First of all, a major thank you to The Reitan Group in Norway who got me a priority pass to the festival, giving me one of the best experiences of my life so far. This is a quick translation of a short piece I wrote for forskning.no here.
The Starmus festival in Trondheim is over, and what an experience it has been. For a PhD student specialising in evolution and microbiology it is incredibly exciting when so many clever minds get together to discuss space, the future of humanity, and science in general. How often do one get to experience something like that in Norway?
On Wednesday an informal debate took place, with heavyweights such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Oliver Stone, Finn Kydland, Sir Chris Pissarides and Eugene Kaspersky were discussing a range of topics.
It is a well known fact that trying to lead scientists during a debate is like herding cats, but with the highly qualified Larry King at the wheel things were mostly going smoothly and according to plan. It was especially interesting to see people from different fields get together, as it is almost too easy to get lost in ones own little world in academia.
It is difficult to avoid the fact that the debate panel only consisted of men, and that Sir Chris Pissarides made a rather unfortunate comment when he pointed out that Siri on his iPhone has the voice of a man, as “you trust the voice of a man more”.
A few people consequently left the audience in frustration when none of the other debaters took the opportunity to ask Pissarides to explain what he really meant by his comment. It is understandable, and gives a clear signal that such comments are not okay. It is especially powerful when the well-known theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili was one of the people who left, which for me is a nice indication of how we want academia to be, namely inclusive og full of support for one another.
When someone like the renowned astronomer Jill Tarter, former director for the Center for SETI Research, towards the end of the debate stood up and asked why none of the other participants had said anything, but rather let it slide, a young scientist like myself can’t help but be inspired.
In academia, to be tough is one of the most important things you learn. It is something pretty much anyone who has ever sent a paper in for peer-review known all too well. I learnt early on that there is no point to get angry or annoyed over criticism and negative remarks, but that it is something you accept, and then people like Jill Tarter are priceless.
I realised that not only am I allowed to, but I also have a certain duty to speak up when someone once in a blue moon makes such a comment. Not only for my own sake, but for every other young scientist still being formed and whom will become future sources of inspiration.
Here, I think it is important to point out that Pissarides obviously didn’t mean any harm with his comment, and I really do not see the point in becoming upset or angry because of it. To react with anger will never change anyones opinions, but rather solidify them and result in non-constructive arguments.
Something else that debates like this one, and Starmus in general, has taught me it is that the best way to handle most things is with calm, magnanimity and with science on ones side. Neil deGrasse Tyson took what Jill said and tried to explain to Pissarides why the audience reacted the way they did. Even though Pissarides himself did not understand, I can guarantee that future scientist in the audience took note and will carry it with them. How encouraging isn’t that?
Academia is full of older gentlemen such as Sir Chris Pissarides, and even though I perceive such comments as rare, they do occasionally emerge. I get just as tired every time.
In that respect it is rather a relief to be young and barely having started on my career in academia, because it is obvious that those attitudes are of the type heading towards extinction. With new generations new attitudes emerge, and science develops, or evolves if you will.
After Starmus I am just more excited and glad for my choice of career, how lucky I really am to be part of such a community, and I hope all my fellow young scientist in the audience feel the same way.