Participants at the 98th Executive Committee meeting of the IAU in Mexico City, May 2016. Left to right: Yihua Yan (China), John Hearnshaw (NZ), Ajit Kembhavi (India), Maria Rosaria Dantonio (Italy; in IAU Secretariat, Paris), Nader Haghighipour (Hawaii, USA), Dina Prialnik (Israel), Pierto Ubertini (Italy), Silvia Torres (President IAU, Mexico), Anne Lemaitre (Belgium), Corinne Charbonnel (Geneva Switzerland, originally from France), Renee Kran-Korteweg (South Africa, originally from the Netherlands), Piero Benvenuti (General Secretary, Italy), Boris Shustov (Russia), Teresa Lago (Assistant General Secretary, Portugal), Ewine van Dishoeck (President-Elect, Netherlands), Claus Leitherer (USA, originally from Germany), Bruce Elmegreen (USA), Debra Elmegreen (USA). Missing from photo Xiaowei Lui (China). Photo Bruce Elmegreen

I am currently in Mexico City where I have been participating in the 98th Executive Committee (EC) meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). For those unfamiliar with the IAU, it is the world-wide organization for professional astronomers, with about 10,300 active members in 73 countries which are in turn national members of the Union. A few more individual members are from countries that do not adhere to the IAU.

The EC comprises nine members, including the President, Silvia Torres who is from Mexico, a General Secretary (Piero Benvenuti, from Italy) and Assistant General Secretary and half a dozen vice-presidents. The IAU has recently been restructured into nine divisions, each with its own president and steering committee. In my case I am president of IAU Division C for Education, Outreach and Heritage. In fact Division C also deals with the history of astronomy. The nine division presidents were also invited to participate in the EC98 meeting, making 18 people to sit round the board table (although one of the 9 Division Presidents was incapacitated at last minute and couldn’t attend).

IAU Division presidents in Mexico City. Left to right: Nader Haghighipour (USA, Planetary systems and bioastronomy), John Hearnshaw (NZ, Education, Outreach and Heritage), Yihua Yan (China, Sun and heliosphere), Anne Lemaitre (Belgium, Fundamental astronomy), Claus Leitherer (USA, Galaxies and cosmology), Corinne Charbonnel (Switzerland, Stars and stellar physics), Bruce Elmegreen (USA, Interstellar matter and the local universe), Pietro Ubertini (Italy, Facilities, technologies and data). Absent was Chryssa Kouveliotou (USA, High energy astrophysics and fundamental physics). Photo Bruce Elmegreen

It was a fascinating experience to delve into the inner workings of the IAU. The topics discussed were the work of the divisions, the proposals for IAU Symposia to be held in 2017 (nine were selected from 33 applications), the formation and approval of working groups, which are set up by division presidents to tackle a huge variety of tasks within each division. The IAU operates in addition to the divisions, three offices with special funding and professional staff. They are the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) in Cape Town (promoting astronomy in developing countries), the Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO) in Tokyo, which coordinates outreach activities of astronomy for the public, and the Office for Young Astronomers (OYA) in Oslo, which runs one or two three-week long schools for young astronomers, generally graduate students, every year and usually in developing countries. This year’s International School for Young Astronomers (ISYA) will be in Tehran in September. As President of Division C, I have an oversight role for all three offices of the IAU. Of course the EC also discussed topics such as finance and the IAU budget, and a major subject was preparations for the next General Assembly of the IAU, to be held in Vienna in August 2018. It will be an important General Assembly as the IAU will be nearly 100 years old then (it was formed in 1919), so plans for a major celebration of the centenary are being made. About 2500 to 3000 astronomers are expected to converge on Vienna in just over two years’ time.

So all these meetings were going on over three days. In a sense the meetings of the Council of RASNZ, also held face-to-face once a year, are a little bit like the IAU EC meetings. The same sorts of issues come up, funding, work of the divisions (or sections as we call them in RASNZ), and so on; it’s just that the IAU is an organization some 50 times larger than RASNZ, so the issues are inevitably a lot more complex, especially as the IAU has to embrace so many different national cultures. Fortunately (for me at least) all the discussions are held in English, the international language of science.

Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, which lies about 60 km NE of Mexico City (photo John Hearnshaw).

Although we had three solid days of meetings, two further days were devoted to cultural tours in Mexico City, included one to the amazing Teotihuacán pyramids, the site of an ancient city that thrived from 100 BC to 750 AD and occupied by about 200,000 people of uncertain ethnicity. It is a truly extraordinary place.

And we also had two amazing banquets in two of Mexico City’s top restaurants, hosted by the IAU President Silvia Torres and by the Director of the Mexican Institute of Astronomy, Jesús González. So all this was an amazing experience; unfortunately for me the excitement of Mexico was somewhat tempered by developing a tooth infection necessitating two visits to a private hospital for dental treatment. That’s another story - all I will say is that Mexico’s top private hospital was an amazing place equipped with all the latest gadgetry for medical interventions.

I am looking forward now to the Napier conference of RASNZ, when I will hand over the presidency of the Society to the able hands of John Drummond of Gisborne. It has been a pleasure to serve the Society for the last two years as your president.

John Hearnshaw
8 May 2016 Ciudad de México
(9 May in NZ)