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A REAL Steampunk Computer and 5 other TED Talks to Geek Out About

A REAL Steampunk Computer and 5 other TED Talks to Geek Out About

By Brandon Specktor

Here's one for your steampunk novels, gearheads: the first effective computer was designed in the 1830s, powered by steam, cogs and punchcards, and filled a room the size of a locomotive.

In his recent TED talk, "The greatest machine that never was," computer programmer John Graham-Cumming describes the unlikely, visionary blueprints designed in the 19th century (but never implemented until a hundred years later) by British aristocrat and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage.

"He's a classic nerd," Graham-Cumming says. Every great idea Babbage had would quickly be replaced by an even greater, geekier one. His idea for the "analytical engine," the first functioning computer, is maybe his most notable of these abandoned masterpieces, and in his time was only recognized by one manwhore poet's daughter. Ada Lovelace, offspring of scandalous romantic Lord Byron, corresponded with Babbage for years, earning from him the title of "Enchantress of Numbers," and from history "the first computer programmer." One of you better get on writing the historical fiction romance version of this ASAP.

Graham-Cumming's talk inspired our central nerdish systems so much we decided to delve into the TED archives and find five more classic talks that rev our own analytical engines. Read on to see how these comedians, gamers, and one intrepid Mythbuster get us geeked for life and science.

1. "The game that can give you 10 extra years of life" by Jane McGonigal

Game designer Jane McGonigal (PhD—so, yes, she is Professor McGonigal) said in her first TED talk that the world would be a better place if people approached it with the same commitment to achieving "epic wins" that hardcore gamers show in the digital world. In this excellent speech from TEDGlobal 2012, Jane describes how she overcame a traumatic brain injury by turning her affliction into a game. This led to Superbetter, a game of quests that boosts the "four kinds of strength or resilience that contribute to post-traumatic growth" every day. The best news: you don't need trauma to turn your life into a game! Try it. Google "baby harp seal" immediately and reap the benefits. Congrats! You'll live a little longer now. Watch Professor McGonigal's talk to find out why.

2. "Ze Frank's nerdcore comedy
" by Ze Frank

If you aren't familiar with Ze Frank, freelance composer/comedian/neuroscientist turned unflappably optimistic YouTube Oprah, it's time to fix that. In this 2004 speech that puts a roomful of nerds in hysterics, Ze performs a dramatic reading of email spam, accurately predicts a front-row watcher's Google hits, and eventually introduces the blossoming collective of interactive  social webspaces that push his geek-buttons. This routine is great primer to Ze's excellent YouTube series—A Show with Ze Frank—where he offers weekly missions, projects, talking points, and general advice to bring the infinite Internet a little closer together. Here's a recent one where he and Rainn Wilson discuss the development of the herky-jerky teen brain.

3. "How simple ideas lead to scientific discovery
" by Adam Savage

Mythbuster Adam doesn't blow anything up in his 7-minute speech, but that's okay. He does come close to blowing minds while retelling tales of DIY science triumph, like how in 200 BC Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth to within 1% of its actual value using a stick and some shadows, or how in 1849 Armand Fizeau determined the speed of light to within 2% of its value using a toothed wheel, some mirrors, and lovely, lovely math. "We are all bags of meat and water. We all start with the same tools," Adam says. So get questioning, meatbags!

4 and 5. "Brain magic" by Keith Barry and "Mathemagic" by Arthur Benjamin

The goal of TED is to get minds working. There's nothing extraordinarily insightful about Keith Barry's mystical misdirection or Art Benjamin's mental gymnastics, but both performances are brainy stage magic at their best. Charming mind freak Keith Barry may not tell you how he drove blindfolded through all those narrow country roads, but it's endlessly entertaining to try and guess. Art Benjamin is a bit nicer: he works you through his 10-digit, calculator-free multiplication problems out loud so, obviously, you can start doing it at all the time at parties. Watch; learn; remain confused and amazed by the human mind.

BONUS: "How to tie your shoes" by Terry Moore

Yep, we're all doing it wrong. This may be the dawn of a glorious, new, faceplant-free era for all of us.

Tags: science, math, comedy, computers, ted talks

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About the Author
Brandon Specktor

For 22 years, Brandon was a fat kid living in Tucson, AZ, which gave him lots and lots of time to write. He now works at a magazine in New York City, but still loves writing almost as much as he loves muffins.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email contribute@sparknotes.com.