Professor at KAIST.
  • Spanish Koffee, a very famous music group in Korea which pursues free distribution of digital music in their mission of "Passion worth Spreading."
  • Dr. Woonseung Yeo is a Professor at Graduate School of Culture Technology at KAIST and his PhD work at Stanford university includes introduction to the field of sonification which implies transmitting information through audio signals.
  • Sungdong Park is the CEO of Satrec Initiative which is the world's leading company in high-performance, cost-effective Earth observation small satellite solutions. He won a Civil Merit Medal, a presidential commandment and an Industrial Service Medal for his contributions to Korean space science and technology.
  • Byungwoo Jang is the CEO of LG OTIS and has served LG for many years. He comes from a family of great scholars of English literature.
  • Dr. Don Norman is a distinguished visiting Professor at KAIST and holds many other significant positions around the world. His work has resulted in a number of influential books including “The Design of Everyday Things” and most recently “Living With Complexity.”
Professor Noh began her speech with a quote on definition of success by Benjamin Zander, "Success is not about wealth, fame or power; it's about how many shining eyes I have found." She shared her story about her musical classes - a love story but a very different one: a Professor-student love story. She shared her tips on being a successful Professor - a Professor that brings out the talent in her students to the full, that is both loved by the students and loves the students and a Professor that incites passion and enthusiasm in the students which in my opinion is quite lacking in a majority of today's students. She advocated the idea that Professors should give freedom to students by allowing them to discover their potential and greatness in a journey of their own and at the same time Professors should be keen observers of students and should extract joy in discovering interesting features of their students.

It was really interesting to see and actually observe the scientist's definition of happiness: surpassing challenges and overcoming obstacles; sharing and inculcating passion all around is what happiness is from a scientist's point of view and this view came out more clearly in the talk by Sungdong Park. His story was one of courage and bravery, of making the impossible possible despite all hardships and of rising after setbacks. He shared a newspaper cutting which said, ""First Park Sung Dong got mad. Then he got even." Before establishing Satrec Initiative he was the leader in developing advanced small satellites in KAIST for 10 years - but then something happened which eventually led him to the success he enjoys today but the path was not easy. His government lab was laid off; it was a hard time but he did not lose hope and launched a venture with his old lab's technology. His vision was to make all of SATREC's engineers become millionaires - apparently a crazy idea but with passion and devotion Park made this possible and today Satrec is the only private company in Korea that is a member of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) and is deploying satellite solutions for Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore and Turkey.

Another talk that inspired me a lot and in which were the things I have always advocated for science and engineering students was the talk of Byungwoo Jan, the main theme of the talk being technology needs art. His talk was about importance of literature for science and engineering students - without literature any student is incomplete for literature is a way to imagine yourself in the position of another person. Today there is lack of feeling of the pain of others which is making the world an insensitive place - one way to overcome this is through literature. The LG OTIS CEO highlighted how reading books makes life more meaningful and transforms individuals - many successful people have literature behind their back. Thomas Edison is reported to have read 3.5 million pages a life and think of all the imagination and creativity he derived from all these books. Abraham Lincoln had an unfortunate childhood, his life was transformed completely after reading the biography of President Washington and he decided to become a President. Reading books and works of literature that today's students of science and engineering do not do nor enjoy much is a very healthy habit for the mind and can be a new source of creativity and inspiration for tomorrow's scientists so they must not give up this habit.

At the end was the talk of Professor Don Norman which was undoubtedly the highlight of the entire event. The thing that was really surprising about this talk was that he did not use any slides, instead he drew all the material he wanted to present on a white board and the talk was inspiring indeed with lots and lots of lessons for people of science and engineering. The talk was fundamentally organized around the following

He first asked the audience about the ones who were happy and ones who were not and then moved on to say that those that said neither happy nor unhappy made a smart choice - because if you're happy then it means you are not doing well in your pursuit in life because on every path happiness comes with a lot and lot of unhappiness; being successful means not going through the normal way but through lots and lots of pain and difficulty. He then explained further about the happiness and sadness - it is just a state which can be measured and when on the path of achieving something one should not worry about being happy; satisfaction and dissatisfaction - it is a judgment which no one can measure except a person himself/herself and optimism and pessimism - these are points of views and this is what determines everything. As an example on point of view he explained the fear that a human feels when asked to walk on a plank placed in mid-air as opposed to no fear when he is asked to walk on the same plank placed on the floor meaning that points of views are driven by a human's emotional system, his approach and instincts and this has to be the driving factor if a scientist is to derive happiness from his science - happiness for both himself and the world.

He related a story about his experience at Apple which shows how a fusion of happiness and anxiety can lead to success in science - his tip was that when thinking about new ideas and when embarking on journey to creativity one must have fun, relax, be in a comfortable state of mind but when decision has been taken on some idea then accomplishment comes through anxiety and a worried state of mind. Lastly his talk threw light on the paradox of urgent problems vs. the important problems - it is the important problems that need to get done first because what you want to do in life is the important thing and that makes the difference.

This event was a great experience and a memorable one during my stay at KAIST and surely the lessons and tips given here will help me throughout my academic life.

1 comment:

  1. Damn! I wish there's another TEDx during my stay in South Korea - wait a minute, I'll go check it.

    Nov 20, 2010 TEDxJamsil &
    Nov 27, 2010 TEDxEwha
    -Now let's see if I'm able to get a press entry! ;-)