Awareness or PR? “Asteroid Day”

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Tomorrow, December 3, “Scientists, Nobel Laureates, Technologists & Artists [Will] Announce Asteroid Awareness Day,” according to a press release distributed November 26, via Business Wire, by the Aquarius Group. “Leading experts in astronomy, cosmology, physics and entertainment will hold a simultaneous press conference in London and San Francisco on December 3rd to announce Asteroid Day – a global day of awareness to educate the world about asteroids: what they are, how frequently they impact Earth and how we can protect our planet and humanity from potential disasters…. ”

“Also to be released at the press conference will be a 100x Asteroid Declaration, signed by noted scientists, business leaders, educators and entertainers. The declaration calls for the rapid hundred-fold (100x) acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).” So says the press release. Experts scheduled to speak at this media event are: in London, Lord Martin Rees, the U.K.’s Astronomer Royal; and Brian May, “Astrophysicist, Musician & Lead Guitarist for Queen”; and in San Francisco, Ed Lu, Rusty Schweickart, and Tom Jones. The latter three men are ex-astronauts.

Lu and Schweickart are co-founders of the B612 Foundation. Lu is currently CEO of the organization, and Schweickart is chairman emeritus of its board of directors. Brian May, Tom Jones and Lord Martin Rees are “strategic advisors” to the B612 Foundation. B612 is engaged in an ongoing fund-raising campaign for its Sentinel space-based near-Earth object survey telescope project. The most recent Sentinel project status update posted on B612’s Web site is dated September 2013.

Diane Murphy, media contact for the December 3 “Asteroid Day” media event and (according to her press release) president of the Aquarius Group, is listed as “VP Public Relations” for the B612 Foundation on its Web site. According to the Aquarius Group’s Facebook page, “The purpose of the Aquarius Group is to embrace capitalism as a vehicle to enable all of humanity to achieve basic abundance, peace, liberty, and environmental sustainability.” The Aquarius Group’s web site, www.theaquariusgroup.com, is “getting a makeover, be back soon!” (UPDATE, January 7, 2015: Diane Murphy has informed me that she does not “own aquariusgroup.com and don’t know who does…. I am president of Aquarius Group LLC and my website is Murphypublicrelations.com.”) The web site asteroidday.org apparently will not go live until December 3.

Back to the press release: “Asteroid Day will be held on June 30, 2015 with events around the world hosted by individuals and organizations, at schools, museums, community and science centers, via film and entertainment.” Since its inception, B612 has specialized in splashy media events, hook-ups with the entertainment industry, and private parties for donors (and, presumably, rich prospective donors). These “special events” include film screenings, science briefings, and opportunities to gawk at ex-astronauts and other Famous People. To an East Coaster like me, it all seems very “California.”

Speaking of which, I’ve stumbled across a little bit of “California” out in the Atlantic Ocean – with a connection to B612, even! It’s the Starmus International Festival – “an astronomy related festival…on the island of Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain). The first Starmus festival took place in 2011. The second was this past September. Among the experts on the program for this year’s festival was – Brian May! A music concert was provided by – Brian May!

Apparently Garik Israelian, an astrophysicist at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and director of Starmus, planned these festivals in collaboration with the Canary Islands Government and Tenerife´s local government. Starmus sponsors include a number of businesses in the tourism industry.

Question: Why the Canary Islands? (Besides the fact that it’s a cushy place to take a holiday?) Answer: Brian May! According to the Starmus web site, “The Canary Islands’ position as an important astronomical location is reinforced further by Brian May’s relationship with the region, which dates back to the seventies. May wrote his thesis on the reflection of light from interplanetary dust in the solar system in the Teide Observatory on Tenerife, which he shelved while a little-known band called Queen became popular, until completing it in 2007 with the support of Starmus Director, Garik Israelian.”

Oh.

Just FYI, the program for the September 2014 Starmus Festival featured exactly one non-white-male “expert.”

Another feature of this year’s Starmus was “the first private screening” of a science-fiction film, “51 Degrees,” about a world-ending asteroid impact with Earth. (Jeeze, not again.) Guess who wrote the sound track for this film? Brian May!

Rumor has it that “51 Degrees” director Grigorij Richters is interested in “Asteroid Day”….

The registration fee for this year’s Starmus Festival was 300 Euro, not including “optional” events such as the “Teide Starmus Party” (100 Euro), conference banquet (100 Euro), an excursion to Teide Observatories (100 Euro), and an excursion to La Palma Observatories (300 Euro). Home base for Starmus was the Ritz-Carlton, Abama in Tenerife. Room rates for Starmus were 150 to 164 Euro a night. Using cheaptickets.com, I searched for flights from Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport to Tenerife, leaving on a Saturday, Dec. 6, and returning on the following Sunday, Dec. 14. Cheapest roundtrip fare: $1500. Sooo…I’d guesstimate that it would cost $3000-$4000 for me to go to this conference.

I should mention that Kalmbach Publishing’s Astronomy magazine is the “exclusive media partner” of Starmus. Astronomy editor Dave Eicher was on the program for this year’s festival.

According to the Canary Islands Statistics Institute, 3.4 million tourists visited Grand Canary Island alone in 2013, with tourist spending there totaling $3.7 billion for the year.

The Starmus Festival appears to be a larger-scale version of the sort of public/private events thrown by B612. These sorts of events are yet another reminder of how the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. They are inaccessible to the vast majority of the world’s people, many of whom, I’d venture to guess, are just as interested in science as the next (rich) guy. Aspen Institute and TED conferences are of the same ilk. Registration for the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival is $2000-$3000 per person. Yes, TED puts its talks online for free, but it costs a bundle to get into a conference and hobnob with the trend-setters. TedActive conferences coming up in March cost $4,250 to attend (and one must “apply” before one must pay…what’s that about?). (Don’t get me started on the TEDification of culture. That’s a subject for a future post.)

As to “Asteroid Day,” it’s all about promotion, IMHO. B612 wants to drum up donations. A director wants to promote his film. Ex-astronauts want to reinforce their cultural authority as Experts on Everything – an authority that the media play a huge role in constructing and maintaining. That’s all for now from this culture critic.