Ep. 525: 100 Years of the International Astronomical Union

Posted on Apr 5, 2019 in Astronomy, Doing Astronomy, Meetings, People, podcast | 0 comments

Even though they might be scattered around our planet, astronomers have way to come together to work out issues that face their entire field of study. It’s called the International Astronomical Union, and they’re the ones who work out the new names for stars, and sometimes de-planet beloved Kuiper Belt Objects.

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Show Notes

International Astronomical Union website
What is the International Astronomical Union?

IAU lobbies for science, decides international standards, and is most well-known for being where Pluto got demoted.

Astronomers voting old-school style at IAU meeting. Credit: IAU

IAU works as a democracy, with all countries having votes.

The Statutes consider such business to be divided into two categories:

  • issues of a “primarily scientific nature” (as determined by the Executive Committee), upon which voting is restricted to individual members, and
  • all other matters (such as Statute revision and procedural questions), upon which voting is restricted to the representatives of national members.


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Susie:                           Hi, everyone. Producer Susie here. We apologize for the lower quality audio this week. Pamela experienced a power outage that affected the saved audio files, so this show is being created from the audio from our YouTube stream.

Fraser:                         Astronomy Cast, episode 525, 100 years of the International Astronomical Union. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly fact-based journey the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest.

Hey, Pamela! How are you doing?

Pamela:                        I’m doing well. How are you?

Fraser:                         I am doing well, also.

Pamela:                        Did you survive all the excitement yesterday?

Fraser:                         Yeah, it was a great day. For people who don’t know what we’re talking about, literally everything happened yesterday. Rockets were launched, lunar orbits were arrived at –

Pamela:                        An asteroid was bombed.

Fraser:                         – an asteroid was hit with an anti-tank weapon, which was great. What a great use for anti-tank weaponry. Take that, asteroid!

Pamela:                        Yes! More of that, please.

Fraser:                         Yeah, exactly.

Solar system? There’s more of that coming. You just stay in line. It was a great day. And now, other stuff, too. I just saw that they put down a date for the next Falcon Heavy launch. It’s gonna be soon, like within the week. It’s gonna be a crazy week. Actually, I’m utterly overwhelmed right now. People may have noticed I haven’t sent my newsletter out yet because I just am so busy. But it’s almost ready. It’ll go up in another couple hours.

Pamela:                        I was at my keyboard for 16 hours yesterday, as Annie Wilson and I took turns livestreaming all of the events on Twitch. It was absolutely amazing. And I have to brag a little bit. I love so much working, once again, at a rock solid we-do-science organization. I haven’t done that since I worked at Harvard. I’ve been at places that focused on communications and education and undergraduate education. I’m back! There was a quiet, little does-anyone-know how-to-do-this-thing-and-stuff-at-the-command-line, to fix the formatting of a whole bunch of files. I was like, “Yeah, you just need to write software to do fluditifluditifu.” The person who was working on Hyabusa and they needed to convert a whole bunch of files was like, “Help.” So, last night, in real time while everything was happening I got to help by just writing a stupid little snippet of code.

Fraser:                         For people at Hayabusa.

Pamela:                        Yeah!

Fraser:                         Oh, that’s amazing!

Pamela:                        I got to make a science, people! I got to make a science.

Fraser:                         Are you saying thanks to the Planetary Science Institute for giving you a home that you get to do science on an occasional basis? Yeah, that’s amazing.

Pamela:                        And more to the point, I get to science with a whole bunch of other people instead of being the person over here making science while everyone else is doing other things. It’s awesome.

Fraser:                         Here we go. Even though they might be scattered around our planet, astronomers have a way to come together to work on the issues that face their entire field of study. It’s called the International Astronomical Union and they’re the ones who work out the new names for stars and sometimes de-planet beloved Kuiper belt objects. Man. People have that love/hate relationship with the IAU, which is the International Astronomical Union.

Where do you wanna start? 100 years. When is their hundredth birthday?

Pamela:                        It was formed in 2019 and one of the ironies that I ran up across –

Fraser:                         2019 is the year we’re in right now, so it doesn’t feel right that that’s the right date.

Pamela:                        Sorry. Foobard. Foobard. It was formed in April of 1919 but I haven’t been able to find an exact date.

Fraser:                         So, April.

Pamela:                        But here we are. It’s April of 2019.

Fraser:                         Close enough.

Pamela:                        The organization is now 100 years old. And it seemed time to talk about this organization that everyone seems to have a strong opinion about. They either love it or they hate it; sometimes both simultaneously.

Fraser:                         I am utterly ambivalent. So, I think I can really bring – All I know is my gut says maybe.

Pamela:                        And for full disclosure, I am an officer within the IAU and I’ve also served as the editor-in-chief for their conference newspaper.

Fraser:                         All right. So, what is the IAU?

Pamela:                        The IAU is the governing body for astronomy internationally. They are the folks that write up the policies on how you name things, whether it be craters on a planet, moons orbiting a world, worlds orbiting other stars, stars themselves. They are the folks that work to define when we are by defining time itself. They work with the United Nations to help define world heritage sites that have either dark skies aspects to them or are part of astronomical world heritage. More than that, they’re an organization that spends roughly half of their budget to try and use astronomy to develop our world.

Fraser:                         You mentioned a couple of things that they do; of course, the naming and the nomenclatures and the general namery. But that’s just one small piece of what they do. Right? We can go into the naming machine at some point. Names – How do they generally push the field of astronomy across the world?

Pamela:                        In general, the International Astronomical Union is committees all the way down. They are working groups that are part of commissions that are part of divisions. The idea is to basically have a pyramid scheme of distributing the work out so that we can bring everyone together effectively in an ideally diverse environment, to deal with all the different problems faced within our field. This was actually part of its core.

When the IAU first formed back in 1919, the motivation was the top, elite astronomers around the world had for, they actually say in their history, centuries been sending letters back and forth to one another, collaborating; had been gathering whenever they could in various cities, generally across Europe. But there was no professional organization that really was in use to set down guiding ideas. We had somehow, as a planet, settled down on Greenwich, England, as the zero point, but that was mostly a political, world domination kind of thing. They wanted to have more of a scientific organizing body.

The key problems that they were looking at were how do we define coordinate systems? How do we define time, which is part of coordinate systems? And how do we name all the stuff and things, both by classifying them – so, how do you classify an asteroid? How do you define a planet? What is a Kuiper belt object? – and then what do you name them individually? Is that world going to be called George or is it going to be called Uranus?

Fraser:                         Except that decision was made before the IAU was a thing.

Pamela:                        It’s true. It is true.

Fraser:                         But those kinds of decisions.

Pamela:                        And this is where it comes down to when are we. They actually are one of the organizing groups that figures out when we need to add leap seconds to our time. That’s kind of awesome.

Fraser:                         That’s cool. And that comes from the Astronomical Union? I didn’t know that.

Pamela:                        It comes in collaboration. There’s multi –

Fraser:                         World time association.

Pamela:                        Which is working with the IAU.

Fraser:                         Oh, interesting. Okay.

What was the last meeting of the IAU?

Pamela:                        It was last August. It was the Vienna meeting in 2018. Among the things that came up was the fact that, yes, this is the 100th anniversary. While we were at the meeting, and we talked about this earlier in an Astronomy Cast episode, we took on things like is it just the Hubble law or is it the Hubble Lematrier law? I know I’m mispronouncing French and so many apologies.

Fraser:                         Maitrier.

Pamela:                        Yes.

Fraser:                         No. Lemaitre was the one.

Pamela:                        Beyond that, we also redefined some coordinate systems. And there was of course a look at what are upcoming international initiatives that needed to be worked on. The decision was made that joining the suite of – we have language centers around the world that are working to translate astronomical texts into multiple languages. We have the Office of Astronomy for Development in South Africa, the Office of Astronomy Outreach in Japan. We are going to be competing in selecting an Office for Astronomy Education, recognizing that space is a great way to get people addicted to science.

Fraser:                         That was the one that was in Vienna. The previous one – they happen every four years?

Pamela:                        They’re every three years.

Fraser:                         Every three years.

Pamela:                        It’s a triennium. This one was in, as I said, it was in Vienna. The prior one was in Hawaii. Prior to that it was China. Prior to that was Brazil. Prior to that was Poland.

Fraser:                         Yeah, that one –

Pamela:                        Yeah.

Fraser:                         The one in Poland. You missed the one in Poland. That, of course, was the one, 1990 – Sorry.

Pamela:                        No. 2006.

Fraser:                         2006, when Pluto lost its planethood.

Pamela:                        But I had a really good excuse for not being there.

Fraser:                         Right.

Pamela:                        I was kind of on my honeymoon. My husband does sometimes actually take precedence over astronomy conferences. Although I have missed many of our anniversaries to attend subsequent IAU meetings.

Fraser:                         Right. He’s cool with it.

That was one, obviously, very controversial. We’ve done multiple episodes on how it went down, the fallout, the ongoing attempt to air grievances and to heal the deep wounds between the Plutoids and the non-Plutoids, the planets and the non-planets. Someday, Alan Stern and Mike Brown will reach some kind of agreement –

Pamela:                        No.

Fraser:                         – and be able to just hug it out. I can’t wait for that day.

But until then, the point is that there are all new objects being discovered. We are pushing the boundaries of what we know about the universe and about the solar system every year. New discoveries are coming down the road and there needs to be a way to digest this information, to disseminate it across the world to all the astronomers that are working on it, and new ways of working together. It’s like the glue, the international –

Pamela:                        Clearinghouse of ideas.

Fraser:                         Yeah, but – standards. Ways to be able to minimize the amount of pre-negotiation; to go, “What is this thing? What systems do you have to use? What timecodes should be used to communicate this thing? How many seconds are there in a year?” A way to come to agree on those things.

Pamela:                        And this goes so much beyond just astronomers. The International Astronomical Union is – they wouldn’t use this phrase but I think the best analogy is it’s a lobbying organization, in terms of there are international agreements on what parts of the electromagnetic spectrum thou shalt not use for commercial purposes because we need to use them for science. It is the IAU that is, in many ways, working to push those international treaties forward. It is the IAU that is a starting place for finding all your new best friends that you’re gonna build a multinational telescope with. By having someplace that can serve this international motivation, it helps in a lot of ways to make the world a little bit smaller.

Now, of course, there is what feels like never-ending conflict between IAU and, for instance, NASA where each organization is like “I shall be the final authority” and neither of them can settle with the other exactly how to do things. It is, though, an organization that played a major role after World War II in helping to figure out how do we restart science around the world.

Fraser:                         What are some of the examples? We talked about the classification. How does it all come together? Say there’s going to be – I don’t know where the next IAU meeting is going to be –

Pamela:                        South Africa.

Fraser:                         In South Africa.

Pamela:                        No, sorry. The next one’s Korea and then South Africa.

Fraser:                         And then South Africa. Okay. So, Korea in what, 2021?

Pamela:                        Yes. And then 2024 is Cape Town, South Africa.

Fraser:                         Who and how do they define the agenda for what big decisions are gonna be made at the IAU?

Pamela:                        It turns out that the IAU is a fairly democratic organization. You have every nation that is a dues-paying member has vote. There are, essentially, nations in waiting, nations that don’t quite have enough astronomers, that don’t quite have enough budget to be full members. Then there are also members at large. Each nation also can have members. Once you become a member of the IAU, it is your nation, not you as an individual that pays your dues. And you’re in for life. So, I am a member of the IAU representing the United States of America for the rest of my life, even when I emigrate to Canada, which will happen someday.

Fraser:                         But it’s not just you, right? There are many Americans who represent the U.S. in the IAU.

Pamela:                        It’s true. We are one of the largest nations.

Fraser:                         Right. So, how many people are in the IAU? We’ll go back to my question in a second, but you know me, I’m a squirrel.

Pamela:                        The International Astronomical Union looks to bring in the world’s population of professional astronomers. At this point, they have nearly 14,000 members. It is a large organization. But when you think about those numbers, there are more software developers working for some companies than there are professional astronomers in the IAU, representing the world.

Fraser:                         You, as a representative of the IAU, like many of the representatives of the International Astronomical Union, do what to get a motion passed, seconded, carried? How does this work?

Pamela:                        If I have some great new idea that I want to propose to change something astronomy, the first step is to put together essentially a bill, a proclamation, and get it co-signed by a bunch of other people within the organization, get it supported by commissions, divisions. This is that idea that you have a working group of people working to solve problems. Working groups are parts of commissions that are thematically divided. Sorry, I got that wrong. They’re part of divisions which are thematically divided. These in turn belong to commissions.

With all of this we have, for instance, someone from a working group on diversity – we have those – might put forward a goal that we need to start putting out translations. This can lead to a decision that the IAU is going to create centers for translation in astronomy. That’s the kind of thing that did happen. I don’t think it came out of a working group for inclusion because I think that we had a chicken and the egg problem there.

Fraser:                         But right now, are the topics that are gonna be discussed at the 2021 meeting being defined and hashed out right now? Are they building the schedule already? Or does that come together a little more close to the actual event?

Pamela:                        Many of these things come out more close to the event because astronomers are humans, which means we procrastinate. So, at this point in time, we’re working to make sure we have locations, we have working rooms, we have all of the big picture ideas. Thoughts are being made on “Hah. I have this thing I should consider doing.” But this early in the triennium, we’re really working on figuring out how do we complete this next three years’ sets of goals?

For instance, I belong to the working group for the communicating astronomy to the public conference. We’re working on planning our next conference, which is probably going to be next year – I think it’s next year – in Australia. There are other working groups that are working on – well, everyone is waiting for new sets of names to come out from the Minor Planet Center, which is in many ways a child of the International Astronomical Union. We’re waiting for that new round of names to come out. There are initiatives going on to collect star names from different cultures and make sure that we have accurate catalogs that don’t just say, “This galaxy is this HR number; it is this NGC number.” But we also have catalogs that have a star’s Hipparcos number, its Henry Draper number, and its name from Roman mythology, from Zulu mythology, from Incan mythology. We’re working to collect all of these names, all of this culture of our shared sky before too much of it is lost to the passing of generations.

Fraser:                         Do you guys vote electronically on which actual discussions are gonna be had?

Pamela:                        There is a variety of different ways that things take place. The commissions and divisions that I’m part of, we do electronic voting within our organization for things like electing the officers. There are more spreadsheets for rating and reviewing proposals than you can shake a stick at. I think Excel is the new way of ranking everything. Then, of course, there’s telecons in which it’s the ‘if anyone disagrees, speak’ and then you listen to the silence of no one unmuting their phones. That takes place for the day-to-day activities.

When it comes to the large decisions, it is generally you pass things up. So, my group of humans might vote on something and then it gets passed up to the IAU executive council. The executive council will then either vote on it at the national level or they will send it out to the entire membership. Now, in general, the national votes and the membership votes do take place every three years at the general assembly.

But sometimes there are problems that come up, there are questions that come up where we don’t wanna limit the voting to the people who are affluent enough and able to travel because there are both issues of people who can’t travel and people who can’t afford to travel but would love to. To make sure that our more potentially controversial decisions are made in a fair and equitable manner, those do get opened up electronically. We recently did an electronic vote to finalize the decision on the Hubble Lemaitre name change. There was an initial, get-the-flavor-of-the-room vote that was done at the general assembly prior to releasing and having everyone who was willing to go to their keyboard cast their vote from around the world.

Fraser:                         And then at the actual conference, you then deal with – you’ve got all of these provisional votes that are gonna be had and everybody shows up and they go into their – they’ve got their various working groups. Then how do those actual votes come together?

Pamela:                        It is the most old-school thing I have ever participated in. There are fabulous pictures that you can find all over the Internet, and hopefully Susie will stick one up in our show notes. There are two business meetings during the International Astronomical Union meeting. This is a two-week meeting. There’s one business meeting in each week. The general membership votes occur in the second week. The way they occur is you hold up your badge, which is a specific color if you are a full member, and it’s a different color if you’re not a full member. You hold up your badge while you vote and they will do, “Okay, abstentions up. Okay, yeses up. Okay, noes up.” And they have a series of counters, individuals from around the world, selected to walk around and physically count. So, it’s not the most high tech thing I’ve ever participated in, but it’s good enough for assembly work.

Fraser:                         And definitely not a hidden vote. You can absolutely see who’s voting for certain things.

Pamela:                        Oh, yeah. Anyone who whined to you about how they voted for Pluto, there are photos of people. There are photos.

Fraser:                         Photos of them de-planeting Pluto and they’re all getting a phone call from the Pluto fans. That’s a great point. I wonder if they’ll ever change that to be more of a hidden ballot.

Is it just one vote and then everything just stands? Is there any chance to overturn a decision? I guess you have to wait for the next –

Pamela:                        You have to wait at least three years. This is one of those things where you start to realize that sometimes making it difficult to change things allows people to get used to an idea and for the culture to change. If there was a meeting every single year, I suspect that Pluto might have had the decision overturned, but giving it that three years let the global astronomical community somewhat settle into a consensus. There was time to think through the decisions, to articulate the ideas, and to move on. And sometimes you need that.

Fraser:                         It’s a great point. There was a mountain of outrage. There’s still a mountain of outrage. That is absolutely probably the most – no. I’m gonna say that is absolutely the most controversial decision the IAU has ever made.

Pamela:                        And I think everyone is unified in believing that the current definition of what a planet is is actually a really bad definition. But it’s better than nothing. And – uh, yeah.

Fraser:                         Yeah. It’s the – what is it? All definitions are bad and this is just the least worst?

Pamela:                        That is indeed the case. That is indeed the case.

Fraser:                         So, what are some ideas or some concerns that astronomers that are thinking about now for upcoming meetings that we should be aware of and be prepared for?

Pamela:                        As strange as it may sound, and probably it’s not strange to anyone who’s been paying attention to Twitter lately, equity and inclusion and supporting a diversity of voices in astronomy is one of the continuing top topics for discussion. Other things just sort of chew along, gradually evolving with time, where we see slow and gradual refinement in our understanding of coordinate systems; the periodic nailing down of radio coordinates to optical coordinates.

Slow and gradual change is how science is done. But social change often occurs in stair steps. And it is getting recognized more and more that the sometimes flagrant bias and sometimes the unconscious bias in decision makers across the world has led to, well, a very grey/white community, even when it’s an international community.

That is something that folks are working really hard to change. When you couple the idea of we’re going to use astronomy for development, we’re going to recognize that when we start building telescopes in the darkest, most remote parts of the world we’re often also building telescopes in places that have almost no advantages; where running water, electricity, and Internet are just not everyday occurrences. And we can leverage our telescope facilities to change communities. Then once we’ve made that change, it’s not enough to just run high speed Internet up to the observatory and wave at the local community and say, “Hahaha! We have Internet and you don’t.” You have to go into the community and make change. Then once you’ve done that and you have that first child of color in the local community saying, “Hey. I wanna do what they do up on the mountain,” you have to make space for those people. You have to make them feel welcome.

The fact that the University of Hawaii doesn’t really have a growing population of native Hawaiians going into astronomy, despite it being one of the best facilities in the world, says we’re screwing up and acknowledging –

Fraser:                         And the skies. Anybody growing up there has access to these amazing dark skies, wide open skies. You would think that that would be a place that you would be more connected to the facilities. It would be like – we have a lot of hockey players here in Canada because we have a lot of snow and we have a lot of ice. Hawaii’s got a lot of telescopes and so you would think that more Hawaiians would be able to be connected to that as a career, be part of that. It’s too bad. And you sort of see that again and again. I think you’re exactly right.

We’ve reached the end of our time, so was there anything?

Pamela:                        I want to end by pointing out that for this 100th celebration of IAU, #100IAU –

Fraser:                         What’s happening? What’s the party there?

Pamela:                        There are global celebrations going on around the world with real world and virtual activities you can get involved in. One of the things that everyone needs to be paying attention to right now is it is global astronomy month, run by Astronomers Without Borders. Go check out their website and find out how you can get involved in watching movies, being part of major events, and just celebrating that it is one world and one sky that we all, well, we happen to share. So, get out and share the sky, people.

Fraser:                         Awesome. Thanks, Pamela.

Pamela:                        Wait! Wait! One more thing!

Fraser:                         One more – oh, yeah, names!

Pamela:                        Names! We have to read the names. This is something that we are continuing to struggle to remember to do. You, out there, all of you, you are what keeps us going. We love the download numbers. The download numbers especially help make our advertisers happy. But we’d really like to get rid of our beloved advertisers.

Fraser:                         Don’t tell them. No, no.

Pamela:                        While Away Luggage is going to be my favorite suitcase forever, I’d rather that we didn’t have to add ads to our show. So, to all of you that have already joined us on Patreon you are our heroes; you are paying Susie’s salary. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. To the rest of you, please consider joining us at patreon.com/astronomycast. I would like to thank by name a whole group of you. We are slowly working through a backlog of humans who need their names read. So, for today’s reading of the backlog we have Cooper. We have Margot Robinson. We have Joshua Person. We have William Andrews, Jeremy Kerwin, Iggy Hammock, Matt Williams, Bart Flaherty, Dana Nory, Dave Lackey, James Pauley, Terence Spence, Chris Shareharfer (I’m gonna go with), and Jack.

Fraser:                         I love listening. This is the best part, I think. I like to hear the names and I like to hear you say the names.

Pamela:                        Thank you all. Thank you. Just thank you.

Fraser:                         Thank you, everyone.

Female Speaker 1:      This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light, Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on demand and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information, visit them online at www.8thlight.com. Just remember, that’s www.the digit 8, T-H-L-I-G-H-T.com. Drop them a note. 8th Light – software is their craft.

Susie:                           Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by the Planetary Science Institute, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find shell notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomy Cast. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, 12:00 p.m. Pacific, or 1900 UTC. Our intro music was provided by David Joseph Wesley. The outro music is by Travis Searle and the show was edited by Susie Murph.

[End of Audio]


Duration: 36 minutes

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