What a gloriously confusing day I have just experienced. After many months of heightened anticipation, Starmus IV, hosted by NTNU, finally launched in Trondheim. And it is already confounding my expectations.
Today was somewhat of a soft launch, with the official opening ceremony scheduled for tomorrow. Torrential rain, several high-profile speaker cancellations and an odd Sunday start. I feared today would turn into somewhat of a damp squib, as I entered the cavernous Trondheim Spektrum venue to be greeted by eerily empty hallways.
I was surprised to discover, some seconds later, that this was because the auditorium was packed. Starmus is no place for class-cutters, especially when you consider that, in the words of speaker David Zambuka, the average IQ at this festival is “in the millions”. What Spektrum lacks in personality on the outside, it makes up for in an epic conference arena: minimal, dark and sleek, with those strong Starmus colours locking all eyes on stage.
But it was not the stage layout that attracted thousands of delegates out on a wet Sunday. It was the quality of the speaker line-up and so far the festival programme has delivered on its promise. There was next to nobody with their phone out, scrolling emails and social media, the modern-day affliction of these types of events. Instead, all eyes and ears were pinned to the stage. It was a refreshing departure from the norm.
The theme today surrounded the existence of life beyond our planet and there were some challenging thoughts put to the audience. These ranged from the existential (“if you don’t know what an alien looks like, how do you know what to look for?” Lynn Rothschild), to the mind-boggling (Exoplanets? Biosignatures? Thank you Michel Mayor and Sara Seager). But the organisers of Starmus, now in its fourth year, understand the diversity of their audience.
After the break the speeches broadened their appeal and lifted the whole experience to another level. Steve Vai brought fame, culture and whimsy to the proceedings, sat on a lone stool in the middle of the vast stage, like a philosopher, wandering in space. It was broad, expansive, evasive, like one of his guitar solos, riffing on ‘egoic perspectives’ and the limitations of these types of thoughts. One aspect really struck a chord with me; “truth and reality has no belief in it… truth has no opinion. It just is, and you have access to it through your intense attention, without thought… even if you can only do this for seconds at a time, it’s vital. This is the only place you can find the one thing every human being on the planet really wants. Peace.”
It reminded me of a Neil deGrasse youtube video I saw in the run up to Starmus, where he discusses how science is a fundamental part of society, yet people in the 21st century (America) have chosen to debate what to believe in, and to stand in denial of scientific fact:
This is one of the ideas that excites me about Starmus and science in general: the exercise in finding out what is true. With that in mind my top tip for today’s programme is Brian Cox and BBC Radio 4’s live broadcast: The Infinite Monkey Cage, at 10:30am.
I will also be interested to see how Harrison Schmitt steps into Buzz Aldrin’s shoes (not for the first time!), after the latter’s unfortunate withdrawal from the conference for health reasons. Buzz Aldrin will however join the discussion with fellow moonwalkers, Harrison Schmitt and Charlie Duke, via Skype at the scheduled time on Tuesday 20 June at 14:10.
On the city programme I will be visiting the highly anticipated installation Pollution Pods, up at Kristiansten Festning, by British climate artist Michael Pinsky:
This is a bit of a walk uphill from the centre (I don’t know if Starmus provide buses?) but it is one of those things which you put off and off until you are on the flight home, pinching yourself for not having visited.
Everyday during Starmus, my colleagues from The List and I will be blogging what we see, and what other attendees are looking forward to. We will bring you photos, interviews, advice, stories and feedback from this pop-up community. Our focus is on increasing engagement in the event, especially amongst those of us with non-scientific backgrounds. If you are at the conference we will try to cut through the festival programme to highlight the elements which are vital for all of us, and if you are not here we hope to bring you some valuable lessons, along with advice about how everyone can get involved in the form of the City Programme (which has a mixture of free and ticketed events).
Words and photos: Wil Lee-Wright, Editor-in-Chief, The List Media