I shared an elevator with three sleepy conference attendees last week, and while it is never easy thinking of something to say in a lift (rule: say nothing) it took me two floors to realise I was the only one in it not to have been awarded a Nobel Prize.
As I exited, linking together the many, many decisions that placed me so far outside their eminent circle, I became aware of the power that being in the presence of such driven people could have on a receptive audience.
Welcome to Starmus, Life and the Universe; a celebration of scientific endeavour, and aspirational arena beyond compare.
This year the festival – jointly organised by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) – was held in Trondheim; the academic and technological capital of Norway and arguably home to the bulk of the country's industrial innovation. This Nordic country has a population of 5.2 million, one third of whom are educated to a degree level. University, unlike in the US or UK, is essentially free for students, with the only costs being a nominal semester fee of NOK 500 (US$59). It’s a rightful home for an event like Starmus, which if things pan out well for the city, will be here again for its next edition in 2019.
The event is the brainchild of astrophysicist Galik Israelian (pictured below, centre), who sought to gather leading scientists together in a fusion of science, music and art. In his own words, “The principle idea behind the festival is inspiration – to inspire and bring imagination and exploration, in the hands of the best scientists”.
This year the event’s keynote was Stephen Hawking. Sadly, ill health meant he had to present it from his base in Cambridge, UK, appropriately appearing onstage through the technological magic of Skype. Buzz Aldrin, scheduled to attend, also appeared via video link, his larger-than-life presence otherwise undiminished.
But the stage was shared by many other leading lights of the scientific and artistic community besides. And not all from the field of science. Director Oliver Stone was there, as was veteran broadcaster Larry King.
Galik’s introduction of rock and roll to proceedings is fundamental to the event’s success. Science fairs are all too often associated with a certain kind of attendee and the purpose of this event is to entice and inspire those who may not walk among them.
Or as Jean-Michel Jarre put it, accepting the 2017 Stephen Hawking Medal for Music and Art: “Music and science are universal, all cultures share them.”
Further endorsement from the music industry comes by way of British rock star Brian May, member of Queen but perhaps introduced more appropriately here as Astrophysics PhD and campaigner for political and social change. May was a key founder for the event, now in its fourth year, and no doubt adds to the credibility of the event attended this year by Jarre and other musicians including guitar hero Steve Vai.
This attempt to attract others outside the scientific fold is also extended physically with an event programme that took place around the city. Gallery visits, presentations, workshops and meetings with astronauts in the town square essentially turned the whole city into an audience and venue, this time catered for primarily in Norwegian.
If there was one thing missing from the event, it was the fact that bringing the world's leading scientists together (40 per cent of whom dominated the field of astrophysics) presents an opportunity for the creation of a committee, or other such body capable of bringing about some form of scientific accord. In my various conversations with attendees ranging from illuminated students to contemplative seniors, the need for a collective voice championing – for example – an increased role for women in science (many of the panels were dominated by men) or a commitment to green energy innovation, was front of mind.
But this is the sort of thing that comes about once an event has found its feet. Perhaps next time we will see such development. For now we will just have to make do with Stephen Hawking polemics on the future of mankind and first-hand accounts of space travel from people the world may never see the like of again.
On the last day of the event, I had another encounter with greatness in my hotel's elevator.
It took me four floors from supper to built up the courage to shake the hand of a man who I had never heard of before that week: Harrison 'Jack' Schmidt, the 12th man to walk on the moon. Nothing quite prepares you for the feelings and gratitude that bubble up when meeting a person like Schmidt and all he represents in the annals of human endeavour.
It's difficult enough getting your head around around what it takes to put a man on the moon, more so when you realise you're dealing in abstraction through words and video.
But in person this was not just a meeting with an astronaut. This was meeting and shaking the hand of an ordinary man who in our lifetime had operated a lunar exploration module in a dark valley seven kilometres from his landing site on the moon, using technology that predated wheels on suitcases, to reach his lunar landing module for a return journey to Earth, twinkling away 384,000km from the rock on which his existence hung precariously in the balance.
Shaking the hands of spaceman Schmidt and his wife Teresa floored me. It turned a story that existed only in words and visuals into a relatable, visceral experience, he eats breakfast where I can eat breakfast, rubs his eyes when he's tired and summons magnanimity when addressed by an unblinking fan in an elevator.
The reception of a story is in the framing and context. You had to be there: these live events make that happen.
For me it summed up the reason why events like this, and more specifically the impact a shared experience with such aspirational characters can have on a person, are so important. Someone somewhere can inspire us to improve our lives every day. It's imperative that we seek them out because who knows, someone someday will be seeking us.
As Schmidt said onstage, “the first man to walk on Mars walks among us today”. “Although,” he added, “I've been saying that for 50 years.”