A Grand Opening for the XXX IAU General Assembly

More than 3,000 scientists from 86 countries are gathering in Vienna this week for the GA. No doubt they have astronomy on their minds. Less cosmically-oriented people presumably travel to Vienna with music on their minds. At the GA Opening Ceremony on Monday afternoon, 20 August, in Hall A of the Vienna Center Austria, astronomy and music came together spectacularly. Welcome addresses and prize presentations were punctuated by Mozart and Haydn performed by the HABE-Quartett Wien. Judging from the smiles on people’s faces, the mood was set for a wonderful two weeks of international astronomical discussions and Austrian culture.

Organising Committee member Anneliese Haika (Vienna Astronomy Association) served as master of ceremonies for the opening festivities. She introduced several local dignitaries to officially welcome us to Vienna, including Heinz Faßmann (Austrian Federal Minister of Education, Science and Research), Heinz Engl (Rector of the University of Vienna) and Manuel Güdel (President of the Austrian Society for Astronomy and Astrophysics). If you missed the session, or if you were daydreaming to a classical music soundtrack, you can read their comments in the Conference Booklet or the eNewspaper.

Following another musical interlude, IAU President Silvia Torres-Peimbert gave an overview of the GA’s scientific programme, described several efforts to include more early career astronomers in Union activities, looked ahead to the 100th anniversary of the IAU in 2019, and urged delegates to read the new Strategic Plan 2020–2030, copies of which are available at the IAU booth in the Exhibition (you can also download a PDF from the IAU website).

Next came presentation of the 2018 Gruber Cosmology Prize to the Planck team and its principal science team leaders, Jean-Loup Puget (Université Paris XI, France) and Nazzareno Mandolesi (Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica, Italy), “for mapping the temperature and polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation with the ESA Planck spacecraft”. IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti introduced this part of the programme, which also featured comments from Patricia Gruber, Co-Founder and President Emeritus of the Gruber Foundation, and Robert Kennicutt (University of Arizona), Chair of the Selection Advisory Board to the Gruber Cosmology Prize. Quite a few members of the Planck team were in the audience, and when they were asked to stand and be recognised, they received a thunderous ovation.

After another performance by the string quartet, Silvia and Piero introduced the 2018 winners of the Gruber Foundation Fellowship and of the new IAU PhD Prize. which celebrates excellence in research by young astronomers. Several recipients were on hand to receive their fancy award certificates in person and to be acknowledged by the audience.

Rounding out the programme, Heide Hackmann, President of the International Science Council (ISC) — which was formed recently by merging the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and International Social Science Council (ISSC) — explained the origin of this new “global voice for science”. As she described it, the ISC “convenes the scientific expertise and resources needed to lead on catalysing, incubating and coordinating impactful international action on issues of major scientific and public importance”. The hope is that by involving both physical and social scientists from 40 international associations and 140 national and regional organisations, and with formal ties to the United Nations, the ISC can convince policymakers at the highest levels of government to give proper consideration to scientific evidence when making decisions.

More music followed, after which Gerhard Hensler (University of Vienna), Chair of the Organising Committee, adjourned the ceremony and invited everyone to the Opening Reception, where beer and wine flowed in abundance and the hors d’oeuvres were heavenly — which seemed exactly right for a gathering of astronomers.