RASNZ President’s Blog, 18 August 2015

Some impressions of the General Assembly of the IAU in Hawaii

I have just returned from Honolulu, Hawaii, the venue of the 29th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union. The IAU is of course the body serving the world-wide community of professional astronomers, and there are over 11,200 members, most of them in the 73 member countries of the Union. About 2500 of these participated in the Hawaii meeting, held over two weeks (3-14 August) in the Hawaii Convention Center, a vast modern complex in downturn Honolulu. I participated in just the second week. It was my ninth IAU General Assembly since the Montreal meeting in 1979, and certainly an exciting event, even if I enjoyed some earlier ones more. There were six New Zealand astronomers present (four from Canterbury), and no doubt more from NZ and other countries would have come if Honolulu were not so ruinously expensive (typically $NZ350 a night as an IAU ‘special’ in one of the less expensive hotels recommended for participants!).

Any one participant can probably not experience even 10 per cent of what is happening at a GA, and possibly even 5 per cent would be challenging. There were up to 13 parallel sessions most days from 8.30 in the morning to 6 o’clock in the evening or later, covering most branches of modern astronomy. With over 1000 talks and some 2000 posters to read, information saturation can soon take its toll. Then there were several dozen booths in the Exhibition Hall, with numerous displays from major observatories, high tech companies and astronomy publishers.

There were six week-long symposia running during the GA on various topics, and 22 shorter focus meetings over two or three days each. In addition, the invited discourses delivered in plenary sessions by distinguished astronomers are one of the highlights. I attended two, by Lisa Kaltenegger (Cornell University) on extrasolar planets, and Brent Tully (University of Hawaii) on the Local Supercluster of galaxies.

One area of the IAU that has been growing strongly in recent years is the programme for education, outreach and heritage. Three years ago, the IAU created nine divisions for different branches of astronomy, and Division C is the one for Education, Outreach and Heritage. These topics received much attention in Division C meetings over two days, and in four of the focus meetings. One of these was in fact on light pollution issues, which also falls into the province of Division C. Here I made excellent contacts with some American lighting engineers who were expert on the latest technology on phosphor-coated amber LED lighting. This could be useful in Tekapo and for the rebuild of Christchurch.

As I was privileged to be elected as Division C President for the next three years, my time inevitably was largely consumed by meetings covering the division’s activities. It was a good chance to network with some of the 1500 IAU members in the division and to plan activities for the next three years. As the IAU is approaching its centenary, the next General Assembly (in Vienna in 2018) will almost certainly have a celebration of this event, with Division C playing a major role in planning it. That will be followed in quick succession by the RASNZ centenary (in 2020), so there will be plenty of celebrations to take part in!

I should note that IAU Division C also has oversight of three offices run by the Union, namely the Office for Young Astronomers (which runs the International Schools for Young Astronomers), the Office of Astronomy for Development (with numerous projects in developing countries, based in Cape Town) and the Office for Astronomy Outreach (to explain astronomical discoveries to the public, based in Tokyo). The activities of all these offices are very dynamic and high profile activities of the Union, so Division C is a really exciting organization to be leading over the next three years. It also consumes a quarter of the IAU’s budget, so it’s a significant responsibility as well.

After going to numerous education, outreach and heritage talks, and giving one myself, it was also good to attend sessions on extrasolar planets, to catch up with the latest results from the Kepler satellite and to learn about planets in binary stars.

Overall, this was another enthralling but exhausting IAU General Assembly.  It was great to meet so many old friends again, to learn about new developments and to experience again some Hawaiian hospitality (only my second visit in the last forty years).  As for the weather, it was a hot and steamy 31 C most days, so air-conditioning was always welcome.

John Hearnshaw, 18 August 2015