Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Chopra, Dawkins discuss religion

Charles Darwin published “The Origins of the Species” in 1859. Sixty-six years later John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in a state-funded school in Tennessee. I was reminded just how powerful evolution and other ideas can be when I attended the International Festival of the World’s Brilliant Minds in Puebla this past weekend.

Held in the crisp, modern Complejo Cultural Universitario in the southwest of Puebla, 3500 people gathered for the three-day City of Ideas event. This year’s theme was “Dangerous Ideas.” Seventy-seven speakers presented — most of them in English — on a wide diversity of topics.

Evolution was the topic of a debate between author Deepak Chopra and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. They wrangled with the questions of whether life has a purpose, is religion good or bad for humanity, and what is the relationship between science and spirituality.

I was pleased that one of my heroes, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones, was on the program. At age 15 Quiñones crossed into the United States from Mexicali sans documents to pick vegetables on California’s farms. Now he is the world renowned “Dr. Q,” chief neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University. As part of his presentation he projected a video of a brain pulsating to the rhythm of the patient’s heart. “It’s a dance in which I, and my surgical team, must stay in close step with that beating heart.”

Dr. Sanjit “Bunker” Roy told us about Barefoot College he founded. Dr. Roy travels to the least-developed countries and selects grandmothers who will study in India for six months and return to their communities as solar electricity engineers. To be considered for enrollment the grandmothers must be illiterate and from remote communities that do not have electricity. They are taught by illiterate instructors and return home transformed into “tigers,” able to electrify their whole village with solar panels. “They know how to fabricate, install, repair, and maintain community solar electrical systems.”

Dr. Roy explained the philosophy behind the Barefoot College. “If you want to change the quality of life of very poor people anywhere in the world, it is important that you take the communities into confidence. Never underestimate the power of poor people who don’t know how to read and write — they are capable of miracles.”

A number of young people also presented their ideas. Sixteen-year-old Jack Andraka described his paper-based sensor that detects pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer in five minutes at a cost of three cents. Eighteen-year-old Puebla resident Alberto Brian Fernández presented his invention based on bats’ echo location ability: a glove that makes it possible for a blind person to detect objects or walk through a crowd without anyone realizing she or he is blind.

Argentine David Konsevik described his Revolution of Expectations theory. He told us that with successes come new expectations. An example he offered was Brazil’s success pulling millions out of poverty under recent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Instead of being complacently appreciative of their new financial success, the former poor have created a political crisis for President Dilma Rousseff by demanding a cleanup of corruption and better quality social services.

Except when set up as a boxing ring for a debate, the stage was devoid of podiums or props of any kind. It was a rare presenter who used notes — though I did see a teleprompter at floor level. Speakers moved from off-stage to center stage by standing still on what seemed to me to be a magic carpet.

A portion of the program titled “Mex-I-can” celebrated Mexican successes on the world scene in science and arts. Molecular geneticist Elena Álvarez-Buylla spoke on the evolution of plants and the importance of protecting corn’s gene pool. Ballerina Elisa Carrillo danced, accompanied by an off-stage piano. When the ballet presentation was over, the piano moved to center stage on the magic carpet. That’s when we saw that the pianist was Abdiel Vázquez, who continued playing for 21 minutes — the time allotted to each presenter.

The tireless master of ceremonies was Andrés Roemer, founder and curator of the Brilliant Minds — City of Ideas Festival. He introduced the presenters during the three-day events, taking a break only during the “under-eighteen” section of the program. His son, also Andrés, introduced those speakers.

Heart-rending accounts were told. Simon Aban Deng told of being enslaved as a child in Sudan. Joseph Kim, orphaned by famine in North Korea, told of his escape to China. Manal Al-Sharif told us she receives frequent death threats for challenging Saudi Arabia’s ban of women drivers.
On the lighter side the Brilliant Minds conference included a magician, a pick-pocket and an art forger, each demonstrating his ability.

It was a wonderfully refreshing weekend of learning for the sake of learning. I’m told that in a few months all the presentations will be shown in movie theaters. After that they will be available online. Keep next year’s festival in mind as a unique, world-class event in English. You can get on their email list at www.ciudaddelasideas.com.

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