Two General Assemblies in One Year

The following was written by Kees de Jager, General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union from 1970 to 1973. It appears in International Astronomical Union Information Bulletin 100 (Presse Pluriel, Paris, July 2007), 9-10.

My term as General Secretary was characterized, if not overshadowed, by the circumstance that I had to organise in one year two General Assemblies, one in Sydney, Australia, and another one, a so-called Extraordinary General Assembly, a month or so later in Poland. I was strongly against the decision to have that latter meeting, not because I was too lazy for organizing two GA's, nor that I disliked Poland or Polish astronomy - on the contrary, I have many good friends there - but because I found it unfair against our Australian colleagues.

What was the situation? When, in 1967, I attended my first meeting of the Executive Board, with Otto Heckmann as President and Lubos Perek as GS, I learned that the 1973 GA would be held in Sydney, Australia. That would then be "my" GA. It was, in a way, an experiment. Up to that time GA's had exclusively been held in Europe or in Northern America, and never had the IAU met south of the equator. Too long a distance, too costly ...; such were the voices. That Australians, Argentineans and other southern hemisphere astronomers had to pay a lot for attending a GA was realized, of course, but what to do? The majority counts.

But finally, this time, we should go to Sydney. The intriguing question was how many or how few would attend? No one knew; we could only guess. Was it not an experiment?

A severe complication then arose. During the time of Heckmann's presidency it so happened that we got a request from and a visit by the grand old lady of Polish astronomy, Ms. Wilhelmina Iwanowska. She brought to our memory that 1973 would be the year of the 500th birthday anniversary of Copernicus. She proposed that the IAU would in that year have a General Assembly in Poland. The answer was, of course, that we had already planned to have one in that same year, in Sydney and two GA's in the same year was impossible according to IAU by-laws. Our request to postpone the Assembly by one year was firmly refused: the anniversary was to be celebrated in 1973, not in 1974. Then the idea arose during the discussions to call the meeting in Poland an "Extraordinary GA". That is not contrary to the by-laws, but the answer was that such a decision would be very unfair as regards the Australians, being given that it would already be difficult or impossible for many non-Australian astronomers to go there. At that time Ms Iwanowska, who certainly was a clever politician, made a slip. She replied that in any case very few astronomers from eastern Europe - we used to call it the Soviet bloc - were planning to make that long and costly trip. It left us with an unanswered question: was that perhaps the main reason?

I recall how difficult the situation was for Heckmann, our German President. He was a truly honest and sensitive man who - slightly more than twenty years after the war - very well realized what Germany had done to Poland. He found it difficult to refuse a request from Poland and that was the main reason for him to consent. I was strongly against, but the voice of an Assistant General Secretary is not as important as the President's. So the decision was taken.

Many astronomers disagreed. I learned during my term (1970-1973) how much opposition arose when the news spread around. Several astronomers, mainly from the US, angrily wrote to me that they would never, repeat: never again join a General Assembly, and that was what they actually did. I did not see them again at a GA.

In spite of this regrettable circumstance the Sydney GA was a nice happening, with about 500 participants. That was much less that the 3000 that appeared three years earlier in Brighton, but only slightly less than the number that we had hoped for. For many participants it was a good and for most of us the first opportunity to get acquainted with Australian astronomy. Regrettably but according to expectation only a few delegates from the Soviet bloc attended.

Kees de Jager, Texel, 29 March 2007

Last Updated November 2018