I love my “job.” As one who deals in astronomy education it is my sworn duty to go to any odd corner of the world in search like-minded types. And so I undertook a torturous journey to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, owned by Spain but not too far to the east from Morocco.
It was on these islands, that the first Starmus conference was held in 2011. The Canaries were chosen as the organizers live there and due to the large number of observatories that take advantage of the excellent seeing.
The “mus” stands for music, and “Star” stands for…you get the idea. Concluding last week (as of this writing) this was the second such conference, described as the intersection of space and art, it is meant to bring anyone with a love of space and astronomy to mingle with world class experts.
One day you might find yourself having dinner with a moonwalker, the next striking up a conversation with Stephan Hawking (such as it stands). Lectures, tours and other events take place throughout the day, jumping from one amazing speaker to another. It felt like a TED conference but with about 92% less smugness.
Held at the beautiful (and I mean beautiful) 5-Star Ritz-Carlton hotel on the largest of the islands, the conference lasted 6 days.
Considering that the headliner of the first Starmus was Neil Armstrong, they needed to get someone of his fame, such as say, Stephan Hawking. Other guests include other Apollo astronauts, one cosmonaut, a “militant atheist,” two rock stars, and a couple of Nobel prize winning scientists rounding out the guest list. Over the course of the week they would share their thoughts to about 400 conference attendees and 90 members of the press.
Hawking spoke a total of four times, with his Tuesday lecture covered the origin of the universe while his Saturday lecture was on black holes. As he’s done both many times, you may find printed copies on the net. And no, he doesn’t type everything on the spot, but he does select each line from the notes on his computer. In reality it typically takes him about 2 to 3 minutes two compose each sentence.
John Mather, 2006 Nobel Prize winner in physics, spoke about the James Webb Space Telescope while his fellow winner, Robert Wilson, covered the “Beginning of all Beginnings.” Wilson is best known for being co-discoverer of the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang, one of the great discoveries in the 20th century.
The art segment was given by Dr. Brian May, who had done much of his research work on the island. Oh, and along the way he founded some musical group called “Queen.” Recently, Brian had been doing some fascinating work with creating 3D images of the moon, Mars and other worlds using existing imagery and inspired by of all things, Victorian stereopticons. His love of 3D stills resulted in the creation of the London Stereoscopic Company selling both a simple stereopticon and image collections from past to present including astronomical objects.
Friday evening, Brian managed to get some musical friends together and hold the “Sonic Universe Concert.” The group included Rick Wakeman from YES who is another space/astronomy lover minus the PhD part.
The astronauts included Walt Cunningham from the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, and Charlie Duke from Apollo 16 and the tenth man to walk on the moon. Both were very gracious with their time. Walt covered the notion that we as a culture had become so risk adverse and politically correct that the grand exploration of the Apollo era might not even be possible today. He summed up his talk with the comment that we should all live in a world that allows a “chance of dangerous adventure.”
Charlie Duke’s talk came in two parts. The first was about Apollo 16 mission as
expected with the thrill of discovery. However he then vectored into his later life and told the story of going from agnostic to Christian believer after his wife emerged out of suicidal period with the help of some Christian friends. The crowd was surprisingly respectful considering the fact that Dawkins had spoke earlier in the week. I was proud of Gen. Duke, told him so and he said “God bless you.” Having a moonwalker say “God bless you” to me made for a nice day. And I hadn’t even sneezed. His and her story is chronicled in the book Moonwalker.
There were a number of vendors there, but none so amazing as that from a gentleman named Mark Turner. He makes telescopes. Not just telescopes, but custom designed instruments to order. Not just custom designed instruments to order, but perhaps the most beautiful custom designed instruments to order. How are they beautiful? Until you’ve seen a 4” refractor with a gold-anodized tube and chrome mounting fixtures you will then know that you are in the presence of a real artist. He is currently selling them at cost (about a third of what I had expected) so as to build up a clientele list that can act as his marketing arm. You can go here to see more of his handiwork. Note, that he never learned metal working until 18 months ago.
The week ended with a celebration of Alexi Leonov who became first man to walk in space in 1965. Ten years later in 1975 he would command the Soyuz part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first US/USSR joint spaceflight.
He was charming and very animated as he spoke about the Soviet moon effort, drawing on a large blackboard (yup, very old school), diagrams of the various spacecraft he had worked with.
The conference ended with Rick Wakeman playing a couple of beautiful solo-piano pieces he wrote about the cosmos.
While there were no definitive announcements about the next Starmus, or if there will be a next one, but I certainly expect one. Cost was surprisingly affordable including the stay at the Ritz itself.