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[an error occurred while processing this directive] SPS Reporter Brings Space News from Austin
211th American Astronomical Society (AAS) Meeting, Austin, TX

By Therese Jones, SPS Reporter, Penn State University


The Austin, TX, convention center.


The week in early January that corresponds to the AAS meeting is generally my favorite time of year.  The fact that this year’s meeting was in Austin, TX, was an added bonus, given that weather in Pennsylvania is not usually pleasant in the winter.  This year I represented the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), at which I participated in an REU program last summer, as well as SPS and Penn State, my home university.

I arrived Monday, just in time to get registration materials and head to the undergraduate orientation, which was followed by the general orientation.  The undergraduate orientation is a great time to talk to professors about REU programs and graduate school, while the general orientation is a good time to eat food and catch up with people who have moved to other institutions.  Even though the general orientation food is “not to be construed as dinner”, everyone who leaves is so full that they can barely move. 

Tuesday morning the conference was kicked off with opening remarks by William Hobby, the former lieutenant governor of Texas, and namesake of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope.  The first plenary, a talk on extrasolar planets by Penn State’s Jim Kasting, immediately followed. 

I was unable to stay for that talk, however, because I had to make it to the first press conference.  Apparently as an SPS reporter I was entitled to everything to which other reporters were entitled, including a mailbox with all of the press releases in it, and the ability to go to the press conferences, press reception, and tour of the new supercomputer here.  I had already checked out my mailbox by that point and managed to post the press releases on my blog promptly after the embargo deadline had passed. 

Attending the press conferences was certainly a new experience.  In previous years, I had fallen into the usual schedule of plenary session, short visit to the poster session and the free breakfast there, oral session one, plenary session, lunch, oral session two, another visit to the poster session, and then two plenary sessions.  The press conferences conflicted with many of these events, although I may have grasped more scientifically by attending the press conferences than attending the other sessions.  The press conferences are at an almost-layman level, where sessions tend to be well understood only by those in the specific subfield.  One becomes more aware of which discoveries of the year are most important to the field.  Press conferences also gave me the opportunity to be in awe at the fact that I was in a room surrounded by reporters from big names like Science, Nature, BBC News, and Scientific American. 

Wednesday I presented my poster on an intervening quasar absorption line system.  I was pleased with the people with whom I managed to talk; although there weren’t a significant number who visited early in the day, many came toward the end, and were knowledgeable about the subject matter.  Giving a poster is nice in that you have the ability to interact with people one on one, but it is significantly more work than giving a five minute talk, and standing by the poster the entire day can be trying.

Thursday and Friday were similar in schedule to Tuesday.  They were rather hectic because of the press releases; in all I had over 50 blog entries at the meeting, 90% of which were press releases.  I also attended all of the press conferences except those on Wednesday, as they conflicted with my poster.

I managed to find the AAS president, Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas at Austin, Friday afternoon for an interview.  He is in the last six months of his two-year term, and described the improvements he has made while in office.  His major projects have been to create a council that is focused on the long-term goals of the society instead of serving as a “functionally rubber stamp council”, and to make a committee that explores the internet as a means of revolutionizing communication and research in astronomy.  He cited astro-ph as a service that came out of nowhere, but presently plays a huge role in the daily lives of most astronomers. 

As for the future of astronomy, Dr. Wheeler did not see the resolution of funding issues in the near future, because of matters more important to the country, such as healthcare.  He feels that large collaborations will play larger and larger roles in the future of astronomical research, and that significant advances will be made both by collaborations and increased computing power.  He expects that galaxy formation and evolution will be a major area of research over the next few decades, as data from the James Webb Space Telescope piles in.  Other promising subfields include stellar evolution, a field in which many mysteries have yet to be unlocked; and astrobiology, where steps toward finding the first signs of extraterrestrial life are continually being taken in the search for exoplanets.

When asked about what undergraduate students who wish to be successful in the field of astronomy should do, Dr. Wheeler responded that a solid background in physics is an absolute necessity.  He also cited finding an institution where there is a congenial environment as a vital step for any student.  He concluded the interview by encouraging undergraduates to “set your sights high and work hard”.

Naturally, there exist other highlights to meetings other than science.  One thing that never gets old is running around to collect all of the free things booths are giving away.  There are tons of posters and images from all of the telescopes, plus the usual small giveaways such as pens, but there are generally must-haves each year.  This year’s included: a plastic ball with panels that turned inside out when you threw it into the air, a pin that had a sign that you could program to say different things that moved across the screen, a USB drive, LISA laser pointers, NASA drawstring backpacks, and a glowing orb.  One of the more unusual giveaways was steak sauce, contributed by AAS itself, with the title “Home on Lagrange”. 

There are often cool displays each year produced by a company that comes to the meeting.  This year, Google won the competition.  They had a room devoted to Google Sky.  Outside of the room there were multi-colored bean bag chairs, while the inside was filled with colorful lights and blocks, as well as computers where you could learn to use the program.  They also had regular sessions on the special features of Google Sky.



About the Author
Therese Jones"I was in awe . . . surrounded by reporters from big names like Science, Nature, BBC News, and Scientific American." That's what student reporter Therese Jones (left) said about her recent participation in the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, TX. Therese, an undergraduate from Penn State, presented her research on quasars and also served as a reporter for the Society of Physics Students (SPS). For more detail, check out Therese's detailed blog.

SPS sends student reporters to most major AIP Member Society meetings, where they are treated like other members of the press. Many ambitious student reporters succeed in securing interviews with society leadership and prominent invited speakers on such occasions.

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