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logo header 200x68Monday 27 June 2016



image3It was a great first day at STARMUS. The organiser Garik Israelian opened the festival emphasising how special this third STARMUS is going to be. Special first of all while the festival Tribute to Stephen Hawking – Beyond the Horizon is dedicated to the life’s work of Stephen Hawking, who is unique in the world (maybe in the Uni-(multi-)verse). In addition the more than one thousand delegates will be feasted not only to latest developments in astronomy, but to those in a range of related sciences. Raphael Robolo, director of the Institute of Astrophysics Tenerife – La Palma (CALP) and Raphael Alonso, president of Council of Tenerife also briefly spoke words of welcome.

Garik Israelian opens STARMUS 2016

Alan Ries, who received the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics opened the presentations with “Recalibrating the Universe for precision Cosmology””. Not too long ago cosmology wasn’t even an observational science, hence the title alone emphasises how far cosmology has come in a handful of decades. Ries explained the scanning technique applied to the Hubble Telescope observations that improves parallax distance measurements to some 25 micro-arcseconds. This greatly enhances the standard candles used in astronomy for distance measurements, having implications for distance estimates from kilo parsec all the way to Giga parsec. The latest value for the Hubble constant obtained is 73.2 +- 1.7 and the expansion of the Universe is presently some 8% faster than in the early Universe.

Brian Greene, author of the best seller “The Elegant Universe” and expert in string theory, is easily one of the best educators in the world. He elaborated on one of the options for the expanding Universe that Ries had mentioned: a constant vacuum energy (dark energy) of empty space as the “repulsive gravity” responsible for the expansion. The many options for shapes of multi-dimensional vibrations that string theory suggests, might be explained by a Multi-Verse and he suggested that colliding Universes in this Multi-verse might cause ripples in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, that might just be observable in the near future.

Robert Wilson gave an overview of the history of the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMB) for which he had received the Nobel prize in Physics in 1978. An interesting comment was that Inflationary cosmology predicts polarisations in the CMB that might be observable some day too.

image2At the last minute Neil deGrasse Tyson had made himself available to join Brian Cox in a discussion on “Communicating Science in the 21st century”. This resulted in a lively and very entertaining dialogue between these grandmasters of science communication. Science communication needs to emphasise why science is relevant in our everyday life and not necessarily only about discoveries that make us feel comfortable. The media need to better participate in such science communication, without too many attention grabbing headlines. They identified a difference in science communication between the UK (BBC) and the USA.

Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson on stage

Alfred McEwan talked about “Searching for life on Mars and Europa”. He reviewed the various Mars missions, from Viking to HRISE. Recent meteor impacts have revealed pure water ice just below Mars’ surface. He considers it plausible that life exists below the surface at the present day. McEwan discussed the various attempts to get funding for NASA missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa, the Europa “Clipper” and tentatively a lander mission in 2022. Comparison with life in deep oceans on Earth suggests that life in Europa’s oceans is probably very sparse if there at all.

New Zealander Anthony McCarten discussed some aspects of the 2014 film "The Theory of Everything" about Stephen Hawking’s life that he wrote. He congratulated Hawking with his “courage” to allow the making of this film and remembered how Hawking commented that the end of the film was “too sweet”.

Barry Barrish gave a report on the recent and ground braking discovery of gravitational waves with the two LIGO observatories in the US. Measuring a distance variation of 10-18 m over a side length of 4 km is a task, only made possible by a large number of repetitions and technologies that had to be purposely developed for this experiment. In December last year a signal of another event has been recorded on which research is ongoing.

Science fiction writer Robert Sawyer explained that good science fiction is not about impossible futures, but in contrast predicts a continuation of history in a plausible but not obvious (“higher order”) direction. In a sense Science Fiction can be considered as the “Wiki-leaks” of science.

Peter Schwartz is science writer and gave (unlike e.g. Stephen Hawking) a reassuring account on the prospects for Artificial Intelligence (AI). He identified “Little AI” that is already widely present in our daily lives, “moderate AI” as a “universal assistant” that will likely become generally available, while “big AI”, e.g. self-replicating and self–evolving robots are actually very unlikely. The biggest risks for AI are accidents and he called for transparency in AI development.

Joel Parker has the privilege of being involved in two “once-in-a-lifetime” projects, New Horizons to the Kuiper Belt and Rosetta to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P). The former has made it abundantly clear that demoted Pluto is a significant representative of the “third zone” in the Solar system, the Kuiper Belt. This binary dwarf planet presents a number of amazing characteristics of icy worlds in the outskirts of the Solar system, little of which is yet understood. In comparison the Rosetta mission to comet 67P was also a mission to a largely unknown object, producing spectacular discoveries. The “duck-shaped” comet is likely of binary origin and has been formed in the Kuiper Belt. A controlled impact of Rosetta is planned for 30 September this year.

Steve Balbus answered the question “Why did fish leave the sea”. He related the strongly modulated Luni-Solar tides on Earth, due to relative size and distance of Sun and Moon, to the varying water levels in tidal pools during the early formation of the continents on Earth. Paleo-oceanographic factors will have influenced the evolution of organisms in the tidal pools, forcing them to develop the ability to migrate between these pools. This applies in particular to the tetrapods that evolved in the middle Devonian from lobe-finned fish.

It is always hard to be the last speaker in a session that runs more than an hour over time, but Eric Betzig kept the audience alert with his overview of the history of optics pertaining to both telescopes and microscopes. Betzig discussed the development of optics from the discovery by Hans Lippershey that two lenses are much better than one, until the current era of adaptive optics. Betzig received the Nobel prize 2014 in Chemistry for his photo-activated localisation microscopy (PALM). Applications in microscopes in a way repeat Galileo’s experience that in whichever way we now point these optical devices, new discoveries are being made.

This ended the first day of this amazing festival.


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