On September 5, Queen guitarist Brian May climbed the stage of Starmus Festival in Yerevan, Armenia under a backdrop of flashing lights and the tune of the national philharmonic orchestra to receive a much-deserved award. Although May is a world-famous musician, it wasn’t his artistic contributions that were celebrated today. Instead, the Starmus board honored May as a champion of science communication in recognition for his efforts to promote astronomy and astrophysics, as well as his leading voice in protecting the climate and environment.
Celebrating science – in a unique way
Science is often unglamorous, but that wasn’t the case here. At Starmus Festival (a blend of “stars” and “music”), science and art shake hands in an emphatic way.
Starmus is now at its sixth edition, after a long break owed to the pandemic. The festival is currently underway, with a unique blend of week-long events featuring leading scientific personalities, such as Nobel laureates and NASA astronauts, sharing the stage with much-revered musicians and bands.
The festival, the brainchild of Armenian-Spanish astrophysicist Garik Israelian, also awards a medal for science communication – the Stephen Hawking medal for science communication. Originally, the medal was awarded by Hawking himself, but now, the Starmus board bestows the medal.
Science communication is often overlooked as a crucial part of our society, as Hawking himself pointed out in 2016.
“By engaging with everyone from school children to politicians to pensioners, science communicators put science right at the heart of daily life. Bringing science to the people brings people into science. This matters to me, to you, to the world as a whole,” Hawing noted at Starmus’ third edition.
But while the medal itself is awarded strictly for science communication, even the ceremony itself was awash with musical moments featuring the likes of legendary pianist Rick Wakeman, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, the progressive rock supergroup Sons of Apollo, and of course Brian May, who perhaps best encompasses Starmus’ values thanks to his unique scientific and musical background.
Torn between science and music
Brian May is famous as the guitarist of all-time musical legend Queen, alongside the likes of Freddie Mercury, May performed hits like We Will Rock You, I Want to Break Free, and Bohemian Rhapsody. But unbeknownst to many music fans, May is also an accomplished scientist.
In 1970, before May joined Queen full-time, May was studying astrophysics. Until 1974, he studied for a Ph.D. but when Queen became very successful, he understandably abandoned such studies. He still published two scientific papers based on his observations on something called “zodiac dust” – dust that is accumulated in the solar system. Luckily for May, who was making trailblazing music, the topic quickly faded after he abandoned his PhD – so much so that for the next 30 years, the field progressed very little.
To make matters better, the field suddenly gained new interest from the field of astronomy – which gave May a unique opportunity to get back to his studies and finish them.
“I put everything, and I mean everything, on hold for a year. And they put me in a little office in Imperial College [in London] and I got down to it,” May told Time a couple of years ago.
With his legendary guitarist status, May became a sort of science ambassador. He became affiliated with several UK universities and championed both space research and animal rights – another cause May is very involved in.
For his contributions, May was awarded the Stephen Hawking medal for science communication, and while May’s accomplishments and career make him a more than deserving recipient, there was a slight moment of awkwardness as well, as May is also a member of the Starmus board. “I asked them not to do such a thing,” he quipped. At a later press conference, May recalled how the board called him and told him this is the one matter he won’t get to vote on.
From poetry to chimps and NASA
Alongside May, the Starmus board also awarded the Stephen Hawking medal to pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, and collectively NASA’s communication staff. Previous Hawking medal recipients include Buzz Aldrin, Brian Eno, and Elon Musk.
Jane Goodall is probably the world’s most famous primatologist. Her work not only helped us understand our closest relatives (chimps) much better than before, but also made us question what it truly means to be human.
Goodall’s work on chimps was revolutionary in more ways than one. She went to Kenya without a formalized education – with a fresh mind without prejudices, as she recalls. She called chimps “him” or “her”, not “it” – something which was frowned upon by the research community at the time, and she also realized that chimps can have personalities and emotions.
“When, in the early 1960s, I brazenly used such words as ‘childhood’, ‘adolescence’, ‘motivation’, ‘excitement’, and ‘mood’ I was much criticized. Even worse was my crime of suggesting that chimpanzees had ‘personalities’.”
In an inspiring speech given remotely, Goodall emphasized that we humans are not separated from other animals by an “unbridgeable chasm”. We’re not the only sentient beings on the planet able to feel happiness, frustration, or pain. She also highlighted the importance of talking to people in clear, understandable language and not using jargon.
Among the laureates was also Diane Ackerman, who May himself called a “hero” of his. Ackerman is one of the most accomplished modern American poets and nonfiction writers, having authored The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (2014), a New York Times bestseller and winner of the PEN Henry David Thoreau Prize, and the memoir One Hundred Names for Love (2011), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She often famously incorporates scientific language and ideas into her poetry, rhyming amino acids and quasars with the same ease as she would discuss love, alienation, and other poetic themes.
Lastly, the last Hawking medal was awarded to the NASA communications team. It’s hard to find an organization with more impact on science than NASA. There’s a reason a lot of kids want to become astronauts, and that’s because traveling to space is simply outstanding from all imaginable angles. Thanks to NASA’s outstanding communication department, more people than ever care about space and are deeply connected with the industry, as evidenced by the tens of millions of people following NASA’s social media accounts.
Celebrating science communication
Despite all the benefits it brings to our society (which range from the device you’re reading this on to the medical advancements we benefit from), science isn’t celebrated enough. Science communication – even less so.
It’s a refreshing breath of air to have not just an award, but a festival dedicated to science and science communication. Sure, we’re a bit biased as science journalists writing this, but one can only hope that at least over the course of the pandemic, we’ve learned just how important it is to communicate facts accurately and to fight disinformation. This is a great challenge in this day and age, and we need all the heroes we can get.
Perhaps events like Starmus and prizes like the Stephen Hawking medal can make a difference. The jury is still out – but one thing’s for sure: we need as many impactful science communicators as possible. Our future may depend on it more than ever.