Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Island event poses cosmic queries

Gino Acevedo, the Weta Digital creative art director behind such films as Avatar and King Kong. Photo / George Novak
Gino Acevedo, the Weta Digital creative art director behind such films as Avatar and King Kong. Photo / George Novak

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 organised by the island-based Awana Rural Women group, which attracted around 12 per cent of the island's residents.

The coming summit, planned for mid-September, is a stellar step up. Speakers include 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 worked with Nasa researching extreme lifeforms that 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 had connections with Vilas and 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," 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".

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?"

This year's 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 people's interests."

Somerville-Ryan expected the talent on offer would more than satisfy: "It's amazing. We're extremely privileged."

The festival would involve breakout sessions, an art exhibition and book event at the library. The Auckland Astronomical Society plans to run an educational programme during the week.

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, our place in the universe and what it means to us if life is 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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