C19 Report of Commission Activities to Council
October 15-16, 2004
Commission 19 has both bad and good news to report. The saddest item is the death of our associate member, representing the community of amateur astronomers, Dr. Janet Mattei (President of the American Association of Variable Star Observers) in March, 2004. She is irreplaceable, but Council had, in Vancouver, generously endorsed an alternate member, Robert Gent (President of Astronomical League, another large amateur organization) who stepped into the breach immediately and actively. Amateurs outnumber professional astronomers about 20:1 in most countries and are a source of support that most brances of physics do not have.
A happy item: the 2004 Gruber Cosmology Prize, for which a IUPAP representative is a member of the advisory board, went to Drs. Alan Guth and Andrei Linde for their work in formulating the ideas of inflation, now regarded as the best available picture of the very early stages of an expanding universe ("what came before the big bang"). In 2005, Simon White of the Max Planck Institute in Munich will replace Trimble as the IUPAP board member.
The Commission has been somewhat active in two areas, again one cheerful and one not. The good news is our involvement with a new Working Group of the International Astronomical Union, whose charge is "Communicating Astronomy with the Public." The underlying idea is that it is the responsibility of every astronomer and astrophysicist to help ensure a scientifically literate and informed electorate by attempting to make clear what we are doing, why, and why it is worth supporting, through both formal and informal channels. The ideas were formulated at at conferences in the Canary Islands and Washington DC in 2003 and being further developed in meetings in Spain (Sept 2004) and Germany (June 2005). A number of national astronomy societies have endorsed the principle as expressed in a "Washington Charter."
The less cheerful item is the World Year of Physics plan ("Physics Enlightens the World") to send a ring of light around the earth starting from Princeton on Einstein's birthday, 18 April. The actual amount of light is likely to be small (although lasers are among the recommended light sources), but the precedent is a distinctly unhappy one for optical astronomy and other entitites for whom darkness at night is important. Initial advertizements of the project attributed it specifically to IUPAP rather than to the WYP coordinating committee, and we have been chasing after the rumors as much as possible (like recovering feathers from a pillow torn into the wind, this is not really possilbe). At the same time, Comm. 19, along with the officers of the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society, the Institute of Physics (UK), and a number of smaller organizations have joined with the International Dark Sky Association and the Astronomical League in saying that we do not think that the project is a very wise one, wish it had never been proposed, and hope it can somehow be controlled or moderated. The web site description has indeed been revised. A representative of the American Physical Society was initially quoted in Nature as saying that APS supported the project, and it still does, but its council has also endorsed a resolution expressing the need to control light pollution in general. comm. 19 had hoped very much for at least this level of support from IUPAP Council, but there was little enthusiasm from other branches of physics and some active opposition.
The first meeting proposed by Comm. 19 to receive IUPAP support in many years will take place in December -- the 22nd biennial Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics, where "symposium" in this context is to be understood as the largest sort of meeting we have, smaller ones being called colloquia and workshops. It si in Stanford, and the 23rd symposium, scheduled for 2006 in Australia, will also seek IUPAP support. Two meetings in 2005, in South Africa and Brazil, have asked for IUPAP sponsorship, and have received it at the class B and class C levels respectively.
We have used some of our allotted $3000 travel money to permit a subset of the Commission to meet during the Sydney IAU General Assembly in 2003. Another subset met at the Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting in Granada in September 2004, and a few others will be at the December relativistic astrophysics symposium. The Commission has never had a majority of its members in any one place at the same time and is unlikely ever to do so, because the range of disciplines represented is "astrophysics" defined in a very broad sense, including experimental particle and gravitational physics, solar physics, X- and gamma-ray and theoretical astrophysics, and much else. It is possible that our suggestions for membership in the 2005-08 term may include some narrowing of the range of disciplines represented.
Things that we will not try to do just now include initiating a prize and establishing a working group on communicating physics with the public. The former would change if a promising donor appeared; the latter if a willing worker appeared.