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Astronomers as Diplomats

On the occasion of a one-day conference at its headquarters in Paris on 4 October 2019, and as part of the celebrations of its 100th anniversary, the International Astronomical Union showed how its members - individuals and national professional - have historically created links between nations. InsSciDE’s Deputy Coordinator Leonard Laborie attended the conference Astronomers as Diplomats: When the IAU Builds Bridges between Nations and reports his impressions.

What initially emerges from the presentations appears to be a contradiction in terms: the Union over time has been marked by many divisions, permeable as it is to international political tensions. Professional associations of the defeated powers of the First World War were long excluded from the organization. The German association formally became a member only in 1951, after Hungary (1947) and Austria (1955). At the same time, another battle for membership began, as membership guaranteed a form of recognition for the scientists concerned and also for the States that employed them: the People’s Republic of China was opposed to Taiwan claiming to represent Chinese astronomical science. In the first half of the 1970s, the Union itself came into conflict when a group of United Nations experts disputed one of its prerogatives, that of naming the relief features of celestial objects.

The conference’s title and subtitle, Astronomers as Diplomats: When the IAU Builds Bridges between Nations, do not necessarily go hand in hand. If astronomers served as diplomats, it was certainly not only, and perhaps not mainly, to build bridges. At the same time, diplomats can work to bring certain communities closer together and exclude others. An establishment such as the IAU can also favour a multilateral arena, governed by and for scientists, to the detriment of another, governed by other scientists or by more political bodies.

That said, we can imagine that the diplomat-astronomer has been able to play on several levels – e.g. participating in the official exclusion of a particular national community, while maintaining personal links with the excluded. Studies as close as possible to the actors could confirm this practice. Above all, it must be said that the Union has survived many conflicts and has overcome complex divisions, both internal and external. It is especially notable that during the Cold War, despite a fierce space race, the Union proved to be a meeting point for scientists from both sides. Mikail Marov, who for three decades was a member of the Soviet and then Russian delegation to the Working Group of Planetary Science Nomenclature, gave an emotional account of this.

Today, the Union contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular through its Office of Astronomy for Development, based in South Africa since 2011. Astronomical heritage itself has become a factor of rapprochement since the Struve Geodetic Arc was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2005. This arc is a transnational chain of triangulation points built in the first half of the 19th century to improve the measurement of the earth’s circumference, which today crosses ten countries from northern Norway to the Black Sea.


Published 5 November 2019

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