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Geniuses, Aliens and Alienation: STARMUS 2017

Geniuses, Aliens and Alienation: STARMUS Festival in Trondheim, June 18-23 2017

Stephen Hawking -- the man who described himself as born "300 years after Galileo" -- claimed in a keynote last Tuesday that “Columbus discovered America” (postcolonial history anyone?),​that there are alas no New Worlds to discover on planet earth and so we need to man missions to new planets... wonderful. A (brilliant) head, in a chair speaking to us from a screen urging us to leave the planet!

"We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth" Stephen Hawking

Everyone stood up and clapped and I was so happy I was so jetlagged that I was literally trying to hold my head up...

I have a lot of respect for Prof Hawking, for his work to popularise physics and for his success in transcending this own bodily limitations to do so. But there are surely some holes in his reasoning. For one, the spirit of "man explorer" is going to wreck many more planets at this rate, and even if it were feasible to move billions of people into space, who would rather live in bubbles on red planets of dust?

The celebration of genius, legends and dreams of eternity continued onto the next day. What made the news on Wednesday was the statement of LSE economist and Nobel laureate Chris Pissarides that he picked a male voice for “Siri” (the iPhone app) because he was told male voices are more trustworthy. He got some booing from the audience, and chummy laughter from his co-panelists. (Apparently there is research that reports that consumers perceive male voices as more trustworthy –though of course females traditionally dominate care labour.) But that was not what agitated me.

If I hear one more full male panel discuss the gender gap in science and engineering, IT or whatever, I will instantly combust. The panel Pissarides was in was led by Larry King (age 83, black hair and sons 17, 18 -he boasted- self-professedly the man said he cannot imagine not existing). The panel consisted of one, two, three, four, five men, all of whom were scientists, or economists (the social science that counts [and not Jeffrey Sachs]), discussing the future of humanity, as if they were qualified to speculate. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was the most educated/nuanced historically, but still! There are philosophers, historians, social and communications theorists, people who actually study technology, media and communications for a living, and none of these people were considered relevant to speak here! At least Oliver Stone was there, throwing some wrenches in the clockwork, mainly by abstaining or swearing, but wow. It was so despiriting to see this biased representation in terms of gender and backgrounds, and to then have these people claim: "We need more girls (yes girls) in STEM"....

The next two days saw luckily a few more women scientists present. We had an interesting, simple, scientific talk by CRISPR developer Emanuelle Charpentier, who reported on her lab's gene-editing technique in modest terms -mentioning gene-editing plants (though of course we were all thinking of human babies). Perhaps she could have expanded somewhat beyond basic science. And Jill Tarter, founder of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), spoke on the last day of the conference. She did face a lot of resistance to getting SETI set up, probably for complex reasons including gender bias. But what startled me was the definition of intelligence that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is working with: having machines that emit radiation signals like ours! Wait: so, intelligence means having built machines which work like ours? Isn’t that outrageous? The very definition of a technocentric conception of what intelligere, telling things apart, means? By that definition of intelligence, not only are non-human forms of life dumb but so are several human civilizations that do not rely on the use of machines which beep and buzz. -- How doomed we are to ignorance!

The "final frontier" for humanity is not space. It is post-humanity. We cannot save ourselves by getting out. If there is something to get out of it is the idea of ourselves as those that need to (and can alone) get immortalised, lauded, awarded and called geniuses. After all so much of our research results rely on others, and other animals especially. (Just think of the rats in the lab of the Norwegian Nobel laureates May-Britt and Edvard Moser, who need to get trained not to yank their own brains out of their skulls in order to get the group their results on how “we” navigate space.)

Several STARMUS speakers spoke about non-human others. Jeffrey Sachs talked about the Sustainable Development Goals as what should be our next Moonwalk -17 goals, impressively agreed upon by 193 nations in September 2015, which include goals like eradicating poverty and protecting life on earth and in the water (which though *alert alert* can be in tension with each other and are, like the early climate agreements, not legally binding). One of my favourite lectures was that of the marine biologist Nancy Knowlton, who related her and her husband’s work on making visible the diversity and richness of life in the water. Paul Herbert also warned against the loss of biodiversity and how much little money and resources are going into achieving the 2010 biodiversity targets –he recommended creating a DNA bank to document this biodiversity before it is gone, next to the seed bank held in Svalbard, Norway – though reducing animals to genetic code is pretty simplistic.

The most sci-fi talk I heard was Nobel Laureate’s Susumu Tonegawa’s work on memory. Using literary references and art, Tonegawa reported that he has developed tools to manipulate the memories of rodents using light, lasers –he stressed, these are not chemical interventions (pills) but mechanical ones. If depressed male mice can get happy memories of playing with female mice upon stimulation, then perhaps we could laser in some memories of living and dying without god or science making us think we are all that special?

Gerik Israelian (founder of STARMUS), I get it that you are a fan of science, stars, astronauts. (Terry Virts moved me to tears when he spoke of the US and Russian missions being like family while Crimea was invaded.) But please can we get some perspective from space, on the alienation that plagues us here on earth, or is this festival just sustained escapism via a science star system?


And if you are wondering what international speakers I would have liked to see there, here are some:

  • Simone Giertz dysfunctional robot maker and aspiring astronaut

  • Zara Mirmalek communications scholar writing on human-machine cooperation in the Mars Exploration Rover mission and Deep Sea exploration

  • Craig Callender philosopher of time, director of the new UCSD Institute for Practical Ethics

  • Tracy Chou engineer in Quora and Pinterest who started a campaign demanding software companies show their diversity reports

  • Sheryl Sandberg number two at Facebook and a woman with a particular idea about women’s progression in science (which I am not sure I agree with but…).

  • David Graeber on technology, rules and bureaucracy (and if we get to it, national debt…)

  • Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway philosophers of science and politics (though they can be pretty garbled outside their own disciplines…)


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