Last week I wrote about the International Astronomical Union (#IAU) General Assembly taking place in Rio de Janeiro, to which I was headed. Most people, if they even ever heard of the IAU only know it for its role in the demotion of Pluto at the last General Assembly three years ago. Even I was not entirely sure what to think. I’m not a member of the IAU (mostly because I have never quite gotten around to filling out some form at the right time) and had never gone to one of the General Assemblies before (including the infamous one three years ago where Pluto was discussed; I was instead on vacation in the San Juan Islands outside of Seattle). I have had my share of frustration with the IAU bureaucracies in everything from the stupidity of the way they originally tried to ram Pluto-as-a-planet down the reluctant throats of astronomers (to which the astronomers, who will thus always have my admiration, revolted) to their ridiculousness of their official list of dwarf planets (I will rant about that at a later date, no doubt), to their shameless lack of interest in resolving – one way or another – a case which was either egregious scientific fraud (against me) or equally egregious scientific bullying (by me).
My intention in Rio was simply to go to the special scientific sessions on Icy Bodies in the Solar Systen (somewhat of a specialty of mine) and avoid any IAU-ness. In my mind it was simply yet-another large scientific meeting, this time spread over too much time (two weeks! far too much time to take away from the family), and too many topics (the solar system to the edge of the universe and everything in between and then more). I went, though, because I had been invited to give an extended talk on dwarf planets, and because I thought there might be Pluto shenanigans that I didn’t want to miss out on this time.
I think it is fair to say that I went in with a bad attitude.
Reflecting about all of this on the flight home this morning my main reaction is a little bit of sadness that it took me two or three days to come to the realization that there were amazing things being talked about in every little corner of the IAU meeting. Yes, I learned about icy bodies: the delivery of water to the early earth, the potential interior structure of Titan, the presence of things that look like comets in places that should be reserved for asteroids. And I got to ask some colleagues a few key questions that had been nagging me. (Is it possible that in the early solar system things from the Kuiper belt got mixed out to the asteroid belt? I, unfortunately, was told “no.” Scratch one idea I had off the board.) I even got to finally meet some colleagues from Brazil and Uruguay who rarely get to travel to major meetings, and we talked about future projects we might do jointly.
All of this was good, but not the part that I am flying home most excited about. I am most excited about the incredible number of people who were at the meeting who were enthusiastically and dedicatedly going to talks about astronomical education, about astronomy in developing countries, about preserving the night skies, about using 2009, the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), as a platform for building and keeping the momentum of public engagement. There were posters with pictures of IYA activities in every country I had ever heard of (and even, I will admit, a few countries that I had to ask, um, exactly where they were). And the people doing all of this just seemed beyond themselves with the excitement of astronomy. None of the typical scientific meeting snarky chatter of “well, sure, that was an OK talk, but really he should have cited the work of her and him and them” or “possibly interesting, but I don’t think I would be willing to jump to such a conclusion with such shoddy data” or “let’s not bother waking up early to hear that same talk of her’s yet again.”
It’s great being a professional astronomer and a professor. It’s hard to imagine any job that I could have that I would enjoy more. Yet, regardless of how much I love what I do, there are aspects of it that are simply a job. And like any other job there are parts that get tedious. And like most other people, when parts get tedious I get cranky. My Ph.D. students at Caltech have figured this out quite well. One of the necessary evils of being an astronomer is having to write proposal after proposal after proposal, and, according to the lore passed down from student to student, I become quite irritable approximately two days before any proposal is due. They know that it is best not to come into my office with a seemingly trivial question at times like that.
Concrete [I hope] postscript:
OK, I’m not just going to keep the program booklet, I’m going to try to get into the act. I had a long conversation one evening with an inspiring woman who is involved in more interesting things than I can imagine but who appears particularly excited about bringing astronomy to parts of Africa where there is little to none. She wants to try to set up asteroid-naming art projects for African school children. I can provide asteroids that need names; she knows what to do in Africa. I say hey, @carolune, let’s go. Stay tuned….