Just Three Things

Three TED talks that will change the way you view the world

In just 19 minutes, Hans Rosling will change the way you view the world. His stunning presentation makes clear: it’s time to stop using the term “developing world.” It no longer fits, it’s no longer appropriate and the data, simply, does not support it. Rosling’s TED talk is one of the most powerful I’ve come across, one of three I’ve selected from the more than 150 talks I’ve listened to this year. Below is a brief rundown on my top picks – the first by Rosling, the second by Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado and the third by David Christian.

Rosling: “Let my dataset change your mindset”

Through a series of dramatic visuals, Rosling forces us to re-map how we think about the world. Says Rosling: “The world is converging…we cannot put it into two parts,” namely, Western world and developing countries. “It’s far more dynamic than that.” As his TED bio explains: “…most of the Third World is on the same trajectory toward health and prosperity, and many countries are moving twice as fast as the West did.”

With stunning illustrations, Rosling takes us back 200 years to chart the growth of countries worldwide, then focuses on the recent growth of the middle income countries, adding: “…this is where I suggest to my students, stop using the concept ‘developing world.’” Using his Trendalyzer data-bubble software, Rosling begins in the year 1802, then quickly rolls the tape forward to illustrate the dramatic changes across the globe. Trust me, you’ll be blown away.

Key Rosling quotes: • “There is no such thing as an HIV epidemic in Africa. There’s a number, five to 10 countries in Africa, that has the same level as Sweden and United States.”

• “I was at the Global Health Conference here in Washington…and I could see the wrong concept even active people in United States had, that they didn’t realize the improvement of Mexico…and China, in relation to United States…[Mexico is] on par with the United States in these two social dimensions…less than 5% of the specialists in Global Health were aware of this.”

Rosling, who passed away this past February, was a Swedish physician, academic, statistician and public speaker. He was the Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and the co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation. He delivered this talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_at_state) at the U.S. State Dept. in 2009.


Alvarado: “To solve old problems, study new species”

Molecular biologist Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado makes this stunning observation: most of the science we conduct, in trying to eradicate disease, is focused on just seven species (including rats, chickens, fruit flies and humans) which “represent 0.0009 percent of all of the species that inhabit the planet.” Says Alvarado: “…I’m beginning to suspect that our specialization is beginning to impede our progress at best, and at worst, is leading us astray.”

Key Alvarado quotes from his 12 minute talk:

• “I often wonder: Why is it that we are having so much trouble trying to solve the problem of cancer? Is it that we’re trying to solve the problem of cancer, and not trying to understand life?”

• “…this emphasis today on forcing biological research to specialize and to produce practical outcomes is actually restricting our ability to interrogate life to unacceptably narrow confines and unsatisfying depths…95% of our oceans remain unexplored…So, it’s not surprising that every week in my field we begin to see the addition of more and more new species to this amazing tree of life.” • “…There are animals out there that do truly astounding things.” For example, “take the flatworm Schmidtea mediterranea. This little guy right here does things that essentially just blow my mind. You can grab one of these animals and cut it into 18 different fragments, and each and every one of those fragments will go on to regenerate a complete animal in under two weeks. 18 heads, 18 bodies, 18 mysteries.”

• “Seven species, essentially, have produced for us the brunt of our understanding of biological behavior today.” Alvarado is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City. To access his TED talk, Google “Alvarado TED Talk.”


Christian: The history of our world in 18 minutes

You can cast aside those old world history textbooks – historian David Christian covers it all in 18 minutes, guiding us through the history of our planet, and the elements that led us to where we are today.

Key Christian quotes:

• “…what makes humans different is human language. We are blessed with a language, a system of communication, so powerful and so precise that we can share what we’ve learned with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory. And that means it can outlast the individuals who learned that information, and it can accumulate from generation to generation. And that’s why, as a species, we’re so creative and so powerful, and that’s why we have a history. We seem to be the only species in four billion years to have this gift. I call this ability collective learning. It’s what makes us different.”

• “…fossil fuels and collective learning together explain the staggering complexity we see around us.”

• “Eric Beinhocker estimates that in New York City alone, there are some 10 billion SKUs, or distinct commodities, being traded.”

• “Collective learning is a very, very powerful force, and it’s not clear that we humans are in charge of it.”

• “What can big history do? How can it help us? “…[B]ig history can…show us the nature of our complexity and fragility and the dangers that face us, but it can also show us our power with collective learning.”

Christian, credited with coining the term “Big History,” has developed the Big History Project, a free online course funded by Bill Gates. Christian was born in New York and grew up in Nigeria and England. To find his TED talk, just Google “Christian TED Talk.”

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