Starmus IV, Day Three: Light, heavy, thrilling and humbling

Stephen Hawking, via live feed Starmus IV
Stephen Hawking, via live feed

Judging by the queues starting an hour before the session with Stephen Hawking, I could tell the auditorium would be full and the halls would be more than empty today. I did not have any desire to check my hypothesis on the matter first hand, however.

I got to enter the theatre before the doors officially opened, which I recognise is an exceptional thing to be able to do at a conference such as Starmus. I was perched at the top of the bleacher seats, watching the crew test the link to Buzz Aldrin, and it really hit me how in less than 30 minutes I would be hearing from Hawking firsthand. Last night I also had a rare opportunity fall into my lap which, in hindsight, has further entrenched my opinion that Starmus is a very, very important thing to have landed in Trondheim indeed.

I sat enjoying a few more quiet minutes, when the call “Let them in” rang out to break my thoughts. In an instant the room seemed to be tumbling in people. Norwegians, by all accounts, are typically rather orderly. Peels of laughter, a bit of running in the isles, and people making seat choices with haste, made me smile as it was refreshingly unfamiliar to other occasions I’ve been in primarily Norwegian crowds. It wasn’t just the young scooting around enthusiastically either. The impending talk by Professor Hawking was clearly fuelling activity across the room.

Stephen Hawking has been said to be funny, and he is. Jokes and his heartwarming, but mischievous smile, peppered his rather serious talk about the need to colonise other Goldilock-zone planets. The talk has roosted rather heavily on me though. I have been contemplating why that is and I think it is a two fold reason. For one, seeing him talk was on my bucket list and I got to check that off. It is an odd feeling to have something you never saw happening, happen.
Two would be that he was seriously imploring those in the audience to work hard to make our ability to survive beyond the capabilities of our planet, because of our mishandling of it, a priority.  A third did cross my mind and, although morbid, it stems from that he didn’t attend in person for health reasons (he spoke via feed) and I feel rather certain a world without Professor Hawking isn’t something I am comfortable with.

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Neil DeGrasse Tyson took over the stage to moderate the Moonwalker Panel. Buzz Aldrin joined in on a flawless feed to poke a little fun at his friends, Charlie Duke and Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt, and remind us how sunny it is in Florida before things got more serious and technical. Astronauts are fascinating people. They are very humble despite doing work only a few get to do. Sandra Magnus, who was stationed to the International Space Station, sat with me for an interview and the feeling I got was very similar to those of Charlie and Jack when I met them yesterday. I want to say it is a beautiful humility and rich perspective they have all gained by their time orbiting our blue marble that I am not sure can be attained any other way.

The presentation of the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication (say that three times fast) was joyful and a clear reminder of how we have to celebrate those working hard at making a difference in the post-fact/denier age. Hawking said that scientists are being held in decreasing esteem in his talk, and I see the individuals awarded today as the those fighting to put science and those who do it at the cool kids table.

I was in the extremely fortunate position to have dinner with two speakers last night; Larry King and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. We had pizza, very American of us, and really good conversation. I mentioned earlier that it was clear to me Starmus is a very important event to have happen here (truthfully anywhere and everywhere) because it brings in a person like me, who would otherwise maybe not go to a science conference, to a science conference because it isn’t elitist. I feel like I belong here despite my lacking a strong science background. Dinner with these two men made clear I might know their faces from TV, but as people they are much like myself and that fact was brought to me because Starmus is in my backyard. It’s easy to think science is only for “them”, but the “them” is another human trying to figure out the world like I am. In that sense we are the same. Sharing a meal is always a great equaliser in my opinion.

I got a chance to interview Neil (look for the article in the upcoming issue of Tech List) and then had a short, but insightful, conversation with Garik Israelian. I thanked him for the opportunity that he has provided our community. I thanked him for the the forward thinking and for the radically creative idea of putting music and science together with Brian May to make everything more accessible for all. He smiled and said “It makes me feel alive to do this. It energises my blood to help people hear directly the words from these people,” and I get it. It takes a courageous person to do something so radically different than the norm and to bring that which could confuse or alienate a person down to such an accessible level.

In thinking about tomorrow I am super focused on hearing Jeffrey Sachs talk about surviving global crises and Trump, Larry King on Post-Truth media, and Jaan Tallinn discussing artificial intelligence. I am hoping to get to the pollution pods at Festningsparken as I did an interview with one of the primary faces behind the project and have been fascinated since. I also highly encourage those with kids at home to go to the Torvet to see all the activities there. A few friends took their kids today and said the kids were very focused on what they were learning, chatting all the way through dinner about it afterwards.

All in all this has been a radically different day to yesterday and I am still just as excited for tomorrow as I was for today.

Words by Jennifer Wold/Photography by Wil Lee-Wright

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