Starmus Festival IV: Life And The Universe
The Starmus International Festival was held this year, June 18–23, 2017, in Trondheim, Norway. Starmus is an international gathering focused on celebrating astronomy, space exploration, music, art, and allied sciences such as biology and chemistry. It was founded by Garik Israelian, an astronomer at the Institute for Astrophysics in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The Festival has featured Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Alexei Leonov, Jim Lovell, Brian May (English musiciaN), Jill Tarter, Kip Thorne, and Rick Wakeman among others. This year Brian Eno gave the keynote speach opening the Festival.
In 2007 Brian May, founding guitarist of the rock band Queen, completed his PhD dissertation, which was left unfinished in 1974 when Queen began to achieve significant success. May’s work focused on zodiacal dust in the Solar System. He had studied at Tenerife earlier through Imperial College in London, and resumed work there more than 30 years later. In 2007, his new advisor was Garik Israelian, and the two struck up a friendship, Israelian also being a musician. This led to the founding of the Starmus Festival—the name paying homage to stars and music—and the stage was set for the first Festival, which would occur four years later.
The festival has occurred in 2011, 2014 and 2016 in Tenerife, Spain. The fourth Starmus festival was held in Trondheim, Norway from June 18 to 23, 2017, under the title “Life And The Universe”.
The festival is described as an event where “the greatest minds in space exploration, astronomy, cosmology, and planetary science get together for a week of incredible talks, sharing of information, and appreciation of the knowledge we have of space and the universe.” This year there were enough brains and Brians to fill the multiverse
Brians Cox, Eno and May joined Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins in Tenerife to celebrate the synergy between astronomy and music, while astronaut Chris Hadfield, interviewed below, talked of our innate instinct to explore
In Starmus IV, gathered around the giant pool of the Mediterranean Palace hotel in Tenerife, hundreds of people focused on a familiar star. As pounding bass-filled music booms out of the PA, a great mass of the young, the middle-aged and the old are all glazed with submission as they appear to seek the meaning of the universe in the transformative process of ultraviolet radiation.
A few yards away in a darkened auditorium beneath a strange mock pinkish pyramid the Starmus festival was under way. Dedicated to celebrating a synthesis between astronomy and music that is of a more transcendent kind than that practiced around the Mediterranean Palace pool, it has drawn hundreds of people focused on very different but no less familiar stars: Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Brian May and, the greatest scientific supernova of them all, Stephen Hawking.
These, along with 11 Nobel laureates, were some of the leading speakers at the third Starmus festival at the Pirámide de Arona, an island of vaulting intellectual aspiration surrounded by tourist hotels with armies of sunbathers fastened to their poolside loungers as if by superglue.
Starmus is an unusual affair, but not necessarily for its setting. It’s not a typical science conference for academics at which new papers are presented. Nor is it a typical public talk designed to popularize established academic theories. Instead it’s a sort of hybrid—at once specialist and popularizing, openly public, and yet sufficiently off-circuit to feel discreetly private. It also seeks to bridge the separate worlds of science and the arts or, more specifically, music and cosmology.
The original idea was to do a concert at La Palma observatory, which features the world’s largest optical and infrared telescope. A disarming 53-year-old with a scattershot charm, Israelian had been working at NASA “trying to get acoustic sound waves in stellar atmospheres” and wondered if musicians might be able to use his collection. He approached Jean-Michel Jarre, who was keen on the idea, only for the concert to be cancelled when the Canary Islands government withdrew funding.
Undeterred, Israelian decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight with a festival in 2011. That was the first Starmus. In one sense it was a tremendous success because the keynote speaker was Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon and someone whose public appearances were so rare as to raise suspicion of their authenticity.
“When we announced Neil Armstrong was coming,” Israelian recalls, “we completely lost our credibility because no one believed he was going to be there. People said we were crazy. It was the worst thing we could do. And then he came!”
Armstrong’s fellow crew member Buzz Aldrin was also there, as well as Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 who was played by Tom Hanks in the eponymous film. In addition there was the progressive electronic band Tangerine Dream.
However, in financial terms it was a disaster. Admission was free for most visitors, there was no sponsorship, and Israelian and his co-producers were left to pick up a hefty bill. But that didn’t stop them holding a second Starmus, again on Tenerife. This time Stephen Hawking came. He was a massive draw, but once again the festival lost money. Israelian talks darkly of broken promises by the Canary Islands government and the disappointing lack of sponsorship.
They say that one definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and to expect different results. If so, then Israelian is mad in the best tradition of mad professors, because he came back for a third time with a cast list that was starrier than ever.
Not until you’ve seen Brian Cox at a gathering of science buffs can you appreciate how much the awe-filled physicist and TV personality is adored by his public. To walk alongside him though the Pirámide de Arona is to be submerged by a sea of autograph hunters and selfie-takers. Unlike Dawkins, who looks as if he can’t wait to get to the green room, Cox seems to relish the attention. What did he think of his first Starmus?
“It’s brilliant,” he says, tucking into an ice-cream. “There’s a lot of time to talk to the speakers. And you don’t normally get people like Brian Eno, Brian May and Hans Zimmer in the same room as Stephen Hawking and Joe Stiglitz.”
Starmus IV featured a lecture by Brian Eno. Eno’s discussed the intimate relationship between science and art, one the legendary music producer and former Roxy Music synthesizer player characterized as “science discovers and art digests”.
“He’s right,” says Cox. “If you look at the history of astronomy, these ideas of finding our place in the universe have had a massive social impact. The obvious one is the relegation of the Earth from the centre of it. That battle to define whether or not we’re special was one of the defining battles of the 17th century onward. Our physical demotion is now widely accepted, but what of the emotional impact if you start talking as Brian Greene and Martin Rees [two other speakers] did about the multiverse. What does it mean if there are an infinite number of these pocket universes? If that’s the case, we’re not geographically significant. We’re not even lucky. We’re just inevitable. Does that matter?”
Good question, but I’m not sure that I’ve fully mastered the concept of an infinite number of pocket universes, so I silently nod with as much sagacity as I can muster.
“The fact that we’re in an insignificant physical speck in a possibly infinite universe,” he continues, “is as easy or difficult to accept as that we are a very tiny temporal speck in a possibly infinite time span. We know how to deal with that, with death and a finite life time. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn. But it’s a conversation that won’t be had by physicists. It’s a conversation that’s best had in art, philosophy, literature and theology. That’s where the meaning of the things we discover about the universe is teased out.”
Israelian was asked if the lack of diversity was an issue for him. “No, no. I don’t think about such things,” he said, irritated by the question. “I invited many female scientists and they couldn’t come. I’ve got limited time—I cannot keep inviting people to get 50%. That’s not my problem.”
The round table debate turned out to be quite dull, with everyone speaking in optimistic platitudes or pessimistic generalities. It’s not a forum for deep expertise but strong opinion and it turns out that in a group debate the sum is less than its parts.
The debate is streamed live on the internet and also into the auditorium beneath the pyramid in Tenerife, which is about half full. The crowd at Starmus is much younger on average than the speakers and, in terms of gender at least, much more representative of the outside world.
A 40-year-old physics student, Raquel Rodriguez, was interviewed. If you were looking for a stereotype of an astro-nerd, then Rodriguez is not where you’d start. She looks like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and said her favorite area of discussion is “dark matter and quantum physics”.
Then there’s a 32-year-old Norwegian nurse called Guro Nygård. Her brother brought her for the week as a birthday present. She’s fascinated by astronomy, she says, though this is the first time she’s been to such an event. Her personal highlight from the week was seeing Hawking. “He’s unbelievable,” she says. “His personal history is truly amazing.”
Both women noticed the imbalance between men and women but both believed the key thing was to get the best people and that gender, in the short term, was a secondary issue.
Thirty-six-year-old Sam Alexandroni was talking to a neuroscientist, a brain surgeon and a rocket sci-entist. He used to be a journalist at the New Statesman, he said, but now he’s writing a novel. “My teachers did a miserable job at school of communicating the wonder of science. Having discovered it later in life, events like this are brilliant for communicating ideas,” he says. As for combining the sciences and the arts, Alexandroni is all for it, though he says he’s “yet to experience the synergy” at Starmus.
Starmus IV highlighted moonwalkers and women scientists.