Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Pope's astronomer coming to talk aliens

Also on the bill is Auckland University of Technology microbiologist Professor Steve Pointing, who has worked with Nasa in researching extreme lifeforms. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Also on the bill is Auckland University of Technology microbiologist Professor Steve Pointing, who has worked with Nasa in researching extreme lifeforms. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Aliens will be on the agenda when Great Barrier Island, population 939, brings the Pope's astronomer and other top scientists to a quirky public event.

The one-day festival, called "Is There Life out There?", follows a similar event last year that was organised by the island-based Awana Rural Women group and attracted around 12 per cent of Great Barrier's residents.

But the coming summit, planned for mid-September, would be a stellar step up, with the speakers list including Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, top US planetary scientist Dr Faith Vilas, and Gino Acevedo, the Weta Digital creative art director behind such films as Avatar and King Kong.

Also on the bill is Auckland University of Technology microbiologist Professor Steve Pointing, who has worked with Nasa in researching extreme lifeforms that can survive in polar cold and desert heat.

The group's president, Gendie Somerville-Ryan, chuckled when asked how these heavyweights had been pulled to such a remote spot.

"Well, it's just never good luck is it?"

The group was fortunate to have among its members Dr Ann Sprague, a retired University of Arizona planetary scientist who studied light data from Mars and already had connections with Dr Vilas and Dr Consolmagno.

"So we did have an in there, but then it's not just about having a contact -- it's that these people have to actually be willing to come, and they're even paying for themselves to come here," Somerville-Ryan said.

"Partly I think it was the attraction of people being able to come to a small isolated community, where we are desperate for knowledge, basically."

The Hauraki Gulf island, accessible only by plane or ferry, was well served with most amenities, "but mind-wise, it's a bit harder".

She was inspired by a festival that began in Canada 20 years ago, where a scientific topic was explored from different angles.

Last year's inaugural event focused on pandemics, and attracted a virologist, a Civil Defence expert and a science fiction writer.

"It was so successful that everyone just said, when's the next one?"

Again, the festival would address the topic from four perspectives: where did life come from, how does humanity fit into the universe, why do aliens appear the way they do in film, and how are we searching for other lifeforms?

"You can cover a lot of different angles, all with the purpose of providing education that meets a lot of peoples' interests."

The group also persued directors Sir Peter Jackson and James Cameron, but were unable to land them.

Still, she expected the talent on offer in September would more than satisfy locals.

"It's amazing. We're extremely privileged."

Along with the main panel discussion, the festival would involve breakout sessions and an art exhibition and book month event at the local library.

The Auckland Astronomical Society also plans to run an educational programme on the island during the week, giving local school students and adults the chance to see the stars through an eight-inch telescope.

Small island, big names

Brother Guy Consolmagno: an astronomer, Jesuit Brother, director of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. He'll discuss the interface between science and humanity, exploring such issues as our place in the universe and what it would mean to us if life was found out there.

Dr Faith Vilas: Project scientist at the United States Planetary Science Institute, who directs a National Science Foundation programme in charge of solar system and exoplanets grants. She'll discuss the search for life in the stars, where we are looking, how we are looking and what we are looking for.

Gino Acevedo: Creative art director and textures head of department at Weta Digital, who worked on Avatar, King Kong, The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings. He'll speak about the human imagination when it comes to aliens, discussing what makes aliens friendly or fierce and why we depict them as we do.

Professor Steve Pointing: An Auckland University of Technology microbiologist who has worked with Nasa in researching extreme lifeforms that can survive in polar cold and desert heat. His research and fascination with astrobiology has given insights into how life might exist on other planets.

- NZ Herald

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