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Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer & Director of Communications
American Astronomical Society

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, people have been calling Boston the “Hub of the Universe” since the 19th century. But it’ll be no joke when the AAS convenes its 224th meeting, 1-5 June 2014, at the Westin Copley Place in the city’s historic Back Bay district. Even without the AAS in town, the Greater Boston area occupies a key spot on the astronomical map thanks to its being home to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, Boston College, Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts, the Chandra X-ray Center, Sky & Telescope magazine, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, and several other institutions with cosmic connections. With so many astronomers already in the neighborhood, the Boston meeting promises to be a particularly dynamic gathering — all the more so because the AAS Solar Physics Division (SPD) and Laboratory Astrophysics Division (LAD) will be meeting with us.

If you can get to Boston the weekend before the main science program gets under way, you’ll have your choice of three hands-on workshops. Tune up your teaching skills with the Center for Astronomy Education’s popular Tier I Teaching Excellence Workshop for Current and Future Astronomy and Space Science Instructors, which runs all day Saturday and Sunday. Learn how your students can become your research partners with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s new Sunday-afternoon workshop, Citizen Science in the College Classroom. And get ready for your close-up with the first-ever AAS/National Radio Astronomy Observatory Media Training Workshop, also on Sunday afternoon.

Among the scientific highlights of the meeting are a baker’s dozen plenary presentations, featuring the Kavli lecture by cosmologist David Spergel (Princeton), the Pierce Prize lecture by quasar expert Nadia Zakamska (Johns Hopkins), and talks by the winners of the SPD Hale and Harvey prizes. Hundreds of contributed oral and poster presenters will share their latest ideas and discoveries across the full spectrum of astronomical topics. You can dive deeper into six subject areas via four special sessions (astronomy R&D using picosatellites, observational and theoretical aspects of the multiverse, long-time-domain astronomy, and assorted topics in astrostatistics) and two multisession Meeting-in-a-Meeting programs (gamma-ray constraints on the extragalactic background light and the intergalactic magnetic field, and planets beyond the reach of NASA’s Kepler mission).

Six LAD sessions, covering topics from particles to planets, explore the theme “Bridging Laboratory and Astrophysics.” Two more, convened jointly with SPD, are themed “Bridging Laboratory and Solar Plasma Studies.” SPD has organized no fewer than 14 of its own sessions on topics ranging from the solar interior to the corona and out into the heliosphere. There will also be several Town Hall meetings — always a big draw — where you can hear from, and provide feedback to, senior representatives from NASA, NSF, and the National Research Council’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Every June AAS conference includes the all-important Annual Business Meeting. In Boston we’ll have a changing of the guard as outgoing AAS president David Helfand surrenders the gavel to incoming president Meg Urry. We’ll also welcome other new officers and councilors, hear reports on the Society’s finances and operations, and have a chance to raise and comment on issues of concern to you personally and to the astronomical community more generally. This is also the time and place to propose candidates for the Society’s Nominating Committee, which in turn selects candidates for election as officers or councilors. There will be two vacancies on the Nominating Committee to be filled next year, and the Bylaws specify that we need at least twice that number of candidates to stand for election. Please think about colleagues whose experience and judgment you value, and, after obtaining their consent, come to Boston prepared to put their names forward.

Aside from the meeting itself, there’s lots to see and do in Boston and surrounding areas. The Museum of Fine Arts recently opened a new wing, and the Museum of Science has thoroughly renovated and modernized its planetarium. Symphony Hall is renowned worldwide for its fine acoustics. Enjoy the region’s legendary seafood; stop in at the oddly named but wildly popular Legal Sea Foods to sample a cup of the same “chowdah” served at presidential inaugurations. Walk the Freedom Trail past Paul Revere’s house (the city’s oldest building), sail a boat on the Charles River, or head to Boston Harbor to see the aquarium with its newly renovated main tank or to catch a whale-watching ship. Baseball fans will surely want to visit Fenway Park, the nation’s oldest ballpark and home of the reigning World Series champions (but note that the Red Sox leave for a road trip on June 1st after their Sunday-afternoon game against the Tampa Bay Rays).

You won’t want to miss all the astronomical hubbub in the Hub in early June. Visit our 224th-meeting pages for more information, to submit your abstract, and to register. See you in Boston!

Joshua H. Shiode
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Astronomical Society

We are looking at a potentially busy spring and summer for federal policies related to the astronomical sciences. In lieu of a deep dive into any one of the interesting policy issues on the horizon, I thought I would just lay out what we're likely to see and approximately when.

All three agencies that provide most of the federal funding for the astronomical sciences—NASA, NSF, and DOE Office of Science—are due for re-authorization this year. Well, that's not exactly right; they're more overdue (though a lapse in authorization does not necessarily imply anything about whether funds can be appropriated). In any case, authorizing legislation all these agencies will likely see some action in both the House and Senate in the coming months. These authorizing bills will define what each of the agencies is authorized to do (or forbidden from doing) and set what are effectively funding ceilings for various aspects of agency operations. The bills will not allocate (a.k.a. appropriate) any actual funds, but rather provide direction to appropriating committees and the agencies themselves.

Around this same time, we are expecting the release of the President's Budget Request (PBR) for FY 2015. This document, formulated over many months by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in consultation with federal agencies, sets forth the Administration's vision for the coming fiscal year's federal budget. The top-level information is scheduled for release on March 4th, with detailed information for the various agencies set for about a week later. The PBR will provide a reference point for the appropriations committees as they work to formulate the eventual spending plan for FY 2015, as they exercise Congress' "power of the purse." Nearly all signs point toward a return to the normal budget process for FY 2015, with appropriations committees working to proactively set discretionary spending levels across all agencies after receiving the PBR, instead of setting much of the government on effective autopilot with Continuing Resolutions (CRs).

Looking at the week ahead, there will be hearings in both authorizing and appropriating committees, and a National Science Board meeting that includes consideration of plans for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). I will work to provide updates on any developments stemming from these events on the blog and Twitter as these unfold. However, looking further out at the coming month and our participation in Congressional Visits Day, I'm hoping to work through a series of posts on the budget process as it unfolds. With the PBR on its way in early March, we'll begin with a few posts on how that document is formulated and the role it plays in the larger process.

Nancy D. Morrison
University of Toledo

The January 2014 issue of Status, the newsletter of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), is now available as 1.45-megabyte PDF from the CSWA website's Status page.

Contents:

  • The 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey, by A. Meredith Hughes
  • Why We Resist Unconscious Bias, by Meg Urry
  • NSF Support of Women in Academia Since 1982, by Nancy Morrison
  • Report on "NextGen VOICES Results: Work-Life Balance," by Johanna Teske
  • Fed Up with Sexual Harassment, by Dara Norman
Michael H. Moloney
National Research Council

Join the standing committees of the National Research Council (NRC) Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy as they convene to discuss issues and advances in their fields. NRC Space Science Week will take place at the National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 3-5 March 2014.

On the afternoon of 3 March, a plenary session will include an update on NASA Science Mission Directorate activities from NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld and presentations on international planning in space science by representatives of several international agencies. 

On the evening of 4 March, Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science and Physics at MIT and 2013 MacArthur Fellow, will give a public presentation on exoplanet science and the search for life beyond Earth.

For more information and a detailed agenda, please visit the National Academies webpage.

Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer & Director of Communications
American Astronomical Society

Larry Smarr, a physicist whose work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on calculating black-hole collisions led him to champion a federal commitment to dramatically enhance U.S. computing power — which in turn led to the development of NCSA Mosaic, the precursor to Web browsers — was named on 15 February as the first 2014 recipient of the Golden Goose Award.

The Golden Goose Award honors researchers whose federally funded research may not have seemed to have significant practical applications at the time it was conducted but has resulted in major economic or other benefits to society.

The announcement was made in Chicago today by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) during a symposium on the Golden Goose Award led by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Rep. Hultgren at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Smarr today is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

At Illinois in the 1980s, Dr. Smarr was conducting gravitational physics research focused on computing the dynamics of black holes in space. The work, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), required enormous computing power, which at the time was not readily available to academic researchers in the United States, although supercomputers were already being used in open European research labs. Realizing that the U.S. had fallen behind and that he and fellow researchers needed far greater computational power, Dr. Smarr led the first proposal to NSF arguing for the creation of a national supercomputing center housed in an academic setting. This set off a revolution in computational science in academia and industry that continues today.

Upon winning a peer-reviewed national competition he was named director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At NCSA Dr. Smarr created a software development group to support the application needs of researchers. Two members of that NCSA team, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, created Mosaic, the world’s first widely used graphical Web browser. The Web browsers computer users have used for two decades, such as Netscape, Internet Explorer, and Firefox, are descendants of Mosaic, and today virtually every consumer computing device that accesses information, from smartphones to televisions, from tablets to automobiles, contains a graphical Web browser.

Representative Cooper first proposed the Golden Goose Award when the late Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) was issuing the Golden Fleece Award to target wasteful federal spending and often targeted peer-reviewed science because it sounded odd. Rep. Cooper believed such an award was needed to counter the false impression that odd-sounding research was not useful.

In 2012 a coalition of business, university, and scientific organizations created the Golden Goose Award, which the AAS now cosponsors. Like the bipartisan group of members of Congress who support the Golden Goose Award, the founding organizations believe that federally funded basic scientific research is the cornerstone of American innovation and essential to our economic growth, health, global competitiveness, and national security. Award recipients are selected by a panel of respected scientists and university research leaders.

“The Golden Goose Award celebrates unexpected discoveries, and there’s no better example than the World Wide Web,” Rep. Cooper said. “The Web is one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments and is transforming our planet. Without the unanticipated consequences from Dr. Smarr’s research, we’d be trapped in an informational black hole. His success reminds us that we never know where science might lead.”

“Dr. Smarr’s work is a perfect example of why Congress must remain committed to basic scientific research,” Rep. Hultgren said. “It has been a focus of mine on the Science Committee to showcase these kinds of stories, and as the co-founder of the House Science and National Labs Caucus, it was an honor to announce this award for the work Dr. Smarr did in my home state. The idea for Illinois’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications was inspired by Dr. Smarr’s important questions about black holes but has demonstrated its usefulness in tackling many other scientific puzzles. As scientists continue gaining a better understanding of the universe, the technology and tools they use to get there are having broad and longstanding impacts throughout our society. Science that is ‘strange’ to Congress can lead to the next scientific breakthrough, and these scientific inquiries are vital for America to maintain its place as an innovative and exceptional nation.”

Dr. Smarr will receive his award at the third annual Golden Goose Awards ceremony in Washington, DC, on September 18, along with other awardees to be announced later this year.

— Adapted from a press release from the Association of American Universities. Read the full release (PDF).

Stephen T. Ridgway
NOAO

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will host a workshop on optimizing LSST deployment during the week of 11 August 2014; though the exact dates have not yet been decided, the length will be approximately two days. This workshop will be held in Tucson, Arizona, in coordination with the LSST Joint Technical Meeting during the same week, and attendees will be welcome at the JTM venue as well. For a description of the workshop motivation and notional plan, see the Observing Cadences Workshop homepage.

This meeting will be the first of several such workshops, held approximately every two years, or more frequently if needed, oriented toward broadening the scientific participation in developing the LSST scheduler and the optimization criteria for its observing cadence. The focus of this workshop will be science-­driven cadence merit functions.

Future workshops will evaluate cadences from candidate scheduling algorithms and dithering strategies, will work on the approaches to establishing cadence requirements with respect to merit functions, and will work on the optimization of the scheduler.

In order to help us scale the facilities and the program, persons who would like to participate in the August 2014 workshop are requested to communicate their interest by 15 March 2014 by email.