Q. This year is the International Year of Astronomy. What projects or events has the IAU planned related to this event?
100 Hours Of Astronomy (Courtesy of the International Astronomical Union/Lee Pullen)
The IAU is an organization that's existed since 1919. We have about 10,000 members, astronomers, from all over the world. Our role is to promote astronomy by promoting international cooperation among astronomers. This year, what we want to do differently is to make a big effort to reach the public at large. We want to bring astronomy to everybody, not only to the usual enthusiasts but to the broad public that is usually not interested in news about the sky and our discoveries.
To do this, we have created a very large network. We now have 141 countries involved, which is much more than the number of countries involved in the IAU. So we have gone far beyond the member countries, of which there are only 67. We want to have activities for a broad public, and to exchange information so that everybody, every country can learn what the others are doing and take ideas from this. We have established a number of projects that we've proposed to every participating country. Of course, each country can choose -- they don't have to do them all. But we have planned several cornerstone projects in the hope they would offer opportunities to the general public to develop an interest in astronomy.
We have 12 cornerstones, all of which are listed on the IAU's Web site. For instance, one of them is what we call 100 Hours Of Astronomy. This was a 100-hour round-the-clock, round-the-globe event, held from April 2 to April 5. One part of the project was to have a live webcast, featuring 80 astronomical observatories from all over the world, over 24 hours. The other part of the project was to hold astronomical observation events all over the world on the same day. The observations started on April 2 local time. Following the night sky moving west, observation spots moved west in a relay, and went around the world in 24 hours. So all over the world there were people in the streets looking at the sky, people at home looking at the Web site and seeing directly what was happening at the observatories. Astronauts observing the sky right at that moment used the Internet to explain to the world what they saw. This round-the-world event was very exciting. We are still counting the participants, but we know that the total number is over one million.
We are also asking all astronomers to help by giving public lectures. Personally, I am doing this too. These days you don't need to travel very much to observe because the observations are done by others and you can receive them on your computer. You travel to talk to other people. But still, it's very important to have meetings and discuss. So I go to meetings, to lectures, etc.
Q. What are you trying to impress upon the general public with IYA 2009, especially upon young people?
The Galileoscope (Courtesy of Douglas Isbell/IAU/IYA2009/Galileoscope)
There are three different aspects. One is simply - and this is really for people of all ages - to feel part of the universe, to reflect and think that we are not just living on our little street, in our little country. I think by now the human race has more of a feeling of all of us living on a planet, the planet Earth. But I would like everyone to realize that the planet Earth is part not only of our solar system but of the universe, and to reflect on our place in the universe.
Number two, the beauty of the sky. People living in towns never get to see the sky. I hope that this year they will go to places where even without a telescope they can see the sky, and really look at it, and see how beautiful it is. And if possible, look at it also through a telescope, even if it is a small telescope. We are going to disseminate them if we can, little telescopes similar to but better than those that Galileo used. You know, there is a Japanese model called You Are Galileo! There is also a Galileoscope, etc. We hope that all the people who have a telescope at home and have never used it, this year will take it out and invite all their friends to look through it.
And the third point is that in this period, astronomers are making momentous discoveries. We are learning so much about the universe, thanks to great advances in technology, both on the ground and, of course, in space. We would like the public to realize that in the past 10-15 years, we have discovered so much more about the universe.
Q. What kind of activities are planned for the IAU?
She Is an Astronomer (Courtesy of Naveen Nanjundappa/Bangalore Astronomical Society)
In general, we want to increase the overall scientific awareness of the public. We use astronomy because it is a more accessible science. But in fact, we would like to use it to help people understand what science is, how science works, and to attract young people to science. We want to promote widespread access to new knowledge and observing experiences. We want to support and improve formal and informal science education.
We are working on ways to train teachers to use the best available materials to teach astronomy in schools and to attract their students to science. We want to provide a modern image of science and scientists. And we also want to empower astronomical communities in developing countries. So, as you can see, with the number of countries that we have involved, it's an opportunity to bring astronomy to all these countries first at the amateur level and perhaps, one day, at the professional level.
We also want to improve the gender balance representation of scientists at all levels. So we have one cornerstone called “She Is an Astronomer.” And we want to show that science is not only for little and big boys but also for little and big girls. We want great involvement by underrepresented minorities in scientific and engineering careers.
And we want to facilitate new networks. We're building networks among amateur scientists, which we hope will last into the future. Also - this is something we do all the time but we're making a special effort this year - the preservation and protection of the sky, the dark sky, especially in areas where there are observatories, and also, protection of frequencies for radio astronomy. And finally, a new project with UNESCO: we are participating in the World Heritage Program to select historic astronomical sites.