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Galileo's House (credit: Travlr)

Galileo's House (credit: Travlr)

It is January 10, 2010, and IYA is coming to a close.

I’m am currently sitting in the Palazzo Bo in Padau (Padova), Italy. I am here for the IYA2009 closing ceremony. It has been a long journey getting here. The idea of the IYA2009 originated form Franco Pacini in 2002, and in 2003, at the Sydney General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a resolution was adopted to make 2009 our year to share astronomy with the world. It was to be fit within the UN Millennium goals, and we were to help educate the world in science. In 2005, our UNESCO endorsed our cause, and at the 2006 Prague General Assembly meeting of the IAU, in between sessions stripping Pluto of its Planethood, a group of determined individuals set about defining what the IYA2009 would look like. By March of 2007, a set of international goals – cornerstone projects and needed task groups – had been defined, and in December of that 2007, the United Nations endorsed an Italian lead resolution to for IYA2009, with Japan seconding the resolution.

My own involvement beginning in March 2007, when I was asked to chair the US New Media working group – a team that eventually grew into the international New Media Task Group. Scattered throughout this room are the chairs of cornerstone projects, the single points of contact (SPOCs) for many nations, and other project and task group leaders like myself. We’ve traveled from around the world to sit here, in this town Galileo lived in, so that we can celebrate what we’ve accomplished (and to perhaps sigh in relief that the hard parts are now behind us).

The timing of IYA – 2009 – was tied to the 400th anniversary of Galileo using the telescope to make astronomical observations. This town was Galileo’s home, and his house is still here waiting to be explored. I found it quite by accident this morning as I wandered a bit lost through the winding allies of the Padau city center. While trying to figure out where I was, I paused in an intersection of too many narrow roads and started reading signs in a language I don’t understand, hoping some set of words would match something somewhere on my map. While I wasn’t able to figure out where I was, I did find a lone sign reading “Casa Galileo Galilei” with an arrow. With a few hours to spare and no better indication of what direction to head in, I took off down the side street. Galileo’s house bares a rather unimpressive white facade and no street level plaque or other markings. I would have missed it entirely had a second little sign not pointed randomly at the side of this otherwise bland building. I guess in a country that seen so many millennia of history, one scientist’s house isn’t all that important to memorialize.

A bit more walking later I was able to find myself and find the opening ceremony, and now I am in the room where Galileo gave his lectures at Padau University for 8 years. The room is packed, and yet I can feel the electric heater still struggling to work to warm this high ceilinged space against the chill of this January day. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like 400 years ago. Smoke from candles and/or oil lamps would have filled the room and students would have sat bundled against the cold with no electric heaters to warm them. Like us, the students may have found themselves on wooden benches, looking up to a speaker at the podium. There is no chalk board. There are no little tables for taking notes. It would have been just the speaker’s voice communicating ideas to students who would have absorbed concepts attentively.

Today we are not too different a crowd. As near as I can see, my little netbook is the only laptop out, and only a few notes are being scribbled on note pads on knees. We are today’s attentive students, trying to absorb the moment we worked so hard to reach. In the first afternoon session, we are listening to a chain of speakers: the rector of the University, the Mayor of the city, the UNESCO Assistant Director General, and IAU and INAF Presidents. It is a long stream of welcomes and thankyous and acknowledgements often (but thankfully not always) issued in two or more languages and all leading toward the first major presentation: an overview of the IYA 2009 by Catherine Cesarsky.

A few key points came from these first speakers: UNESCO speaker Walter Erdelen made the important point that UNESCO is going to be funding an Astronomy in Developing Nations program that will help spread space science. They invite us to collaborate with them and bring space science to the world. For some reason, I had never realized until now that the world is filled with nations where astronomy isn’t even taught at the university level. There are no minor in astronomy, no classes in aeronautical engineering; there is no option to educationally chance a dream of going to the stars. Now, UNESCO seeks to change that, getting astronomy all the way down in to the children’s schools. They are specifically looking for ways to promote teacher training, and to work on building alliances between universities in developing nations and in industrialized nations. The IYA2009 was a start of achieving this work, and many nations adopted programs like “Universe Awareness” (UNAWE) for kids, an ongoing project to get the youngest school children interacting with space science concepts. The power the IYA2009 had to change nations in positive ways is a constant them, and the INAF president, Tommaso Maccacaro wants to see our work continue. In his talk, he called for the beginning of an International Century of Astronomy and this caused a collective murmur that bordered on a groan. His idea, a century spanning 2010-2110 that would than lead to a millennia of astronomy where at the end we will have “Given up on having closing ceremonies.”

(Side note: It is amusing to watch speakers try and cope with a computer that responds with menus in Italian when you click on things)

According to Catherine Cesarsky, the IYA2009 Vision was to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe. With the year behind us, we may not have reached the entire world, but we have come close. 148 nations have participated, each them in their own ways participating in cornerstone and major projects and creating projects of their own.

It is amazing to hear from the SPOCs of developing nations, and realizing how much some nations were able to do with so little. Claudio Moises Paulo, SPOC of Mozambique, detailed how they had held major events in the southern most proveniences of their southern African country, and then used TV and radio to share their ideas nationally. With just 1000euro in seed money they were able to get UNAWE in place, participate in the Moon for Mankind photo project, hold a star party for Galilean nights, and to locally put together a 50 student project called “The Night with the Planets” that got kids looking up and learning. The also have a traveling project that uses meteorites to promote astronomy and are setting up a major astronomy club – the first of its kind in their country. They’ve had some outside help – Brazil sent them a “From the Earth to the Universe” exhibit, and two of their teachers will be going to Portugal to receive “Galileo Teacher Training” – but for the most part this has been a small cadre of dedicated individuals changing a nation. They are now working toward getting astronomy into their universities, and they have a simple dream of getting a planetarium for their nation.

In addition to Claudio Moises Paulo, we also heard from the Egyptian, Honduran, Vietnamese, Ukrainian, and Indian SPOCs. What struck me most as I listened to them talk was how much of an impact UNAWE has had. This program is almost non-existent in the US where people are perhaps too concerned with teaching to national standards and national exams and have forgotten how to teach to inspire. UNAWE inspires. We’ve also heard over and over of projects to get telescopes into the hands of children. In some nations, where Galileoscope’s $15 was still too much, they came up with their own $2 plans and had kids building little spyglasses to explore the universe. And beyond educating, the IYA2009 has also brought the world stamps and even coins. The Ukraine produced an amazing coin that I think I’m just going to have to google a source for.

It has been a long few years, but I feel safe in saying that while we did not give everyone in the world an experience in astronomy, we did reach more people than have ever been reached before. I suspect, based on random Fermi calculations, that we may have provided in the past year more kids a chance to build a telescope that can used to look at the stars than have been given that opportunity ever before.

We have been busy, and Catherine acknowledges we are all exhausted and that it is with a mix of sadness and relief that we realize it is now over and now we can rest.

But first we have one more day of pomp and circumstance. Tonight, following a cocktail hour there is a celebratory concert, where I’m amused to note both Holst’s Jupiter and John Williams Star Wars Saga are set to be played. It all then starts over at 9am. And I will be here to share what I see.