Every three years, the IAU holds a conference that gathers scientists from around the world to address current issues in astronomy.
Astronomers swarmed the Chinese National Convention Center in Beijing on Monday, August 20th. The Bird’s Nest Stadium and Water Cube of the 2008 Olympics made beautiful backdrops for one of the biggest astronomy conferences worldwide, the 28th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union. After flying to Bejing over the weekend, my wife, Naomi, and I arrived at the conference on Monday morning. We went to set up my poster on total solar eclipses passing over Antarctica, but first we had to get through registration, where they took our photos for our nametags before giving us an official stamp. The process was a lot more formal than I was used to, but then I found out why: China’s Vice President and President-elect Xi JinPing would attend the opening ceremony.
Some 3,300 astronomers had registered for the conference, and most of us were in our seats when IAU president Robert Williams walked onstage with Vice President Xi.
Xi’s speech focused on international collaboration, which will be essential for several big projects on China’s horizons: plans call for completion of an enormous radio telescope 500 m (1,640 feet) across in 2016, work is being planned on a new telescope on Dome A (Antarctica’s highest ice feature), and several space missions are in the works. The conference newspaper, Inquiries of Heaven (named after an ancient book of Chinese poetry written thousands of years ago), carries the full translation of Xi’s speech.
The opening ceremony continued with a variety of musical acts, including ribbon dances, a set of five sequined female drummers, and a male/female pair of acrobats who soared over the stage in fantastic configurations, suspended from a pair of silk ribbons.
But the conference opening wasn’t all play. My Williams College student Muzhou Lu joined me in attending the opening presentations on astrophysics from Antarctica. A half dozen telescopes are now operating at the South Pole, with more planned. These telescopes have led to important advances in fields such as cosmology and particle astrophysics.
Astronomers have gradually improved their ability to map out the microwave sky over the years — a crucial development in the study of the cosmic microwave background, the faint afterglow left over from the Big Bang. Cosmologists are using Antarctic telescopes to map out minute variations in the microwave signal, variations that signal the concentrations in density that seeded the web of galaxies and galaxy clusters we see today.
We also heard updates from another South Pole "telescope" aptly named IceCube. This array of detectors lies buried 1 km deep beneath the Antarctic ice and spreads out over a cubic kilometer. IceCube studies supernovae and gamma-ray bursts by the neutrinos that result from these explosive events.
IAU Reaches Out
Meanwhile, Naomi attended the opening press conference, where Williams spoke to a crowd of mostly Chinese journalists, announcing his intention to break from IAU’s traditional focus on professional work. The IAU's focus in the 21st century has moved increasingly to outreach, he explained, in an effort to open the minds of citizens around the world to astronomy. General Secretary Ian Corbett added that he hopes this year’s General Assembly will be remembered for the effectiveness of IAU’s outreach efforts.
Williams and Corbett also emphasized that Asian participation in astronomy is not viewed as a competitive threat by Western astronomers, but rather is welcomed with a sense of pleasure that other parts of the world are contributing to the development of scientific knowledge.
In that spirit, the press conference closed with the signing of a document establishing the first regional “node and language-expertise center” in Japan, a center that aims to increase public understanding of astronomy through university and classroom initiatives, as well as general public outreach. The initiative involves China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and even North Korea. Kevin Govender, IAU's development director, expressed his hopes that the center would have a positive impact on world culture.
Jay M. Pasachoff is Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College and is on sabbatical at Caltech. He chairs the IAU's Working Group on Solar Eclipses and is a veteran of 55 solar eclipses. Naomi Pasachoff contributed to this report. Naomi is a research associate at Williams College and asteroid 68109 Naomipasachoff is named after her.