Standort: / Meldung: "The most unique festival in the galaxy"

Johnny Bliss

Disorderly artist, journalist, and late night moderator, with a fetish for microphone-based hooliganism.

17. 9. 2016 - 10:12

The most unique festival in the galaxy

I attended Starmus, a space, science and astrophysics conference on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Attendees included Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian May, Brian Cox, Brian Greene, and Brian Eno. We talked about the Future.

Starmus on FM4

Listen to a Reality Check Special with Johnny Bliss doing interviews with people from an exquisite science conference in Tenerife.

Saturday, September 17th, 12-13, and after that seven days on demand.

Starmus Gang, Audrey Hess Cartoon

Audrey Hess

Members of the 'Starmus Gang', as pictured by French Illustrator Audrey Hess

(1) don't worry, I'll introduce you in a second

(2) I don't actually know what the difference is between the two

(3) Sometimes there actually isn't a difference between the two. Dr. Brian May I'm looking at you

Just a couple of months ago, something truly extraordinary occurred in my life, and not even for the first time. Along with a small group of people(1), I found myself on the beautiful island of Tenerife (Canary Islands), meeting astronauts & cosmonauts(2), astrophysicists & rock stars(3), and a whole lot of people named Brian. Along with renowned astronomers, we gazed through telescopes at the rings of Jupiter, and with our own naked eyes at constellations like Scorpio, and the Milky Way too. We watched a post-rock concert featuring Stephen Hawking on vocals (I'm not making this up!) and, later, a live orchestra conducted by Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer.

Stephen Hawking & Anathema

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Stephen Hawking live on stage with the band Anathema

(4) Did I say souls? I meant to say "similarly-aligned brains"! Sorry, science.

(5) I wanted to call us the 'Johnny Six'. But in the end, we settled on the simpler 'Starmus Gang'.

I had the most amazing team of collaborators. Together with four like-minded souls(4) (who I will introduce you to momentarily), we made common cause to ensure that we all got as much as possible out of this event. We were like Ocean's Eleven, but there were only five of us(5).

By coincidence (and thanks to modern social media), earlier this week I discovered that another member of this small group of people I shared the event Starmus with (henceforth referred to as the 'Starmus Gang'), happened to be passing through town. We decided to meet one evening, partly to catch up and partly (I suspect) to take this insanely out-of-the-world experience we'd had, and bring it down a little closer to earth, where we could analyze it and see it for what it was, in the clear light of day.

Johnny & Bob Cocktails

Johnny Bliss, 2016

...or, as it happens, in a dimly-lit cocktail bar at night, over drinks.

Meet Bob (pictured, left). He's a professional musician from Toronto who has played with Brian May of Queen for We Will Rock You (the musical) multiple times. However, a knack for playing Queen songs is not the only thing he shares with Brian; they're both also very interested in Astronomy.

"One day I asked [Brian May] what’s the best way to protect my eyes if I’m going to observe a solar eclipse," he told me, whilst inspecting the umbrella in his drink as if hoping to find some new science in there. "Because I was on tour in Philadelphia, and the next day there was going to be a total solar eclipse. So he told me all the ways I could do it, but [more importantly], with that, he knew I was into astronomy. So at one point later on, he just egged me on, you really gotta come to this Starmus conference. The last time it was Neil Armstrong… and that was a big enough deal for him, you know, to have one of his heroes speak right after him. So I went."

"He's probably a pretty great ambassador for the event," I observed.

Brian May Stereoscopic

Laura Jade Hindes

Brian May wearing Stereoscopic glasses

"Oh absolutely," agreed Bob. "I mean, he’s one of the most successful and enduring rock musicians, and he’s also got his PhD in Astrophysics. So, having him as a major figurehead in the blending of Science and Art allows you to feel comfortable with both the artists and with the scientists. Being in that company allows everyone there to explore the other side! So if you’re an artist, it’s a bridge to help you explore science, and vice versa…"

Bob Wegner on Zodiac Signs and Astronomy

(6) ...Okay, fine, afternoon.

Of course, not everyone attending the conference (festival?) has the advantage of being personal friends with Brian May. For a different impression, the next evening(6) I Skype-chatted with my buddy Ilya (another member of the Gang) in Moscow, to try and get an idea how he feels about the festival (conference?) two months later.

Ilya Johnny Skype-2

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Non-alcoholic drinks pictured. Naturally.

"Starmus is a giant science party," he declared, from half the world away. "It is a place where some of the world’s leading and most interesting scientists can talk about really big ideas. So it’s a way to both hear Neil deGrasse Tyson talk in a very accessible way about the future of space exploration, and the future of mankind… and hear Roger Penrose explaining things that you really cannot understand without a degree in cosmology! I can stand there and go, Huh. Wha..? Okay, and let my mind stretch, sometimes painfully, as I try to understand what they’re talking about."

"Remind me of how you first found out about Starmus...?" I asked him.

"My partner went to the first one. At the time, I had no idea what Starmus was, and it took me about a week to understand what she was even talking about. It was just a stream of names and words and events… Brian May, Neil Armstrong… a rock concert, and astronomy, and none of it made any sense to me for a really long time. So I was interested in this because my partner said this is the best thing you’ll ever go to. And she was right."

Hans Zimmer and Brian May, Starmus

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Brian May (far left) plays a concert with Hans Zimmer and an orchestra
Chris Hadfield and Rick Wakeman, Starmus

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Chris Hadfield plays a concert with Rick Wakeman (Yes)

By the way, Ilya is the one who told me about Starmus, and I'd had much the same original response ("Er, what?") and then simply booked my way over. However, the other original member of our entourage, an Australian artist named Laura, might well have the best story of us all.

"I was in Nashville," she wrote me this week, "travelling through America, and I ran into someone in a bar who told me that he was going to this festival. I looked it up, and was absolutely gobsmacked. Brian May, Stephen Hawking, on an island, talking about astrophysics!! So literally, the next day I booked a ticket, and I left, I left America, I left [my boyfriend], and I flew to this island. When I turned up in Tenerife, my luggage got lost. I literally only had the dress I was wearing and my handbag. I didn't have much money, so when I turned up to the conference, I didn't check in, I didn't book a room, I just never left [the conference hotel]. It was lovely! I slept under the stars, by the pool. It began that way, and the experience just got more crazy from there."

Laura Tells Her Story
Laura with two bodyguards, Starmus

Laura Jade Hindes

Laura with her two bodyguards
Amazing bird on railing

Laura Jade Hindes

Now that you've heard about Starmus from several veteran attendees, it seems only fair to let the next representative voice be the guy who actually founded the event, renowned astrophysicist Dr. Garik Israelian.


It's nine a.m. on June 29th, the second of three lecture days during the Starmus conference. It's a sunny day in Tenerife, but that's nothing unusual, it's always sunny here. I have arranged to meet the festival organizer Garik Israelian for a chat discussing the origins of Starmus.

The reason we both look so weird is not, as you might think, because the camera lens were fogged up; rather, the reason is because what you are looking at are holographic images of us beamed onto an outdoor balcony, as a promotional display of the latest remote imaging technology (in reality, we were doing the interview from the inside of a closed studio room).

Garik Johnny Holograms

Laura Jade Hindes

Technology has progressed so far!

ME: This is the third Starmus festival, and it’s an international science and cultural event that you yourself founded. Producing a big event like this seems quite far away from doing work in the lab, however. So I was just curious how the idea to even present this came to you!

DR. GARIK ISRAELIAN: I was invited to give this TED Talk and I liked very much the atmosphere. I thought it would be a very good idea to do something similar, but focused on astronomy, where you don’t get people who have good ideas, simply you get the best experts in their fields. [For example], Nobel laureates, so you immediately set a very high level for the conference. And also [featuring] musicians in concert where the science is playing an important role. The first festival was quite successful without any sponsors. [However], it was a financial disaster!

Laura Jade Hindes

ME: Did you think of quitting at that point?

* I might have neglected to mention earlier that this year's event was in tribute to Stephen Hawking. Oops.

DR. GARIK ISRAELIAN: After the first Starmus, I knew that [there won't] be a second one, because I was absolutely so tired and upset, like that’s it, this is the end, and I’ll never do the second one. But then, three years later, because of Stephen Hawking - we were so inspired by him, so meeting him, talking to him for many, many hours, and so much inspiration coming from Stephen. Paying tribute to Stephen Hawking* is paying tribute to someone who, in a very difficult situation, an almost impossible situation, can struggle and can achieve something which is unthinkable.

Garik on Stage, Starmus

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Garik on stage, earlier that day

ME: How do you get in touch with most of the speakers at Starmus?

DR. GARIK ISRAELIAN: It’s easy actually to get in touch with people in my field, in astronomy. But that’s not enough! The thing is that you have to convince them to come. Unless you provide them something very unique and original, they will not make an effort of traveling twenty hours… [but] I realize that they want to be together. They never went to events where they meet so many science celebrities, plus musicians and artists, and that’s what makes them very interested in this. One of my objectives is to make sure that these people meet, they know each other in person, and they collaborate in the future. And that because they met at Starmus the first time! We are creating a kind of a club of Starmus.

I don't know if Garik would include the likes of us in his club of Starmus, but I'd like to think that he would.

Starmus organiser Garik Israelian


It's just a few hours later, and we are at a very small press conference with the renowned science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are other journalists in the room who occasionally lob questions at him, but for quite a while Laura and I dominate the discussion with curve-ball questions on the economy, and what through lines might connect art and science.

Ilya later on tells me that he was really impressed by that: "Listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson expound on absolutely anything and everything that people threw at him, was pretty magical. The fact that you can literally point him at anything and say, hey, aim your brain at that, what do you think? And he'll come up with something worth listening to."

A Chat with Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson Press Conference

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Me and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Me and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil is a very articulate fellow, and this particular press conference runs on longer than the organizers planned (indeed, this is a common thread throughout Starmus, with nearly every presentation running overlong), with the result that by the time it is over, Ilya and I are already running late for a meeting with the futurist Peter Schwartz, of the Long Now Foundation.

Meanwhile, the physicist Kip Thorne is about to give a press conference that I am interested in recording as well. The solution? With a great deal of anxiety, I simply leave my microphone running at the press conference, and we agree to use Ilya's journalistically-untested microphone for our chat with Peter. Never before have I left my microphone running on its own, nor recorded something with a microphone I wasn't intimately familiar with, and I don't think I would now either, were it not for Laura staying there to hold the fort and watch over our (hers and my) recording devices.

* though you could always argue that if they're impatient about waiting for you, they're just not thinking long-term enough.

Without Ilya's assistance right here, I must also admit, I was on the verge of royally messing up: in all the excitement of chatting with Neil, I'd forgotten all about our plans with Peter - and nothing says professional better than standing up a futurist*, right? Except for maybe forgetting your notebook with all your interview questions in your backpack, which is still at the press conference. Thank goodness Ilya brought a copy with him as well.

FM4 Reality Check

Tune in today for an FM4 Reality Check Special, to hear some of our futuristic conversation with Peter Schwartz. (Afterwards, check back here for an exclusive extended cut of our interview, which will not have appeared on-air!)

Saturday, September 17th, 12-13, and after that seven days on demand.

Lunch with Peter Schwartz

Johnny Bliss, 2016

After we interviewed Peter (farthest right), we had lunch with him.


Later that evening, Laura and I go on an official excursion up to Teide, the highest mountain of the Canary Islands at 3,718 metres. You take a cable car up from nice and warm lowland Tenerife, and when you get off, you're freezing. Because it is the middle of summer on a practically tropical island, I haven't brought anywhere near enough layers and end up wearing two jackets provided for free by Tenerife Tourism. Once I'm properly bundled up, I finally survey the landscape and the amazing curvature of the earth. This horizon could convince any Flat Earther of the error of their thinking.

Also, I get my first taste of altitude sickness. Hiking back to the cable car station, I begin to feel dizzy and am very thankful for Laura's support, helping prevent me from staggering off the path.

Later on, after the sun has long since set, a guide takes us around in the dark near an observatory and points out constellations. This is easily the clearest, brightest night sky I have ever beheld; I see, for the first time in my life, my own Zodiac sign Scorpio. Even though all the science-minded people at Starmus might scoff at this, this makes me unduly happy.


Johnny Bliss, 2016

I don't really know how to take night shots.


This may be rather late in the story to be bringing in a new character, a bit akin to Matt Damon unexpectedly appearing three quarters of the way through the film Interstellar, but on the other hand Audrey's project at the festival was so undeniably cool, it would be a travesty to not mention it.

So Audrey, a French freelance illustrator with a nearly unhealthy obsession for astronomy, was sitting on the plane next to Laura coming in from Paris.

Laura, Johnny, Audrey, Starmus

Laura Jade Hindes

Me, Laura, Audrey. At least two of us are really excited about our press passes.

They hit it off immediately, and Laura sort of kidnapped her.

What we didn't realize at the beginning was that our gang's new musketeer has mad talent as a portraitist. Oh, she might be sitting there quietly taking in the conversation around her, but in her own way, she was expressing herself the whole time, simply with a pen and a paper.

Over the course of the festival, there were at least forty speakers... and I swear, she watched and drew them all. She has a blog you can check out, featuring all of these drawings, as well as her thoughts in both French and English. She tells a very compelling story!

Audrey Hess

Which reminds me. Ilya and I had an excellent chat with Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn (pictured both above and below), a biologist and Nobel laureate living in California, who co-discovered something called Telomerase, enzymes that protect the body, and have been shown to fight off aging in cells. Her work is particularly interesting for two reasons.

FM4 Reality Check

Tune in today for an FM4 Reality Check Special, to hear us talk about the science on meditation with Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn. (Afterwards, check back here for an exclusive extended cut of our interview, which will not have appeared on-air!)

Saturday, September 17th, 12-13, and after that seven days on demand.

Chat with Elizabeth Blackburn

Johnny Bliss, 2016

One, if you can slow or stop cellular aging, that means in theory you can slow or stop aging (see attached audio).

Elizabeth Blackburn vs. Immortality

Two, ... well, I'll just let Ilya weigh in here.

"Elizabeth Blackburn's talk on telomeres was really excellent, because she did all these studies on people who meditated. She talked about how she was super-sceptical at first, but it turns out that meditation really does keep you from bio-chemically aging, to a certain extent. That to me is incredible!"

Me and Ilya at a Lecture, Starmus

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Since I just quoted him, here he is, behind me, during intermission.


Last but not least, it is worth noting that the people who most impressed and excited me at the conference (festival?) weren't necessarily individually famous. There were about seven or eight of them at the festival (conference?) and I'd only heard of two of them before.

"They" are, of course, astronauts (cosmonauts?).

Me and Chris Hadfield, Starmus

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Me n' Chris Hadfield

Commander Chris Hadfield I knew from his David Bowie music videos. Sergei Leonov of Russia, meanwhile, had been at Starmus 2014.

* literally.

The astronaut I eventually did manage to track down for an interview I had never heard of before, but that didn't make me any less stoked about talking to him. Claude Nicollier is a Swiss astronaut who has spent over 1000 hours in space, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and doing space walks. He sat down with me and literally talked my ear off*.

FM4 Reality Check

Tune in today for an FM4 Reality Check Special, to hear an out-of-this-world conversation with Claude Nicollier. (Afterwards, check back here for an exclusive extended cut of our interview, which will not have appeared on-air!)

Saturday, September 17th, 12-13, and after that seven days on demand.

Claude Nicollier Interview, Starmus

Johnny Bliss, 2016

Closing Thoughts (from some of the gang)

BOB: What I'll always remember from this festival is the concert on the closing night. You actually see Hans Zimmer perform, which is so unusual because he’s a guy who tends to be stuck in the studio composing, not a guy who tends to tour and play a lot of shows. So to see him perform, and see him do the theme from Inception with Brian May, was pretty special. You had Stephen Hawking performing ‘Keep Talking’ from the Division Bell, Pink Floyd, with Anathema. You had Rick Wakeman performing with Chris Hadfield doing the Bowie tune. The video behind the Hans Zimmer performance was explained by three astrophysicists, and the explanation took about as long as the performance, which was wonderful, so we actually understood that we were seeing supernovas and black holes and galaxies colliding, and that this wasn’t artsy fartsy stuff, this is legitimately what has been observed. So the two worlds [of science and art] were colliding in a way that none of us had ever experienced before.

LAURA: I actually had a secret plan that I was hatching! I had taken with me a 'brain-in-a-box', which is an artwork I’ve created. It is a small brain that lights up with your brainwave frequencies, when you wear an EEG headset. I wanted to get all the Brians in one room to use the brain, and I wanted to film it. And actually Brian Greene was keen! It was just hard to get everyone else together. However, I did manage to set up the brain in a dark room in the hotel where everyone was staying, and then I went whispering around the pool “come visit the Brain Room”, and fortunately I had a lot of visitors! Joel Parker, Elizabeth Blackburn, Robert Sawyer, David Eicher, and everybody checked out their brainwaves. Brian Eno came… so one Brian. I got a little bit more involved, you could say, without the organizers really knowing!

ILYA: The hard science talks about the new developments in measurement tools were really interesting. Just the fact we can make tools so complex, advanced and precise! For example, the tool to measure gravity waves, which is two mile long lasers pointing at super light mirrors. That is insanity. The proof that I have that people will come up with just about anything if it allows them to peer deeper into the heart of the universe... how it's not just a theoretical physicist sitting there, saying, 'well, this formula makes sense'. No, it's somebody taking several square miles of land, and putting giant lasers on there! And then balancing mirrors so precisely that a nanometre change in the gravity shape of the universe will move those mirrors just a little bit. And we can measure that. That blows my little mind.

Listen to a Reality Check Special this Saturday, September 17th, or via the Reality Check podcast or at


RIP Sir Harry Kroto, 1939-2016.