Scientific disclosure

The sky’s here

One million Brazilians are likely to take part in the program of events during the International Year of Astronomy

reproduction“Starry night over the Rhone” Vincent van Gogh, 1888, D’orsay Museumreproduction

In 2009 an estimated ten million people worldwide – a million just in Brazil – will be invited to look at the sky. It’s not with the haste of those who want to know if it’s going to rain or if the day is more polluted than usual. It’s to reflect on things that exist between the Earth and starry space, a subject that has inspired generations of human beings to push back the frontiers of knowledge. This is the International Year of Astronomy program (AIA 2009), as declared by the United Nations Organization (UNO), which will involve thousands of events over the next few months in 136 countries.

The mega-event was officially opened on January 15 in a ceremony at Unesco’s headquarters in Paris. The extensive international opening program included debates on the role of astronomy in society, talks on the principal moments in modern astronomy, observations in real time and video-conferences involving some of the main observatories on the planet, like the South Pole Station and the VLT (Very Large Telescope), which is located in Cerro Paranal, in Chile.

In Brazil, the mega-event was inaugurated at a ceremony that took place at the Planetarium in Rio de Janeiro, which allowed free entry for four days. Samba School, Unidos da Tijuca, whose samba in this year’s Carnaval will be “A space odyssey”, played at the opening ceremony. The Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) placed telescopes in various squares in the city, both in the center as well as on the outskirts. Another highlight was the reopening of the Astronomy Observatory at the Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), which has been closed since the 1980’s. The program is going to involve all the states in Brazil. Among other things there will be observation of the skies using telescopes set up in public places, talks, exhibitions and planetarium shows. The events will take place in 210 points in the country and will be looked after by 3000 volunteers, including amateur astronomers, researchers school teachers and students. The event program is available at

An initiative of the World Astronomical Union, AIA 2009 commemorates the 400 years since the first telescopes for observing the sky were made by Galileu Galilei (1564-1642), when  spots on the sun,  mountains on the Moon, four of Jupiter’s satellites, Saturn’s rings and the stars in the Milky Way were seen. For Augusto Damineli, the event’s national coordinator, the International Year is an opportunity to bring people closer to astronomy and reinforce the mentality and scientific education of young people. “Astronomy has a greater appeal among laypeople than any other field of knowledge. Observing the sky may help publicize the importance of scientific methods, thereby encouraging the formation of citizens who are critical thinkers”, says Damineli, who is a professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of São Paulo (IAG-USP).

He also hopes that AIA 2009 will help eliminate the delay of half a millennium in the way society sees astronomy. “The idea that crystallized over millennia that the sky and the Earth were separate things was overcome 500 years ago. But people still have a mental picture that the Sky is quintessentially inaccessible and the Earth is a vale of tears, perhaps because gravity is always pulling us down. To help confuse the situation the word sky has two meanings: one scientific and the other religious. In fact the sky is all around us. All the atoms that surround us came from different types of stars and arose in different periods of the Universe. The great challenge is to help the public re-establish these cosmic links, by understanding that we’re in fact in the sky”, he said.

For Damineli, the major objective of the event is to allow younger generations to recover, or at least perceive, this fascination with the stars that has molded the lives of human beings and led to successive advances in science – astronomy was the origin of whole fields of physic and mathematics, for example. He remembers that an understanding of the planet’s weather cycles, which made agricultural production a regular occurrence, and domination of localization techniques, which led to great feats of navigation, became possible thanks to the learning that came from observing the stars.

The professor points out that intellectual curiosity was the main thing that fueled the forerunners of astronomy, at a time when there was no utilitarian logic to guide them. Even so, the effort needed to understand the cosmos had an enormous impact on the daily lives of people. “Mathematics gained integral and differential calculus when Isaac Newton deduced the Moon’s gravitational pull. No engineer draws up bridge and building projects without resorting to this theoretical product of astronomy”, he said. In similar fashion, the same technology that took man to the Moon stimulated the miniaturization of computers and led to the environment being watched over by satellite. Damineli mentions spectroscopy, the analysis of the chemical composition of the stars, which is applied in various ways today. “This all started when Newton placed a prism in a ray of sunshine and discovered the light spectrum. Similarly, photography is the telescope’s heir, when people want to record the images they see through it. Today, it’s possible to photograph without natural light because photographic sensitivity has been perfected for use by astronomers”, he said.

In 2007, Damineli assumed the Brazilian coordination of AIA 2009 and went in search of partners. He talked with professors and researchers, who were responsible for planetaria and science museums, but he was especially surprised by the support he received from two amateur astronomers who were prepared to lend equipment and organize events in public places and schools. “The initial proposal was to reach some hundreds of thousands of people, but the amateur astronomers proposed having a million Brazilians see what Galileu observed and th ey guaranteed that this target was possible”, says Damineli. In the beginning the professor from the IAG imagined that only some 30 amateur astronomy clubs were active. The representative from the Observational Astronomy Network (REA), Tasso Napoleão, began to register them and discovered that 125 groups wanted to participate. “This is equivalent to the number of groups in England or France. They were fundamental for putting together the program. They’re doctors, engineers and other professionals who like observing the sky out of curiosity and get enormous pleasure from doing so”, says the professor. “They’re closer to the general public than the researchers”, he says.

Participation by the Brazilian government was also important. The country’s diplomats played a major role, alongside France and Italy, when it came to convincing first Unesco, the United Nations’ education, science and culture arm, and then the UN, to proclaim 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. “The then Brazilian ambassador to the UN, Ronaldo Sardenberg, who has already been the Minister of Science and Technology, saw the importance and became committed to overcoming resistance and canvassing support from other countries”, says Damineli, according to whom some countries, like England, normally systematically oppose the proclamation of international theme years because they believe they serve no useful purpose. “Our representatives managed to convince the other countries to show that, if the International Year was not important for them, for astronomy and for publicizing the science it was”, says the professor from the IAG.

Recently, there has also been official help by way of money.  In October last year the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) launched a public bid notice of R$ 2 million for the purchase and maintenance of equipment, services, travel tickets and daily living expenses. “The number of proposals considerably exceeded expectations, with orders of R$ 16 million”, says Damineli. What is new in this public bid is that part of the money could be applied for by professionals who do not have PhDs, although experience in astronomy was demanded. This was a way of attracting amateur astronomers and school teachers. The Ministry of Education has offered to distribute 50,000 telescopes, which have technology similar to that used by Galileu, to schools, but bureaucratic difficulties have meant the purchase has not yet gone ahead.

One of Damineli’s concerns is to avoid groups dispersing after the year ends. “Our challenge will be to create a permanent network for disseminating science”, says the professor. One of the tools that has been planned to keep the network functioning will be the creation of an the internet address, the Portal to the Universe, which is organized by the International Astronomical Union that will gather together an enormous variety of material in a digital format and will serve to maintain cohesion in the network of those taking part in the International Year of Astronomy.