Professor John Hearnshaw recently participated in the 98th Executive Committee (EC) meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Mexico City. Read more about his Mexican adventure below.
For those unfamiliar with the IAU, it is the worldwide organisation for professional astronomers, with about 10,300 active members in 73 countries which are in turn national members of the Union. A few more individual members are from countries that do not adhere to the IAU.
Teotihuacán, the Pyramid of the Sun.
The EC comprises nine members, including the President, Silvia Torres who is from Mexico, a General Secretary (Piero Benvenuti, from Italy) and Assistant General Secretary and half a dozen vice-presidents. The IAU has recently been restructured into nine divisions, each with its own president and steering committee. In my case I am president of IAU Division C for Education, Outreach and Heritage. In fact Division C also deals with the history of astronomy. The nine division presidents were also invited to participate in the EC98 meeting, making 18 people to sit round the board table (although one of the nine Division Presidents was incapacitated at last minute and couldn’t attend).
It was a fascinating experience to delve into the inner workings of the IAU. The topics discussed were the work of the divisions, the proposals for IAU Symposia to be held in 2017 (nine were selected from 33 applications), the formation and approval of working groups, which are set up by division presidents to tackle a huge variety of tasks within each division. The IAU operates in addition to the divisions, three offices with special funding and professional staff. They are the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) in Cape Town (promoting astronomy in developing countries), the Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO) in Tokyo, which coordinates outreach activities of astronomy for the public, and the Office for Young Astronomers (OYA) in Oslo, which runs one or two three-week long schools for young astronomers, generally graduate students, every year and usually in developing countries. This year’s International School for Young Astronomers (ISYA) will be in Tehran in September.
As President of Division C, I had an oversight role for all three offices of the IAU. Of course the EC also discussed topics such as finance and the IAU budget, and a major subject was preparations for the next General Assembly of the IAU, to be held in Vienna in August 2018. It will be an important General Assembly as the IAU will be nearly 100 years old then (it was formed in 1919, so plans for a major celebration of the centenary are being made. About 2500 to 3000 astronomers are expected to converge on Vienna in just over two years’ time.
So all these meetings were going on over three days. As I am also President of the Royal Astronomical Society of NZ, it is interesting to make a comparison between the national and international organisations. In a sense the meetings of the Council of RASNZ, also held face-to-face once a year, are a little bit like the IAU EC meetings. The same sorts of issues come up: funding, work of the divisions (or sections as we call them in RASNZ), how to bring more young astronomers in as members, and so on; it’s just that the IAU is an organization some 50 times larger than RASNZ, so the issues are inevitably a lot more complex, especially as the IAU has to embrace so many different national cultures. Fortunately (for me at least) all the discussions are held in English, the international language of science.
Although we had three solid days of meetings, two further days were devoted to cultural tours in Mexico City, included one to the amazing Teotihuacán pyramids, the site of an ancient city that thrived from 100 BC to 750 AD and occupied by about 200,000 people of uncertain ethnicity. It is a truly extraordinary place.
And we also had two amazing banquets in two of Mexico City’s top restaurants, hosted by the IAU President Silvia Torres and by the Director of the Mexican Institute of Astronomy, Jesús González. So all this was an amazing experience; unfortunately for me the excitement of Mexico was somewhat tempered by developing a tooth infection necessitating two visits to a private hospital for dental treatment. That’s another story – all I will say is that Mexico’s top private hospital was an amazing place equipped with all the latest gadgetry for medical interventions.
My term as IAU Division C president extends for another two and a half years, and the work so far has been remarkably busy – helping to select symposia to be supported in 2017 (nine were funded from 33 applications); establishing 17 different working groups to tackle a wide range of tasks in education, outreach and heritage; accepting nine new associate members to work with Division members; tackling two cases of alleged harassment, one of which has led to contentious litigation and the cancellation of an IAU symposium on astronomy education after most of the organizing committee resigned; proposing and having accepted a new symposium to replace it. No doubt the next year will bring an equally diverse range of matters for the Division’s steering committee to consider.
Participants at the 98th Executive Committee meeting of the IAU in Mexico City, May 2016. Left to right: Yihua Yan (China), John Hearnshaw (NZ), Ajit Kembhavi (India), Maria Rosaria Dantonio (Italy; in IAU Secretariat, Paris), Nader Haghighipour (Hawaii, USA), Dina Prialnik (Israel), Pierto Ubertini (Italy), Silvia Torres (President IAU, Mexico), Anne Lemaitre (Belgium), Corinne Charbonnel (Geneva Switzerland, originally from France), Renee Kran-Korteweg (South Africa, originally from the Netherlands), Piero Benvenuti (General Secretary, Italy), Boris Shustov (Russia), Teresa Lago (Assistant General Secretary, Portugal), Ewine van Dishoeck (President-Elect, Netherlands), Claus Leitherer (USA, originally from Germany), Bruce Elmegreen (USA), Debra Elmegreen (USA). Missing from photo Xiaowei Liu (China).