Political difficulties of the General Secretary

The following was written by the Greek astronomer George Contopoulos, General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union from 1973 to 1976. It appears in International Astronomical Union Information Bulletin 100 (Presse Pluriel, Paris, July 2007), 10-12.

I was elected Assistant General Secretary of the IAU at the General Assembly of Brighton (1970). A few months before that event I had received a letter from Dr O Heckmann, President of the IAU, asking me to visit him in Hamburg. He wanted to ask me if I would accept to be the next Assistant General Secretary and, later, General Secretary of the IAU. I was happy to accept, but I warned him that my country was under a military dictatorship. But Dr Heckmann was thinking that the Junta would not dare to harm me if I had such an international position.

I did have several harassments and threats from the Junta, but fortunately the threats never materialized. E.g., whenever I had to travel abroad I had to get a special permission from the police, but even until the plane left I was not sure that I would be allowed to travel.

On one occasion, I had a telephone call from the police. "Did you receive a letter threatening to kill you?" "No", I said. "You will receive it, but do not be afraid. We will protect you". Next day I did receive this letter. I called the police and asked "How did you know about that letter?" Finally, they told me that they had orders to open all my letters. Then I was really afraid, because I had written several letters abroad denouncing the practices of the Junta.

Later, when I was General Secretary, I had two secretaries from the IAU, Mr A Jappel and Ms J Dankova. One Sunday, a new Junta took over, deposing the former dictator Papadopoulos. Jappel and Dankova had left this morning for an excursion. They noticed several tanks in the streets but they did not worry, until they were stopped by a group of soldiers which told them "Verboten". "Why Verboten?" asked Jappel. And an officer said in bad German "Wir haben Revolution. Papadopoulos kaput. Andere Papadopoulos, andere Demokratie".

When I took over as Assistant General Secretary in Brighton (1970), I tried to form a European Astronomical Society. I had strong support from the main European Countries (United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Soviet Union). But when the Soviet representatives returned home, they met an absolute refusal from their authorities. (The European Astronomical Society was finally formed only in 1990.)

Then I made another proposal to the IAU, to have Regional Meetings in Europe and in other parts of the World (Latin America, Asia and the Pacific). This idea was highly successful and we had many regional meetings, starting with a Meeting in Athens in 1972. Besides that I had to supervise the IAU Symposia and Colloquia (about 50 of them), and related duties.

After three years I took over as General Secretary of the IAU at the Sydney General Assembly in 1973. Immediately after that we had an Extraordinary General Assembly in Poland, on the 500th anniversary of Copernicus. That was a compromise solution because there were two competing requests, from Australia and Poland, and there was a danger of splitting the Union.

There were several points of friction between the Western and Eastern countries of the IAU at that time. In particular, the president of the IAU, Dr L Goldberg, and I had sent a letter of protest when a Soviet astronomer was arrested. We had also expressed our support for Zakharov, who was restricted in Gorki.

After that I had a visit from Ms Massevich, a high ranking Soviet astronomer. She came to Greece to give a lecture at our Department. Then, during the dinner, she started attacking Zakharov and his followers as "unpatriotic". I told her "As General Secretary of the IAU, I feel an obligation to all astronomers of the World, including those loyal to your regime, but also your dissidents". And I mentioned my efforts to support meetings attended by many Soviet astronomers, e.g. the Regional Meetings in Athens and in Tbilissi. I heard similar complaints during my visit to Moscow by Dr Khromov, an official of the Soviet delegation. He attacked not only Zakharov, but also Shklovsky and Zeldovich. My reply was that the Soviet Union could not possibly bypass names like Skhlovsky, Zeldovich and Zakharov.

After these exchanges I wondered what would be the future of our relations. Thus, I was happily surprised when at the Grenoble General Assembly (1976) both Masssevich and Khromov came to thank me for what I had done for the Soviet astronomers. After that, every year Dr Khromov sends me a Christmas card with a nice picture of a Russian orthodox church.

The Grenoble General Assembly (1976) was my last job as General Secretary of the IAU. I had to supervise the extremely complicated scientific program of the Assembly. There were meetings of about 50 Commissions, several invited lectures, joint discussions, meetings of the representatives of 50 countries, of the presidents of the Commissions, of the Executive Committee, of the Finance Committee, etc., plus two main sessions of the General Assembly. In total, there were about 250 separate meetings and I had to write an enormous number of letters to arrange everything in a proper way.

Nevertheless, I survived. And at the closing session of the General Assembly I was happy to hear the president, Dr L Goldberg, to say how much he appreciated "the tact and diplomacy" with which I educated him "to the responsibilities of our respective offices" (He alluded to many difficult times when our views deviated). He further added that he considered "most remarkable" that I had been able to continue my "scientific research in galactic structure, as those of us who have heard your lecture recently can testify".

In conclusion I have been happy to serve the IAU for six years (1970-1976), especially because I left her in a very healthy position, both as regards scientific progress and human relations. Further details about my work in the IAU and in several Institutions can be found in my book "Adventures in Order and Chaos. A Scientific Autobiography" (2004).

George Contopoulos, Athens, 22 January 2007

Last Updated November 2018