Communicating Astronomy with the Public 2010 - Day 1 (2010 Mar 15)
The first day of the "Communicating Astronomy with the Public 2010" conference (organised by IAU Commission 55) is over.
My day started with an ultra-early wake-up alarm followed by the long commute to Cape Town with a stop to pick up Ed Foster, partner-in-crime. We made it to the Ritz Hotel in Sea Point with minutes to spare.
I was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces from last week's "Astronomy 101" school and wasn't disappointed. It also seemed as if the entire SAAO was there, and in a short order I ran into Shireen, Cedric, Veronique and Ian. And sitting around a corner was Chris de Coning, in charge of the Sutherland visit next week. And so on. And of course, many new faces.
Proceedings started promptly with a welcome from energetic Kevin Govender, followed by an introductory talk by Prof Phil Charles (again Director of the SAAO).
An administrative report from Commission 55 chief Ian Robson (UK) was the last of the formalities.
Robson noted that six working groups within the Commission would be active for the next three years: the Washington Charter (Dennis Crabtree - Canada), Virtual Astronomy Multimedia Project (Robert Hurt - USA), Communicating Astronomy Journal (Pedro Russo - Portugal), New Media (Pamela Gay and Lars Lindberg Christensen), CAP Conferences (Ian Robson - UK) and ProAm collaboration (details to be decided).
Then it was over to the delightful Pedro Russo ("Before, Behind and Beyond the IYA 2009"). Russo gave a preliminary summary of the behind-the-scenes running of the IYA, which provided much food for thought. He noted, for example, that the recipe for a successful IYA included as main ingredient a comprehensive communication plan, and stressed the importance of communicating swiftly and frequently. The IYA offices issued 29 press releases, 229 news features, 756 news updates, 133 weekly newsletters, and compiled six infopacks.
The total IYA budget was estimated at around 10.5 million Euro, and 18,595 activities were reported world-wide, reaching just over 80 million people.
Discussing what would happen with the various corner stone projects and other initiatives now that IYA 2009 was done, Russo noted that seven of these efforts would continue in 2010: "Portal to the Universe", ""From Earth to the Universe", "She is an astronomer", "Galileo Teacher's Training Programme", "Universe Awareness", "Astronomy and World Heritage", and "Dark Skies Awareness".
The "Galileoscope" project has been turned into a commercial enterprise, and the "Cosmic Diary" will be issued in book-form. The spirit of "100 Hours of Astronomy" will live on as "Global Astronomy Month: April 2010", while the work of the "Developing Astronomy Globally" project will be included in the efforts by the IAU Office for Astronomy Development.
Next up was Dr Nicola Loaring ("SAAO and IYA 2009, lessons and legacy") with local news.
She detailed the valiant, mostly volunteer, effort by SAAO astronomers and staff to contribute to the year's events. Two effects she illustrated was the increase in the number of visitors to SAAO Open Nights (three-fold increase over 2008), and greater media activity (four-fold increase in the number of brief news articles, and twice the number of radio interviews, compared with 2008).
She also noted that a staff survey showed that at least 1,085 volunteered hours were devoted to IYA activities
Discussing shortcomings of the SAAO effort she noted that the Open Nights do not reach disadvantaged audiences: this problem would be addressed in 2010 by presenting occasional mobile open nights/afternoons in township areas, addressing the needs of disabled learners, and catering for children in hospital.
Following the coffee break, Dr Slyvia Torres-Peimbert spoke on "IYA 2009 in Mexico".
The main activities they embarked on were: participating in global star parties, "Astronomy Fair", Dark Skies Protection, astronomical exhibits, public lectures, contests, festivals, publications and astronomy meetings, activities for children, and the media (radio, TV, internet, Cosmowiki). In addition - and a totally delightful initiative - was a programme to have a number of schools named after astronomers! Prominent Mexican astronomers (alive and deceased) were honoured in this way - as was Carl Sagan (of course).
She also noted that the "Reto Mexico" initiative saw more than 3,000 telescopes deployed at 41 sites throughout Mexico. Unfortunately, inclement weather was experienced by most sites - so that "only" 1,178 telescopes were operational. This was more than enough, however, to secure them a Guinness World Record ("for the most people stargazing ... achieved by the country of Mexico on 24 October 2009").
The fifth presentation was by Augusto Damineli (IAGUSP) who spoke modestly on "IYA 2009 in Brazil - past and future".
Damineli noted that over 6,000 events were held in Brazil, reaching 2.2 million people, and some 1,872 volunteers were involved in the work of the various local nodes. The official Brazilian website enjoyed about 593,000 visits during the year.
The Japanese effort was summarised by a familiar face to SAAO: Dr Kaz Sekiguchi (Nat.Astro.Obs.Japan).
Sekiguchi spoke on "Evaluations and future plans of IYA 2009 activities in Japan", noting that 2,888 events were officially recognized by the IYA2009 Japan Committee. Some 840 organizers were involved in these projects. Star gazing events accounted for 40% of all the activities, with planetarium presentations ranked second at 17%. Lectures and workshops accounted for 11% each, while 10% of the events were organized around the solar eclipse.
The role of the official Committee was assessed; significantly, the organisers felt that such "official endorsement" helped them to advertise the events, gave an authority to the events, helped them feel united, and provided motivation and confidence. Asked what these volunteers would need to continue their activities beyond IYA, 70% felt that a unifying logo was needed, some 65% felt that a website was necessary, just under 60% considered the official endorsement important, while less than 40% thought that sponsorship was required. How different things are in ZA!
Speaking of which, I was astonished to learn that there are about 300 planteria in Japan (ZA has TWO!) and that some 5 million people visit them in a year!
The last presentation for the morning was by Dr Montse Villar Martin (Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia), succinctly titled "IYA 2009 in Spain".
She noted that more than 3,100 activities were presented during the Year, which was three times more than the number of events fielded during the recent highly-regarded Year of Science. The Spanish IYA 2009 network consisted of 141 organizations with a further 58 collaborating groups. Upward of 1,500 items were prepared for the Spanish digital press, which represents a three-fold increase on the previous best efforts. Over 10 million people were reached by IYA 2009 in Spain.
She noted also the particular role of amateur astronomers, who took part in five "star festivals" involving nearly 80 amateur societies. Some 50,000 people were given the opportunity to look through a telescope, she summarised.
Furthermore, some 650 schools (1,000 teachers and 10,000 students) took part in a "Do you want to measure the Earth's radius?" project.
Then is was time for lunch, followed by a pool-side coffee and a view of Signal Hill.
After lunch, Connie Walker (NOAO, USA) spoke on "Communicating Dark Skies Awareness with the Public".
She gave a comprehensive overview of their efforts to create awareness of this most important issue; I was particularly intrigued by the Educator's Kit they have assembled - exactly the kind of thing we need for our own outreach efforts. More about their programs at
Next up was the engaging Dr Stefano Sandrelli (Brera Astro.Obs., Milan) with the challenging "The universe inside: A project of astronomy for professional artists."
He described a join effort between the Observatory and the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, eliciting "an intense dialogue about Science and Arts."
This is a presentation best seen and not read about, so I won't even try.
The multi-talented Jose Francisco Salgado (Adler Planetarium, USA) conducted the next part, speaking on "The Planets and Pictures World Tour", very much a presentation to be listened to and not read about.
Salgado described his efforts at communicating astronomy to concertgoers world-wide by combining imagery with classical music works.
The charming Nuno Gomes (ESO, Germany) spoke on the "GalileoMobile Project" - "an itinerant educational project, with both a scientific and cultural aspect, that helped to bring the International Year of Astronomy to Chile, Bolivia and Peru."
Their group of 'Galileros' spent almost two months travelling in two vans, equipped with telescopes and educational material, visiting many schools across the three nations. The material they developed was based on six categories: basic astronomy, basic physics, solar system, stars, galaxies, and telescopes & Galileo.
The dozenth presentation was by Anthony Lelliot (Wits), on "Communicating Astronomy Education Research".
He presented an overview of several decades of research, from which the following advice to communicators can be distilled: run themed innovative experiences in astronomy for visitors; use physical (and virtual) scale models; help people to interpret what book diagrams and internet images represent; run short courses for teachers; and disseminate best practices.
Further details can be found in "Big ideas: A review of astronomy education research", available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500690903214546.
The fabulous Dr Marek Kukula (Public Astronomer, Royal Obs., Greenwich) stirred things up with "The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: Pioneering new audiences for IYA and beyond".
The ROG (as they call it) attracts 1.3 million visitors each year, and was recognized as the number-one tourist destination in London last year. Good God!
They present school workshops, observing sessions, public talks and courses, planetarium shows, astronomy displays and exhibitions, and provide astronomy expertise for the media. Oh, and they have this east-west dividing line the folks also want to see. (Ed wondered what the French think about being consigned to the east?) Now this is outreach, folks.
The ROG has recently (Jan 13) launched the "Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2010".The closing date is July 16, and the resulting exhibition opens September 10. For the details hurry on over to www.nmm.ac.uk/astrophotojoinin.
As if that's not enough, they also have "Solar Stormwatch", a 'citizen science project to detect coronal mass ejections using images from NASA's STEREO spacecraft.' Up your research cred at www.solarstormwatch.com.
I think I'll go and dismantle my SIDS monitor now.
The final presentation for the day, "IYA 2009 in Armenia", was given by Dr Areg Mickaelian (Byurakan Astrophysical Obs, Armenia).
To a deep sky observer, Armenia is well-known: "Byurakan", "Ambartsumian" and "Markarian" roll off the tongue with ease. Mickaelian noted, however, that within Armenia, astronomy was not particularly prominent in the public eye. He described professional and amateur projects that changed this awareness during IYA, noting the important role that amateurs, organized as the Armenian Astronomical Society (ArAS), played in these efforts.
With the business of the day dealt with, it was time to prepare for the Welcome Reception, a braai at the SAAO. Ed and I headed off to Camp's Bay for the hell of it, then stopped at Limnos for cheese cake and americano. The cheese cake was dry - meh.
At the SAAO, the party was in full swing. Or so I thought (see the video clip below). The auditorium was full and tables overflowed onto the patio and then the lawn.
The festive atmosphere was intoxicating and continued in this fashion for a while longer while we waited for the guest of honour, the deputy minister of Science and Technology.
On the arrival of the deputy minister, MC Kevin called us to order for the deputy minister's speech, which was eloquent and ended on a SKA-positive note.
A brief prize giving ceremony, hosted by celebrity astronomer Pedro Russo, followed, honouring outstanding contributions made by individuals towards IYA 2009.
It was at this point that all decorum was sloughed off. Kevin announced that everyone would be receiving an authentic South African gift to remind them of their visit to our country. A first-aid kit, I thought? Perhaps an eleven-language dictionary? Or a copy of the rugby-football rules? No wait, a braai recipe collection.
Instead, a band of assistants, a motley crue one could say, led by Dr Patricia Whitelock, traipsed in with bags of vuvuzelas and handed them out.
If you don't know what a vuvuzela is, or what happens when you get one, watch the video.
Watch on YouTube: They are Vuvuzela Players
nothing more to see. please move along.