Fear of a Black Hole: A Starmus Travelogue

By Len Pal, Clamrespondent and Co-Host of MC Hawking’s Podcore Nerdcast

Last week I wrote a piece for the Clam about Ken Lawrence’s MC Hawking project, and how it led to an invitation to perform for Stephen Hawking and over a thousand other delegates, including eleven Nobel laureates, and many of the most brilliant scientists of our time. To recap, while playing around with his computer’s text-to-speech software, Ken realized it sounded a lot like Stephen Hawking, so he used his background in musical composition to make it rap. The resulting songs got pretty popular online, Professor Hawking’s people heard and liked them, and sixteen years or so later, it led to an invitation to perform at Starmus, a prestigious conference celebrating science, music, and the arts.

So, that happened. It was pretty amazing, and I’m back to tell you about it.

The Undisputed King of Theoretical Gangsta-Astrophysics

Artist rendition of MC Hawking

Starmus was founded when Brian May went back to school to complete his PHd in astrophysics, which was on the back burner for about thirty years while he was busy with his own musical side project, a band named Queen. His thesis advisor was Dr. Garik Israelian, who also happened to be a musician. The two struck up a friendship and realized that music and science should be celebrated together. The first Starmus festival took place in 2011 with about 200 attendees. The second, in 2014, hosted nearly a thousand, and the third in 2016 had nearly 1600.

Starmus featured three days of lectures by speakers like Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kip Thorne, Martin Rees, author and futurist Robert J. Sawyer, cyber-security expert Eugene Kaspersky, Richard Dawkins, and astronaut Chris Hadfield, to name just a few. And I’m going to be honest and admit that at times, the science was a bit over my head. But that doesn’t matter – I came away with enough of a taste for it that now, I want to keep learning more about all of it! More than that, I want to make other people want to learn about this stuff!

Like, maybe you already knew that LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatories operated by Caltech and MIT, use intersecting laser beams two kilometers long to detect alterations in spacetime when gravitational waves pass through them. Just last month, their two observatories, located in different parts of the United States, detected gravitational waves caused by the merging of two black holes. For real, that happened.

You probably also knew that the science in the movie Interstellar was actually accurate. Astrophysicist Kip Thorne came up with the idea behind the movie, and worked closely with director Christopher Nolan (as well as his special effects team) to make a science fiction movie about black holes that actually got it right, both in terms of the plot and in the visualizations. Top of my to-do list now that I’m home is to watch the movie again with a greater appreciation for what I’m looking at.


One of these shows what a black hole really looks like.

I could write pages and pages about the different amazing lectures, but I won’t. (You’re welcome.) Honestly, there was just too much and I’m sure I’d get the science wrong anyway. Suffice it to say that every speaker made me want to run out and buy ten books about whichever topic they were presenting.

The trip was not without drama. On Wednesday, we arrived at the conference venue several hours early to have a tech rehearsal for Ken’s performance, but security wouldn’t let anyone in the building. We finally managed to text someone with enough clout to come get us. After the rehearsal, we ran into Deborah, Stephen Hawking’s personal assistant (whose idea it was to have Ken bring an MC Hawking performance to Starmus). She informed us that earlier in the day, Stephen’s daughter alerted the police to a number of e-mails and tweets the professor was receiving from a woman who said she was nearby in Tenerife, planning to kill him. Deborah seemed mostly unfazed, telling us that Stephen gets “stuff like that all the time”, but that they still have to take it seriously, which is why security was heightened for the rest of the week. We later found out that the woman, an American who appeared to be both a religious fanatic and mentally ill, really was attending the conference and staying in a nearby hotel. They arrested her and found the professor’s itinerary along with detailed plans for his murder in her possession.

Ken started his performance with a brief speech introducing himself and how he came to be known as “MC Hawking”, and then showed a seven minute mockumentary entitled MC Hawking: A Brief History of Rhyme, narrated by voice actor Dave B. Mitchell. The film provided a fictional biography of Stephen Hawking’s origins as a gangster rapper, until a scientific breakthrough tragically pulled him away from rapping and back into theoretical astrophysics. Within the film, scientists were shown with their faces blurred and their names changed to protect their identity, but the crowd roared with laughter to see Dr. Harick Gisralean, Dr. Feel the Grass Bison, and Dr. Myron Bay (Garik Israelian, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian May, respectively) tell stories about Stephen Hawking as a rapper.

Ken, MC Lars, and I were backstage, nervously awaiting the crowd’s reaction while watching the film in reverse on the back of a large projection screen. Ken said “if we get some laughs at the first joke, we’re okay”. Our worst fear was that the crowd would be offended by the idea of the professor as a trash-talking, bling-wearing, gangster rapper. But even just thirty seconds into the mockumentary, the crowd was hysterical.

When the film ended, a backing music video started playing the first verse of the MC Hawking song, a brand-new track entitled Fear of a Black Hole. The “Stephen Hawking” voice sang the first verse, and then Ken and MC Lars went on stage to sing the chorus. Lars sang the next verse, backed up by Ken, followed by another chorus, and then I handed Ken his guitar for a solo.

I need to give Ken props here. Any musician might feel intimidated performing in front of a fairly large audience. Probably even more so performing in front of an audience that included the world’s foremost scientists and astrophysicists, as well as some Nobel Prize winners and at least eight or ten people who have spent time away from Earth. But Ken had to contend with all of that in addition to seeing Brian May, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, staring up at him from the front row. Ken told me later that at one point he looked down and saw Brian smiling at him and bobbing his head to the music, and he had to look away, or else he might forget to keep playing.

After the guitar solo, Ken and MC Lars finished with another chorus, during which Lars shouted “Get your black holes in the air!” The crowd as one all threw up a hand gesture mirroring the one Lars and Ken were doing, of a hole made by thumb and forefinger, pumping to the beat. From behind the stage curtain, I watched Brian May gesturing along with everyone else. Mind blown.

After the performance on Wednesday, all of the pressure was off and we could just have fun. We didn’t have to point at Ken’s conference badge to get into the VIP areas anymore; now everyone knew who we were. The lecture series ended on Wednesday, so we took Thursday off to snorkel with some sea turtles. Around the hotel, we hung out with scientists and celebrities.


Ken and me with Dr. Feel the Grass Bison (wearing Ken’s E=mch bling)

On Friday, the conference moved to an auditorium about an hour north for the six-hour Sonic Universe concert. For the first hour or so, Hans Zimmer conducted an orchestra while Sarah Brightman sang. Rick Wakeman played piano while astronaut Chris Hadfield played guitar and sang David Bowie’s Space Oddity, just like he did on the International Space Station. Rick Wakeman then played Bowie’s Life on Mars on piano. Anathema played about an hour-long set, with Stephen Hawking on stage with them to provide narration during their first song, and eventually ending with Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever. A pretty ballsy song choice actually, with Brian May sitting in the front row. During the intermission, Ken got to spend a few minutes with Professor Hawking.



Are you serious? That’s tight!

At the start of the final segment of the concert, astrophysicist Kip Thorne took the stage and briefly explained how he came up with the idea for the movie Interstellar, and how he worked closely with director Christopher Nolan and his team to create a science fiction movie that actually got the science part right. Effects artists Paul Franklin and Oliver James then explained how they took Kip’s direction and created visualizations for the film that showed what a black hole really would look like up close. This would have felt out-of-place in any other concert, but especially after a week of scientific lectures, nobody fidgeted in their seats.

The point of the lecture was to explain the visualizations that were shown next. Hans Zimmer returned to the stage with a couple of guitarists, a violinist, and a string quartet. He played a keyboard along with the musicians in a band he called “Kip Thorne and the Black Holes” while beautiful (and scientifically accurate) visualizations of black holes and neutron stars played on the screen behind them.

Nothing I’ve written or could write would do justice to the amazing experience I’ve had over the last week. I’m at nearly 1600 words and I feel like I haven’t scratched the surface. Back here in the “real world”, there are people who don’t believe in climate change or vaccinating their kids, let alone show any real interest in the science that is all around us. I’m starved for it now, and you should be too.

I’ll leave you with this challenge. This summer, go to the Museum of Science. Read Bang! The Complete History of the Universe or A Brief History of Time. Watch Cosmos: A Spacetime Oddessy, and also watch Interstellar. You see where I’m going with this, right? Get out there and learn something.


— Len Pal, July 5, 2016

No Snark Sunday: Fusion and all that Jazz

Once, on a research project for an ad agency trying to come up with a campaign for long term health care insurance we found a weird thing: When you told people they have a 30% chance of needing nursing care, they would be less likely to buy it than if you didn’t, actually mention that. It completely weirded us out. You’re supposed to tell people the problem and then sell them the solution, that’s the whole job. Like, Problem: “You’ve got ring around the collar!” Solution: “Try Wisk! No, don’t drink it you idiot!” (advertising research could get pretty weird)

But in this case actually telling people about the reality made them far less likely to act. In interviews after the primary research with people whom we had told they stood a good chance of needing long term care, they mostly threw up their hands and were like, “Well, whatever. It’s in God’s hands, not mine.” It made them want to steadfastly do nothing, as if aggressively ignoring the problem would somehow make it go away, like a bee flying around your head

Just sit still and ignore it and it will go away

Just sit still and ignore it and it will go away

It’s what psychoanalysis calls “resistance.” You can caution me about a small problem, like that I have spinach between my teeth and I’ll act, and you can warn me about an acute problem, like my suit is on fire, and I’ll roll around on the ground.  But try and get me to deal with something big and long-term that is going to cause me a massive amount of psychological pain and I just shut down and do nothing. This is because we humans are, for all our intelligence about some things, complete fuckwits about others.

No I do not have a cigar

No I do not have a cigar

Thus, we have such a hard time managing big, societal problems. When faced with them a significant population of people just throw up their hands and say, “It’s too big!” and another, much stupider, bunch go into full-bore denial mode and start coming up with crazy-ass stories about the chemtrails and the Masons and the Rothschilds or drop some brain turd like about how a bunch of scientists got together and agreed on faked global climate research at which point I splurt hot coffee out my nose from laughter. I work with scientists a lot and you can’t get any two of them to agree on anything even when we’re trying to simply explain what a product actually does, right there, on the bench in the lab, in front of our faces.

What you learn about managing big problems is that you need to A) break it down into smaller, digestible pieces (“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Pilot speaking, I want to highlight a single problem we’re having right now and that’s the loss of our starboard wing”) and B) Make sure there is optimism. That one is tough when you’re dealing with situations like the climate where you can kind of get to Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic living without much effort. You have to show people there is hope that the future is bright. Like, for instance the Mad Max lifestyle will mean lots of fresh-air and exciting wardrobe choices.

Tina rocked it

Tina rocked it

With that in mind, I’m going to drop some really good news on y’all. Everyone who isn’t a total dipshit knows climate change is a massive challenge facing everyone on the planet. But there is a really good chance that if we can keep it in check by doing some of the right things in the short term, the incredible advances being made in fusion energy research will save our asses in not-too-long a time.

Nuclear reactors of today work using the principle of fission, splitting atoms. It’s messy, hard to control, produces a lot of waste, has a lot of safety issues and is tremendously expensive to scale up and it’s increasingly difficult to economically produce fuel. Fusion is smooshing (technical term) atoms together is what powers the Sun and will be an amazing energy source right here on Earth once we learn to sustain the reactions. But the good news is that, unlike fission which needs to be shut down to keep the reaction from running away, fusion can be turned off like a light switch and the reaction won’t continue, explode or produce dangerous radiation.

Behold! Whats going to save our asses!

Behold! Whats going to save our asses!

I’ve been following the progress since I was a kid (Science fiction author Robert Heinlein always talked about it) and even though it’s been around for 50 years, it’s really only the last 20 years there have been tremendous breakthroughs in making is useful for more than weapons. There are incredible experiments going on in California and an ongoing international project in France is making an actual fusion reactor. As we learn more the progress tends to become exponential, especially as we get better with material production and computer modeling using artificial intelligence. I could tell you more but so many words, just watch the video. Yeah, it’s nine minutes and the guy is a nerd, but it’s the future of our species so maybe worth the watch?

This is not a pipe dream. The experiments going on in other places are also making tremendous progress. The estimate, and it’s not overly-optimistic- is that we can have fusion up and running by 2030.

That is not a long time. What we need to do between now and then is work on the intermittent technologies, the renewables and efficient systems. We need to keep our consumption in check. We need to fully fund the science and hold our government and others accountable and let public interest not specific industries make the decisions.

Mostly we need to not lose hope, because this power source is coming. Fusion happens in nature, in fact most of the visible universe is made up of plasma made from fusion. In just the past 85 years we’ve split the atom, harnessed its energy, albeit crudely via fission, and now it’s time to move to the far more elegant and efficient and exponentially less risky fusion.

Pictured: Not you

Pictured: Not you

And since the planet and our species and society will likely survive, it’s far less likely  your polished skull will wind up as the hood ornament of a spike-covered dune buggy. So you should probably also get long term care insurance, is what I’m saying.