Moussaka, Retsina, and the lAU
Sunset along the bustling docks of Patras, the chief seaport on the west coast of Greece. Members of the International Astronomical Union met at the University of Patras for 10 days this past August.
Every three years the family
gathers, professional astronomers from around the world. At all General Assemblies of the International Astronomical Union, many scientific sessions are held, nowadays several simultaneously. But the main business for most participants involves interacting with colleagues, both individually or jointly in planning cooperative projects. New friendships are established. old ties maintained, and — as in any family — squabbles aired.
The meeting at Patras. Greece (August 17-26), a city of buzzing Vespa scooters, hooting ships, and penny-whistle trains, was the 18th such triennial assembly since 1922. Of course, no one person can adequately report on what took place among the roughly 2.000 astronomers attending. So here is my personal account of what seemed important, punctuated by occasional glimpses into the workings of this body of scientists whose decisions mainly affect only themselves (such as what to name some celestial object) but which occasionally influence the lives of everyone on Earth (as in matters of timekeeping).
WHY PATRAS (IN AUGUST!)?
1 suspect most visitors asked themselves this question the instant they arrived and experienced heat and humidity to rival any well-fired Turkish bath. Some found that their hotel accommodations had been canceled without notice, forcing quick thinking to find a place for the night — following. perhaps, 30 sleepless hours. And then there were the lAU busses that showed up at the right places at the wrong times or
406 Sky and Telescope, November. 19H2
the wrong places at the right times or not at all.
But the weather moderated after a few days, hotels were found, and the bus service became more reliable. All in all, the confusion of the first few days served well as an inexhaustible fountain of anecdotes for opening up conversations over a moussaka dinner or a bottle of retsina wine.
August is the traditional month for a General Assembly. And Patras was adopted by the lAU's executive committee in 1980. after the previous assembly adjourned without a new site having been selected, an unprecedented occurrence. The invitation to Greece came from that country's national committee for astronomy. As the rector of the University of Patras explained. the 18th General Assembly was particularly important as a stimulus for the astronomers who work on that campus.
5,000 4,000 3,000 2,000 1,000 0
IAD Membership 1922-1982
Sincc the 1920's, membership in the International Astronomical Union has grown exponentially. If this trend were to continue, the union would have over a million members by 2108!
which was founded only in 1964. This was the biggest international gathering ever held there, and I'm sure the local organizing committee is glad it's over. Cheers, and many thanks!
WHAT IS THE lAU?
Foremost, it is a body of professional astronomers. now some 5,200 strong, representing SO nations. The latest country to join the lAU is the People's Republic of China (in 1980). which is represented through the Chinese Astronomical Society in Nanking. (China first joined the union in 1935, but after the 1947 revolution its membership was inherited by Taiwan, which also continues as a member.) As reported in Astrocosmos. the daily newspaper distributed at the Patras meeting, mainland Chinese astronomers are currently publishing some 250 scientific papers a year. Many of these can be found in Chinese Astronomy and Astrophysics, whose chief translation editor is Tao Kiang of Dunsink Observatory. Ireland.
As a body the lAU subscribes to the statutes of a larger organization, the International Council of Scientific Unions. The work of the union, particularly the documentation of activities and the resolution of subjects that require international agreement, is carried out by its 40 commissions (see facing page), which are created or dissolved as needed. These, together with working groups, include members with particular expertise concerning some topic.
In addition to holding triennial assemblies. the lAU annually sponsors many colloquiums and symposiums, where relatively