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President’s Column: A New Year’s Perspective

Thursday, January 2, 2014 - 12:26

Welcome — to 2014 and, for about half of you, to Washington, DC, for the 223rd meeting of your Society. While final numbers won’t be known for a few days, it looks like we’ll have well over 3,000 attendees, making this one of the largest gatherings of astronomers in the history of the planet. Our vice-presidents have worked incredibly hard to squeeze in as much exciting science as possible, with a record number of plenary talks, town halls, workshops, and special sessions. Full-immersion astronomy will be the order of the week. 

Speaking of large meetings, we hope to break the astronomical attendance record in August 2015 in Hawaii when we play host to the International Astronomical Union’s 29th triennial General Assembly. The US has hosted the IAU GA only three time in 93 years, so it is unlikely to be a domestic conference again for decades. The formats of recent GAs have been much more science-intensive than in the past, and the program for 2015, which is taking shape as I write, promises a delectable smorgasbord covering virtually every area of astronomy. So if you are planning your meeting schedule over the next couple of years, be sure to consider 12 days in Hawaii in August 2015 to help celebrate the fundamentally international nature of our discipline.

Returning to more parochial concerns, a fleeting outbreak of rational bipartisanship occurred in Washington this past month concerning the national budget for the next two years. While this is to be welcomed, in that it is likely to eliminate the craziness of last October for the foreseeable future, it is clear that we must continue to advocate vigorously for federal investment in research if astronomy is to thrive. The American Physical Society is leading an effort to launch a new initiative called “Science Counts,” designed to appeal directly to voters in congressional districts around the country so that they consider the importance of support for federal research when electing their representatives. This effort is born out of the conviction that the scientific community’s traditional position of simply asserting that federally funded research is in the national interest is no longer effective and that radical new ideas are called for. Whether or not this new initiative will work is an empirical question, but with a number of significant donors apparently interested in supporting the effort, it seems worth a try.

In all of our efforts to persuade our fellow citizens and their elected representatives that support for scientific research is important, we must always be cognizant of the fact that a broad message is the most effective message, while a narrowly targeted message arguing for more of one discipline at the expense of other disciplines is damaging to all of science. In the last few months, we have repeatedly been told by John Grunsfeld at NASA, by Jim Ulvestad at NSF, by congressional staffers, and by our Society’s own experts in public policy — Joel Parriott, Kevin Marvel, and Josh Shiode — that shooting inward at each other, or even tangentially at other areas of science, is a losing proposition. And in the current climate, we simply cannot afford any losing propositions.

In this spirit, we are taking advantage of our presence in Washington to hold an event on Capitol Hill to make sure our representatives and their aides get to share in the excitement of all our science. Indeed, sharing our excitement is critical to our future. And the broad message we deliver is perhaps best exemplified by an exchange that took place 45 years ago between Rhode Island Senator John Pastore and Dr. Robert R. Wilson, the founding director of Fermilab. In his testimony before the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, which was debating authorization for the construction of Fermilab, Senator Pastore (a supporter of the project) asked Dr. Wilson, “Is there anything connected...[with] this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?”

Dr. Wilson replied, “No, sir; I do not believe so.” But then, after a brief exchange to establish this concept firmly in the committee’s mind, Dr. Wilson added, “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

The political climate in Washington these days may be quite different from that in the 1960s, but I strongly believe that we must cleave to this fundamental truth. Certainly, there are spinoffs from our research that directly or indirectly benefit our society (and, indeed, Dr. Wilson went on to say as much about Fermilab and particle physics research in his testimony), but none of these is as important as the fact that we pursue our science because, as Dr. Wilson claimed, “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.”

We contribute in a significant way to what makes the country — and the world of science — worth defending. And that should be our primary message.

I just finished teaching a class of first-year university students about extrasolar planets. When these kids were born, we knew of no planets beyond the eight (then, misguidedly, nine, I suppose) in our own solar system. Now we know of thousands — and confidently surmise that there are tens of billions more in the Milky Way alone. Our rate of technological progress is impressive; the rate at which scientific understanding increases is astounding.

Yet it is the perspective that our progress brings to society that is our most profound contribution. Christiaan Huygens, the great Dutch polymath and rival of Isaac Newton, was even more eloquent than Dr. Wilson when he summarized the astounding astronomical progress of the 17th century with these words: “How vast those orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the Theatre upon which all our mighty Designs, all our Navigations, and all our Wars are transacted, is when compared to them. A very fit consideration, and matter of Reflection, for those Kings and Princes who sacrifice the Lives of so many People, only to flatter their Ambition of being Masters of some pitiful corner of this small Spot” (from Cosmotheoros: Conjectures Concerning the Planetary Worlds, and Their inhabitants, 1698).

With best wishes for a peaceful, prosperous, and productive new year that will bring new understanding of — and, as importantly, new perspectives on — the cosmos, I remain,

Sincerely yours,


David J. Helfand
Columbia University
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