Starmus 2014

Update 29 September: Here’s the masterclass. Hope he does it again some time!

Photo: Auditorio de Tenerife

Update 27 September: Starmus bids goodbye to Tenerife today with a final day’s events in the Adán Martín auditorium in Santa Cruz. The hall is already filling for talks by Stephen Hawking and Alexei Leonov – the above picture has been released by the auditorium itself. There’s a live stream of the event HERE.

Last night the Magma Centre rocked at ear-splitting level to Rick Wakeman, joined on keyboards throughout the concert by his son Adam, current keyboard player for Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath. Rick explained that Adam had a break in his schedule and was delighted to join his father for the Starmus concert. Rick also said that he had been coming to Tenerife since 1985 but had never performed here before. That was well and truly set to rights last night, not least with the final piece of the set, Yes’ Starship Trooper.

As fantastic as many of the audience clearly found the concert, however, the universally acknowledged highlight was Brian May, who came on stage to give a guitar masterclass just over midway through the concert, switching to acoustic guitar for a rendition of Queen’s 39 – a piece written, he explained, from the perspective of a space traveller who returns, as Einstein forecast, in a short time to find that time has moved on much more on Earth. May also returned to the stage to play out the Starship Trooper finale. He might have been buzzing at how successful Starmus had been, but that will have been nothing to the buzz and memory that the audience will have had from hearing this music legend, and now Dr of astrophysics, perform.

Here are a couple of photos from last night … hasta la vista, one might say …

Photo: MAGMA Arte-Congresos
Photo tweet @mariatmccstar
Photo tweet @mariatmccstar

Quick link for Starmus programme HERE.

Copyright: Cheryl LaMontagne

Update 24 September: Today’s conference talks were the last real lectures of Starmus 2014, at least in the south – there’s a major day of talks on Saturday in the Santa Cruz auditorium, including Alexei Leonov and Stephen Hawking’s second lecture. Today could have been a bit of a let down after the fireworks of Dawkins and Hawking yesterday and Monday, but that was very far from the case!

First up was Charlie Duke, astronaut from the Apollo 16 mission, and the only one at the conference, I believe, who has been on the moon, and it was indeed incredible to contemplate sharing the conference hall with someone who is amongst just a handful of people who have stood on a world other than our Earth! Charlie’s talk of the Apollo 16 mission and the moon landing was fascinating and inspiring, but he digressed at the end to share his views on Christianity and astrology . The juxtaposition of a scientific talk by an astronaut who’d been to the moon with the espousal of religion and a Christian interpretation of the zodiac was bemusing, and given that Richard Dawkins was in the front row of the audience, somewhere on a line from brave to, um, let’s say moonstruck!

The second talk was by Harold Kroto, chemist and Nobel Laureate. His talk was about Carbon in Nano and Outer Space. A bundle of laughs, some might think … but they’d be right! This was no dull talk, and this was no ordinary Nobel Laureate. They are generally humble and normal people, I’ve found from the few I’ve come into contact with, but Kroto is something else. This is a man who loves jokes and puns, who loves – and draws – graphics and cartoons, a man who loves wine, and play! A graduate of Sheffield, Harry – or rather, Sir Harold! – is now emeritus professor at the University of Sussex where he spent most of his career, and Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University. His lecture ranged from cartoon images, to wine, to the need for lack of pressure, to the essential nature of play, and of course to his discovery of C60, the first fullerene molecule to be discovered, and the reason for his Nobel prize. If any talk encapsulated Brian May’s dictum about the interrelated and interdisciplinary nature of studies into humanity and its place in the universe, the underlying ethos of Starmus, it was Harold Kroto’s, and the delegates clearly recognized this, giving the Laureate chemist a standing ovation.

After coffee, astronaut Walt Cunningham took the stand, and gave an utterly inspiring talk about his involvement in the Apollo 7 mission and about the Apollo programme overall. Cunningham took as his theme not space, nor the moon, but the nature of adventure itself. He ranged from political correctness to the risk-averse nature of business and society today, something which would have meant the Apollo programme had literally never got off the ground. He said that future generations would not thank us for the caution and care we’d taken, but they would thank the Apollo teams who were prepared to die in the name of adventure, fearing nothing as much as failure. Exploration of any sort, he explained, was not about avoiding risk, but managing it, and at times it is just necessary to do what’s right, regardless of what’s safe! Another talk that was pure inspiration: Brian May must have been buzzing!

Today’s talks were rounded off by particle physicist John Ellis who, in a summary of particle physics, discussed the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle. Using a snowfield analogy, he described photons as skiers, electrons as walkers with snowshoes – a bit more mass and so slower, and large mass particles as hikers, sinking as they tried to walk in shoes. The Higgs Boson, he explained, was a snowflake in this scene! But what a snowflake! It explained nothing short of mass itself, and reaction to its discovery could validly be described as “mass Higgsteria”!

Delegates are tonight off to the Teide Starmus party, a stargazing expedition with guided tour of the Añaza observatory. This will be followed tomorrow and Friday by excursions to both Tenerife and La Palma observatories, with VIP guests and speakers having a round table discussion on La Palma which will be beamed back for the delegate audience in the Abama. Friday evening is, of course, the event that many are anticipating avidly, the Sonic Universe concert in the Magma Centre with Brian May and Rick Wakefield.

Update 23 September 10pm: Today’s Starmus transferred to the Magma Centre for the highlight lecture by Stephen Hawking. First, though, there was a visually stunning talk by Brian May, indulging – as he put it – his new passion for producing 3D photographs. In a talk that ranged from the Victorian introduction of stereoscopy to May’s own innovations, the audience was given a guided tour of the solar system in 3D photos. Apart from Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon in absolutely clear 3D, the conference was also given a sneak preview of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as seen from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta satellite. Not only was the shape of the comet surprising – it is more like a deformed peanut than the dumbells originally thought – stereoscopic magic applied to Rosetta’s pictures stood the audience right on the comet itself. Utterly mesmerizing and visually unforgettable!

Brian May was followed by John Mather, an astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate, who looked at travelling in space and time with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a collaboration of scientists from 17 nations which is set to be launched nearly 1m miles into space to study the formation of stars and galaxies. If the audience thought that the Magma conference hall was full, however, it had another think coming as there was standing room only after the coffee break for Stephen Hawking.

The professor was given a rock star’s entry, as the big screen on the stage lit up and lighting swirled above creating a starry night effect as the famous wheelchair was brought on stage. Throughout his talk, you could have heard a pin drop, and if the audience was rapt during Richard Dawkins lecture yesterday, the hall was on tenterhooks today. Even “hello, can you hear me” got rapturous applause, and although the scientific detail of the lecture would have been over the heads of many, if not most, of the audience, the professor has clearly mastered the technique of using humour and everyday language to get his point across.

A scene from Star Trek’s holodeck was played where Stephen Hawking was playing poker with Einstein and Data, and a rather grumpy Newton. Of course Hawking won the argument, and the game! He told a story about attending a conference in the Vatican, and hearing the Pope say that it was fine to debate the universe – after the moment of creation, but not before – and hoping His Holiness never found out that that was precisely the nature of Hawking’s talk at the conference! To those who found the whole subject baffling, mystifying and mind-bogglingly difficult, he quoted St Augustine: when asked, ‘what did God do before he created the universe?’ St. Augustine said “he was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions”!

After some of the more detailed science some might have had sympathy with St Augustine’s questioner, but Hawking clearly has an understanding of how much, or little, ordinary brains can absorb. Suffice to say, perhaps, that he drew an analogy of the start of time with the south pole. Thinking of the earth in isolation as a sphere, he asked “what is below the south pole”. Clearly the answer is “nothing”. This is how one should envisage space-time, he explained: the point at which it all began expanded out in all directions, in all space, creating time as it went. There can be no before – but by the same token, there is no start either. It’s the sort of stuff that one can rationally understand, for a split second before it slips through comprehension, leaving just as much confusion as before. Enough, perhaps, just to have been in the man’s presence, and to have glimpsed the possibility of understanding for a split second.

It’s not only Prof Hawkins who has the human touch. Yesterday’s conference has been reported by the Daily Mail, an article submitted by a reporter who used the precious time with perhaps the world’s most famous evolutionary biologist and rationalist, Richard Dawkins, to ask whether one of the conditions he thought necessary for alien life might be the need to have sex: the article is HERE.

Meanwhile, I leave today’s conference with a major criticism of the Magma Centre, whose ethos seems to be that delegates will do as they’re told, stand in the blazing sun without shade until the centre is ready to admit them, and may not have any water to drink until break time. I could go into considerable detail about the disgrace that the Magma Centre produced today, but it would detract from the excellence of the conference and the general organization, and that is not to be contemplated. Anyone thinking of organizing a conference in Tenerife, however, might do well to compare the superb offering of the Abama Hotel to the appalling and arrogant treatment by Magma management of delegates – some Nobel laureates – who had paid to attend a conference and were treated to the worst kind of hospitality the Canaries is capable of.

Update 23 September: Starmus got underway yesterday with organizer Garik Israelian at the opening ceremony. Starting as it is clearly intended to go on, famous names and faces filled the stage, with legendary Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first human to walk in space, wishing the conference well – Alexei Leonov will be addressing the conference in the Santa Cruz auditorium on Saturday.

With just five minutes warning, Israelian had prevailed on Richard Dawkins and Brian May – two men he said had inspired him enormously in their different ways – to give a brief welcome address. Unscripted, Dawkins said that Starmus had brought together scientists and astronauts, both explorers of a type, using the same techniques, one in space and the other in the mind, both seeking to enlighten human understanding by exploration. In terms of exploration, he said that astronomers used observatories as symbolic eyes, humanity’s eyes.

In terms of symbolism, there was ltitle more symbolic, said Brian May, than the gathering together of all those representative of humanity’s striving to the future – science, humanitarians, musicians, and those who inspired, and all gathered in a “mad and wonderful enterprise” which could not have happened without the genius of Garik Israelian. The two have known each other for some time, with Israelian mentoring May’s PhD thesis and their mutual friendship and respect was very clear to see. Each of these speakers was given the most enthusiastic of welcomes, but perhaps the most emphatic was a standing ovation for Professor Stephen Hawking, who gives the first of two talks today – the second is on Saturday in the Santa Cruz auditorium.

The first panel comprised talks from Nobel Laureate Robert Wilson on the postgraduate research which won him a Nobel prize in 1978 for the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation. He was followed by David J. Eicher, editor in chief of Astronomy magazine, who talked about how astronomy is presented in the media, and how the demographic is ageing – where are new astronomers coming from, and what image will they have of the discipline, he asked, if everything is either dumbed down or sexed up?

After coffee, the hall was rapt for Richard Dawkins’ wonderings about what alien life might look like, and what the necessary or inevitable conditions might be, if we were ever able to reach it. That it existed was effectively taken for granted, but might it have eyes? What sort of ears? It might have to be “intelligent”, but did it actually have to be conscious? Could it even have wheels … ? Today’s session was rounded off by Katerina Harvati’s paper on early humans and their contemporary Neanderthal competitors, looking to the past, as she said, and our origins, in a different way to astronomers but a way which, none the less, provided glimpses into our own humanity and our place in the universe.

And that was just the first day! The Abama hotel provided a gorgeous backdrop for an event which has brought together a stellar array of names the like of which Tenerife rarely sees! Brian May, who gives his paper today, said in his introductory welcome that the conference could not have happened without the genius of Garik Israelian, a genius witnessed by the 800 or so people present for the start of the second Starmus – the first, two years ago, attracted 60! The organizers were clearly blown away by the support and enthusiasm that the conferences are generating, and Brian May said the reaction to the second Starmus had been an “amazing response”, and he urged everyone to ”enjoy this great moment”.

Update 22 September: Today’s the day. One of the most illustrious gatherings of the international intelligentsia is already convening in the Abama Hotel for a week of talks and events as the Starmus conference gets underway. I’ll post reports and photos as the conference proceeds.

The original post with the build-up, arrangements and organization information is HERE.

1 Comment

  1. I hope there are going to be some very strong letters of complaint to the Magma Centre management. How disgraceful and embarrassing to treat people in this way. I’m really pleased that it didn’t detract from the main events though.

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