Starmus Festival Session 1

The second Starmus Festival got underway today at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Tenerife. The first Starmus event, in 2011, attracted 60 people. This years festival has attracted over 750 people to hear talks by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Alexie Leonov and Charlie Duke.

The first session kicked off with a talk by Robert Wilson. Wilson, along with his co-worker Arno Penzias were responsible, in the 1960’s, for the first detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB).

Robert explained that, as is often the case, they were not looking for the CMB. Indeed what became known as the CMB was initially seen as a problem with their equipment as they were actually trying to measure atomic hydrogen in galactic clusters amongst other things. However the measurements they were getting were showing 3.5 degrees Kelvin more noise than they should have done.

Having spent the best part of a year trying to eliminate this noise they were, by chance, put in touch with a group of cosmologists investigating the Big Bang. The cosmologists realised that Wilson and Penzias had found and with a little work they were able to publish their results which eventually led to the award of a Nobel Prize.

Richard Dawkins gave a talk on what form we might expect aliens to take based on what we already know of life on Earth. He started from the view that alien life must exist because if it did not the odds against life on Earth would be far to high for us to exist. Starting from that point he went on to speculate  on what the key characteristics of aliens might be.

In his view life would have to evolve along Darwinian lines. Whether or not it would be have to be carbon based was, he suggested, a question for chemists to answer. It would probably have a protein base since protein is a good catalyst. He also suggests that alien life forms would also be genetic but probably not based on DNA and would most likely have a different genetic coding from our own.

He is also of the view that life would probably be planetary based since it would almost certainly need the heat of a Sun to function and develop properly. He also talked at some length about the need for sensory apparatus like eyes and ears whilst pointing out that even here on Earth these can operate in a range of different ways such as animals which depend on sonar or the eyes of flies, for instance, which work in a completely different way to our own. So they would likely be found on aliens but perhaps operating in ways different to our own.

He concluded his talk by pointing out that the only way we are likely to encounter aliens is through radio contact rather than on a face to face basis. This means, in his view, that any alien civilisation we encounter must therefore break through the cosmic communication threshold to develop a powerful radio transmission system capable of being detected over inter stellar distances. That implies that it must be intelligent and must have developed language. However it need not necessarily be self aware or conscious.

Clearly this was a largely speculative talk which drew no concrete conclusions. However it raised a number of interesting issues and provided plenty of food for thought.

The final talk of the first session  was given by the anthropologist Katerina  Harvati.  Her subject was the Neanderthals, who they were, how they had lived  and what had happened to them.

She pointed out that whilst modern humans had only appeared on the scene in Africa  during the last one to two hundred thousand years Neanderthals had existed right across  Eurasia for a much longer period of time. The fossil record tells us that Neanderthals were bigger and stronger than modern humans and that they also had larger brains than modern hhumans  On the down side they lived much shorter lives than we do. Neanderthal children grew much more quickly than modern children but also died much younger. Neanderthals are the most widely studied species ever but there are still many unanswered questions.

There is evidence that Neanderthals looked after their sick and buried their dead. There is also evidence of limited inter breeding between Neanderthals and modern humans although it was probably only partially successful at best.  Katerina takes the view that Neanderthals should be considered as a distinct species from Homo Sapiens  rather than  a direct precursor.

As  to what happened to the Neanderthals she believes they went extinct as a result of the combination of climate change, which at that time was erratic, together with the arrival of modern humans, with their superior technology, and a tenfold increase of the human population over a short period of time. In that sense we might be considered as the aliens who wiped out the Neanderthals.

On that happy note the session ended for the day.


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