Astronomy Ireland and IYA

Last Saturday, Astronomy Ireland hosted an extraordinary national meeting at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, in order to draw members’ attention to planned events to mark the UN International Year of Astronomy.

Astronomy Ireland (AI) is Ireland’s premier astronomy club and it promotes astronomy, space interest and science education all over the country. I first became aware of the club when I attended some great cosmology talks they hosted last year (see post on a lecture onThe Cosmological Distance Ladder by Micheal Rowan-Robinson here and on Dark Matter by Tim Sumner here); AI also organise observing sessions and other astronomy events nationwide, not to mention running astronomy classes in various institutions around the country. I attended their astronomy classes in our own college this semester and found them excellent (well done Emmet Mordaunt!).

Saturday’s meeting offered a packed program of talks, short films and discussions. First up was film producer and director Ginita Jimenez of film company Father Films, who described how she came to make a short film about Venetia Phair, the 11-year old Oxford schoolgirl who named the planet Pluto. I missed the beginning of Ginita’s talk, but her description of reading a short newspaper article on the topic and her subsequent discovery that Venetia had never actually seen the planet, was fascinating: with the demotion of Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’ status, she knew she had to make a film about the whole affair.

After Ginita’s introduction, we were treated to the Irish premiere of ‘Naming Pluto’. Sure enough, it was a beautiful little film: the discovery of a new planet from the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, the naming of the planet by Venetia, granddaughter of Falconer Madan, ex-Head of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the subsequent passing of the name to the powers that be in Flagstaff USA, it was all there. (I’m not sure how many of our students would have 11-year old Venetia’s knowledge of both astronomy and classical mythology – planets are generally named after Roman gods and Venetia suggested Pluto as he is the Roman god of the underworld). The second part of the film described an older Venetia’s visit to uber-astronomer Patrick Moore, a failed sighting, and then her first sighting of the planet she named all those years ago at the Science Observatory in Hertsmonceaux at age 89. The film finished with some moving shots of an aged Venetia telling her story to a group of wide-eyed students – straight out of C.S. Lewis, you could see them trying to imagine her as an 11-year old! If you want to know more, there is a summary of the story here and a nice trailer of the film on YouTube here; better still, why don’t you buy the film here.  

Robert Hill of the Armagh Planetarium and Northern Ireland Space Office then gave a lively overview of activities worldwide that are taking place to mark the International Year of Astronomy. The sort of activities involved are:

100 hours of astronomy: a round-the-clock event that features live webcasts from research observatories around the world

The Galileoscope ; the distribution of thousands of easy-to-assemble, easy-to-use telescopes to budding astronomers around the world: each telescope has about the same power as that available to Galileo

Cosmic Diary: an astronomy blog featuring regular posts by diverse professional astronomers

Portal to the universe; a one-stop web portal for astronomy that will feature astronomy content, acting as an index for press, educators and scientists

Dark Skies Awareness: a project promoting the awareness of light pollution

It was a great talk and you can find out more about the various activites on the IYA website.

AI founder and chairman David Moore also gave a talk, describing the activites of Astronomy Ireland for the year that’s in it, in particular the school lecture program and the teacher training program. He also described what individual members could do, from voluntary work to lobbying public representatives. A change of mission was highlighted: instead of confining itself to promoting astronomy, David sees AI as promoting a science culture in Ireland. He pointed out that while Ireland has a great culture in both arts and sports, it has no such culture in science, despite a great heritage in the subject. I think he is absolutely right in this and it strikes me that astronomy is a very good place to start to address the can find a list of the planned AI activities here or on the AI website.

David Moore (R) in interview at the Young Scientist Exhibition

After David’s talk, we were treated to another short film. 3-d glasses were handed out and Robert Hill presented a short spectroscopic tour of the universe. I won’t attempt to summarize the film, but there were some stunning graphics. You can get a flavour of it by taking the tour on the website of Celestia. As usual, I came away thinking just how insignificant our own little galaxy is in the wider scheme of things.

All in all, the meeting was a lively and informative event, with a serious mission behind it. Afterwards, we left the beautiful Science Gallery for some hot food and drinks at the pub across the road (it was an Irish meeting after all). There, discussions on the promotion of science continued for many hours…


I just heard from Ginita that Venetia died last week at the age of 90. Sad news, but I’m sure she enjoyed seeing the film in her final days. You can find a nice NYT obituary here. Ar dheis De do raibh a h-anam


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3 responses to “Astronomy Ireland and IYA

  1. Do not expect the controversial demotion of Pluto to stand for long. It was done by only four percent of the International Astronomical Union, most of whom are not planetary scientists, and was rejected by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists believe in a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. This is because an object becomes spherical when it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity–a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, and characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids.

  2. cormac

    In the film, Patrick Moore says that “Pluto has not been demoted, it has been reclassified”. Unfortunately, I can’t make out what else he says on the subject!

  3. cormac

    Update: Ginita tells me PM’s actually saying “It’s always been a Plutoid”