Starmus Festival Session 3

The third session of the Starmus Festival started with a talk by Charlie Duke a NASA astronaut on the subject of “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

He started by pointing out that Apollo always landed in the early morning on the Moon so that there were long shadows which allowed you to see what you were doing. The effect of this is that, as you come into land, you can see half of the backside of the Moon in sunlight. However the talk is about the front face of the Moon where we landed. It is an an eerie feeling coming into the shadow of the Moon after spending 3 days in sunshine. Unlike other Apollo missions Apollo 16 landed in the Descartes highlands and was the only mission to explore the highlands.

Charlie said there was a simple approach to selecting rocks for return. There were three colours of rocks so bring back some of each!

He also pointed a out a few strange things. For instance astronauts on the surface of the Moon could never see Earth since it was always covered by the top of their helmets. Unless, of course, you fell over as he did. Then you could see it even if you were more concerned with getting yourself back up.

Apollo 16 covered 25 kms in the lunar rover at a top speed of 17 kms per hour. It was the second last Apollo mission to the Moon and after that nobody returned to the Moon. For the last 52 years only robotic probes have been to the Moon.

The second talk of the session was given by Harold Kroto the nobel prize winning chemist. He spoke about “Carbon in Nano and Outer Space”. This was the most entertaining talk so far, even if it was by a chemist!

He started by pointing out that Science and common sense are not the same thing. Common sense says the Sun orbits the Earth but science shows that, in fact, the Earth orbits the Sun. But how many peopple know the proof for that. Education needs to improve.

He then went on to talk, in hilarious fashion, about his real passion, graphic design, and to show how he has used that both for fun and in the aid of science.

The substance of his talk dealt with the discovery of ever longer carbon molecules, which allowed the development of “Bucky Balls” some of the initial work on which earned him his Nobel Prize. On Earth we have now developed C60 and C70 carbon chains which allow the development of Carbon nano technology. But, perhaps even more interestingly, astronomers have now detected these materials being formed in stars, so it would seem that they are more commen than perhaps we thought.

The key point about these new nano materials is that they are much stronger but also much lighter than anything we have had access to before. So, for example, the theory of how to build a space elevator to take material up to low Earth orbit without the use of rockets has been around for over 60 years. If, however we can solve the problems of large scale manufacture Carbon nano technology will allow us to now build them.

The third speaker was Walt Cunningham a NASA astronaut who flew the Apollo 7 mission the job of which was to get NASA back on track after the disastrous Apollo 1 fire.

Walt’s basic thesis was that in order to succeed you have to be prepared to take real risks, risks that can sometimes get people killed. He pointed out that the Apollo 1 astronauts were not the only astronauts to die in the effort to get to the Moon. Even where things succeeded the margins of success were often very thin. Apollo 11, for instance, only had 17 seconds worth of fuel left when it landed on the Moon.

In his view NASA has probably lost that willingness to take risks and has, like the rest of the USA, become bureaucratised and risk averse. He points out that he was paid about $700 for his time aboard Apollo 7 and, like all the other astronauts, was not covered by NASA’s life insurance policy.

He laments the passing of those times. In his view, in 500 years, the 20 th century will be remembered for the Moon landings and nothing else. He now urges the younger generation to pick up the challenge of going to Mars and making that what they will be remembered for.

When I returned to my room after this talk I picked up a report from the TASS news agency saying that Russia was planning a full scale exploration of the Moon between 2020-2030. You can see the full story here:

Whether Walt is getting his wish, but from an unexpected source, remains to be seen. If we get the chance we may ask Alexi Leonov his view on this.

The final talk in this session came from the Particle Physicist, John Ellis, who talked largely about the role of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in investigating the time immediately after the Big Bang and in trying to make predictions about the future of the Universe. In doing so he did not miss the opportunity to advance the war of words between physicists and chemists in response to some of Harold Kroto’s remarks, but in a friendly fashion!

He spent some time in explaining the importance of the discovery of the Higgs boson and the related Higgs field in giving mass to sub atomic particles. Without the Higgs boson and field there would be no life and probably no universe. This is because without the Higgs boson and field all particles would be massless and therefore travelling at the speed of light. It would be impossible to form atoms or heavy nuclei and so no life.

When the LHC switches on again next year it will be looking to examine the period between 1 picosecond and 1 nanosecond after the Big Bang. In this area they hope to find the answer to what is Dark Matter.

From John Ellis’s point of view he would also like it to create a black hole because it would be great to explore that scientifically although you get the distinct impression that this is more a piece of mischief making rather than genuine expectation.

And with that the third session of Starmus ended.

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