For us poor creatures stuck in Newtonian reality, time marches steadfastly in one direction only, and that means the International Year of Astronomy must end. For me this global event has been an unqualified success and a complete delight. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about our Universe in the past year and had a great time doing it. The worldwide community of astronomers really rose to the occasion and developed a wide variety of innovative public programs. One of my favourites was Around the World in 80 Telescopes, a 24-hour live webcast from observatories all around the world during which astronomers showed what they’re working on right now. If you missed it you can click on the link and watch the segments on demand.
Another project of the IYA was to develop an inexpensive, quality telescope to make astronomy accessible to all. The Galileoscope was modelled after Galileo’s own invention, but has improved optics and is light and portable. Through their give-one-get-one program people could donate a discounted Galileoscope to an underprivileged school somewhere in the world while ordering one for themselves. The program has been so successful that they have had trouble keeping up with orders, but they plan to continue the program through 2010 and beyond so it’s not too late to get or give a Galileoscope.
The grass roots nature of the IYA really came out in the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. A call was put out for astronomers to put together podcasts for the series and the result has been outstanding and incredibly diverse. Professional astronomers, amateur enthusiasts, students, writers, and artists of all ages presented informative and entertaining podcasts on every imaginable astronomical topic. I listen to the podcast almost every day and it has been great for reinforcing things I have learned elsewhere, and it rarely fails to make me laugh. Astronomers have a great sense of humour, which is evident from the podcast’s theme song (click on one of the podcasts to hear it). I was thrilled to find out that they plan to continue the podcast in 2010, so I can look forward to many more fascinating voyages through the Universe.
My other daily dose of astronomy came from the Astronomical Picture of the Day (APOD) website, which has been around for years but obviously has special significance this year. The night sky has no shortage of beautiful sights and that is the focus of The World at Night project. I could (and have) spent many happy hours browsing their spectacular photography of our shared sky. Alas, many of those sights are invisible in areas where there is a lot of wasteful outdoor lighting. That was the focus of the Dark Skies Awareness project, which ran education programs on proper outdoor lighting design to minimize light pollution and preserve night vision. Ironically, by destroying our night vision and obliterating the stars, outdoor lighting actually makes the night seem darker rather than lighter.
Astronomy isn’t just about sights, though, there are sounds too. There is a historical connection between astronomy in music, thanks to the ancient Greek theory that celestial bodies are arranged in much the same way that notes are arranged in a scale. Since then musicians, including Galileo himself, have been inspired by the heavens. This year in various countries concerts were presented on astronomical themes, with telescopes made available for stargazing during intermission. Canada’s own Tafelmusik put together a program of music and imagery called The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which can be heard on the CBC Concerts on Demand website. For a more scientific astronomical soundscape, check out the sound of the Big Bang. Yes, we know what the Big Bang sounded like, and it wasn’t a bang.
My own humble contribution to the IYA was the International Year of Astronomy Reading Challenge. How did everyone do? I read three densely-packed “Very Short Introductions,” The History of Astronomy, Galaxies, and Cosmology, as well as Benford & Brin’s Heart of the Comet for my dose of sci-fi. For my EVAs I went to an open-house at my local astronomical observatory, and spent some evenings trying out my Galileoscope with the help of Stellarium, an excellent, free planetarium program for navigating the night sky.
The International Year of Astronomy may be coming to an end, but that certainly won’t be the end of my astronomical adventures. I’ve just started listening to the audio version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in advance of watching 2010: The Year We Make Contact on New Year’s Day. I also want to read more about Galileo, and have just received the very daunting The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, which should take me at least all of 2010 to finish! There seems to be a mathematical equation on nearly every one of its 1100 pages, but it’s supposedly a book for the general public so I will give it a try. There are so many other great astronomy books I’d like to read too, so it looks like the astronomy year is going to turn into an astronomy decade! Well done, IYA!