Performing miracles

“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises” said Mae West. We think that to announce our performers is worth quite a bit too. We haven’t quite finalised the line-up yet, but here are a couple of good’uns.

First, we are really looking forward to hearing Kieron Kirkland talk about the intertwining of magic and technology. He will also be weaving some of his magic live on stage, so prepare to be perplexed, befuddled and amazed.

And we’re also delighted that, fresh from being featured on and being viewed more than half a million times, Harry Baker has agreed to return to TEDxExeter this year! As one of the comments on said: “Just an absolute artisan with his words, bravo! The first one entertained me, the second made me think and the last one made me feel (brought a tear to my eye). Quite amazing the power that words can have.”

Taking the Long View: Climate change and knitting

In the summer, Alan Rusbridger is stepping down after 20 years of editing the Guardian. In advance, he tried to anticipate whether he would have any regrets… only one: “that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.”

Changes to the climate rarely make it to the front page or the home page. They are happening, but they are happening too slowly for the fast-paced news cycle or the time-poor reader. And many of the changes are not yet news, but exist as predictions, scenarios and probabilities: “There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon.”

Which is why the Guardian is taking the long view: putting climate, “the biggest story in the world”, on its front page every Friday; and campaigning to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

It is a timely campaign. This year is vital, as governments are meeting in Paris in December, and hopefully they will come to a ground-breaking agreement on the climate. They need our support and encouragement.

During Lent – 18th February to 4th April – the Church of England in the South West is running a Carbon Fast. Instead of giving up chocolate, it is 40 days to reflect on how we affect our planet and consider what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. Roughly concurrently, from 6th March to 19th April in Bristol Cathedral, I am exhibiting “A Stitch in Time”, 3D knitted representations of a series of greenhouse gases that are implicated in climate change.

CO2Human activity has caused the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to increase from 287 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to 400 parts per million today. But carbon dioxide is just one of many greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. How much each gas contributes – its Global Warming Potential – depends on its structure, its emissions and concentration in the atmosphere, and how long-lasting it is. For example, the concentration of nitrous oxide is much lower, but its lifetime in the atmosphere is 121 years, and it has a Global Warming Potential nearly 300 times as much as carbon dioxide.

Reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases substantially, as we urgently need to, still requires doing something countercultural. Knitting also requires being countercultural. The making of “A Stitch in Time” required presence in the moment and attentiveness; there are no short cuts to knitting. At times, it became a contemplative practice, each stitch a mantra. At other times, I found myself mulling over the issue. The slowness in the making led me into a deeper care and concern for the planet, and attention to how the audience might understand the issue and take the long view.

TEDxBarcelonaSalon features Karima’s talk

Every month, TEDxBarcelona hold a salon event, in which they screen a TED or TEDx talk, share questions and opinions in discussion, and continue the conversation over tapas. In February this year, TEDxBarcelonaSalon featured Karima Bennoune’s talk from TEDxExeter 2014. José Cruset from TEDxBarcelona kindly passed on some insights from the discussion.


We wanted to discuss about fundamentalism because it is a hot topic right now. And from the talks I found about islam, fundamentalism, terrorism, arabic countries, etc., this one was (to my mind) the best. It was personal, very positive and inspiring, and it was very TED (especially the usage of the watch and the time the watch stopped, at 5:17). Great talk, unforgettable.

The discussion was very good because we had some people with knowledge about islam within our group. I was a bit afraid before the event about the outcome. But afterwards I was very relieved.

When people signed up we asked them beforehand to send us questions they would like to discuss. These questions helped to structure the discussion. The first and most important question was: What is the reason for islamic fundamentalism? The main answers were: education and poverty. Some people reminded us that fundamentalism is not tied to any religion. We even talked about nationalism and related terrorism (like we had in Spain with ETA).

One of our volunteers gave me this summary [which I translated from the Spanish and Oriana corrected]:

The lack of education is not necessarily the reason for the rise of fundamentalism. 

  • Include Religious studies and Information and communications technology in schools as a preventive measure, and create opportunities for reflection for young people.

Hypocrisy and double standards in the West: what do we do / what can we do as citizens?

Religion is not the cause of fundamentalism, but becomes a tool that is easy to use to cultivate it.

  • The hatred of the unknown is a way to plant the seed of fundamentalism.
  • Religion is a tool which was originally intended to help, but historically has been used to repress the people; anything can be used as an excuse.
  • The prophet never politicized Islam. But historically there have been groups who over time have used it to their advantage.

Immigrants in Western countries: integration into the system or thriving in the system?
We are all responsible: some by omission and others by commission.
The language rivalries (eg in the Basque Country) must be overcome.


We are thrilled that Karima’s talk has prompted such discussion and reflection, and that it continues to be watched on, now passing 1.25 million views.

Taking the Long View: The telescope

For my second post on the theme of “Taking the Long View”, I’m literally taking the long view.

Telescope: tele- +‎ -scope, from Latin telescopium, from Ancient Greek τηλεσκόπος (tēleskópos, “far-seeing”), from τῆλε (têle, “afar”) + σκοπέω (skopéō, “I look at”).

This is not a history of the telescope, merely a smattering of quite interesting factoids.

First, and Inevitably, answering “Galileo” to the question “Who invented the telescope?” would trigger the full QI klaxon and flashing lights. The first recorded telescopes appeared in the Netherlands in 1608. The first person to make a drawing of the moon through a telescope was English. Later in 1609, Galileo built his own telescopes, improving on existing designs, and published his findings. It is also quite interesting to consider how historical misconceptions arise. Being the first to publish and nearly being burnt at the stake for it probably helped Galileo get ahead.

A demonstration of the telescope by Galileo at a reception in 1611 prompted the coining of the word, but by whom? Was it the Greek mathematician Giovanni Demisiani, or Prince Frederick Sesi?

How do you measure the distance from the earth to the sun? In 1716 Edmund Halley (he of the comet) illustrated that it could be calculated by timing the transit of Venus across the sun’s face, which led to Captain James Cook’s first voyage around the world in 1769.

Cook himself was one of the astronomers on board Endeavour. The other was Charles Green, and they trained others on board as observers. The voyage to Tahiti took about eight months, about as long as it would take modern astronauts to reach Mars. They set up three portable observatories on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea, with instruments supplied by the Royal Society and Royal Observatory. The telescopes included Gregorian reflectors fitted with micrometers. Isaac Newton may have been the first to build a reflecting telescope in 1668, but not the first to design one. That was Scottish mathematician James Gregory five years earlier.

The weather smiled on Cook, Green et al, although their observations were sabotaged by the “black drop effect”. Neverthless, the observations taken on 3 June 1769 gave the distance from the earth to the sun as 93,726,900 miles, about 0.8% out. Not bad!

Both this and the earlier unsuccessful attempt in 1761 were international endeavours, with observations taken across the globe. Even though Britain and France were at war or in competition, each granted safe passage to the other’s astronomers. But Cook had other sealed orders to open after the transit – to seek and claim Terra Australis Incognita. This led to the charting of New Zealand and eastern Australia, including Botany Bay.

At the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Nelson received an order transmitted by signal flag to withdraw his ships. Except he didn’t receive it, but lifted his telescope to his blind eye and said “I really do not see the signal”, thereby coining the phrase ‘to turn a blind eye’. Cursory googling reveals no extra details about the telescope.

Nowadays, telescopes are big enough to have names. But imagination has not kept up with gigantism. The Very Large Telescope, or VLT, is an array of four 8.2m reflecting telescopes in the Atacama desert in Chile. The Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT (kudos for the acronym), is in South Africa, in the Karoo. And the Very Large Array, or VLA, is a radio telescope in New Mexico.

Jocelyn Bell spent two years of her PhD building a radio telescope in a field, in theory to study quasars, but in practice to discover pulsars in 1967… for which she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize. Today, the rather more splendid sounding Interplanetary Scintillation Array looks as though it could be used to grow hops.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, and is still in operation. It has taken some remarkable pictures, including this HD panoramic view of the Andromeda Galaxy (see also video below), and done some science too. Apparently, anyone can apply for time on the telescope, including 13 amateur astronomers between 1990-97. Here’s how.

Finally, there will be a solar eclipse on 20th March. Don’t point a telescope directly at the sun. Enjoy!

Harry Baker on

We’re thrilled that Harry Baker’s grand slam poetry performance at TEDxExeter 2014 has been selected to feature on This is a huge achievement. Under 1% of TEDx talks make it on to TED, and this choice is testament to Harry and his fantastic performance last year. His performance has already gone viral and been viewed nearly 169,000 times. Going onto means his poetry will reach a potentially global audience.

Harry is understandably excited…


I couldn’t be happier right now. I have always written my poems to be performed and shared with people, the fact that so many people now get to see the words that started out scribbled in my notebooks and performed in pubs is amazing.

I am in my final term of a maths degree at university and when I graduate I want to be a full-time writer, so this is a massive step in making that dream a reality, both in terms of confidence in what I’m doing being worth it, and the practical nature or more people becoming aware of my work.

It’s hard to explain to people what I do, it’s far easier to show them. Now I feel I have the best possible way of doing that.

^^^^ that is 100% true and sincere and genuine but almost feels a bit measured (aka boring) for what is maybe the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me so umm…


This is nuts. It’s crazy stupid brilliant nuts. When I got the email I was in an Algebraic Number Theory lecture on a Monday morning and I wanted to scream but I don’t think anyone would have understood. I love what I do. I want to do it forever. I’m going to do it forever. I loved performing at TEDxExeter because it felt like what I had to say was important. I was doing the same poems that I’ve performed to audiences of 6 people in a pub basement and I was performing them in-between a guy who invents robot hands and a woman who had triplets and then went to both the North and South Pole. That’s fun. Now it’s going on the main site with the crazy beatbox guy and Bono. I’m really happy.

I write stuff to try and connect with people, I always have. It being shared on just means it connects with a whole lot more people overnight and hopefully can continue to in the future.

Life is exciting.

Speaker update

Unfortunately, Jack Monroe has had to step back from speaking at TEDxExeter 2015. Instead, we’re delighted to announce new speakers Carmel McConnell and Beth Barnes.

Carmel is the founder of Magic Breakfast, a charity which delivers free, nutritious breakfasts to schools where over 35% of pupils are eligible for free school meals. They already support more than 400 schools, so that instead of arriving too hungry to learn, children can eat a healthy breakfast that helps with concentration, behaviour, attendance and attainment.

Beth is a student at Exeter College. She won a competition we jointly organised to give the students an opportunity to present an idea they feel passionately about at TEDxExeter. Many congratulations Beth!