Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

TED gets physical. And more than a little explicit.

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

The closing session on Friday at TED appears to be all about physics and movement. The dance troupe Capacitor premieres parts of a piece titled Urban Canopy, a set of pieces that involve interaction with large, organic-looking metal sculptures. We see a duet, a trio and a solo, as dancers climb around and manipulate metal rings that look like flowers, a butterfly, a cave. It’s slow, sensual, more than a little sexy and very beautiful.

They’re followed on stage by Ueli Gegenschatz, who is crazy, as far as I’m concerned. He tells us he’s “addicted to air”. What he means is that he’s addicted to jumping off things. He began with paragliding, then moved to skydiving, and eventually to skysurfing – diving with a stiff board allowing him to fall more slowly, and with twists and tricks. He’s best known for his wingsuit flying, jumping from high objects wearing a suit that allows him to control his rate of secent and fly laterally as well as down. Recent B.A.S.E. jumps have included a jump from the Matterhorn and from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Fitting with a theme about bodies, Mary Roach takes the stage and projects a slide titled, “Ten things you didn’t know about orgasms.” These are things she discovered while researching her new book, “Bonk“, about the science of sex.

1. You were having them in the womb. Possibly the most exciting paper ever in the journal of Ultrasound Medicine is a paper featuring “Observations of in utero masturbation.

2. You don’t need genitals. It’s a function of autonomic reflexes, not specifically by genital stimulus. People with paraplegia sometimes develop a very sensitive area just above their injury. One woman reported having orgasms every time she brushed her teeth – the woman found this very disturbing and switched to mouthwash for her oral hygiene needs.

3. You can have them when you’re dead. If you stimulate a nerve pathway in a beating heart cadaver, you can cause an orgasm.

4. Orgasms can cause bad breath – a scientist in the 1930s reported being able to detect a seminal odor on the breath of women after sex.

5. And cure the hiccups. She tells the story of an Israeli man with intractible hiccups who had sex, still hiccuping with his wife, and was cured. He wrote a paper proposing sex or masturbation as a cure for hiccups.

6. Doctors once prescribes orgasms for fertility. They believed that orgasmic contractions sucked the semen up to the egg and promoted conception. This theory was disproven through a study of female masturbation and radioactive fake semen in the 1950s. (Roach tells us that water and flour, or water and corn starch works well for creating fake semen.)

There’s actually good evolutionary reasons for men to masturbate – semen that sit around for more than a week tend to mutate and are less effective at impregnating eggs.

7. Pig farmers still do. If you sexually stimulate a sow while impregnating her, you’ll see better yields of piglets. She shows us a video of a man sexually stimulating a sow before fertilizing her – it’s precisely as crazy as you would imagine.

8. Female animals are having more fun than you think. We get to see the ejaculation face of the stuffed-tale macaque. Again, less titilating than you might imagine.

9. Studying human orgasm in a lab is not easy. Masters and Johnson, sexologists active in the 1950s, designed mechanical penises that contained cameras so they could study female orgasm. Roach is very upset that this machine is no longer available for study.

10. But it sure is entertaining.
Alfred Kinsey wanted to study the force of male ejaculation to test theories that it was related to fertilization. So he organized 300 men, a measuring tape and a camera. Most men don’t get much distance, she tells us, but the record-holder – sadly anonymous – was just shy of 8 feet.

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