I attended my first ever astronomical conference (symposium or whatever you wanna call it) today. I've always been interested in astronomy and more recently learnt more and kept up with hopes, ideas, and plans for potential future (unlikely in our lifetime) inter-stellar travel. I regularly go to (and even organise) star party(meet) events in London(UK) - yes, we can see stuff. I also follow the very informative and interesting Centauri Dreams blog by Paul Gilster - hereafter referred to as CD.
When I read on CD. that there was a conference coming up in central London soon, particularly as most seem to happen in the USA, and it was to be the Monday after my OggCamp weekend, I thought I should use my Monday recovery-day-off and go. This was the “Starship Symposium London” (2013).
So who was there? These folk from the interplanetary/interstellar community and variously famous SF authors (in no particular order):
- Lord Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal)
- Dr's. James (Jim) and Gregory (and here) Benford (twins don'tcha know, SF Authors, and from Icarus Interstellar)
- Stephen Baxter (SF author)
- Ian Crawford (of Birkbeck College)
(but also - those that I heard identified, at least...)
- Stephen Ashworth
- Jerry Stone FBIS (Freelance Presenter from Spaceflight-UK; Mars Society UK President; BIS Fellow, among other things)
- Paul McAuley (SF author)
- Keith Cooper (of Astronomy Now magazine)
I didn't know quite what to expect and a couple of casual attempts at finding out more beforehand didn't get much more info so I thought I'd just turn up and find out. I was nervous that it was going to be for existing society members only and I wouldn't be allowed in - it was never made that clear. The description just said "free" (iirc, 'scuse lack of fact-checking). Thoughts like "should I dress smartly", "do I need to request permission to attend", "will I understand anyone", or "will they let me in if I'm late" (as I was hoping for a lie-in after the long weekend in Liverpool and getting back late Sunday) and so on had me uncertain.
But I needn't have worried. People were friendly and while I felt slightly in-awe of the calibre of speakers/attendees, I never felt like they were being condescending or we were spoken down to. I do think it was worth knowing some basics about interstellar research, just reading Paul's CD blog for a while should be enough on that and a regularly updated knowledge of the universe through general news and space-related articles in the press was more than enough to cope (though secondary-school(high-school equiv.?) maths was expected a couple of times), or even enough to provide input. There was good opportunity to ask questions and debate, with a joint panel from the headline talkers at the end of the day (last hour and a half) for just such desires.
At times it went almost to the joe-bloggs level of no-assumed-knowledge (some of Lord Martin's afternoon talk), but in the more specialist talks it got more technical on techniques and physics principles. Though a couple of references (mostly to journal/other scientific papers) slipped me by, I think it was generally explained (or with only optional need of detailed understanding) such that I didn't feel lacking in an astrophysics A-Level or degree. Note I'm fairly science oriented though, and do follow New Scientist and BBC Science/Technology news sections and especially space-related news, sometimes places like Space.com and NASA (when they're allowed to work!).
The speakers were mostly in suits, but the audience was a range of casual, business-wear though most of the "casual" was smart-casual with shirts, so I think I judged it about right - jeans and funky-but-smart black kinda awesome velvet-embroidered-pattern shirt, in case you were there/wondering; but that was a touch more than needed - I just get so few chances to wear those shirts :)
I enjoyed the day. I felt I was in the presence of giants, and couldn't help but feel humbled, not just by reputation but by the insight of the discussions and points raised. There was a good variety of topics discussed (talk list is currently at the official site). I made notes of just some of the quotes that came up and made me think/caught my attention, remembered as well as possible; context/my interpretation added from said notes so please excuse any inaccuracies, happy to correct if you comment/message me and I see it..:
clothes are a machine[to help us live on this planet, when discussing how humanity has developed technology to extend our habitable zone on this planet]
- Lord Martin [expects a]
bumpy ride this century[regarding Fermi paradox, "filters" for long-lasting civilisations, ie. us surviving]
maybe just the desire to expand is an oddity [specific] to us[and what caused the Out-of-Africa phase and every exploration since]
- Lord Martin(or requote?) [us moving into the rest of the galaxy is a]
post-human enterprise[ie. we will evolve or design ourselves away from current humanity into beings, biological or otherwise, that will be able to explore the universe with fewer & more flexible time/resource requirements]
(disclaimer: I'm not a journo, please do not requote these without checking with sources or even permission or interpretation).
If you were there and felt you were part of the discussion and have a known name for yourself in this community, I'll be happy to add you if I've forgotten you, comment/write to me (comment might be better); please excuse my early day inexperience in this arena.Tags: [tagname]