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Black holes & glam rock Starmus, the festival where stars and music align

Garik Israelian is an astrophysicist and a musician. Brian May is a musician and an astrophysicist. Together, the two friends created the Starmusexternal link Festival, five days during which spirit, soul, and senses come together in Zurich from June 24-29.

In 1999, Armenian-born Garik Israelian headed an international team that definitively validated a theory first presented some 200 years earlier: that once a giant star has exploded in a supernova, lighting up the entire galaxy, it then creates a black hole.

A Swiss celebration

After the first three events in the Canaries and Norway, the festival is now coming to Switzerland (June 24-29) after the proposal of Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier and the Omega brand, whose watches have been worn by NASA astronauts for 50 years. Indeed, half a century ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left on the moon an American flag and a sheet of Swiss aluminium designed (at the University of Bern) to collect solar wind particles.

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The discovery earned a citation from Stephen Hawking, but despite the accolade, Israelian, an astrophysicist who has published 250 academic papers, worked with Nobel prize-winners and lectured across the world, has, and will always have, a passion outside the stars: music.

Born in 1963 in Erevan, the capital of Armenia which was then part of the USSR, Israelian’s adolescence was marked by the creative explosion of the 1970s during which various new forms of rock music set out to conquer the world.

While clubbers were drawn to the glitter of glam icons like David Bowie, others preferred a less primal music – symphonic or progressive compositions of bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, or Yes, which even today have ardent fans in the East; Israelian, who plays keyboards and guitar in a band, was one of them.

And of course then came Queen, which united fans with its savagely fun and audaciously progressive style.

“Queen was a shock for us, and Brian May, their lead guitarist, a real hero,” comments Israelian. “When I was 17 or 18, we even wrote a letter to the group’s fan club to tell them how much we liked them. But what chance did a letter from the USSR have of arriving in England?”

20 years later

Although he has little memory of the Moon landing in 1969, astronomy, rather than music, was to become Israelian’s calling. The Soviet media had sportingly applauded the American triumph in the end, even though their country had accumulated step-by-step victories in the space race: the first artificial satellite, the first man and then first woman in orbit, the first spacewalk, the first automatic probe on the moon…

And so he became an astrophysicist, eventually moving to the Canary Islands to work with the world’s largest optic telescope, through which in 1997 he observed giant protuberances on Rigel, the brightest star in the Orion constellation and one of the hottest stars in the galaxy. This inspired in him the idea for a science fiction film, one of his other great passions.

“What if such cataclysms happened on our sun? How would humanity react knowing that it had just 15 days to prepare for the worst?” he wondered.

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Queen meeting

Meanwhile, the director of the institute where Israelian worked knew Brian May. An astrophysics student at the time when Queen first hit the limelight, the guitarist had never lost interest in the subject (he completed his doctorate in 2007) and was a regular visitor to the Canaries.

“I sent [the director] the ten pages of my film synopsis and two weeks later he called me to say: ‘Brian May is on the telephone, he wants to talk to you’,” recalls Israelian with shining eyes. Twenty years after the long-lost fan letter, the contact came as a shock.

And though the film was never made, despite the long efforts of the two new friends, in its place, the idea for Starmus (meaning stars and music) was born. Its aim: to inspire viewers, to inspire an interest in science, and perhaps even give the younger ones an initial spark “for a fire that will burn for the rest of their lives”.

Apollo jubilee

By combining their respective address books, the two friends managed to attract an impressive panel of speakers for the first edition, held in 2011 in Tenerife and La Palma. And the formula has not changed since: Nobel Laureates, astronauts and musicians come together for an alternating programme of conferences and concerts.

A quick look at the 2019 programme line up quickly reveals there are too many big names to cite. At previous editions Stephen Hawking was a regular attendee, alongside almost all the astronauts of the Apollo program still alive, Alexei Leonov (the first man to have walked in space), and a dozen or so Nobel Prize winners.

As for the music, other than the always flamboyant Brian May, Zurich will welcome keyboard hero Rick Wakeman and guitarist Steve Vai, along with Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, who composed for director Christopher Nolan of Batman, Inception and Interstellar fame.


Translated from French by Sophie Douez, swissinfo.ch

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