IAU - Overview
The International Astronomical Union, or IAU is an organization whose mission is to promote the science of astronomy internationally. The IAU’s scientific and educational activities are organized into 12 scientific divisions and 40 specialized commissions that cover the full spectrum of astronomical science. The primary activity of the IAU is organizing scientific meetings, and each year the IAU sponsors nine international IAU Symposia and publishes the IAU Symposium Proceedings, which is the main IAU publication.
Every three years the IAU holds a general assembly, a large gathering that offers six IAU Symposia, dozens of joint discussions and special sessions, and individual business and scientific meetings of Divisions, Commissions, and Working Groups. These proceedings are published in Highlights of Astronomy journals. A primary scientific task of the IAU is definition of fundamental astronomical concepts, consistent nomenclature, and educational activities in astronomy. They are the internationally recognized authority for properly designating celestial bodies and their surface features.
The members of the IAU are professional astronomers from around the world with doctorate level educational credentials and beyond. IAU members are active in professional research and astronomy education. There are over 10,000 members representing 90 countries, and 68 countries are National Members of the IAU.
Some of the IAU’s main tasks are promoting astronomical education and research in developing countries through program groups like International Schools for Young Astronomers (ISYA), World Wide Development of Astronomy (WWDA), joint educational endeavors with UNESCO, and the Teaching for Astronomy Development (TAD) program. Though the IAU itself does not have amateur astronomers in its membership, it maintains friendly working relationships with organizations of amateur astronomers like the various Amateur Astronomers Associations located in cities all over the world.
Perhaps the incident that the general public is most familiar with in regards to the IAU was the August 24, 2006 ruling by the IAU General Assembly in Prague, Czechoslovakia that declared Pluto a “dwarf planet,” reducing the number of planets in the solar system to eight. Many sectors of the general scientific community and many laypersons did not agree with the resolution and criticized the wording of it. Some questioned the IAU’s authority to name celestial bodies. However, one of the key backers of the resolution was Mike Brown, who discovered the other dwarf planet, Eris.
Years to come
As the IAU starts on its second 90 years, it plans to promote cooperation in research and education to further astronomical knowledge everywhere, on the theory that one of the keys to success in developing nations is increased interest in the influence on daily lives of astronomy and other basic sciences.