Guest blog: An interview with Starmus founder Garik Israelian

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Astronomer and Starmus founder Garik Israelian // Credit: Garik Israelian.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a really wonderful guy, Garik Israelian, over the past several months. Along with Brian May, Garik and I worked on the forthcoming book about the first Starmus meeting in the Canary Islands, which took place in 2011. Garik is the founder and director of the Starmus Festival, an incredible gathering of astronaut-explorers, astronomers, cosmologists, biologists, musicians, and artists that will take place for the second time this fall (see starmus.com).

I’m delighted to present to you an exclusive interview with Garik, conducted this spring by the journalist Javier Pelaez. I think you will be amazed at Garik’s background as an astronomer at the Institute of Astrophysics in Tenerife, as a musician, and as a promoter of science literacy in the world. We need more like him!

Enjoy.


Exclusive Interview :
Garik Israelian inside and out

Recorded on March 18, 2014

Q. You’re about to launch the second Starmus. Are you happy? Will we see a Starmus III and IV? Would you say that Starmus has become a brand?

A. Yes, I am happy because I wanted the name Starmus to continue. It started out as just an idea of mine and is now much more than a mere "idea." I don’t know if I'll make a Starmus III, etc., we’ll see ... I might let other people do it and move on to something else, start something new. I don’t know.

Q. But Starmus was a dream for you. How could you just up and leave it?

A. Starmus was never a dream of mine. It’s a project, an idea, nothing more. Projects have a beginning and an end. My dreams are something else and have nothing to do with Starmus. Starmus is a beautiful, ambitious project, but it's just a "project" and nothing else.

Garik Israelian with the great English astronomy host Patrick Moore.// Credit: Garik Israelian
Q. Well, if bringing together Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alexei Leonov, and so many other space legends wasn’t your dream, can you tell us what your dream really is?

A. Of course not! It's the one thing I don’t have to share with anyone. I don’t like to think about my dream too often — it stays fresh that way! I believe dreams need to be so  ambitious that they can never be achieved. What are dreams anyway? In my view, they’re something far too good and ambitious ever to become true.

Q. But even if Starmus isn’t your dream, it’s very nevertheless very novel and ambitious. Do you work alone, or do you have a team ?

A. There is a small team: secretary, manager, and so forth. But I decide the format and make all decisions regarding speakers and the program myself.

Q. But wouldn’t it be better to have the opinions of other people — say, friends, colleagues, artists?

A. Sure. Some ideas were proposed by Brian May, one of the founding members of Starmus. My student Sara (Sara Betran de Lis) has also proposed some good ideas; for example, to hold the astrophotography school and Teide Astro Star Party at the Teide Observatory (I had thought I would hold it in the Parador hotel, as I did in 2011). It was also her idea to invite a famous anthropologist. I wasn't sure, but after thinking a lot about this and consulting with the Starmus board members, we decided that, yes, we’d invite an anthropologist. Now we are looking for one.

Q. So you have students?

A. Yes, I have two.

Q And you have time for them? What do they do?

A. One of them, Lucia (Lucia Suarez) is investigating the characteristics of stars in binary systems with compact objects (neutron stars, black holes, white dwarfs) and has already found interesting results, with a finished article and another one just started. She’s a hardworking girl. The other is Sara (Sara Betrna de Lis) working with planet-hosting stars. She has already completed  material for four articles. She always has ideas and suggestions. She is also very intelligent, organized, and hardworking. In general, the IAC has very good and well prepared staff. There is a positive and creative environment.

Q. So you also have to share your time with students. Can you highlight any scientific results?

A. You have to work with students during the first two years. After that they have more experience, they become more or less autonomous with little need for direction. But of course, it all depends ... It would take a lot to explain the results of Lucia because of the nature of her project. I think I can emphasize two results for Sara. It seems that her results indicate a relationship between the rotation of the star and the presence of massive exoplanets in the early stages of stellar evolution. We did not know this before. She also found a strange star, a cool giant with lithium. These stars are not expected to have lithium in their atmospheres! It is very odd. I don’t know why that should be ... we must research with patience and care. It is the only way to find something out. Find strange things and investigate, investigate ... that’s how people suddenly discover something for the first time. You have to investigate carefully in order do not lose something "weird" and new.

Garik Israelian with rock musician Brian Eno.// Credit: Brian Eno
Q. Neil Armstrong was the main attraction of Starmus I. Who will be the "Neil Armstrong" of Starmus II? Do you have any candidates?

A. I don’t know yet. ... I'm thinking of a very famous scientist, but I don’t know if I can get him to come. ... It 's very difficult. The truth is we do not have many options. There are not so many people could occupy the Armstrong chair at Starmus. It’s very difficult. We are now in March and we don’t yet have a confirmed a main speaker for Starmus II.  I am very concerned.

[Update: It is now known that the top speaker of the forthcoming Starmus Festival will be Stephen Hawking.]

Q. How did your meeting go with Neil Armstrong?

A. I talked with him a lot at Starmus, especially when we went to La Palma. I sat next to him on the bus, and we talked for almost two hours — about science, politics, life. I have many unforgettable memories. After Starmus we exchanged many emails with each other. He congratulated me on an article that was published in USA Today and sent his article that we will publish in the book of Starmus 2011. ... His last email was two months before his death. It was very hard for me to receive this news. Armstrong was the most modest person I've ever met in my life.

Q. And how did you choose astronomy? Usually it’s a job that is only taken by people who have dreamt of becoming an astronomer. Is it true that you were a poor student at college and were preoccupied with other things?

A. Yes, it is. I finished high school with very low grades. I didn’t know what to do. So I went to work as a stagehand in a theater. One day, I saw the 1968 movie Solaris (black and white), and then I read the book. That book changed my life. I started reading science fiction more and more, and so I decided to make a career in astrophysics. I wanted to study in college, and so I had to take a maths and physics course and college degree in just 1 year. After the entrance exams to the University (Faculty of Physics), I found it all very tough going. I was unable to distinguish the logarithm of a number. But within a year I got to learn everything, working evenings alone at home. My entrance examination to college I passed with outstanding grades.

Q. What do you like about science fiction? Do you like Star Wars?

A. Star Wars isn’t a science fiction film! It is a story for children and a very good one! Alien is also not really science fiction. It's a horror movie. There are very few good sci-fi films, very few. Science fiction is a very serious thing. For example: the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, La Hora del Toro (“The Hour of the Bull”) by Ivan Efremov, the Rama series by Arthur C. Clarke, the stories of Ray Bradbury, or “They Walked Like Men" by Clifford Simak — now that's science fiction!

Q. What books have you been reading lately?

A. In recent years I've become interested in books on sociology, globalization, politics. I have read all of Noam Chomsky, sometimes Barry Glassner, Max Weber, and so on. I buy books at airports (more in London) to read on airplanes. I don’t even remember the authors. If I like them, I read them right through; if not, I just put it down.

Garik Israelian with his friend Brian May. // Credit:Garik Israelian
Q. You obtained excellent grades at university, but I believe you weren’t at all keen on attending lectures, preferring other activities…

A. I almost never attended lectures because I can’t concentrate long enough to listen to a talk. It's a problem of mine. I studied at home with books and was one of the best students in the faculty of physics. I also attended courses on theoretical physics because I thought I might follow a career in particle physics.

I had a really good time at university playing in groups, walking in the mountains in the Caucasus, Sayan (near Lake Baikal), traveling a lot, concerts, theatre ... everything. I also worked as a DJ at a famous bar.

Q. Have you worked in other areas apart from astronomy?

A. Yes, with the fall of the Soviet Union, doctoral students suffered greatly. No scholarship money was available for almost four years! So I needed to take other work to make money. I had a bread-baking business, I played piano in restaurants, repaired TVs and videos, I did buying and selling, and at the same time I was working on my doctoral thesis. I also had to help my parents because they had a miserable pension. I was always working to help my parents and my sisters. They were very difficult years for me: six months’ military service, working in the fields, business — all while doing my Ph.D. on radioactive processes and stellar atmospheres. I think I worked almost 24 hours a day, for my thesis. I knew that my future depended on it. I did not want to waste a minute, a second.

So I did not even have time to play, or to visit the mountains in the years of my thesis ... four to five years working, working, working, doing my thesis on one side and earning money to live on the other. There is a moment in life where you have to take things seriously for a few years, or it will be too late and you get left behind.

Q. What is life like at your research center, the IAC? Have you been there long?

A. Everything is quiet, without conflict, without emotions. I am a person who doesn’t seek conflict, and I do not like to poke my nose into the projects, ideas, and problems of my colleagues. I have many ambitions, not just science. Science is not the main purpose of my life and never was. The truth is that my ambitions are towards other things. If I have an idea, and it is mine, then I get to see if I can carry it out. And if not, I can keep doing “routine” science.

Q. "Routine" science? What do you mean by “routine” science?

A. Routine science is a science that can be planned five years ahead. There are people/groups who plan for 10 or 15 years. They plan what they are going to search for, find, publish — everything! It is a form of "globalization" in science. We publish articles with "regular, normal"  results but few discoveries. It is also true that without this kind of routine, research science can never discover something great. In general, it is difficult to discover something strange and novel; it’s very difficult. We all know doing routine science is not very interesting, at least for me it isn’t. But we still need ideas, there are still places that we have not explored (at least in my field): why we are here, for example. I have to investigate some ideas in my field and see if my feelings do not lie to me. I feel that there will be some very interesting discoveries and revelations in one to three years’ time.

Q. Is there something you want more than this profession as an astrophysicist?

A. Yes, I like music. I always had a lot of music in my life, playing instruments, forming rock bands in college. And now, I still have a lot of music, playing the guitar, piano, keyboards almost every day (if I'm on the island!). I need a portable piano to carry in a suitcase!

Garik Israelian with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. // Credit: Garik Israelian
Q. Where did you learn to play?

A. At home from the age of 12 to 14. My parents sent me to the conservatory to learn to play the piano when I was 7, but they stopped four months later. The teachers said I had no musical talent, and I hated the teachers and the conservatory with their methods and their philosophy of “music.”

But I learned to play alone, at home, slowly, without notes, without teachers. By the age of 16/17, I was playing things like Billy Evans (jazz). I loved his album Portrait in Jazz, and there I learnt some things. I also learned to play a lot of Chopin, some Tchaikovsky. I was playing much better (without notes) than my sister and the conservatory students after seven to eight years of study. Then I started to play the piano in groups. We played a lot of jazz-rock (it was an interesting stage in my musical life). I learned to play guitar and played bass, just ... well, crazy! My parents thought I was crazy. I slept very little. I was one of the best at university, so I thought I was a bit unusual.

Q. Did you ever seriously contemplate becoming a professional musician? Perhaps we might have lost an astrophysicist and gained a great musician…

A. Perhaps. I don’t know. Maybe it was a mistake not to try.

Q. Do you compose or just play?

A. I have several instruments at home. With Korg Oasys software, I can do a lot. But I do this for myself. I do not care to show my music to other people.

Q. You’ve also taken that passion for music to Starmus. In the first Festival you brought Tangerine Dream and Brian May. And now the great Rick Wakeman of the legendary band Yes will be coming.

A. Exactly! Rick was an idol for me, his works in Yes, the famous Burning. After his piano albums and Night Sea Airs are works of art. Wakeman is Wakeman. Brian May always says Wakeman is number one, and I agree with him.

Q. Now that we’re started on music, let’s talk a little about your favorite bands or singers.

A. I always had classical music at home since I was 2 years old. My idol was Edward Grieg. Then I started with the Beatles and then moved on. I was born in the era of classic and progressive rock . So my all-time groups were Genesis, Pink Floyd, Queen, and Led Zeppelin, together with some jazz-rock like Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Al Di Meola. I like everything, not just jazz or rock. If I like something, then that's it. I do not care what style it’s in. But I know nothing about “pop” music (Shakira, etc.). That's another world.

Q. What’s your all-time favorite album?

A. Of course, it’s Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s masterpiece. No one’s ever come even close to it and I don’t think anybody ever will.

Garik Israelian with Peter Gabriel.
// Credit: Garik IsraelianQ. I agree with you about Pink Floyd, and I believe you know David Gilmour in person?

A. Yes Brian (May) introduced me to David Gilmour about six or seven years ago. We met only once after his concert in Munich. We exchanged emails about music and astronomy.

Q. But do you listen to more recent bands and singers, or don’t you like today’s music?

A. No, that’s not true. There are modern bands I like. For example Porcupine Tree, No Sound, Blackfield, Mystery, some Opeth, Steven Wilson. In fact, I consider Steven Wilson to be a very creative musician, he’s great. He’s, like, the Peter Gabriel of our times. But these groups are not well known and you would not hear them on MTV. I think they’re too good ever to be "popular."

Q. Music figures large in your in your ideas. Years ago you wanted to do a concert in La Palma. What happened then?

A. Well, it as one of my "crazy" and "ambitious" ideas. But it was so crazy that people like Robbie Williams, Jean Michel Jarre, and Brian May told me that it would be a historic and worldwide thing. Robbie Williams himself came to La Palma to see the observatory, and so on. In fact, Williams is one of the best producers in the world. He organized Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour, U2’s “big” tour, Jean Michel Jarre, Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Queen, the last Genesis, Madonna. He’s an icon in the world of live concerts. He said he could do a very nice thing in La Palma, and it would be something historic. Jean Michel Jarre also went to see the observatory, to look at the logistics. Everything was ready to move in 2009 in the International Year of Astronomy. But we had to cancel the event for lack of funding.

Q. I know you don’t like talking about your private life. You don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account, you’ve no personal website or blog…

A. I’m a very private person. I don’t like social networks and don’t wish to share my life with the world at large. I’ll talk to you about music, astronomy, my projects, but I’m very firm about my privacy. I keep that for my closest friends.

Q. You’ve certainly no shortage of frinds. Your personal agenda is full of celebrity telephone numbers. You can just pick up the phone and call almost anybody in person…

A. Yes, I know many "famous" people (if you want to call them that). But almost all are musicians, and I can assure you they are all very modest, very intelligent. And I have very few friends, I know hundreds of people but I am friends with less than seven or eight people. But they are real friends. They are always by my side for anything. They believe a lot in me, and I believe in them.

Q. What can you say about Brian May? We know he’s your close friend, and you helped him a lot to finish his doctoral thesis.

A. Brian is very, very modest. He is the most creative person I know. He is also one of my best friends. I can share many intimate secrets with him, and he does with me, too. He has been in my home in Tenerife several times, even staying over night. I have also been many times to his homes in Surrey and Los Angeles. There are very few people in this world who have the heart and brain of Brian, very few. I personally don’t know anyone.

Garik Israelian at work on an observing run in Hawaii. // Credit: Garik Israelian
Q. What was it like giving a talk at TED?

A. I never give public talks, and this is the only (first and last) public talk that I have made since my talk at Starmus 2011 on the sounds of the stars. But TED was not my idea. Musician Peter Gabriel was the one who convinced me to present this talk. Many years ago we went to Armenia with Peter. We always talked about astronomy since we first met in 2004. Peter loves the Armenian “duduk." He says it is the best instrument in the world and he used it in his album Passion (the soundtrack of the film Last Temptation of Christ).

He also taught the duduk to Hans Zimmer for use in the soundtrack of the movie Gladiator. Even before Peter and Hans Zimmer, it was Brian Eno who presented this instrument to the Western world. He told me this really amazing storyof how he travelled to Moscow in the years of the USSR and how the Armenian duduk reached the western world. Brian was the producer of a disk called Duduk, I will not be sad in this world. I am sure you know that Brian Eno was also the producer of the first records of U2, Coldplay, etc. His masterpiece 77 Million Painting is one of my favourites. He’s another super modest and intelligent person (like Peter and all my friends of his generation).

Q. And how was it at TED? Do any incidents stand out?

A. No, the TED audience can’t ask questions after your talk. They have to wait until the coffee break. There I met Richard Dawkins, Larry Page, and many others. But the most fun was another story. I was approached by a very nice girl who started asking questions about my talk. I told her that her face was very familiar and she replied, "Yes,  I’m an actress, maybe you saw me in a movie," and I said "yes, maybe." Then I had drinks with her, chatting about things. The next day I asked about her and was told, "But Garik, don’t you know Meg Ryan?" And I answered, "Yes, I knew her face but didn’t know her name!" Then I found out she was a Hollywood star. But I'm not in the world of cinema. So I know very few actors.

Q. Are you considered to be a good scientist? A scientist of senior rank?

A. I don’t know. I can’t say whether I'm good or bad. You have to ask my colleagues. I only know that I’m an expert in my own field. I understand what is happening there and what needs to be done, and sometimes I have new and interesting ideas. Nothing more. I work because I'm curious. Sometimes I get tired, bored even, but I think that’s normal. I'm not interested in amassing 1,000 articles with a million citations. I don’t want administrative or political office. I'm not made for this. But I must admit that I can negotiate, persuade, and organize. I can do this but only if I am interested in the project and only if it’s very ambitious. Overall, one of the things that I have: I am very ambitious about everything, my friends, projects, music, food — everything. It's like saying "all or nothing." I have had this philosophy since I was 10 years old. It’s not right, but it’s who I am. I tried to change but it’s very difficult.

Q What was the most exciting moment in your scientific life?

A. It was after my first article was published in Nature in 1999 on the first evidence between the formation of supernovae and black holes. I received a handwritten letter signed by Nobel laureate Hans Bethe. When I opened the letter, I could not read it because his writing was very unusual and it took me 30 minutes to read it and when I saw that it was signed by Hans Bethe it left me paralyzed. Hans Bethe was the person who first explained the stellar nucleosynthesis and won the Nobel Prize in 1967. On top of this, Bethe invited me to work with him for a few months at Caltech and Professor Jerry Brown on a related GRB article. And we did that.

Q. What do you have to say about the Ambartsumian award that you shared with Michel Mayor and Nuno Santos?

A. I remember when Michel came to Tenerife in 1999 and said he was thinking of starting a project on the abundances in stars with planets and invited me to collaborate and start the project with him. So Nuno Santos began his doctoral thesis in Geneva. I also had a visiting professorship at the University of Geneva giving a postgraduate course on radiative processes, spectroscopy and stellar atmospheres. I spent many months in Geneva. So we started to direct Nuno’s thesis and gradually began to lead in this field. In 10 years we had published about 40 articles and the most important results in this field. So the Swiss Academy of Science presented our work for this award. I am not saying that we made great discoveries. Rather, it was a project that we took forward before anyone else, we were very efficient, fast, and smart in our strategy, and this is why we have led in this field for many years (and are still leading); just that, nothing more, and this was recognized.

Q. I’m going to try and ask you something a little more personal to give a more complete overview of your personality and character. Is money important to you?

A. A little, about average … I don’t know. I can earn money if I want to, but it’s never been my priority. The money might be the result of some project by it isn’t the central aim of my life.

Q. Over time, with all those projects, you will have had successes and failures. Are you able to set right your mistakes in time? Do you find it difficult to ask for forgiveness?

A. Yes, I do that immediately when I can see that I was wrong. It’s very hard when they don’t forgive you … that when you learn that you too must learn to forgive others because it can hurt deep down.

Q. And do you find it difficult to forgive others?

A. Usually, yes. But it all depends. It depends on who it is, what it is that I have to forgive. I hate it when someone else suffers through some fault of mine. I’m not a dry person, but I can sometimes be a little too impulsive, and that’s something I don’t really like.

Q. Do you believe in luck?

A. Yes, I think so.

Q. Do you believe in God?

A. Sadly, no…

Q. Do you believe in yourself?

A. Unfortunately, yes.

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