XJTLU staff explore a universe of thinking at TEDx conference

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Two academic staff from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University spoke at the recent [email protected] conference exploring the ideas of life on other planets and using computers to develop thinking.

Dr Thijs Kouwenhoven, from the Department of Mathematical Sciences, and Dr Hai-Ning Liang, from the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, took to the stage together with other 12 speakers at the event, which had a focus on the topic ‘explore’.

In his presentation, Dr Kouwenhoven (pictured below), who is an astrophysicist, talked about exploring new worlds in the Universe, saying: “Our Milky Way galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars. Somewhere in the outskirts of the Milky Way is an ordinary star which we call ‘sun’. Our sun has eight planets, one of which is planet Earth, the only place in the Universe where as far as we know life exists. Most of the other stars also have planets.

“Over 3,500 of these so-called exoplanets have already been discovered and whether or not these planets are potentially suitable for extraterrestrial life is still an open question.”

He pointed out that a planet’s temperature was one of the crucial elements for life, saying that some planets form in hot regions, close to the star, while others will be permanently frozen, especially when distant from the star. Planets in the ‘habitable zone’ are those with temperatures that allow liquid water on the planet's surface and may, therefore, develop life over time.

Another crucial element for life is the composition of a planet's atmosphere: “On Earth, oxygen and carbon dioxide are essential nutrients for life. The greenhouse effect keeps the Earth at a comfortable temperature and the ozone layer protects us from dangerous radiation in space. Venus, Mars and our moon have environments that are inhospitable to life,” Dr Kouwenhoven added.

He continued to say that to develop and sustain life on a planet such as Earth, the climate needs to be stable over long periods of time but pointed out that Earth was gradually warming up due to the greenhouse effect and that the consequences were as yet unknown.

“Through studying the formation and evolution of planetary systems in the Universe, we can learn more about the long-term climate developments on habitable planets and also about the Earth itself,” he said. “To some degree, the Universe is a large mirror that allows us to see our own planet Earth and its future from a different perspective.”

In his presentation on exploring new technology, Dr Liang (pictured below) emphasised the importance of using computing technology to explore today’s society, saying: “Computing technology, more than anything else, is everywhere, it is almost like electricity early in the past century to power machines.

“Steve Jobs said before he passed away that everybody should learn how to programme a computer and communicate with technology because it teaches how to think.”

Dr Liang pointed out that the specific type of thinking Jobs referred to was computational thinking, which is closely related to problem-solving in that it encompasses a set of strategies for looking at a problem and trying to find solutions.

“In a way, computational thinking for dealing with technology is similar to critical thinking for essay writing,” said Dr Liang. “To be a computational thinker, you have to develop and practice a set of problem solving skills including decomposition, pattern recognition, logical reasoning, macro-level and micro-level analysis, and logical reasoning.”

He concluded by saying that if people understand computational thinking and know how to programme, as well as knowing a new way of thinking, they will also be able to create things.

“These things that you create can change the future in the same way that the founders of Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter did,” he said.

TEDxSuzhou is a local, independent and non-profit organisation that operates under the license of TED, an international campaign that encourages the exchange and spread of ideas among people, usually in the form of short talks. Based on the format of TED Talks, TEDx Talks are locally organised, independent events.

Established in 2011, TEDxSuzhou’s mission is to build an ‘innovative community’ and their activity includes five major events: the annual TEDxSuzhou conference in March; the annual TEDxSuzhou Women conference in May; the annual [email protected] conference in November; TEDxSuzhou Salons that focus on specific topics and TEDxSuzhou Live that broadcasts live TED conference several times a year.

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