Starmus: a festival of the stars

At Starmus Festival in Tenerife, the superstars of science and megastars of music bring cosmology to earth

It's September 2014 and I'm wandering around a resort in Tenerife in the dark trying to find a gala dinner. I'm accompanied by a fellow straggler, an English gentleman with unruly white hair. It turns out to be Nobel prize-winning chemist Harold Kroto.

"You're Harry Kroto! " I say with surprise.

He sighs.

“You’re giving a talk here the day after tomorrow,” I say.


“We have to get out of here first,” says Kroto grimly.

We do get out of there, eventually, with the help of a hotel employee riding a little train thing. It’s the first time I’ve ever met a Nobel laureate and I’ll meet two others this week.

Armenian-Spanish astrophysicist Garik Israelian has brought Kroto, God-denying biologist Richard Dawkins, Queen guitarist turned doctor of astrophysics Brian May, superstar physicist Stephen Hawking, cape-wearing prog-rocker Rick Wakeman, 10th man on the moon Charlie Duke, first person to walk in space Alexei Leonev and 700 or so amateur science buffs to Tenerife for the second Starmus Festival.

“This is a mad and wonderful enterprise,” explains Brian May at the inaugural event. “To bring together astronauts, scientists, humanitarians, artists, musicians, this is something very special. It’s about astronomy, of course, and it’s also about music, but it’s also about the place of humanity in the universe.”

May, with slight exasperation, goes on to describe Israelian as “completely impossible”. He only found out moments earlier that he was expected to make this speech and throughout the week there’s a sense that the festival is mapped out on the back of an envelope. High-minded cosmological thinking is regularly undermined by earthbound organisational issues: “There’s a press conference? Let me get my pants on!” “Rick Wakeman’s band won’t have a place to stay!” “The gala dinner is overbooked!” “They moved the lecture without telling us!”

“That’s Garik!” people say regularly. Or, with an increasing edge, “Garik, you either love him or hate him!”

Still, to be in such close proximity to all these exceptional people is an incredible thing. Look, there's astronaut Walt Cunningham chatting with Brian May. There's Richard Dawkins, in an improbable Hawaiian shirt, agreeing to be part of yet another selfie.

"They let anybody in here these days," says David Moore from Astronomy Ireland on spotting Nobel Laureate Robert Wilson and astronaut Charlie Duke at breakfast.

The biggest star of Starmus is Stephen Hawking. His doctors say he can no longer fly so he travels here by cruise ship. Whenever he enters a room with his nurses there's a standing ovation and cheers. His first lecture is preceded by a dramatic rock-guitar-soundtracked video montage and is filled with jokey references to his celebrity life and times. At its core, however, is his account of how the universe came to be. I don't entirely understand it. "Don't worry, I didn't understand it either," says Cathy Lapp, a Bostonian amateur astronomer.

Most of the lectures are broadly themed and aimed at non-experts. Nobel prize-winner Robert Wilson explains how he discovered the "cosmic microwave background radiation" left over from the big bang. Anthropologist Katerina Harvati talks about Neanderthals, physicist Mark Boslough expounds on meteor strikes and Nobel laureate John C Mather says "Your chin is made of exploding stars", which is an excellent sentence. Richard Dawkins's talk is about how alien life may have evolved (spoiler alert: it doesn't involve God).

After Hawking, Brian May, wearing a pair of 3D spectacles, talks about applying Victorian stereoscopic techniques to star-watching. "I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be following Stephen Hawking," says May. "It really sucks." Later I miss a screening of a science fiction film soundtracked by May, which is all about an apocalyptic meteor strike. "I was rooting for the asteroid," says Dan Lapp, husband of Cathy.

Great as the lectures are, Starmus is most interesting in the interludes when the speakers mingle with autograph-hunting fans. These people can be challengingly upfront. Laura, a 20-something artist from Sydney, tells Dawkins she thinks that arguing with religious people is pointless. “He said: ‘I’m sorry you think I’m wasting my time,’” she chuckles. Laura, incidentally, is staying “unofficially” at the hotel. “I just wander around and manage to find somewhere to sleep.”

On Wednesday morning there’s some confusion about whether there’s to be a book-signing event or not. Brian May is nowhere to be seen and some poor soul is dispatched to wake him. This, I gather, is a mammoth task. “Well done,” whispers one of May’s people encouragingly, when the woman returns with a grumpy-looking May in tow.

May joins a long table of scientists, astronauts and rock stars. At the far end, Alexei Leonev sits for photo after photo with a strange expression on his face. He’s walked in space, but he clearly finds this a bit weird.

Standing nearby is Dorothy Duke, wife of Charlie, 10th man on the moon. "He was the youngest," she tells me. "And he drove the fastest," she adds proudly.

Was she not terrified for him? “We had faith in mission control,” she says.

Illya Baykin, a young Russian wearing a Yuri Gagarin T-shirt beneath a suit jacket, is manning a stall for Captains of the Earth, a foundation that propagates “cosmism” a 19th-century Russian philosophy that believed space exploration should be accompanied by an ethical “evolution”. He’s a “historical optimist” who finds scientific pessimism about the future of mankind discouraging. “The number of very large Nobel prize-winning brains that are like, ‘Man, I’m glad I’m old! Sorry for you, kids!’ It’s terrible.”

Bob Wagner, a young Canadian guitarist, who plays in the We Will Rock You stage show, agrees with Baykin, but they're both still blown away to be here. As we chat, Robert Wilson walks in. "A Nobel laureate and he's 10 feet away," says Wagner with wonder.

Declarative T-shirts are a thing. Wagner's T-shirt declares: "The more I see, the less I know for sure." When he meets Brian May, May hugs him then reads the slogan out loud. "It's a John Lennon quote," says Wagner. May nods appreciatively. "Of course it is," he says.

John Ellis, particle physicist from Cern, wears chemistry-themed shirts tucked into his slacks. For his talk he wears one featuring the Higgs equation. He has another that asks, "Does my Higgs Boson look big in this?" "My daughter got me that one," he says.

Next door at a press conference, astronaut Walt Cunningham rails against “global warming alarmists” and insists the world is in a cold period.

“That’s just not correct,” says a frustrated Harry Kroto, and, as the press conference moves onto other topics, he continues to try engaging Cunningham on the subject, sometimes scribbling notes.

Afterwards he’s still agitated. A small group gathers around him and he shows us a piece of paper. On it is written: “I need evidence that this is the coolest period. I’m prepared to change my mind if you show me the evidence.”

Beneath this is scrawled: “I’m not interested.”

“That’s what he said. I wrote it down,” says Kroto, shaking his head. “The problem is that this guy is listened to by governors and the Republican Party . . . Temperatures have risen. Sea levels have risen. Bits of Antarctica have fallen. The Greenland ice-shelf has almost disappeared . . .” He stops with exasperation. “I’m going to have some food,” he says and wanders off.

Dorothy Duke brings a Malaysian journalist over to talk to Charlie. She wants to film him talking about his faith. “I believe in Jesus, he’s my lord and saviour,” says Charlie. “I’ve been walking with Jesus since I was 42 years old.”

The Malaysian woman beams. “I love science, but I also believe in God,” she says. “Most of the scientists here don’t, so I was surprised to hear Charlie say it.”

Duke’s lecture is essentially a slideshow of the best holiday snaps ever (“Here’s me on the moon”) followed by a 10-minute speech about God. Everyone turns to see how Richard Dawkins responds. “I was sitting beside Richard Dawkins,” says Mark Boslough. “I think he was expecting it. I asked him, ‘Did he do that for your benefit?’ He said that Charlie did the same thing at the last Starmus.”

Square-jawed Walt Cunningham gives a speech in praise of “Dangerous Adventure”. If we want to achieve anything, argues Cunningham, we need to risk a few deaths. Future generations “won’t care how carefully and cautiously you survived the 21st century”.

Harry Kroto’s contribution is billed as a lecture about the discovery of the buckminsterfullerene molecule (C60), but it morphs into a hilarious autobiographical polemic about creativity and curiosity. He even includes cartoons made by his own son. One features a newborn baby giving the finger, while a doctor says “congratulations, it’s a brat!”

“Why didn’t you just talk about C60?” I ask him.

He raises his middle finger and chuckles. “I’m a brat,” he says. “I wanted to put some things in there to make people think.”

Mark Boslough, who had been live-tweeting throughout, tells Katerina Harvati that he stopped tweeting during Kroto’s speech because “I couldn’t take my eyes of the stage.”

“The rest of us were boring enough to tweet through?” quips Harvati.

That evening a convoy of buses heads to the Teide Observatory, high in the Teide volcano, for a “star party”. As the buses depart, Rick Wakeman arrives in a big white jeep. It looks a little like we’re fleeing Rick Wakeman, but I know enough about science now to understand that correlation does not imply causation.

I end up sitting next to Greek composer Alexandros Hahalis. Hahalis looks like a composer, with a mop of unruly hair, a black suit and a long white scarf.

“It had piano keys on the scarf,” he says. “But I bleached them!”

“Really?” I say.

"No!" he says and cracks up. Hahalis loves jokes and after the punchlines he likes to high-five people. "What do you call a guy who plays a didgeridoo?" he asks Mark Rigby, head of the Brisbane Planetarium, who is sitting on front of us. "A didgeridude!"

He cackles and high-fives us both. “I made that joke 20 years ago,” he says.

He loves Starmus. “This is incredible,” he says. “I told Richard Dawkins yesterday, ‘I don’t know if it exists, but I am in heaven.’”

He’s trying to get Brian May to perform with him at Saturday’s concert at the Tenerife Auditorium. May is prevaricating. “I said ‘are you Brian May or Brian Maybe?’” chuckles Hahalis. We high-five.

He’s great fun to talk to, though it’s hard on the hands. He talks about religion, rapacious Greek bankers and the mythologically-themed electronic music he and soprano Katerina Mina will be performing later in the week. He tells me a blasphemous joke. The punchline has Jesus on the cross saying “Keep me posted!” We high-five again. “I told that one to Dawkins. He loved it.”

We arrive at the observatory after 11pm and everyone is a little cranky due to lack of food. We are split in groups to go look at telescopes but not through them (it’s very cloudy). This takes ages. Eventually Hahalis foments revolution and demands that we be taken to the food and drink. “We PIIGs should stick together,” he says, slapping me on the back.

We're brought to the venue but the food and drink isn't ready. It also looks like the estimated time of departure, 12.30am, will not be met. Pete Rands is a retired electrician turned astrophysicist, with a carbon atom tattooed on one arm and his dogs tattooed on the other. He's concerned because he has an early plane to catch. "Who's in charge here?" he asks me with a hint of desperation.

I point to one of the festival organisers who’s having a series of stressful phone conversations. “Those people in the foyer of your hotel,” I overhear him saying. “That’s Rick Wakeman’s band. They need rooms for the night.”

Everything feels a little chaotic. At a certain point Hahalis has an argument with a Russian man. Wine is spilled. “I do not want that guy at my concert!” he yells.

He is comforted by Robert Wilson’s wife. “Poor Alexandros,” she says.

On Thursday there’s a round-table discussion broadcast live from the observatory in La Palma, but it’s a muted affair, enlivened only when Stephen Hawking outlines his atheism and asks the others for their positions on the existence of God. There isn’t time for a response. The discussion is timed to be exactly 108 minutes long, the length of Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the earth.

“He must have been up there 20 minutes composing that,” says a disappointed Mark Boslough. “I’m hoping that the panellists will provide answers, even a paragraph. I’d like to know what their opinions are. I kind of think he deserves an answer.”

On Friday evening we all watch as cape-wearing Rick Wakeman and big-haired Brian May perform concept-rock in the Magma theatre. Outside at the bar, a weary organiser thinks the piped world music he’s hearing is Rick Wakeman’s set. “It’s very good,” he says appreciatively.

The next day at the Tenerife Auditorium, there’s an epic musical performance from Hahalis and Mina and some piano-playing from Rick Wakeman before Alexei Leonev discusses the Soviet space programme using low-tech blackboard and chalk. Then Stephen Hawking gives his second talk, arguing, contrary to other theories, that black holes do not entirely destroy all the information that enters them.

It’s been a mind-bending experience listening to stars talking about stars. Dawkins would hate me to say it, but while the joy of scientific endeavour suffuses Starmus, I have had to take a lot on faith. Still, all this cosmology has a nice poetic truth to it and I’m pretty sure Hawking knows this.

“If you feel you are in a black hole. Don’t give up. There’s a way out,” he says. It gets the biggest round of applause of the week.