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Wednesday 29 June 2016



image2Stephen Hawking opened this session with a talk entitled “A brief History of Mine”.

Born on 8 January 1942 in Oxford he had an unremarkable time as a student at various schools until he started with his PhD study. At that time Cosmology and Gravity were areas that were ready for development. His first book was “The large scale structure of Space Time” written with Ellis (1973).

Stephen Hawking 8 January 1942 with his parents

Stephen talked about how he discovered the relationship for entropy of a Black Hole. Around 1982 he shifted his attention to the very early Universe. As we know modern cosmology has developed to be a precision science starting with the CMB structure observed by the WMAP satellite in 2003 and with the greatly improved latest results from the ESA Planck satellite, which give a “blueprint for all structure in the Universe”. He became very ill when he was working on his bestseller “A brief History of Time” but completed it as he was motivated by the notion that science must be explained to the general public.

Referring to the recent LIGO results he suggests that some day we may be able to use gravitational waves to look back to the Big Bang itself. It is an exciting time to be alive, witnessing 50 years of major improvements of our understanding of the Universe. He concluded with the advice to look up to the stars rather than to your feet, to be curious and to “just not give up”. He received a standing ovation for several minutes from an excited 1000+ audience.

Special performance MC Hawking
As a hilarious interlude the career of the fictitious rapper MC Hawking, under the title “A brief History of Rhyme”, was shown in a video. MC Hawking interrupted his scientific career when struck by rap music and he became a successful “nerdy white gangster rapping scientist”. Although initially very successful, disaster struck when a scientific breakthrough forced him to interrupt his musical career. After more than a decade he came back and the video finished with the premiere performance of the rap song “Fear of a Blackhole”.

Brian Eno addressed the relationship between Science and Art. The former discovers things while the latter helps us to digest these. He remembered how he was inspired in early life by the abstract Dutch painter Mondriaan. Science is (should be) value free whereas art is only about value. An artist doesn’t finish but just starts something.

Joseph Stiglitz the economist and vice-president of the Worldbank, noted the growing inequality in the world and asked whether this is caused by some law of nature or a “law of men”. His conclusion was clearly the latter. Surprisingly he referred to his own science of economy as a “dismal science”. The US seems to lead but many countries follow. Inequality is a choice made structurally. Joseph discussed the CEO pay that has since long been disconnected from performance or productivity.

There are various forms of inequality: health, voice, justice and wealth. One of the most invidious aspects is inequality of opportunity, actually undermining economic performance. He offered some hope for change but that requires little less than a landslide [my own words].

Martin Rees talked about the “post-human” future. He is known for his bleak views on the near-term future of mankind, but here he was thinking of a type of modified new version of our species, ultimately a non-organic life form. Much like the Copernican revolution, placing our planet outside the centre of the Universe, the discovery that most stars harbour multiple planets, profoundly changes the perspective of ourselves. If we discover intelligence elsewhere it likely is of a synthetic kind, maybe even a single large intelligent structure.

Rees puts a warning sign at the notion of the Multi-verse. This might be yet another major revolution in our self-perspective. Does each multi-verse have its own set of laws of nature, as some sort of by-laws? Even more speculative is the thought that we might live in one of many simulated Universes like in the film "The Matrix". Indeed we live in a very special century in view of how far we have come.

Elizabeth Blackburn received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2009. She discussed her discovery of telomeres that are the end points of chromosomes. These contain the DNA required for cell multiplication. However telomeres gradually become shorter which ultimately leads to vulnerability to diseases and aging of the organism itself. Werner syndrome is a result of fragile telomeres that cause rapid aging.

Rusty Schweickart being one the Apollo astronauts, treated the audience as the crew of spaceship Earth and gave us a mission briefing. We need to defend our spaceship against threats from outside in the form of asteroids. He referred to the Asteroid Day movement that works on a global consensus on such defence. There are three aspects: early warning, mitigation techniques and a (timely) decision process. The latter clearly is the most difficult.

We have discovered many near-Earth objects, but the percentage of unknown such objects increases with size and thus potential for damage. They estimate we have not yet found 7, 40, 90, 99% of the global, continental, regional and city “killers” respectively. Two IR satellites have been proposed but are not yet committed. Mitigation is either deflection (of the asteroid) or evacuation (of people). The most difficult is the decision process, especially on the direction of deflection. This is not only for those potentially in the line of fire, but is a global responsibility requiring decision making at global level. Work is done at the UN on a framework for this process. See

David Gross discussed some of the great challenges for modern physics. In general terms he referred to “ignorance as the product of knowledge” as one of the issues. More in particular he discussed what determines the mass of quarks and leptons, the nature of dark matter and dark energy, why there is so little antimatter in our Universe, and whether forces do unify. We have come a long way in 90 years of quantum mechanics with applications all around us. We can control individual atoms and create new forms of matter. Where does that end?

New and profound questions in physics are to address: is there a “before the Big bang”, can we reconstruct the Big Bang itself, is there super-symmetry and are there quantum dimensions in spacetime and what is their true nature? Gross calls for rationality, transparency and collaboration in science so that society as a whole understands.

Richard Dawkins and Steve Balbus took the stage for a discussion about evolution. It is difficult to define life although we do have a good notion. Is carbon essential? Dawkins believes it is, although silicon might work, but there he thinks about a life form that has already made a mechanical version of itself. Natural evolution of life is very likely always Darwinian in nature. Important for evolution is the competition between species (“arms race”) that stimulates (selects) certain traits. This is also important for development of neural systems and brain capacity.

Chris Hadfield flew on the International Space Station (ISS) which orbits the Earth in 92 minutes. Hence the title of his talk “Around the World in 92 Minutes”. ISS was built by fifteen nations, a great example of international cooperation. He gave a lively account of life on board the ISS and in particular what it means to see our planet from above, often stunningly beautiful. In a passionate plea he encouraged us to show inspiration to our children who have a natural curiosity and will soon be the creators of tomorrows world.

Brian May astrophysicist and member of the former rock group Queen, is one of the organisers of STARMUS and rounded off the first three days of this festival, reminding us that we are neither scientists nor artists but “complete humans” that work with and are inspired by both science and art.


All speakers at STARMUS 2016 on stage

This concludes the third day of presentations in STARMUS 2016. Thursday is spend at the La Palma observatory with a round-table discussion that will be streamed live to Tenerife and the festival will conclude on Fridy with the Sonic Universe concert.

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