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Stephen Hawking’s smile

Where can you share space with royalty, science rock stars such as Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Peter Cox, real rock stars like Brian May of Queen, moon walkers and other astronauts and Nobel Laureates? The Starmus Festival.

The stream of achievements proved as intense and dense as expected given the star-line-up, and yet certain aspects of the proceedings proved transcendent: it was spirit of the festival that was more memorable than any one talk, performance or fact.

Standing ovations were a highlight but the longest was saved for Garik Israelian. He’s the astrophysicist-rock-music-lover founder of Starmus. When he came on stage to close the grand event, 2000 attendees leapt to their feet. It was the longest standing ovation I’ve ever experienced.

Without a passion for science there would be no Starmus. Without people like Israelian, and the scientists and musicians of his Board, there would be no stage for telling the tales of the discovering the first exoplanet, or fixing the Hubble telescope or the undertaking ground-breaking science that wins Nobel prizes.

Here are ten highlights of the forth Starmus Festival, “Life and the Universe”, held in Trondheim, Norway, 18-23 June 2017 that give a glimpse of this spirit.

1. Stephen Hawking smiling at his jokes during his talk ‘The Future of Humanity

The first time came while he was musing about being able to explore the universe in our minds, even at boring parties. The second time, happened while saying life might abound in the universe but intelligence is rare – and perhaps not even on Earth.

2. The number of auditorium-wide laughs

Two thousand people laughing is a good sound and it turns out scientists can be exceedingly funny. But the best laughs came from astronaut Charlie Duke describing how excited he was when Apollo 11 finally landed after an ‘almost-abort’ situation and his attempt at ‘moon Olympics’ during his Apollo 16 visit to the moon.

3. Stars ‘R Us

I turned around during a coffee break and found none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson himself standing a few feet away graciously posing for photos with fans: the stars were part of the listening audience and not just there for their few minutes in the spotlight. What struck me the most was the wide-eyed, enthusiasm of the speakers for the human endeavour of discovery and what it affords society and the personal soul. This played out on and off stage.

4. Pink finger nails on display during a Nobel Prize panel discussion

The only female on a panel of 11 Nobel Laureates was May-Britt Moser. She was there for her discovery of grid cells in the brain which allow us to remember where we are. She added a wonderfully female flavour to the proceedings. The panel ended with remarks on the need for better representation in science. Moser had the last word. She held up her hand and agreed that everyone should be in the running for Nobel prizes – even ones with pink nails.

5. Neil deGrasse Tyson asking Buzz Aldrin during a ‘moon walkers’ panel to show off his t-shirt

Trondheim Spektrum 20 June: Moonwalkers in Conversation, Harrison Schmitt and Charles Duke. Buzz Aldrin on Skype. Moderator: Neil deGrasse Tyson. Starmus2017_Moonwalkers_TN by NTNU – Norwegian University of Science and Technology. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Buzz Aldrin had to join by Skype so was speaking from a screen on centre-stage. The crowd couldn’t see his t-shirt, until the end. Second man to walk on the moon, huge supporter of further space travel, he showed it off with gusto. It read, ‘Get your ass to Mars’.

6. Scientist-musicians and musician-scientists

The festival started in part because world-famous guitarist of Queen, Brian May, went back to get his PhD in astrophysics. Starmus is a merger of ‘star’ and ‘music’, for good reasons. A key focus was the creative process – and how many scientists were inspired by music and how many musicians love science.

7. Bright eyes

It was here that I realized the ultimate venue for sapiosexuals: science festivals. Rarely have I seen so many beautiful people, women and men. The venue was alive with a healthy sheen of muscles and perfect skin and the average height of the men seemed a 6-foot 7 inches. But the most attractive feature of the entire crowd was the light on in everyone’s eyes.

8. The spirit of curiosity

This festival celebrated curiosity, life-long learning and sought to bring inspiration into everyone’s lives. This is especially touching at a time when politically the world that seems to be growing narrower in its focus, short-sighted in vision and downright cruel in its actions.

9. The unified front

This festival celebrated science and scientists and their contributions to society. In a time of increasing anti-science sentiment, this was a good reminder to preserve and speak up for facts, empirically seeking the truth and the value of education.

10. Democratizing knowledge and opening science to all

This festival is about a commitment to democratizing human knowledge. In the spirit of openness, the festival had a high price entrance fee (but comparatively low given the quality of the proceedings) but was live-streamed. The full proceedings are available on YouTube.

Final thoughts

Starmus is young and still making its name among both scientists and public, but Israelian’s record-setting, standing-ovation-garnering closing remarks make it clear he is in it for the long haul. After experiencing a Starmus event, I can recommend watching the proceedings of this science communication extravaganza online, or if possible attending an event in person, not just for immense knowledge and perspective to be gained, but to partake in the spirit. A many-day celebration of human desire to know how the universe works, Starmus is truly a festival.

Featured image credit: Starmus2017_NobelPrizeWinners_KD by NTNU – Norwegian University of Science and Technology. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Bjarte Askeland

    Truly a fantastic achievement to organize this. I am honored to have been there!

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