On 5th December a very special walk was inaugurated on the island of La Palma, the “Paseo de las Estrellas de la Ciencia“, or Promenade of Stars of Science in La Palma. Located in the Avenida Marítima of the island’s capital, it is the only promenade of its kind in the world. Given that the island has a remarkable history linked to astronomy and astrophysics, such as the existence of the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory or a proven track record in astro-tourism, this walk acknowledges the figure and work of famous scientists, mainly astronomers. It also highlights the undeniable link of the island with the study of the universe and the conservation of its sky as a heritage. No wonder, La Palma is a UNESCO Reserve.
The Promenade of Stars of Science is an original idea of Anselmo Pestana, the President of the Island Council back in 2015, when the project started. The Cabildo Insular de la Palma, the Santa Cruz Town Hall and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias are participating in the project. Unfortunately, the Prominade has taken 5 years to be carried out as first, the remodelling of the beach had to be completed. The event held this December 2020 has revealed the Stars that currently make up the “Paseo de la Ciencia”. The four scientists awarded have personal and professional links with the island, hence, have been the first ones to be acknowledged.
The first star is by Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist and cosmologist linked to the Starmuss Festival held on La Palma and who was last on the island in 2016, shortly before his death. Hawking, who was the first to receive his star in 2016, is the author of many of the discoveries in modern astrophysics, such as the new theory of space-time and black hole radiation (“Hawking” radiation). Hawking worked throughout his life to unravel the laws that govern the universe and, together with Roger Penrose, he demonstrated that Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity implies that space and time must have a beginning, which would be the theory of the Big Bang, and an end, within black holes.
The second star was for cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov, who has also visited the island several times; Leonov was the first man to go on a space walk, on 18 March 1965, having been part of the first group of 20 cosmonauts in the Soviet space programme, set up in 1960. He was also the Soviet team commander of the first joint mission between the Soviet Union and the United States, Apollo-Soyuz.
The third Star (awarded in 2017) went to Takaaki Kajita of Japan, director of the Cosmic Neutrinos Centre at the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research (ICRR), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2015, along with Arthur B. McDonald for their research on neutrino oscillations. Their research showed that these subatomic particles have mass. As the Swedish Academy’s prize jury pointed out, “their studies changed the understanding of the innermost behaviour of matter and may be crucial for understanding the Universe”.
Kajita is currently leading a major international collaboration project, the “Cherenkov Telescope Array“, which aims to study the gamma radiation that reaches the Earth and how it is produced. La Palma is the northern hemisphere headquarters for this project. Kajita laid the first stone of the prototype (LST) of the 23 telescopes projected on La Palma, just one week after receiving her Nobel Prize.
The fourth and last Star awarded to date (2018) has been for Samuel Ting, Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1976. The American particle physicist of Chinese origin belongs to the prestigious MIT in the United States, and has been a professor there since 1969. He received the Nobel Prize in 1976 for the discovery of the J particle, which once again consolidated the standard particle theory. Samuel Ting leads a project for the observation of neutrinos on the Space Station, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-0), with the aim of testing fundamental questions in modern physics including the existence of antimatter, the origin of comic rays and dark matter.
This collaborative project, involving more than 600 physicists, has collected 80 billion cosmic rays in 10 years. Ting’s team also aims to test whether the Big Bang model is true, when it predicts that there should be an equivalent amount of matter and antimatter in the Universe. For the moment, astronomers have not been able to find the antimatter and this is one of the great mysteries of the Universe. This is why many physicists believe that primordial antimatter simply does not exist. AMS-0 could prove whether it exists, or if on the contrary, a completely new theory is needed to explain antimatter or the Big Bang.
It has been awarded the fifth Star, but unfortunately it has not yet been delivered due to the covid19. The Star is for Jocelyn Bell, the discoverer of the first radio pulsar signal in 1967, what has been an undoubted contribution to science. We will have a special article dedicated to Jocelyn Bell soon.