A stellar Starmus? Tanya Urrutia reports

I am Tanya Urrutia, an astronomer at the Leibniz Institut fuer Astrophysik, in Potsdam, Germany. I work on the role of black holes and quasars in galaxy evolution. This week I attended Starmus IV in Trondheim, Norway. It is a festival celebrating astrophysical science and music and the role both of them play in society. The tickets were given to me as a combined birthday/Christmas gift by my husband. The festival’s intended audience members are not the scientists themselves, but rather the broad public from a lot of students on to science fans in general. Considering the high price for the non-student non-local tickets, the audience most likely is well off and could have some influence in policy.

The main topic, as I saw it in this conference was about the role of science in the 21st century. What should our scientific goals for the future be? Do we need to take action in the age of Trump? How do we live in a world of “post-truth”? How will the rise of AI affect us? These are all very valid, relevant and important topics as the recent March on Science on April 22nd has shown.

Unfortunately most scientific royalty, science communicators, leading economists and media stars have reached the top, because they have benefited from the status quo. I saw a lot of longing for “the good old days” when the news were honest, the people were equal, science was respected and you knew what was right. As such many presenters were not open to change their baseline and instead bemoaned the reality in which they found themselves today.

An example of this was Larry King yearning for a time when we only had 4 TV channels, read paper newspapers and had world fairs, forgetting that this conformity often marginalizes minority voices. Another example was most of the Nobel Panel, comprised of 10 men and 1 woman, kept on pushing the idea of the lone genius, conveniently ignoring the vast multitude of scientists, instrument builders and other people that helped get them their data. I certainly do not share the nostalgia towards the 60s and 70s, when large swathes of people were not represented in the discussions of the powerful and most of the world was just tucked under the “third world” mantle.

Others said it best at the conference – we need to engage the public more in our science, inspire them to aspire to greatness. But we will get there by embracing the change we are facing due to technology, not by hanging on to the ways of the past. Instead of repeating the mistakes of the past and focusing on how to build faster planes, we should celebrate the voice the internet has given to millions of people. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best when he alluded to the next generation being up to the challenge of mastering technology and finally using it to fix the world we are currently destroying. Overall this positive attitude, this optimism in the future with the wonderful discoveries presented to us is what I will take with me back home. I am sad that there is still misogyny and ignorance being displayed amongst the most decorated scientists, but happy that we aren’t silent about these infractions anymore.

A guest post from Tanya Urrutia. You can also follow Tanya on Twitter here.