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AAS 223: A Stimulus Package for Astronomy in the Nation’s Capital

Monday, September 30, 2013 - 00:00

If you ask most people what big event occurs in Washington, DC, every four years, they’ll probably say the presidential inaugural. For astronomers, though, the answer is the return of the AAS winter meeting — the “Super Bowl of Astronomy” — to the nation’s capital. Every quadrennial DC meeting seems to set an attendance record, and during the last one in 2010 it became clear that we’d outgrown the Marriott Wardman Park north of Dupont Circle. The 223rd AAS meeting, 5-9 January 2014, will be held in a new venue: the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. Set on 350 premium acres along the Potomac River with lovely views of downtown DC and Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, the Gaylord is accompanied by more than 70 shops and restaurants (with more on the way) and is just a 15-minute taxi ride from the capital. Of special note, rooms in the AAS block at the main hotel, operated by Marriott, are being offered to all attendees at the prevailing government rate.

This will be a joint meeting of the AAS and its High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) and Historical Astronomy Division (HAD). Not surprisingly, the program is absolutely jam-packed. By now all AAS members surely know that education and career workshops are offered on the weekend preceding the official start of the conference, but even regular attendees will be surprised at the unprecedented number and variety being offered in DC in January. Among them are the second annual AAS Astronomy Ambassadors Workshop for early-career members seeking resources and techniques for effective outreach to K-12 students, families, and the public and the Center for Astronomy Education’s increasingly popular Tier I Teaching Excellence Workshop for current and future astronomy and space-science instructors eager to ensure their effectiveness in the classroom.

New this year, thanks to a partnership with the National Geographic Society, is our first AAS/NGS Science Communication Workshop focusing on practical techniques for sharing the excitement, wonder, and value of astronomy with nonscientists. Other weekend workshops include Introduction to Python; Leadership and Teambuilding for Astronomers; Managing, Sharing, and Archiving Your Data; Re-Numerate: Restoring Essential Numerical Skills; and Dark Skies & Energy Kits for Classrooms & Outreach.

The HAD meeting kicks off on Sunday afternoon with two sessions: Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing in the Universe? and From Barnard’s Star to the Kepler Mission: Searching for Low Mass Companions to Stars. These will be followed by the undergraduate orientation, which attracts an impressive horde of college students interested in learning about their options for summer internships and graduate school in astronomy, and the opening reception, where you can reunite with friends and colleagues, share a laugh over a beer, and eat your fill from our lavish buffet.

Science sessions get under way on Monday morning with the Kavli Lecture by Robert Williams (STScI) on the legacy of the Hubble Deep Field. That’s just the first of a stellar lineup of at least 18 plenary talks by AAS prize winners and other distinguished astronomers, including Armin Rest (STScI) on what we can learn from supernova light echoes, Rosemary Wyse (Johns Hopkins) on spiral-galaxy disks, Tim de Zeeuw (ESO) on the future of the European Southern Observatory — which just celebrated its 50th anniversary — and Alyssa Goodman (CfA) on the emerging field of astroinformatics. Sarah Dodson-Robinson (JHU) will give her Cannon Award talk on the formation of planetary systems; HEAD Rossi Prize winners Alice Harding (NASA Goddard) and Roger W. Romani (Stanford) will summarize our understanding of gamma-ray pulsars; and AAS/AIP Heineman Prize winner Rachel Somerville (Rutgers) and Russell lecturer Ken Freeman (ANU) and will describe the latest thinking on galaxy formation, structure, and evolution.

Freeman will also give his Russell lecture to the Royal Astronomical Society in June, as part of a new exchange program between the RAS and the AAS. The RAS’s 2013 Gold Medal winner in astronomy, Roger Blandford (Stanford/SLAC), will address the AAS on Wednesday evening during the DC meeting. Known widely in our community as chair of the Astro2010 decadal survey, Blandford was cited by the RAS as “the outstanding all-round theoretical astrophysicist of his generation.” He has made seminal contributions in so many areas — the nature of cosmic jets, relativistic effects in neutron stars and black holes, gravitational lensing, and more — that his evening plenary presentation is sure to be riveting.

We’ll also hear from two astronomers renowned for their success in sharing astronomy, and science more generally, with the public. Ed Krupp (Griffith Observatory) will give the Gemant Award lecture after being presented with AIP’s annual prize for contributions to the cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics. And Neil deGrasse Tyson (AMNH), host of the forthcoming Cosmos reboot on Fox-TV and National Geographic Channel, will present “Tales from the Twitterverse, and Other Media Excursions,” a Monday-evening talk that will be open to the public. (Let’s hope that not all of Neil’s Twitter followers show up — the Gaylord is big, but not big enough to accommodate 1.4 million people!) The plenaries won’t wind down until late Thursday afternoon, when James Lemen (Lockheed Martin) accepts the Berkeley Prize and shares some of the amazing images coming from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

HEAD convenes two special sessions on Monday — News from the Galactic Center: A Multiwavelength Update on the Sgr A*/G2 Encounter, and Consistent Cluster Cosmology: What Are Planck, Sunyaev-Zel’dovich Telescopes, and X-ray Observations Telling Us? Dozens more special sessions occur throughout the week, focusing on topics as diverse as education, the demographics of our profession, how to handle “big data,” present and future sky surveys, next-generation space-astronomy missions, and key problems in understanding planetary systems, stars, galaxies, and the structure and evolution of the universe itself.

The DC meeting will feature a record number of public-policy and other types of Town Halls, most during the daily lunch break and some in the evening. Representatives from NSF, NASA, and the NRC will lead discussions about federal funding for the astronomical sciences and the effects of the ongoing battles between and within the White House and Congress. A Q&A session with IAU general secretary Thierry Montmerle will help you prepare for the next IAU general assembly, which the U.S. is hosting and the AAS is organizing in Honolulu in August 2015. The directors of NOAO and NRAO will provide status reports on our national optical and radio astronomy observatories, and the directors of the Thirty Meter Telescope and Giant Magellan Telescope will describe progress on these next-generation optical behemoths. Not to leave out telescopes in space, there will be Town Hall discussions on Kepler, Hubble, and the James Webb Space Telescope too.

As is always the case when we meet in the U.S. political center of gravity, we’ll give special emphasis to public policy. In addition to the policy-related Town Hall sessions, we’ll hear a special plenary address from a high-ranking official involved in science funding and science policy.

In addition to all of that, the 223rd AAS meeting will feature more than 1,000 research contributed oral and poster presentations, about 150 dissertation talks from new PhD’s, a wide assortment of history and education papers, as well as contributed oral and poster papers to accompany the HEAD and HAD special sessions. We’ve been accepting abstracts since August; the regular abstract deadline is 1 October, and late abstracts (for posters to be displayed on Thursday, 9 January) will be accepted until 1 December.

We’ve also arranged an exclusive AAS tour to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; transportation will be provided. GSFC is the nation’s largest organization of scientists, engineers, and technologists who build spacecraft, instruments, and new technology to study the Earth, the Sun, our solar system, and the universe. During this tour, which you can take on Thursday morning or afternoon, 9 January, you’ll get an overview of Goddard’s current projects from senior NASA managers and scientists, experience “Science on a Sphere,” visit the spacecraft integration and testing facility, and watch the James Webb Space Telescope being built in the world’s largest cleanroom.

In addition to a new venue, our January 2014 meeting will feature a new event: an open-mic night for members to share their musical and other talents with friends and colleagues. Held on Tuesday evening, the spectacle will feature musicians, singers, storytellers, comedians, poets, jugglers, and other performers drawn from our community. It’s not a competition — just a chance to have some fun and strut your stuff (to sign up, use our online form). Cocktails, wine, and beer will be available for purchase at the show.

We look forward to welcoming thousands of AAS members to National Harbor to enjoy everything you’ve come to love about our quadrennial DC meeting along with the many amenities offered by our new setting, from its 19-story glass atrium overlooking the Potomac River to its award-winning service, dining, shopping, entertainment, and more — all in one convenient location and much of it under one roof. Register to attend today!

Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer
American Astronomical Society (AAS)
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