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(Past) President’s Column: A Valediction

Monday, June 16, 2014 - 17:22

This is my valedictory column. It has been a distinct privilege and (most of the time) a pleasure to serve as President of the AAS. As it was 155 years ago, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....” I’ll start with the best.

The State of the Society is stronger than ever:

  • For five years in a row, we have closed the fiscal year with a slight positive balance; this is to be contrasted with the previous five years in which we were in the red every year, with a cumulative deficit of over $1M.
  • We have $13.5M in net assets to buffer us against future shocks, primarily against the uncertain winds of change in academic publishing.
  • We have an Executive Office staff of 20 remarkably dedicated and talented individuals who do the hard work of making sure the Society is always focused on our singular mission: to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe.
  • We have made a modest investment in the company that, over the past several years, has developed our state-of-the-art AV system for meetings. This investment promises major payoffs in the coming years that will allow us to hold down costs for members while enhancing the services we provide.
  • At its meeting in Boston, the Council approved an exciting new venture into the next generation of electronic books that promises both a new way of fulfilling our mission and another flow of income to the Society.

As a consequence of our robust financial condition, we have frozen dues for next year — thus, with the new option for a two-year renewal, you can lock in a constant rate for three straight years. Meeting registration costs will increase less than inflation, and for the third time in four years we will be lowering author publication charges for our journals — the highest-impact journals in our field that this year are likely to publish 50,000 pages of your work.

We support the strongest public-policy effort in the history of the AAS, guided by the Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy (CAPP), whose long-serving chair, Jack Burns, deserves our thanks as he steps down to assume his new role as your elected Vice-President. I am delighted to announce that my predecessor, Debbie Elmegreen, has agreed to assume the chair at CAPP; working with Joel Parriott and Josh Shiode in the AAS office, we can expect to continue to enhance our impact on public-policy matters of interest to all astronomers.

We have put in place a program of AAS Agents to act as the voice and the ears of the Society in departments, observatories, and institutes in order to communicate more effectively what the AAS can do for you, and to report back on how the AAS can improve what it offers. Indeed, already three of these agents have made four years of AAS membership a welcome gift to their incoming graduate students — the cost is split between the Society and their departments. This not only adds 30 new junior members to our rolls, but it also helps establish the AAS as an integral part of their professional lives, as it should be for all astronomers.

We represent your interests in Washington; we organize your meetings and publish your research; we provide support for your teaching, offer professional development, and assist in outreach to the general public who, after all, pays for much of what we do. As such, we deserve your participation and support.

Appeals to community aside, however, membership is a lucrative deal. You save more on one meeting registration than the cost of membership. You can save more from the member discount you receive each year on one published paper than you pay for membership. Attend one meeting every other year and publish one paper in our journals, and you actually make money! Despite this, many full-time professional astronomers and graduate students are not AAS members — so encourage your colleagues to join, and inculcate a commitment to the Society in your students. The individual benefits are worth it, and the benefits to our profession require it.

Dickens’s opening sentence in A Tale of Two Cities goes on “ was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” The latter characterizes Washington, DC, well. Members of Congress, and the public who first elect them and then scorn them, continue to rank federal investment in scientific research as a low priority, and we are all feeling the consequences. Despite this, there is some evidence of a hopeful spring: construction on the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is well advanced, the James Webb Space Telescope remains on budget and on schedule for a 2018 launch, the Kepler exoplanet-hunting satellite has a second life, the Jansky Very Large Array is expanding its capabilities monthly while the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s revolutionary impact is growing exponentially, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will begin construction next month, and we have rovers on Mars and a mission most of the way to Pluto. Many new discoveries will be made this year.

When I went to college, just detecting the cosmic microwave background (CMB) was a major technological breakthrough; now we are measuring CMB polarization at the level of one part in 107.

When I went to college, high redshift was 3C 273 (that’s z = 0.16). Today we detect galaxies at z > 8.

When our undergraduate members were born, we knew of precisely nine eight planets in the universe — now we infer a couple of hundred billion in the Milky Way alone.

The fractional expansion of our knowledge in the past 50 years has greatly exceeded the fractional expansion of the universe in that time, acceleration notwithstanding. The perspective our knowledge of the universe provides should be simultaneously humbling and inspiring. Unfortunately, humility and inspiration seem notably lacking in our public discourse.

That’s where our role as educators is required. The word education drives from the Latin root educare, educatus, which means to rear or bring up but is closely related to the Latin verb educere, which means not to stuff facts into and have them regurgitated on demand, but to open up and lead forth, that is, to open the mind to new intellectual and cultural perspectives and to lead forth to a lifetime of learning. Our body politic, and our fellow citizens, need a strong application of educere.

Late last month I was at an event sponsored by the Kavli Foundation in celebration of this year’s prizes. The foundation’s founder, Fred Kavli, died this year, and much of the event was a celebration of his life and his dedication to supporting science. As you may know, the Kavli Foundation presents awards in three areas: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience — as Fred dubbed them, the very large, the very small, and the very complex. The other main thrust of the foundation, however, is in science communication. Alan Alda, in recalling Fred’s life on an isolated farm in Norway, looking up at the Milky Way and the aurora and contemplating them in wonder, noted, “The power of wonder can make the world a different place.”

Never forget that — in talking to your children, to your airplane seat mate, to your Congressperson’s aide, and to your undergraduates. No area of human endeavor generates more humility, more inspiration, or more wonder than ours. Celebrate it, proselytize about it, enjoy it.

Eighteen months ago I awarded the Van Biesbroeck Prize to Meg Urry and characterized that act as “a” highlight of my presidency. I deliberately chose the indefinite article in anticipation of her election as my successor so that, upon handing her the ceremonial gavel at the 224th AAS meeting in Boston, I could say this was “the” highlight — and it was. I look forward to serving with her in my final year on the Executive Committee of the Society as Past President and, thereafter, to continuing working for the goal we all embrace: to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe.

David J. Helfand
Columbia University