Starmus 2016 opened with Nobel Laureate Adam Riess talking about Exploding Stars and The Accelerating Universe. He described how his research into red shift and dark energy has shown that not only is the universe expanding, the rate of expansion is increasing – the universe is flying apart at an ever faster rate. Some 70% of it is dark energy, but why? Indeed, what is it?! What his research showed, however, was that Einstein’s General Relativity wasn’t completely right, and might need modifying. Riess then explored how one of the oldest forms of astronomical measurement, parallax, had been used to calibrate red shift first in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and then other galaxies, and then supernovae, and then compared the readings with background radiation from 100,000 years after the Big Bang, some 13 billion years ago. The universe is expanding so quickly, he explained, that it will double in size again in 8 billion years.
Riess was followed by Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist particularly known for String Theory and highly popular author of The Elegant Universe, who discussed how dark energy could be called repulsive gravity, pushing things apart, but that this large component of the universe was a complete mystery – for which string theory was just one possible model. The idea is that “strings” are filaments of energy whose differential vibrations create particles. Bringing gravity and quantum mechanics together, it envisaged different universes all of which produced different physics. Again, science was only a part of it, and Greene mused that just as our life on this planet is a function of our environment rather than a design specifically made for us, so our physics is a function of our own particular universe, without which it could not take the form it has. Other universes in the multiverse, however, will have completely different physics, which could result in variant forms – or even concepts – of life.
Greene stressed that the model is probably wrong, and that he doesn’t believe it, but that was his point: “belief” has no place in science, and that we have to think, reason, experiment, and be prepared to be wrong. Picking up on Riess’ discussion of the expanding universe, he said that there will come a point when distance will overcome light’s ability to reach us. Thus future astronomers will look out and see nothing but our own local patch of the universe, with blackness beyond. If only we could send a note to them, he said, to say “we’re here – or we were here – you just can’t see us”! His talk was pure inspirational astrophysical philosophy which had the audience spellbound, and whooping at the end with prolonged and tumultuous applause.
The third speaker was another Nobel Laureate, Robert Wilson, who described the postgraduate research which won him a Nobel prize in 1978 for the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation – this was the man, indeed, who proved the Big Bang Theory! He was followed by an informal chat in the easy chairs on stage between Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson – who expressed his wish henceforth to be known as Brian given the numbers of Brians in the conference! They discussed ways and methods of communicating science in the 21st century, and how this differed between the UK and USA.
Naturally, it wasn’t just about science, but again “belief”, and what they identified as the current anti-intellectual, anti-reason, and anti-evidence trend for populism in society, culture and politics – given “Brian” Tyson’s nationality it wasn’t hard to imagine who he was referring to … . As he said, you can’t just tell people “go learn science” because that’s part of what they’re reacting against. Communicating science means finding pathways towards interest and inspiration, to make reality more appealing than fantasy … and to make the Big Bang Theory (the physics) more interesting than the Big Bang Theory (the television show), to which at the moment, Google results show, it comes second! We have to connect science with things people are interested in, Tyson said, musing that one of his most popular tweets concerned lightbulbs, and Beyonce!
The pair were followed by Alfred McEwen who talked about the Viking and Phoenix missions to Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. There are five orbiters around Mars right now, he said, and another on the way, with two rovers actually on the surface of the red planet. The telescope he had designed is the largest ever sent to another planet, giving incredible definition of one foot per pixel, by which we can see silica deposits, volcanic mud flows and gullies, all major life source areas on Earth. The significance is not that there might be “life on Mars”, he said, though if there was life there in the past, it could still survive in these areas, but that it could help future research establish how life arose on it and the Earth, and what connection there might be between the two. When it came to Europa, the issue wasn’t how little water there was, but how much, with the moon of the largest planet in our solar system having an enormous salt water ocean – twice or even three times as much water as is on Earth. But more water doesn’t necessarily equal more chance of life, McEwen explained, and as we see on Earth, most sea life is coastal, rather than at depth. Future missions will find out which of the two has the best chance of discovering life, even if it’s “not life as we know it”.
The first session was rounded off by Anthony McCarten, a New Zealand film maker who wrote and produced The Theory of Everything, the film starring Eddie Redmayne about Professor Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane. He recounted how he’d taken the script to Cambridge with his heart in his mouth: how many people would want their life story written by their ex-wife, he asked! He gave a heartfelt and rousing eulogy of Hawking, who was in the audience listening to him. Fittingly, in the conference which is itself in Hawking’s honour, he called directly on the Nobel committee to do the right thing and give the “rock star” his just desserts.
The second session of the day was started by Barry Barish, who was instrumental in making the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) an actual experiment rather than just a research and development project. LIGO detects cosmic gravitational waves and Barish gave the conference its latest results – bang up to date as of just ten days ago! He explained how these waves were measured and showed graphs of the filtered readings. This is brand new science – gravitational waves were considered a possibility by Einstein, but only now have they actually been proven to exist, though their nature and how they’re carried is a whole new field to be explored as the entire bandwith of the waves is researched.
Barish was followed by science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, who talked about the genre not as predictive, but as observational and speculative. It doesn’t “make it all up”, he explained, but looks at the present and extrapolates. Their work has to be plausible, and often looks back as well as forward, taking history as an exemplar of what can happen when you take humans and our species’ changeability, as well as the exponential nature of change, into account. For example, he said, anyone who followed technological developments could have predicted the car, but perhaps only a sci-fi author could have foreseen traffic jams! More importantly, authors in this genre are not bound by secrecy or national security concerns, nor commercial ones, and so can say things that scientists sometimes are not able to – or not allowed to – and so can bring science, not just science fiction, to the public in an extremely accessible, as well as imaginative, way.
In much the same vein, the next speaker, Peter Schwarz, talked about artificial intelligence, and whether we need to fear it. Is it a dream or a nightmare, he wondered, and will the many little ways in which artificial intelligence is already woven into our lives – like cookies on the internet, or smart phones – result in a “Terminator scenario”, or is there a fundamental difference between “little AI” and “big AI”. Indeed, to a large extent, it seems, it is in our inability to answer such questions that the biggest problems could lie, because we could be overtaken by unexpected developments – an intelligent machine designed by man could design its own intelligent machine and humans could be overwhelmed by the exponential increase in intelligence. Trying to foresee the potential problems – scenario planning – was the real problem, he argued, but what was clear was that when you assess where the brightest doctoral and post-doc students were going, and where the research money was going, and where the markets were investing, Artificial Intelligence “is where it’s all at right now”!
Joel Parker was up next, to describe his involvement in the Rosetta and New Horizons missions to comet 67P and Pluto. Parker showed the blurred images of both the comet and Pluto before the missions, and the utterly sharp and clear images now available. Of course, the real coup, he said, is that thanks to the washing-machine sized Philae lander, “we landed on a comet”! It was a descriptive talk, in some ways, about the missions, but it was utterly enthralling. The detail with which we can now see Pluto is mind-blowing, and even though it might not be “a planet”, Parker said, it’s King of the Kuiper Belt, that area of our solar system that’s like an outer asteroid belt, the area full of “space debris” where comets come from.
And of course it’s the comet 67P that was the star of his talk, and he explained how it seems to be two different masses stuck together to give the familiar “duck” shape which he illustrated with a photo of the comet and a rubber duck, and made it relevant to Tenerife by comparing the comet with Mount Teide, than which it was only slightly taller – his image superimposing one next to the other again made the audience laugh. Parker saved the best picture for last, however, one taken from Rosetta, looking back at 67P showing the solar panels of the probe in front of the comet. His favourite picture, he said, which blew his mind when he thought that his own hands had touched the panels of the probe in the shot which was photographed so far away, against the background of literally another world. Rosetta’s own selfie! The audience wasn’t laughing any more, it was dumbstruck and in awe. This was an utterly magical talk, and Parker got an incredible reaction from the audience.
The penultimate speaker, Steve Balbus, took the audience back some 380 million years to the Devonian period on Earth, and explained how the pre-Pangaea crust formed two land masses, the Laurasian and Gondwanan, whose composition meant that a tidal channel was formed similar in a way to the obviously far smaller Bristol channel, or the English channel, or the fossil-rich Bay of Fundy in north east America. As McEwen had said earlier, most sea life is coastal, and so it is these channels which provide the ebb and flow in a coastal environment most conducive to life, and to its possibility of adapting to life out of the water. In the Devonian period, this created a marginal intertidal habitat, affected above all by the regularity created by the virtual equivalence of the tidal forces of the Sun and Moon, and by the earth and leaf debris from the massive Devonian trees which made shallow water inhospitable, and encouraged life, inreasingly adapted to an airy environment, to leave the sea for the first time.
The first day was rounded off by another Nobel Laureate, Eric Betzig, who looked at the history of lenses, both as microscopes and telescopes. Whether you went big or small, the message was, what you ended up with was perspective! It was inspiring in its own way to hear a Nobel prize winner clearly see himself in terms of insigificance but the whole message of “perspective” summed up the day perfectly. From a pre-single-continental land-mass Earth in the Devonian period to the future investigation of Einstein’s promised gravitational waves, from the heart-shaped nitrogen ice plain – the “Sputnik Planum” – on Pluto to space selfies, and from Terminator robots to the multiverse envisaged by String Theory, if yesterday gave anything, it was perspective!
Day two started with Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt talking about his work with Adam Riess, who opened yesterday’s first session. Schmidt picked up on the expanding universe theme, and the way in which the expansion and its increasing rate was measured, and then explained how Einstein’s theory made sense of observations. This could be seen if one ran the expansion backwards towards the Big Bang, which instead of a start, could be viewed as an end point – a Gnab Gib, he said he liked to call it, explaining that this was Big Bang backwards in case anyone didn’t get the pun! This would see everything coming together, getting closer, compressing ever more, until reaching the moment just before the Gnab Gib (or just after the Big Bang!) around 14 billion years ago. And yet, even allowing dark energy to be repulsive gravity, as Brian Greene discussed yesterday, it wasn’t enough – there’s too much gravity for the amount of matter we see, Schmidt said. The only answer can be that much is invisible, so there’s dark matter as well as dark energy. What dark matter actually is is another question altogether – perhaps some undiscovered particle – but whatever it is, it’s everywhere, and it means that some 70% of our universe is actually invisible.
A different approach to the Big Bang was taken by Sir Roger Penrose, who used geometry – and an overhead projector (from a museum, he said!) – to look at what happened just before the Big Bang, rather than the usual approach of looking at what happened just afterwards. As he explained, size is not part of hyperbolic geometry, and when looking at the traditional inverse cone-shaped diagram used to show the expansion of the universe, this allows you to squash down infinity, i.e. to represent infinity finitely, or stretch out the Big Bang start point at the other end. By doing so, you can find that geometry gives you a tube, rather than a cone, which means there wouldn’t have to be an explosive expansion immediately after the Big Bang at all, and could suggest that the perceived expansion took place before the critical event. It would then naturally follow, of course, that there was not one Big Bang, nor an infinite universe, but a repeated series of them.
The third speaker, Chris Rapley, changed the tone completely and looked at the Earth from the perspective of the famous full globe photo, known as the Blue Marble, taken from Apollo 17. This photo, Rapley said, changed humanity’s view of the planet, and made us see it as our life support system. How many of us, he asked, would tamper with the life support system if we were on a spacecraft? And yet that’s exactly what we’ve done, to the extent that this is now known as the Anthropocene, a period in which we ourselves are the dominant influence on the planet, and by definition, its climate and environment. Rapley showed graphs with natural greenhouse effect waves, in 110,000 year cycles for 850,000 years: the pattern was a typical wave … until the last 100 years, then the final rising vertical doubled the natural cycle as the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere itself doubled.
He also showed a gif of a Reading University dataset from that last 100 years which went viral recently on the internet because it showed not just the increasing temperature, but its exponential growth, veering off sharply towards the 2% maximum temperature increase that climate scientists say is a danger point we cannot afford to reach. Even if we keep within the limits of last year’s Paris agreement, Rapley explained, there will come a point at which decisions have to be made, such as whether to keep pouring money into the lost cause of preserving London, or abandoning it and moving upriver, because rising sea levels, a function of their increasing temperature as well as iceberg melt, meant that wholesale flooding was inevitable. Climate change was revealed by science, Rapley said, but it wasn’t about science. It was, rather, about the world we want to live in, and the choices we have to make to make those desires come to pass.
The mood was lightened by the last slot before coffee by Jill Tartar and Neil deGrasse Tyson who had an informal discussion in the easy chairs on stage rather than a formal presentation. At times this was hilarious, at others, deeply thought-provoking. As one example, Tyson considered the relationship between chimps and humans. The DNA was so similar, he said, there’s just 1% difference between us really. And yet look at that difference. At best, the smartest chimp could do what a toddler could do, using a stick to manipulate something, for example, or building blocks. Imagine if an alien species were “just” 1% smarter than us! Indeed, given that the history of encounters between smart and dumb cultures, we should hope that anyone smart enough to get to us here is also kind enough to treat us nicely, having identified that there’s no real intelligent life on Earth! Perhaps they’d make a zoo to put us in … perhaps they already have …
He turned then to Stephen Hawking’s idea of interplanetary travel, and sharing out humanity so as to spread the risk of the species being wiped out. While he had some sympathy for the view, Tyson said, the sheer scale of effort involved in terraforming Mars, and then shipping four billion people there is more effort than needed actually to try to prevent some of the problems we’re trying to spread the risk about! Instead of all that travel, just develop something that’ll divert stray asteroids! He finished off by musing on the possibilitiy for intelligent life to have evolved elsewhere in the universe – he thinks intelligence is rare given how rare it is generally in species that we know, though he acknowledged that each species would consider intelligence from its own perspective! But finding life in the universe is a different matter, he suggested, to finding intelligent life.
As to the potentially even more intelligent AI, “bring it on” was his cry. He wasn’t fearful of machines, he said – after all, you could always pull out the plug! The generation of teenagers today, which he dubbed Generation Exoplanet since they’re the first generation to grow up in a world where we know of other planetary systems, have a different relationship to knowledge, and are not afraid of exploration, technology, and science. The Earth is smaller to them than it has been to any other generation ever, he said, and there is no generation on which he’d rather pin his hopes. It’s just a shame they’re not old enough yet to be in power!
It was a hard act to follow, but Eugene Kapersky gave the delegates food for thought in describing the different types of cyber crimes that posed risks to them. Scientists perhaps above all, he said, were at risk because they were so focused on the science that they forgot about security! Some 2.2m viruses are cropping up each week, he said, whether the typical virus that makes personal computers crash or major scams affecting business, industry and government. Globally, cyber crime costs some 500,000 billion dollars a year – half a trillion dollars! The Gagarin Telescope only costs 2 billion, he exclaimed! Cyber crime costs, and that’s without the possibility of cyber terrorism and sabotage. It’s a constant battle discovering problems, making improvements, creating innovations, and using them, and starting the wheel again by discovering new problems, and so on.
After the coffee break there was a performance by David Zambuka, a “mind reader”, “psychic entertainer”, or “mentalist”, and time traveller! Throwing a sponge brick around he asked those who caught it to pick a random word out of a book, another to take the first four digits of his phone number and multiply them by themselves, another to choose a couple of symbols from the Periodic Table, and another to pick his favourite chocolate bar … avoiding the obvious in a Starmus context, like Galaxy and Mars! He ended up with four lines written on a whiteboard: Uncertain; 92,275,236; V Pb; Twix. Then Brian Cox was called up on stage to hand over the key he’d been looking after since lunchtime, the key to a locked wooden box suspended from a frame which had been on stage the whole while. When the box was opened, inside was a capsule, and inside that was a roll of paper … on which was written Uncertain; 92,275,236; V Pb; Twix. Zambula said he’d gone to the future earlier and written down the answer that he’d seen on the board, as a demonstration of the secret equation that explained everything. He was hilarious, engaging, and mystifying, so in his own way, a perfect addition to the Starmus experience!
In what is now clearly a traditional Starmus juxtaposition, this time-traveller was followed by Nobel Laureate Edward Moser, who looked at how our brains map our very close local space. Describing it through experiments conducted on rats, he explained that hippocampal cells are largely place cells, and their source is outside the hippocampus, in the entorhinal cortex. These cells form spatial fields with a periodic hexagonal struture which forms a grid covering the entire space available to us – or at least to rats and other small mammals. Moreover, spatial awareness and memory have a clear connection: space is the framework for memory, he said, and these place cells also help with keeping memories apart, and stopping them jumbling together, just as they allow us to remember routes without mixing them up with all other directions we take in our close environment. Again, this is early science, he said, but the bridge between psychology and physiology is being spanned.
Danny Hillis took to the stage next to discuss the increasingly blurred distinction bewteen the natural and the mechanical, and how both could be said to evolve. We control the nature of birth through genetics, he said, and are inspired by evolution to create machines. Machines are becoming more biological just as biology is becoming more mechanical. We have increasing capacity to mediate our enironment, destroying smallpox, for example, or mutating mosquitos only to have male young in order to wipe out the species. We have choices, and increasingly we have real possibilities to bring back species that have become extinct.
Hillis was speaking against a background of slides, and these helped to bring his words to life, as we saw images that at times were hard to distinguish clearly as either biology or mechanics. Ultimately, there were images of new robots which look like children interspersed with images of real chidren, and it really was impossible to tell the difference. In the future, Hillis, suggested, we would use prosthetics not just for eyes, or limbs, but for memory and thinking ability: is this artificial? or biological? Or in fact a mix? We are beginning to live, he argued, in an entangled jungle of our own creation, which will see less and less difference between the natural and the mechanical, and will get used to it more and more.
The final presentation proper was given by Carolyn Porco about her involvement with the Cassini mission to Saturn. This was a highly visual talk, understandable given that Porco led the imaging science team for Cassini. There were some spectacular images, not least of Saturn’s rings, but the last third of her talk started to bring tears to the eyes and make hairs stand on end when she started talking about the Pale Blue Dot. This, of course, is Carl Sagan’s description of the Earth in an image taken by Voyager 1 as it left the Solar System, and Porco showed the early image which was meant to be the Earth against a sea of stars, as Sagan envisaged it, but which was, in fact, distorted by interference of scattered sunlight even though the pale blue dot itself could be seen.
Porco had worked with Sagan, and fought (she had to fight!) to have Cassini turn around and take a photo of Earth from Saturn … another go at producing an image of a pale blue dot. But this time, she said, they advertised it in advance, so that people knew that if they looked up at Saturn at a particular time, there’d be a camera there looking back at them. They could then think about the enormity and rarity of what was happening, and how they were in unity with humanity and the universe. She read out some quotes from people who’d written their feelings as they did precisely this, and clearly they found it, in her words, “beyond meaningful – transcendant”. It’s a recognition of ourselves, she said, uncorrupted by faith, or a need to believe, the space-scientific equivalent of humankind looking back at the forest in which it came down from the trees. Our puny little warlike humanity, but which can also give rise to explorers and inspirers. To be so small, and to reach so far!
When she ended by showing that small pale blue dot that her own imaging had produced, the Earth as seen from Saturn, and to know that when it was taken people were on that pale blue dot waving back at the camera, it was quite clear that Porco is an explorer and inspirer herself, indeed of a class apart. Her talk was everything Starmus is about: science, inspiration, philosophy, art, and a special kind of emotion that transcends science and becomes pure magic.
Day two was rounded off by an “informal symposium” of seven astronauts and cosmonauts, all space travellers and walkers, the sort of collection on a stage that one doesn’t find very often on this planet. Gathered were Alexei Leonov, Rusty Schweickart, Claude Nicollier, Sergey Volkov, Garrett Reisman, and Roman Romanenko, with the session moderated by Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who has himself walked in space, but who is perhaps most famous now for his impromptu performance of David Bowie’s Space Oddity from the ISS which went viral on the internet. Giving their own perspectives on space, this amazing group of people were nonetheless perhaps all in thrall to the first man to walk in space, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who said that when the Nobel prizes were first dreamt up, there were no astronauts … and that maybe it was time that this should be considered for inclusion in the list of awards. I don’t think there was a single person in the hall who would have disagreed with him. And again, the perspective that is unique to Starmus: from space, you can’t see the borders of our planet. All you can see is beauty.
There are times when words simply fail us, and trying to describe parts of yesterday is one of them! The sessions started with a significant police reaction to a “scare”. It’s not clear what the nature of the threat was but when Stephen Hawking arrived and made his way to the stage – to a rock star’s welcome – he was surrounded by three National Police officers, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that it was somehow connected with him. The session started late because the police were also checking everyone entering, searching bags and patting down delegates, but as ever undaunted by whatever life has thrown at him, Professor Hawking gave A Brief History of Mine – a pun (for anyone who’s been in a cupboard for the past thirty years) on his best-selling Brief History of Time. It was quite something to realise that we were hearing about the scenario of the recent Oscar-winning film, The Theory of Everything, from the main subject of that film, in person, directly in front of us, just yards away.
As before, Professor Hawking went into some of his ideas and theories – not in detail, but enough for me, at least, to realise that the mind-boggling complexity that he deals with all the time, explained by one of the best science communicators in the world, still leaves one getting the most fleeting sensation of understanding before an attempt to grasp the thought finds it slipping away out of reach. As I said after his talk at Starmus 2014, “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.”
Leaving to a standing ovation, S Hawking was replaced by MC Hawking. Now I admit defeat because I don’t understand, or like, rap music, but this was quite unique! Calling his tribute A Brief History of Rhyme, MC Hawking is actually Ken Lawrence, who calls himself a nerdcore hip hop artist. He mimics Stephen Hawking, and presents the professor as a wannabe rapper who just gets distracted by all that science stuff. Such has been his popularity that he has gone from an internet sensation to a record deal which has even seen a “greatest hits” compilation come out. Even to begin to convey what it’s like, I have to resort to the video below, but this was performed live on stage by MC Hawking himself! And you’ll just have to believe me when I say that he had a hall of distinguished scientists, including numerous Nobel Laureates, astronauts and cosmonauts, rapping and clicking their fingers in the air, and whooping, laughing and cheering along. I can honestly say that I have never seen the like before. Ever!
MC Hawking was followed by Brian Eno, the composer and musician who had hosted the Star Party at ITER the previous night. Describing how his own “generative” music itself evolved, he talked about how science holds us together, being in a way a huge public conversation, with highlights through time like Copernicus and Darwin. But the arts too, he argued, are a public conversation, another conversation that bestows “relational value”. By way of example, he pondered a girlfriend’s reaction to the gift of a crystal ring variously imagined as coming from Van Cleef and Arpels, or from a far distant mine, or from a kidney stone! Same ring, different story, he explained, and the value put on it would be very different. Art is just about value, and it is value that we each interpret differently according in turn to different stories. Science is a conversation about what is, while art is what allows us to assimilate it through culture and stories, art and music. We are a combination of both these dialogues, and their complementarity makes us what we are, and gives our lives meaning.
Next to speak was Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, who looked at the growing global inequality between rich and poor, and whether the laws of man or the laws of nature were responsible. Stiglitz said that economics was often considered a dismal science, but that there was lots to be dismal about. Brexit in the UK, Trump in the USA, climate change, stupidity … which required science constantly to restate basic principles in an increasing atmosphere of irrationality. But inequality was up there with the rest as a reason to be dismal, not least because it is now proven to be connected to lack of opportunity, health problems, reduced life expectancy, restricted access to justice, and a clear democratic deficit.
Stiglitz showed how the mid-70s theory of trickle-down economics – the underpinning of Reaganomics and Thatcherism – was simply wrong. It had started a process resulting in people being worse off today than they had been for forty years, with the overwhelming majority of global wealth restricted to a tiny handful, the top 1% owning more than 99% of humans on the planet, and globally, 62 individuals owning as much as the bottom half. This has been taking place over two generations – is it any wonder that voters are angry? The most invidious aspect of inequality, he argued, is inequality of opportunity, and it is highly significant that advanced countries – which should have similar outcomes – have clearly different ones. Those, like the USA and the UK, with greatest economic inequality also have the greatest inequality of opportunity. Others, like Denmark, with the least economic inequality also have the greatest equality of opportunity. This demonstrates that inequality is not the result of natural processes, but of political structure and choice. The one glimmer of hope is that it is increasingly being recognized that inequality is a political choice which undermines democracy and damages society.
The last speaker before the coffee break was Martin Rees, who looked at a post-human future by tracing evolution history through to today where it’s possible that machines will replace man as interplanetary explorers, and maybe become the colonists of Mars … though human pioneers are also inevitable, he said. He described how the top of Mount Everest would be more hospitable than any part of any other planet, and that mankind had seen the development of inorganic intelligence from machines within two centuries, a mere blink of an eye in Darwinian terms. He wondered about the possibility of finding life on any other exoplanet, and mused that it might possibly be in its own equivalent of a post-human stage. Would we recognize it? As life? As post-human-equivalent life? He moved on to discuss the fact that some planets will be coming to meet us as our own Milky Way galaxy collides with the approaching Andromeda galaxy, but even more dramatic and very much sooner, he said, was the possible discovery of the multiverse. Anticipating David Gross’s talk, Rees wondered about the next challenges for physics to overcome: how many Big Bangs had there been, and were the physics of the repeated universes different?
After coffee, Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn took the stage to look at the ends of chromosomes and their role in the ageing process. Chromosomes are bundles of DNA, she explained, whose ends are called telomeres – Greek for “end bits”! In cell replication, bits of information could be lost, but the telomeres provide telomerase, an enzyme, that helps minimise that loss of genetic data. Since it can’t stop it altogether, we age, and as we age, we become more vulnerable to disease. What was fascinating, she said, was not only that this shortening was genetically variable, and so some people aged more quickly than others, but also that the shortening was now known to be affected negatively by poverty and social stress: the poor and abused became more likely to age more quickly and be more susceptible to disease. How well her talk tied in with that of Joseph Stiglitz’s exposition of the effects of increasing and overwhelming global inequality.
Rusty Schweickart took to the stage to explain how we might defend the planet from asteroids. He also explained that today is Asteroid Day, and that we need to use the website HERE to put pressure on our politicians to prioritize planetary defence by developing research and practical programmes to counter asteroid risks, the vast majority of which we don’t yet even know about. We need space telescopes, and practice, to identify and deflect these threats that could wipe out at least cities, if not regions or entire species. Deflection, he explained, could be either through kinetic impact – i.e. a push to slow or speed up an asteroid so that its trajectory missed that of the Earth – or explosion – the Bruce Willis scenario! He also explained how this was not something that could be done by one nation, or even group of nations, but that planetary decisions and a global response was essential. Schweickart pleaded with us to click through to that website and to get involved because this can’t be left to the politicians, but we have to get involved ourselves to control and direct them for our own safety – and that of the Earth.
As the main sessions of Starmus 2016 started to approach their close, Nobel Laureate David Gross looked at the challenges ahead for Physics. Whether quarks, dark matter or energy, he said, anything that couldn’t be calculated is the product of a lack of knowledge. Why is there so little anti-matter? Do all the forces actually unify, and if so, how? The quantum structure of matter – or indeed quantum mechanics generally – is a major area of challenge, not least because we’re now in a position to start to ask questions that were previously the domain of religion, like how the universe began. Indeed, particle physics and cosmology were increasingly interdisciplinary, and he urged the delegates to listen out for an announcement this August from the Large Hadron Collider: if you hear the word “supersymmetry”, he said, that meant there was a quantum dimension to space! The main challenges for society, however, he said, were of rationality, transparency and collaboration, an uphill struggle that we were facing on a daily basis.
Next on the stage for an informal discussion were Steve Balbus, who previously gave a paper on the fish leaving the sea in the Devonian period, and Richard Dawkins, who got a hero’s welcome as he stepped up to discuss evolution. Their conversation ranged through many of the themes that featured heavily in this Starmus – life, intelligent life, finding it … and recognizing it, leaving the planet, evolution, and genetics. Dawkins is an intellectual giant – with a giant sense of humour which he expressed by wearing one red sock and one blue – and it was fitting, perhaps, that it was he who paid tribute to Sir Harry Kroto, who was supposed to be at this Starmus, and who was much missed. A flavour of the conversation could perhaps be given in a comment Dawkins’ made about language, that it might have been a mutation, but if so, who did the first mutant speak to?! Rather, he felt, it probably had its origins in organizing behaviour, something like a hunt. Another taste might be provided by his reflection on the chances of planet Earth being the only home of intelligent life in the universe: that would require a chemical event of such stupendous improbability that it’s actually far more likely that the universe is crawling with life. Whether it’s intelligent, of course, in our terms, or in its own stage, is another matter!
The final talk was given by Canadian astronaut and David Bowie cover artist (from the ISS – video below) Chris Hadfield, who moderated Tuesday’s informal symposium of astronauts and cosmonauts. His talk was everything Starmus is about: inspiration, imagination, looking back … and forward, and looking in … and out. He traced the time it has taken to go around the world, from Magellan exploration some 500 years ago – in which almost all perished – taking some three years; to Jules Verne, whose Phileas Fogg took 80 days; to the first flight around the world in a plane, or actually four planes with five engine changes; and now, in the ISS, just 92 minutes. All this when humankind has only been out of Africa for less than two million years, and our own species, Sapiens, is just 70,000 years old.
Hadfield explained about the ISS, how it’s more than just a plaything, or a means of travel, but is also a laboratory, with 200 or so experiments being conducted simultaneously aboard. And that word again – beauty: the stunning beauty of the planet from the space station was inspiration for those on board, and humanity itself, whether the Bahamas or clouds, San Francisco harbour or the geology of Australia, it is a testament to how mankind can work together for the benefit of a planet which the ISS has helped to show in the context of such fragile beauty. He said that there is an Italian woman still alive today who was 4 years old when the Wright Brothers first took flight. That’s how quickly we’ve got here. Where will the next generation get to? What do they consider normal now … because whatever it is, it is far far different from what we considered normal when we ourselves were children. And if we have one responsibility above all, it is to inspire those children, to carry on the work and the dream, and to take mankind into the future that sometimes against all the odds we’ve created for them.
Chris Hadfield got the stunning reception he and the end of the Starmus sessions deserved, and it just remained for Brian May to take the stage to close this part of the festival. There was more to come, of course, with the round-table discussion from La Palma today and the star-gazing tonight, and of course the concert tomorrow night in Santa Cruz.. More to come from this Starmus … and hopefully many more Starmus festivals to come too.