Welcome to the Interstellar Club

Falling Walls Conference 2018
by Diana Wehmeier & Judit Agui


The Falling Walls Conference taking place in Berlin is an annual global gathering of forward thinking individuals from 80 countries. Each year, on 9 November twenty of the world’s leading scientists are invited to Germany to present their current breakthrough research. The aim of the Conference is to discover latest international research and promote the latest scientific findings among a broader audience.

This year the PLASMA team has decided to attend the Falling Walls Conference 2018 in Berlin. A decision we don’t regret at all. Even though it might not be your hippest event among the tech and science conferences worldwide, we have been very impressed by the quality of the presentations, the perfect organisation and most importantly the fact that: the event didn’t distract from the main aim to inspire people to break down walls in science and society.

The variety of topics was a wonderful bouquet from Life Science to AI research and space exploration. On our way to Berlin we followed the first talk via Livestream on the train –
a great option for anyone who isn’t able to travel to Germany for the Conference. The first presentation was focused on Human-Robot Interaction. Leila Takayama, Associate Professor at the University of California, is on the forefront of making human-robot interaction more natural, easy and effortless. She uses her experience as a senior Google researcher as well as a psychology professor to assess what humans want from robots and why they like or dislike certain traits. Takayama inspired us during her talk with her aim to create more emphatic robots – a research helpful to build the best possible version of robotic AI in a future society between humans and robots.

Leyla Takayama – Falling Walls Conference. Berlin, 09.11.2018. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/ photothek/ Falling Walls

PLASMA loves space exploration, so we were very pleased to start the conference on location with a journey to an intergalactic topic: Deep Space Exploration. Abraham Loeb is a professor and chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University, Founding Director of the Black Hole Initiative as well as the chair of the Advisory Committee of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. This latest stage of his highly distinguished career focuses on practical solutions to deep space exploration and the search for signs of extraterrestrial life using a fleet of laser-powered nanocrafts. As some of you might know, the acceleration between the spacecrafts Sputnik and New Horizons didn’t change that much, in response to this, Loebs has proposed an innovative solution: ‘light sails’ This $ 100 million Starshot Initiative is a stepping stone for developing the technologies needed for a long-term mission to explore the Alpha Centauri star system in order to transmit research data and images to earth. During his talk, Loeb confessed he hopes to receive the message: ‘Welcome to the Interstellar Club’.

Artist’s concept of a lightsail, credits: The Planetary Society

The presentation that inspired us the most came from the field of Biopsychology and explored the astonishing cognitive abilities of pigeons. We knew some birds have surprising abilities to remember flight routes in order to be for instance racing pigeons. Onur Güntürkün is a professor of behavioural neuroscience at Ruhr University Bochum. Güntürküns decades-long foundational research into brain development has been the source of numerous insights on how cognition, thoughts and memories are created in the brain. A particular focus of his research are the cognitive abilities of mammals and birds, reaching from the level of the brain cell to behaviour patterns. Onur’s celebrated work reveals some universal ideas on how our thinking evolved over millions of years and gives hope that we may at some point understand all the underlying principles of cognition. In a delightful way he presented the difference between a human and a bird brain. The bird’s brain has a size of a raisin, so how could a neurological system with no cortex have such an astonishing memory? Güntürkün ordered a piece of layer cake on stage, smashed it with his fork and said: ‘still tastes fine’. He explained: ‘that’s exactly what happens in the relative small brain of a pigeon: it changes the whole organisation of the brain in order to remember 700 of abstract signs or even the english language. So be aware of the T-Rex, not only because of his sharp teeth, but of the incredibly working brain as well.’

Onur Güntürkün – Falling Walls Conference. Berlin, 09.11.2018. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/ photothek/ Falling Walls

One more speaker caught our attention speaking about a very current and global topic: Coral Reef Ecoloy. Terry Hughes is the Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef studies in Australia. Hughes research focuses on the links between the ecology of reefs and their importance for societies and economies. Coral bleaching occurs when coral polyps expel algae that live inside their tissues. Normally, coral polyps live in an endosymbiotic relationship with this algae crucial for the health of the coral and the reef. The algae provides up to 90% of the coral’s energy. Bleached corals continue to live but begin to starve after bleaching. In 2016, bleaching of coral on the Great Barrier Reef killed between 29 and 50 percent of the reef’s coral. Coral bleaching is a worrying phenomenon appearing in oceans worldwide and mostly caused by human a worrying, such as overfishing, water pollution and mostly: climate change. For Terry’s leadership in responding to the global coral bleaching event caused by climate change, Nature recognised him as one of the ten most important scientists of 2016.

Bleached coral skeletons in the Great Barrier Reef near Port Douglas. Credis: Brett Monroe Garner: Greenpeace

Make sure to mark your calendar for November 8 and 9 for the upcoming Falling Walls Conference in 2019. Beyond the Falling Walls conference, the Berlin Science Week offers many exhibitions, talks and events before and after the Conference worth visiting. As one of the speaker said: ‘Earth is our home but only for a while.’ Let’s learn about its marvels while we are here!

further information regarding the event can be found at the
Falling Walls Website


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