October 15, 2008

Leading Nat’l Astronomers Converge on C.U. Campus

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The exodus of Cornell students on the eve of Fall Break was paralleled by the arrival of nearly 800 scientists from across the nation who descended upon Ithaca for the 40th annual Astronomical Society planetary meeting last weekend.
This is the first time the University has hosted the meeting since 1983. Cornell is one of the world’s leading institutions in planetary science, a distinction which enabled the University to bring the planetary meeting back to Cornell after a 25-year hiatus, according to Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy, co-chair of the meeting’s organizing committee.
The meeting was an opportunity for planetary scientists around the world to come together to share information and results they collected from different experiments and missions. At sessions that began Friday and concluded yesterday, scientists delivered talks on a slue of different topics.
“Pick anything in the solar system, except the sun — there was a session about it,” Bell said. Topics for the different sessions ranged from the Moon and Mars to planetary rings and near-Earth asteroids.
While 800 scientists decided to come to Cornell for the meeting, there were many more who were unable to make the trip to Ithaca. For those scientists not in personal attendance, they were still able to benefit from the different sessions.
Each session was streamed live on the Internet from the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society website.
“[It was] a great resource for the meeting,” Bell said, noting that he considered it a great success.
In addition to connecting different scientists from around the world, Bell explained how the meeting was successful in connecting the different scientists with the surrounding community through a series of public events.
These special events included an astronomy-themed public concert at Bailey Hall on Saturday night. The Cornell Symphony Orchestra and the Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra performed in concert featuring “The Planets” by Gustav Holst and “Anillos” (Rings) by Cornell composer Robert Sierra. According to the press release for the event, Cornell astronomy students, staff and faculty assembled a coinciding planet video presentation that was also featured at the event.
“[The concert] was a wonderful fusion of art and science,” Bell said.
Attendees of the planetary meeting, as well as remaining Cornell students and local Ithacans swarmed Bailey plaza in hopes of getting to see the concert. As Bailey’s maximum occupancy was filled to capacity, there were still hundreds of people in line around the plaza who had to turn back without hearing the concert.
At Bailey Hall on Sunday night, Prof. Jeff Taylor, astronomy at the University of Hawaii, gave a lecture on “Lunar Settlements and Lunar Science.” He was named the Carl Sagan medalist, the award named after the late Cornell professor of astronomy.
In introducing Taylor, Rick Binzel, a professor at MIT and chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, explained that the Sagan medal was awarded because “we wanted to commemorate Carl [Sagan] and his [tremendous] ability to communicate with the public.”
Taylor joked before beginning his lecture that being given an award for being a great communicator had a “downside [that] people actually expect you to give a good talk.”
In a session yesterday, one scientist gave a presentation on recent results and information from a Mars rover. In his presentation, he showed new pictures taken on Mars that were only days old. This presentation, in addition to Taylor’s lecture on future plans for lunar settlements, showed just how involved many of the scientists who attended the meeting are in key areas of planetary science.
The AAS, according to its website, “is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. The basic objective of the AAS is to promote the advancement of astronomy and closely related branches of science.”