BERKELEY -- The premise: Fit eight "Big Ideas" from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists into eight, eight-minute presentations and strike awe in an audience.
The results: Not easy.
Whether it's delving into the microbial diaspora of a barrel of oil or snuggling to the innermost cells of a malignant tumor in a mammary gland, big ideas are logged in tiny, incredibly complex packages. Opening the "idea" in eight minutes -- especially when the person doing the honors is a scientist with 10,000-plus hours of knowledge about the contents -- resulted in mostly surface-skimming and barely-there presentations at Science at the Theater at Berkeley Rep on May 13.
Still, you can't fault them for trying, and even a glimpse of the stunning leaps Berkeley Lab scientists are executing were applaudable.
A last-minute emergency meant only seven wonders of the researcher world participated: Mina Bissell (cancer), Bill Jagust (Alzheimer's), David Schlegel (night-sky mapping), Greg Bell (Big Data), Blake Simmons (biofuels), Aindrila Mukhopadhyay (microbes) and Ron Zuckermann (synthetic proteins).
Applying journalism's shears and literature's creative license, the seven big ideas described a future in which cancer is "grown out" of the body, Alzheimer's is stopped before it begins, thumb-sized robots map the entire visible universe and Big Data easily handles elephantine Internet interactions.
Oh, and sustainable alternatives (including sewage) partially replace fossil fuels, microbes mitigate disasters, and origami is the key to building better airplanes and just about everything else one can fabricate.
A virtual lexicon of new-world language emerged in the deliveries; each speed spiel interrupted by quiet applause at the 7:45 minute mark to signal "time's up."
There was Bissell's "acinus," microscopic units coaxed into abandoning their tumoristic destinies to become normal phenotypes. Jagust's "amyloid plaques" were being stopped in their neurofibrillary, tangled ways by "secretase enzyme" blockers.
And the lingo wasn't reserved for the human body's realm: The natural world offered up abundant science-y verbiage.
Schlegel's "Sloan Digital Sky Survey" was mildly intimidating, but the numbers of photons hitting your body during a night in Tilden Park -- seven times 10 to the power of 17 -- were noteworthy. And don't even think about counting the massive army of experts or the sensors on a distributive radio telescope Bell's Big Data network can handle.
Think oil is simply oil? Simmons suggested unprecedented challenges lie ahead, and "integrated systems, diesel surrogates and artificial photosynthesis" are what will save the planet. Mukhopadhyay's favorite organism, "Desulfovibrio vulgaris" (say that three times, fast -- she did), is one of our "secret allies" in understanding environmental phenomena.
"Look what destroying one microbe (part of a sulfur cycle) did," she said, showing a PowerPoint image of Arizona's violent 2012 dust storms.
Zuckermann's speed science turned "peptide" into "peptoid," a one-letter swap resulting in new materials with superhero resistance to external, destabilizing elements.
Audience questions provided little relief for anyone lost in the carbon-nanosheet-polymer-biomass-dark-energy stew.
"If plants and sugar have carbon in them, how is that an advantage (over fossil fuels) if we burn them?" the first questioner asked.
The time interval to put renewable sources back to other uses is shorter than it is for fossil fuels. It closes the carbon cycle into one that is rapid, Simmons answered.
"How can I sign up for the clinical trial and prevent Alzheimer's?" several people wanted to know.
Jagust said a large campaign would announce the medical trial planned to take place at a number of medical centers, but strict criteria would be used to select participants.
Bissell answered a question about microenvironmental impacts on cancer, suggesting exercise is a major factor in preventing relapse.
Young audience members wowed the panel -- interrogating them about the biodegradability of engineered proteins, suggesting a redesign for large-scale telescopes, and posing intriguing possibilities for learning from protein fragments and their linear folding variations in response to stimulus.
If the evening of eight-minute speed science portended anything, these young, energized minds proved that the power of the human imagination will never be controlled by a clock.