PopTech conference lifts the lid on a cauldron of innovative ideas

Speakers talk about exploring hidden worlds under Antarctica, what all Canadian hockey stars have in common, and why GM crops are good.

A polar scientist looking at a massive ecosystem buried miles beneath Antarctica. A social innovator asking what would happen if society could tap the "human capital" that it now wastes. A plant geneticist who sees a compatibility between scientists trying to solve the world's food crisis through genetic modification and those using organic methods to develop sustainable agriculture.

The annual PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, is a prolific incubator of innovation. These were only three of many presenters on the first day of the conference, which I'm attending for the third year.

PopTech not only brings together a fascinating group of speakers over an intense three days in late October, but its work also continues year-round through a series of projects. PopTech tries to provide the "glue" to join innovators in disparate fields to create an engine for solutions to world problems (more on "Project M" in another post).

Even the requisite nylon goodie bags routinely handed out at conferences get an innovative twist here. Attendees can donate their bags (they have no embarrassing logos, so anyone can use them) to a student group called Peace Games that works to calm inner-city violence. Attendees could even bring handout bags from other conferences they've attended and recycle them here.

If you're reading this while the 2008 conference is still under way (Oct.  23-25), I urge you to take a look for yourself via the live web feed. The talks are archived, too, but may not be available immediately. A few clicks around the website will also give you a keener sense of the bubbling cauldron of ingenuity that is PopTech.

This year's theme is "Scarcity and Abundance." You might think that the first is the problem, the latter the goal. As is often the case with PopTech, you're likely to be surprised if you arrive with too many assumptions. Scarcity can sometimes generate creative thinking and progress; abundance can lead to stagnation, both mental and physical.

What first-day talks resonated most with me?

Antarctic researcher John Priscu took us on a tour of a hidden world miles beneath the southern ice. (Let's hope it never melts – there's enough ice covering Antarctica to raise sea level by 180 feet should it turn to liquid.) Below that ice is a continent of Amazon-sized river basins and giant lakes of freshwater. It's not a lifeless polar desert, but a subglacial oasis filled with microbial life.

Russia has nearly drilled through the miles of ice to tap into a giant subglacial lake called Lake Vostok. When that happens, it could yield a trove of scientific data. But the water is expected to be infused with gases, making the breakthrough a dangerous venture, too. It might create a surface geyser that would dwarf Yellowstone's Old Faithful and last for months. The deep freshwater could be tapped to supply a thirsty world, but scientists also don't know a whole lot about the microbes down there yet. If the Russians break through, Dr. Priscu cautions, we‚re likely to hear about it.

What do top Canadian hockey players have in common?

Author, pop sociologist, and New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell answered that question on his way to bringing a fresh prospective to the theme "a mind is a terrible thing to waste."  The answer is that Canadian hockey players very likely to have been born in the first half of the year. The age categories for youth hockey players have a cutoff date of Jan. 1. So those born just after that date have nearly a year to grow bigger and stronger before they are eligible to play. They get chosen for top teams and are given the best training. Their advantage over aspiring hockey players born later in the later just keeps growing over time.

The same thing held true in a separate study of young soccer players. Bottom line: Some "human capital" – in this case, great ice hockey or soccer players – is being left behind, undeveloped, because the system is flawed. Where else are we wasting human capital?

Plant geneticist Pam Ronald noted that the political left has the same visceral aversion to genetically modified plants that the political right has to warnings about global warming. Both are ignoring strong scientific evidence.

Genetically modified (GM) crops are being widely consumed today without any ill effects, she says. They offer no greater danger than crops developed through traditional cross-breeding methods. By building in disease resistance and other helpful qualities, GM crops can cut the use of pesticides – the source of millions of cases of human poisonings each year.

Dr. Ronald has co-authored a book with her husband, Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, called "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food," that tries to bridge those two worlds.

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