Starmus Day 2: Hawking, May, "51 Degrees North" film

Posted by David Eicher
on Wednesday, September 24, 2014

John C. Mather lectures on the James Webb Space Telescope. // David J. Eicher
Wow. It seems like we’ve been here a week — so much has gone on — but it has been merely two days. On Tuesday, September 23, the second day of the Starmus Festival, a celebration of astronomy, cosmology, science, music, and the arts being held in the Canary Islands, began with a bang. The group of 600 delegates and some additional 200 media and exhibitors traveled from our base at the Ritz-Carlton Abama Resort to the Magma Arte & Congresos, a large auditorium for several special events. First, Queen founding member and guitarist Brian May, also a doctor of astrophysics, delivered a great presentation on stereo imaging in astronomy, with numerous imaged examples he has made of solar system objects — moons, planets, asteroids, and comets — and even employing a test image of Freddie Mercury to explain the principles of parallax and image creation. It was an electrifying talk, with the audience equipped with 3-D glasses, and the talk was presented twice so the huge crowd could all be accommodated.

Then, the world’s most famous theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, delivered a superb lecture on the origin of the universe, following a short filmed introduction with loud music and amazing graphics — a real rock star intro! The talk was magnificent, and it was really moving to see perhaps the most brilliant person in the world, held captive in his chair by a terrible motor neuron disease, speaking through his voice synthesizer about the most amazing aspects of the cosmos. It was really incredible and was of course peppered with Hawking’s humor throughout.

We then heard from an old friend of Astronomy magazine, John C. Mather, who won the Nobel Prize for his work with the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, confirming the cosmic microwave background radiation and erasing any doubts about the validity of the Big Bang. As the project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, John spoke about how that mission is coming along, on schedule nicely for a 2018 launch, and how the telescope will in essence succeed Hubble and offer potential solutions to major questions in cosmology.

Following a dinner, the group reconvened for a talk by Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratories on “death plunges,” asteroids and comets plunging into Earth’s atmosphere and ablating or striking Earth’s surface. This surveyed last year’s Russian Chelyabinsk fall, the K-Pg impact and the dinosaurs, and many other objects, and looked at potential solutions to a catastrophic impact with another near-Earth object. It was a perfect prelude to the exclusive screening of the soon-to-be-released film, 51 Degrees North, which depicts the fictional fall of a meteorite into London and other areas on Earth. It was very dramatic and gripping, and beautifully filmed and edited. The film’s director, Grigorij Richters, was on hand along with the principal actors, and Brian May provided the film’s musical score.

We finished the evening by returning to our hotel at 1 a.m. What an incredible day of astronomy!

For all images from this trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.
For related blog, see Starmus begins with Wilson, Eicher, Dawkins, and Harvati

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