Aloha from the IAU

Posted by Korey Haynes
on Friday, August 7, 2015

The good moods at the IAU meeting are certainly due to the amazing astronomy being discussed, but the island location doesn't hurt.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) holds its general assembly meeting only once every three years, for two full weeks. This is the meeting that infamously stripped Pluto of its planethood in 2006. This year, the resolutions up for vote cover technical points about mathematical conversion factors, but also crucial protection of the airwaves that radio astronomers use to study the cosmos. Voting by the IAU members won't occur until the conference's end. So until then, the attendees will focus on the primary reason to fly so far from home: sharing their science with colleagues, as well as the press such as myself.

The 2015 IAU meeting, held this year in humid but beautiful Honolulu, is now in full swing at the end of its first week. There are six symposia and 22 different focus meetings on topics across all of astronomy, many occurring simultaneously. And if you're tired of sitting in talks, the poster hall is full of yet more science, and representatives from most of the world's major observatories are on hand to chat about the latest research and programs. (It's also where to go to get all the coolest stickers, pens, posters, and flash drives, as well as free coffee during the breaks — yes, please!)

I spent my first day bouncing from session to session, though asteroids were a favorite. I learned about the great work the European Space Agency is doing with their monitoring of near-Earth objects (NEOs; check out all their cool tracking and information here). I sat in on a talk about how the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to, on top of all its other duties, aid in the search for NEOs, with roughly 75 percent of all NEOs coming into its line of sight once a year. I was also reassured that the telescope is still on track for its 2018 launch — in fact, engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center will begin mounting the completed mirrors in about a month (keep an eye on it with the Webb-cam). Across the hall, I heard about how just the first phase of the upcoming Square Kilometre Array in will amass enough data to fill 35,000 DVDs every second and dramatically outperform other radio telescopes of its kind.

Crucially, I heard about many of these facts through people whose jobs specifically called for outreach in some way. Traditionally, many people's stereotype of a scientist could unfortunately be considered correct — people like to imagine an Albert Einstein look-alike, ensconced in an ivory tower speaking a hidden language of mathematics and technical details. But more and more, scientists are called on to share their work at the public level instead of purely through technical journals.

On a practical level, as both a scientist and a journalist, my job is more enjoyable when I attend well-delivered talks. Data — even amazing data — do not speak for themselves. Data just lie there. And moreover, public interest and funding levels depend on scientists being able to advocate for the importance of their work. So good communication isn't just about entertaining and educating you, dear readers, important and enjoyable as we here at Astronomy find that task. For scientists, it can also be a self-serving and self-rewarding effort. 

In a science communication session, I heard about the connections between public awareness and funding, and we discussed the instinct of some scientists to continue to regard communication and outreach efforts as wasted non-research time. It's true that time is a limited commodity, and a scientist can't talk about their research if they don't spend at least the bulk of their time performing research. But as one speaker pointed out with crystal-clear survey results, if the biggest barrier to increased outreach effort is time, then why are scientists with children substantially more likely to conduct outreach? Having a child certainly doesn't strain anyone's time less.

The answer, speaker after speaker agreed, was in whether a scientist deemed such efforts valuable. Here at Astronomy, we do our best to keep you informed. But our jobs would be nearly impossible without the efforts of press officers who alert us to interesting research, observatory communication directors who help us explain the most important astronomical tools, and the scientists themselves who take the time to share their work with us. Here at the IAU general assembly, and indeed at every science conference, sharing research is the entire purpose of the meeting. Here's to continuing to improve efforts to communicate the wonder of astronomy across all levels of interest. 

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