Big ideas, from genomes to tweets |

Big ideas, from genomes to tweets

One of the premier events at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday featured a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, the House majority leader, a former treasury secretary and the CEO of Twitter, but Gabrielle Giffords stole the show.

The former congresswoman from Arizona who was seriously injured from a gunshot to her head in January 2011 drew a standing ovation at the Aspen Music Tent when her husband, Mark Kelly, helped her to the speaker podium. Kelly did most of the speaking, explaining that he and his wife aren’t opposed to gun ownership but feel it must come with responsibilities and common-sense restrictions.

Kelly and Giffords are co-founders of Americans for Responsible Solutions. The organization touts limited magazine size, criminal background checks and limited assault-weapon sales.

After a short speech by Kelly, Giffords took the podium and told the throng in attendance to be bold and persistent in the gun-control debate.

“Fight, fight, fight,” she said to applause.

Giffords faces serious impairments from the shooting, which Kelly called “devastating.” Her balance appears poor, and she walks with a shuffle. She used her left hand to prop her right arm on the speaker’s podium. But as Kelly noted, her spirit is intact.

They made their appearance at “An Afternoon of Conversation,” an event that’s become a focal point during the nine years of the Ideas Festival. The conversation features interviews and conversations with a handful of high-profile newsmakers and great thinkers. Following are some of the highlights from Saturday:

Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan said the transformed opinion of the American public on gay marriage over the past few years had no bearing on the Supreme Court’s decision last week in favor of marriage equality.

“I don’t think we read polls like that, and I don’t think polls influence what we do,” Kagan said. However, the justices are subject to the same changing times as everyone else, she noted.

For Kagan, the issue boiled down to a simple legal issue — Congress and state legislatures cannot pass a law based on moral disapproval except in very rare circumstances, she said.

Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, made it clear it’s going to take a lot of negotiation to reach a compromise on some of the biggest issues of the day. He criticized President Barack Obama for wanting to ease strains on Social Security and Medicare by raising taxes. House Republicans rightly would be criticized for raising taxes, he said. Instead, they will continue to focus on cutting expenses.

Cantor said the federal government must continue to provide a safety net for those “most vulnerable,” but he didn’t discuss what gets defined as vulnerable. He noted that 10,000 people per day turn 65 in the U.S.

“You can’t sustain it,” he said of Social Security benefits.

The immigration bill passed last week by the Senate will get a very thorough, deliberate examination by the House in coming weeks, Cantor said.

An interview of Twitter CEO Dock Costolo by Katie Couric provided some relief from the weighty subjects. Costolo likened his social media service to a global town square, where people can check out opinions and views on the news and issues of the day. Socio-economic barriers are “completely ripped apart” by Twitter, he said.

Twitter users send Tweets of no more than 140 characters. Costolo emphatically said he doesn’t believe it promotes shallow thinking, when pressed by Couric. It forces people to communicate in more creative ways than they did before. Twitter also has launched Vine, an app that allows users to post six video no more than six seconds long.

Costolo indicated that Twitter wouldn’t revise the 140-character limit.

“It’s probably safe to say that the 140 characters is sacrosanct,” he said.

An inspiring part of the conversation was a presentation by Eric Lander, a principal leader in the Human Genome Project. He said there has been a “remarkable revolution” in biomedicine in the past five years that isn’t on the radar of most people. The process of sequencing human genes has become much cheaper and quicker. Researchers are finding defects and mutations in genes that lead to everything from certain cancers to heart attacks at a young age and even schizophrenia.

Lander said we are moving closer to being able to come up with treatments to offset some of the gene mutations. Breakthroughs might not help his generation, he said, but they will benefit “our kids.”

“I’m a realist. We’re not going to cure everything,” Lander said. But he’s optimistic that the gene research will yield big results for humankind.

The Aspen Ideas Festival continues through Tuesday.

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