S349: Under One Sky – The IAU Centenary Symposium

IAU Symposium 349, Under One Sky, will focus on the centenary of the IAU. Our Union was born during the Constitutive Assembly of the International Research Council (IRC) on 28 July 1919, in the Palais des Académies in Brussels, and the first General Assembly followed three years later in Rome.

Although the actual centenary is still a few months away, the 30th General Assembly in Vienna is our best opportunity to celebrate this milestone and to reflect on the advancements of the last 100 years. Symposium 349 will serve as a venue to discuss the history of astronomy and astrophysics research since 1919 and to look to the future and plan for what should happen in the decades to come.

Malcolm Longair (Cavendish Lab, Cambridge, UK) will give the plenary talk for the Symposium at 17:15 on 28 August. As the author of The Cosmic Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006) he is well qualified to survey the progress of astronomy and cosmology over the life of the Union.

As part of this Centenary Symposium, the Scientific Organizing Committee (SOC) approached all living former IAU Presidents and General Secretaries, asking them for short talks on reminiscences of their time. All six surviving Presidents, and 9 of the 15 surviving General Secretaries agreed to give presentations. In two cases, age prevented travel to Vienna, so Jean-Claude Pecker (GS 1964-67) will show a video of his reminiscences, and Lubos Perek (GS 1967-70) will have his paper read by SOC Chair John Hearnshaw. In Perek’s case, we note that he was born in 1919, two days before the founding of the IAU. We believe he is the only living member actually older than the Union itself!

The IAU has survived three major crises in its first century. The first was whether to admit Germany, Austria, Hungary and Turkey (the so-called Central Powers) as National Members after the end of the Great War. The result was that (West) Germany’s admission was delayed until 1951. Austria joined the IAU in 1955, Hungary in 1947, Turkey in 1961 and East Germany in 1962. These events in astro-politics will be related by Roland Wielen in an invited talk at the Symposium.

The second crisis involved the withdrawal of the People’s Republic of China from the IAU in 1961 to protest the admission of Taiwan. It took two decades to resolve this issue with the present two-China policy, in which the whole of China is represented by both China Nanjing and China Taipei. Xiaowei Liu from Yunnan Observatory will describe this painful history.

The third crisis was the two General Assemblies held in 1973, one in Sydney, Australia, and the other in Torun, Poland, organised to mark 500 years since the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The Torun GA significantly weakened the main event in Sydney, much to the frustration of the Australians.

On a more positive note, the IAU can be proud of the huge advances in astronomical knowledge and technology achieved since its founding. At first, the IAU brought astronomers together to define standards of measurement and classification. After World War II it began to promote international exchanges and collaborations through the creation of former Commission 38. By the 1960s the IAU was playing an important role in astronomy education with the creation of former Commission 46 (now Division C). It also led to the start of highly successful International Schools for Young Astronomers (ISYA) where graduate students were exposed to lectures by top international experts. By the 1990s the IAU became actively engaged with promoting astronomy in developing countries with the Working Group for the Worldwide Development of Astronomy, and the earlier Visiting Lecturers’ Programme from 1973, which later became Teaching Astronomy for Development.

The Union also took an important step in promoting careers of women in astronomy by creating the Working Group of Women in Astronomy in 2003. Women’s career prospects in astronomy are now far better than they were at any time in the 20th century; about a third of all IAU members under age 35 are now female. The situation is steadily improving, and three successive female Presidents of the Union are an indication of this progress.

Finally, we can point to the major public outreach engagement of the IAU in 2009 with the International Year of Astronomy reaching hundreds of millions of people. The creation of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) in 2010 and Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO) in 2012 underlines the continuing activity of the Union in these two important areas.

Symposium 349 will reflect on the past 100 years and IAU’s role in development and education in the coming years. Ewine van Dishoeck, incoming IAU President, will also look to the future with an invited talk on the next 100 years of the IAU.

JOHN HEARNSHAW is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is outgoing President of IAU Division C. His research interests have been in high-resolution stellar spectroscopy, variable and binary stars and the history of astrophysics. He currently is active in dark skies protection and the promotion of astrotourism.