In a triumph for everyone who looks up in wonder at the starry sky, the United Nations' General Assembly has formally proclaimed 2009 the International Year of Astronomy.
IYA 2009 celebrates the 400th anniversary of Galileo's introduction of the telescope to astronomy. The UN's declaration culminates nearly five years of effort by the government of Italy (where Galileo lived and worked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries), the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
A statement issued by the IAU, the world's largest association of professional astronomers, notes that in 1609 Galileo "initiated 400 years of astronomical discoveries and triggered a scientific revolution which profoundly affected our worldview. Now telescopes on the ground and in space explore the universe, 24 hours a day, across all wavelengths of light." IAU president Catherine Cesarsky adds, "The International Year of Astronomy 2009 gives all nations a chance to participate in this ongoing exciting scientific and technological revolution."
In the February 2008 issue of Sky & Telescope, now in the mail to subscribers and en route to newsstands worldwide, I write about the IYA in my editorial, "Countdown to 2009." It includes this comment: "If things go the IAU's way, by the time you read this the United Nations' General Assembly will have officially declared 2009 to be the Year of Astronomy." Well, things did go the IAU's way, and now it's up to us to make the IYA 2009 live up to its potential to introduce millions of people around the globe — especially young people — to the wonders of astronomy and the importance of science in our lives.
Beginning in 1609, Galileo made many astonishing discoveries, including craters and mountains on the Moon, four satellites circling Jupiter, and countless stars too faint to be seen by the unaided eye. Almost overnight (literally), he overturned more than 1,000 years of orthodoxy and helped launch modern science — in which the universe isn't as we believe it must be but as we observe it to be.
Gearing up for IYA 2009, nearly 100 countries have already established "national nodes" to coordinate planning among amateurs, professionals, educators, planetarians, and others interested in promoting astronomy. Many hundreds of enthusiasts are hard at work on dozens of exciting projects. The best way to find out what activities and events are in the works — and to get involved yourself — is to start at the IAU website, www.astronomy2009.org, and then follow the links to your own country's node. The US website, sponsored by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), is at www.astronomy2009.us.
Douglas Isbell, co-chair of the AAS program committee for IYA 2009, says, "We are developing an exciting set of programs and events built around seven themes, from looking through telescopes, to activities for classrooms and families, to new media such as social networking websites, all toward the goal of offering an engaging experience to every person in the country and fostering partnerships to sustain public interest."
As I see it, there's one activity that should be at the top of every nation's list: giving participants a chance to look through a telescope. In my experience, nothing else is as effective in turning people on to astronomy. Amateur astronomers can play a huge role in this. IYA 2009 offers our best chance ever to show the rest of the world why we love astronomy so much. Let's make the most of this opportunity!