The Observer JULY 17, 2016 - by Andrew Anthony


Brians Cox, Eno and May joined Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins in Tenerife to celebrate the synergy between astronomy and music, while astronaut Chris Hadfield, interviewed below, talked of our innate instinct to explore

Around the giant pool of the Mediterranean Palace hotel in Tenerife hundreds of people are focused on a familiar star. As pounding bass-filled music booms out of the PA, a great mass of the young, the middle-aged and the old are all glazed with submission as they appear to seek the meaning of the universe in the transformative process of ultraviolet radiation.

A few yards away in a darkened auditorium beneath a strange mock pinkish pyramid the Starmus festival is under way. Dedicated to celebrating a synthesis between astronomy and music that is of a more transcendent kind than that practised around the Mediterranean Palace pool, it has drawn hundreds of people focused on very different but no less familiar stars: Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Brian May and, the greatest scientific supernova of them all, Stephen Hawking.

These, along with eleven Nobel laureates, are some of the leading speakers at the third Starmus festival at the Pirámide de Arona, an island of vaulting intellectual aspiration surrounded by tourist hotels with armies of sunbathers fastened to their poolside loungers as if by superglue.

Starmus is an unusual affair, but not necessarily for its setting. It's not a typical science conference for academics at which new papers are presented. Nor is it a typical public talk designed to popularise established academic theories. Instead it's a sort of hybrid - at once specialist and popularising, openly public, and yet sufficiently off-circuit to feel discreetly private. It also seeks to bridge the separate worlds of science and the arts or, more specifically, music and cosmology. The brainchild of a bearded Armenian astrophysicist, Garik Israelian, Starmus was first held in 2011.

Israelian's original idea was to do a concert at La Palma observatory, which features the world's largest optical and infrared telescope. A disarming fifty-three-year-old with a scattershot charm, Israelian had been working at NASA "trying to get acoustic sound waves in stellar atmospheres" and wondered if musicians might be able to use his collection. He approached Jean-Michel Jarre, who was keen on the idea, only for the concert to be cancelled when the Canary Islands government withdrew funding.

Undeterred, Israelian decided to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first space flight with a festival in 2011. That was the first Starmus. In one sense it was a tremendous success because the keynote speaker was Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon and someone whose public appearances were so rare as to raise suspicion of their authenticity.

"When we announced Neil Armstrong was coming," Israelian recalls, "we completely lost our credibility because no one believed he was going to be there. People said we were crazy. It was the worst thing we could do. And then he came!"

Armstrong's fellow crew member Buzz Aldrin was also there, as well as Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 who was played by Tom Hanks in the eponymous film. In addition there was the progressive electronic band Tangerine Dream.

However, in financial terms it was a disaster. Admission was free for most visitors, there was no sponsorship, and Israelian and his co-producers were left to pick up a hefty bill. But that didn't stop them holding a second Starmus, again on Tenerife. This time Stephen Hawking came. He was a massive draw, but once again the festival lost money. Israelian talks darkly of broken promises by the Canary Islands government and the disappointing lack of sponsorship.

They say that one definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and to expect different results. If so, then Israelian is mad in the best tradition of mad professors, because he came back for a third time with a cast list that was starrier than ever.

Not until you've seen Brian Cox at a gathering of science buffs can you appreciate how much the awe-filled physicist and TV personality is adored by his public. To walk alongside him though the Pirámide de Arona is to be submerged by a sea of autograph hunters and selfie-takers. Unlike Dawkins, who looks as if he can't wait to get to the green room, Cox seems to relish the attention. What did he think of his first Starmus?

"It's brilliant," he says, tucking into an ice-cream. "There's a lot of time to talk to the speakers. And you don't normally get people like Brian Eno, Brian May and Hans Zimmer in the same room as Stephen Hawking and Joe Stiglitz."

We talk about Eno's lecture in which he discussed the intimate relationship between science and art, one the legendary music producer and former Roxy Music synthesiser player characterised as "science discovers and art digests".

"He's right," says Cox. "If you look at the history of astronomy, these ideas of finding our place in the universe have had a massive social impact. The obvious one is the relegation of the Earth from the centre of it. That battle to define whether or not we're special was one of the defining battles of the seventeenth century onward. Our physical demotion is now widely accepted, but what of the emotional impact if you start talking as Brian Greene and Martin Rees [two other speakers] did about the multiverse. What does it mean if there are an infinite number of these pocket universes? If that's the case, we're not geographically significant. We're not even lucky. We're just inevitable. Does that matter?"

Good question, but I'm not sure that I've fully mastered the concept of an infinite number of pocket universes, so I silently nod with as much sagacity as I can muster.

"The fact that we're in an insignificant physical speck in a possibly infinite universe," he continues, "is as easy or difficult to accept as that we are a very tiny temporal speck in a possibly infinite time span. We know how to deal with that, with death and a finite life time. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn. But it's a conversation that won't be had by physicists. It's a conversation that's best had in art, philosophy, literature and theology. That's where the meaning of the things we discover about the universe is teased out."

Back in the darkened auditorium with its decorative scattering of fairy lights - to suggest the stellar illuminations of the cosmos? - Hawking is wheeled on stage. Hawking, as Cox says, is "iconic", but as the presenter of Forces Of Nature also noted, his extraordinary image, the great brain trapped inside the paralysed body, has tended to overshadow his achievements, at least in the mind of the general public.

"He's up there with the best," says Cox. "Several of the things we take for granted - black holes, Big Bang, singularity - those are his contributions."

Like everyone, Hawking pre-writes his speech - entitled A Brief History Of Mine - in his case by selecting the appropriate letters on his computer by moving a keyboard sensor with his cheek. But unlike everyone else, he records the speech, which is then issued one sentence at a time by another movement of his cheek.

The speech is a bit like an audio version of the film The Theory Of Everything, with a gallop through Hawking's life story plus key moments of scientific breakthroughs. Interestingly, he estimates that as a lazy Oxford undergraduate, he worked for a thousand hours in his three years - so much for Malcolm Gladwell's ten-thousand-hour theory as the basis for genius. Several times there are long pauses, and a cosmic silence pervades the auditorium, until an assistant comes on stage to reboot Hawking's computer. At the end of a funny, moving and profound speech there is a standing ovation.

A little while later there is a comedy musical tribute to Hawking by the American musician and web developer Ken Lawrence, who goes by the stage name of MC Hawking. He performs rap and hip-hop employing gangsta-style slang mixed in with the esteemed scientist's quotes.

It's sort of clever, even impressive in a way, but painfully unfunny, though that doesn't stop people laughing. Among the most conspicuously entertained during a chorus of "Black hole yo!" is the Queen guitarist and doctoral astrophysicist Brian May, sitting in the front row. With his long frizz of white hair, May looks how Isaac Newton might have looked if he'd had the opportunity to ram his wet fingers into an electric plug socket. "That was what Starmus is all about," says Cox afterwards.

The session closes with an inspirational talk by the astronaut Chris Hadfield, who had a big hit on YouTube with his rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity, recorded during his five-month spell up in the International Space Station. He argues that peopled space travel is a vital part of humanity's fundamental desire to explore. Before that, though, there's a discussion between Dawkins and the astrophysicist Steven Balbus about life on other planets. If it exists, says Dawkins, he believes that it's governed by the laws of evolution.

Dawkins has appeared at every Starmus, but he doesn't look any more comfortable for the experience. Perhaps it's because - I'm told - he's staying at the Mediterranean Palace. That thumping bass could get to the most relaxed of people, and not even his most devoted fans would describe him as relaxed.

The following day there is a round-table event at the observatory in La Palma. It lasts a hundred and eight minutes - the time taken for Gagarin's first trip into space - and features eight great minds discussing various aspects of space exploration, global issues such as climate change and public communication. Seven of them are men - all white and middle aged or older - and one is a woman. Of the thirty-nine speakers listed for the whole week, only four are women. There are more men called Brian - five of them. And there is one solitary non-white face (the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson).

I asked Israelian if the lack of diversity was an issue for him. "No, no. I don't think about such things," he says, irritated by the question. "I invited many female scientists and they couldn't come. I've got limited time - I cannot keep inviting people to get fifty percent. That's not my problem."

The round table debate turns out to be quite dull, with everyone speaking in optimistic platitudes or pessimistic generalities. It's not a forum for deep expertise but strong opinion and it turns out that in a group debate the sum is less than its parts.

The debate is streamed live on the internet and also into the auditorium beneath the pyramid in Tenerife, which is about half full. As the crowd files out I take a good look at them. They're much younger on average than the speakers and, in terms of gender at least, much more representative of the outside world.

I speak to a forty-year-old physics student called Raquel Rodriguez. If you were looking for a stereotype of an astro-nerd, then Rodriguez is not where you'd start. She looks like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and tells me her favourite area of discussion is "dark matter and quantum physics".

Then there's a thirty-two-year-old Norwegian nurse called Guro Nygård. Her brother brought her here for the week as a birthday present. She's fascinated by astronomy, she says, though this is the first time she's been to such an event. Her personal highlight from the week was seeing Hawking. "He's unbelievable," she says. "His personal history is truly amazing."

Both women noticed the imbalance between men and women but both believed the key thing was to get the best people and that gender, in the short term, was a secondary issue.

I find thirty-six-year-old Sam Alexandroni talking to a neuroscientist, a brain surgeon and a rocket scientist. He used to be a journalist at the New Statesman, he says, but now he's writing a novel. "My teachers did a miserable job at school of communicating the wonder of science. Having discovered it later in life, events like this are brilliant for communicating ideas," he says. As for combining the sciences and the arts, Alexandroni is all for it, though he says he's "yet to experience the synergy" at Starmus.

The much-anticipated synergy is due to occur the following day at the closing Sonic Universe concert, featuring the woman who lost her heart to a starship trooper, Sarah Brightman, along with the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra, Chris Hadfield and Rick Wakeman doing some Bowie, Hans Zimmer the Hollywood composer, and guest artist Brian May.

But sadly I won't be there. It's time to pick up my things from the Mediterranean Palace and take to the skies back to London. As I leave, the prostate worshippers of solar energy are still pursuing melanogenesis to the accompaniment of a bludgeoning Eurobeat. Science never stops. And nor, alas, does the music.


Chris Hadfield, fifty-six, is a retired Canadian astronaut who served as commander of the International Space Station and became a viral sensation on the internet with his rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity.

Did you ever get to have any communication with David Bowie?

Yeah, I did. I never met him in person. I wish I had, but in order to do what we did, of course we needed his blessing and he was gracious enough to give us very heavily the thumbs-up. He loved the result and said it was the most poignant version ever. Everything I did with him he just came across as a thoughtful, funny, original gentleman of a guy.

How did you come to Starmus?

I got to know Brian May. I forget how. I think we were conversing from space actually. Then I spent some time with him in Australia and we just hit it off. So I think it was initially Brian who sent a note to me saying, "Hey, this is going on. You should come if you can."

How has being in space change you as a person?

Really, it did two things. It gave me a different perspective, and it gave me a level of public voice that I didn't have before. So then the eternal question is, what do you do with what you are? Do I sell soap or do I buy a yacht? I mean I can't afford to buy a yacht, but I'm just saying, what do I decide to do with fame? For me, the internal change that came from space flight clarified an understanding of what the world truly is. I think somewhere in my two-thousand-six-hundred orbits, you start to get a completely unfettered understanding of the world. You start to understand what four and a half billion years means.

There's also the commonality of the human experience. If you come to Tenerife you'll kind of focus on the differences - how is this place different than where I am, or where I grew up, or they're stupid here because it's different to the way I do it. But if you go over Tenerife, and a few seconds later over the Cape Verde, and then you cross Africa and then you cross Madagascar, then you come across Perth and then you're coming around to Sydney and that happens over and over and over again - it's the similarities of the human experience that predominate. And therefore, obviously pretty quickly, the shared nature of life and the fact that our objectives, no matter what political or religious system we were raised with, have a lot more in common than they do apart.

Did you ever find that overwhelming? I mean, how do you not crack up with the weight of that perspective?

The people who have had epiphanies of various sorts or have cracked up, almost all of them were in the previous generation of space explorers. Because at that time we threw people into space with a purely technical purpose and almost no human preparation. This was the cold war and we gotta win it, so details be damned. So guys came back from the moon, and some of the cosmonauts... some of them came back alcoholic, depressed or with a religious epiphany. And no one ever treated them the same again.

Neil came back a recluse because that was the only way he could deal with it; Buzz came back an alcoholic, but he turned that around. I don't know anyone in the latter-day era who has had an epiphany. I think it's spiritual and immensely contemplative, but we prepare for it psychologically. We have a whole team of support people and psychiatrists. They put the guitar on the space station, and a movie library. They build us psychological support equipment.

You're a believer in a peopled mission to Mars.

Well, it's not a belief system. That misrepresents the fundamental question which is: should human exploration stop? That's a ridiculous expectation because human exploration is innate. We learn to walk way before we learn to talk. You have to be able to explore in order to develop as a human being. A little toddler making odd decisions that are enabled by mobility is how we discovered everything. It took a long time to be able to see what's over the ocean or even across the Red Sea. It took even longer to cross the Tasman Strait, or all the way down to Antarctica, and even longer to fly - and then even longer to fly above the atmosphere. But it's all the same. There is nothing magic about space exploration. Space is just an adjective.