UW News

November 25, 2019

UW astronomy professor Paula Szkody elected to American Astronomical Society leadership

UW News

Balancing the needs of open science with national security and journal sustainability, and respecting the beliefs of native populations near observatories are among current issues for the American Astronomical Society, said Paula Szkody, University of Washington professor emeritus of astronomy. She has begun a term as president-elect of the AAS, and will serve as the society’s president in 2020-2022.

Paula Szkody has begun a term as president-elect of the AAS, and will serve as the society's president in 2020-2022.

Paula Szkody

Szkody’s research includes observation and study of close binary star systems that involve the transfer of mass from one star to the other. “I love observing with telescopes,” she writes in her department biography. “And feel lucky to have done my research in an era when astronomers actually went to telescopes.”

Szkody began her term as president-elect of the AAS in June. She answered a few questions about issues for the society and the field of astronomy.

What are some of the challenges the American Astronomical Society faces just now?

Among issues now “on high radar,” she said, is the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope on the top of Maunakea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii, which has sparked controversy because of the Native Hawaiian designation as sacred land: “This is something that affects the future of U.S. as well as international observations with a large telescope. The AAS is trying to form a balance between the needs of the astronomical community and the needs of Native Hawaiians to respect the site.

“The balance between open science and national security as regards international partnerships is another tricky path that astronomers are trying to deal with and affects AAS members, as astronomy is very international while our current administration is focused primarily on security for the U.S. and its intellectual property.”

Also of concern, she said, is how the push for immediate open access publishing affects the AAS journals.

“Open access directly affects our business model as a substantial part of our revenue is from library subscriptions, which will disappear if all journals are immediately accessible by everyone. The AAS is devising ways to meet this challenge.”

“Another issue that has recently come up is the need for regulation of dark skies for continued night operation of telescopes. Satellite companies are sending up many satellites for high-speed internet that reflect light, with plans to greatly expand their networks. The light from those satellites will saturate the detectors of large surveys like the one the UW is involved in (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope), preventing observations of objects in many areas of the sky.

What effect has the #Metoo movement had on the world of astronomy?

 “Astronomy has been affected by the #Metoo movement. The AAS has responded by establishing a code of ethics for conduct at meetings, for receiving prizes, and for establishing a due process for taking and handling any complaints.”

She said the AAS provided information on how to prevent and handle harassment with a video at the start of a recent meeting, and in workshops and discussion sessions in meetings. The society, she said, has standing committees on women and minorities “which continue to find ways to keep all members safe and respected.”

What would you most want the average person — taxpayer — to know about the state of astronomy now?

 “The state of astronomy continues to be at the forefront of scientific discovery and intellectual stimulation. The advent of astrobiology encompasses one big question that is on the minds of most taxpayers: Are we alone in the universe? Astronomy has shown that the Earth is not the only planet, there are thousands around us in the Milky Way galaxy, with many in what is called the ‘habitable zone‘ where some form of life could exist.

“Larger telescopes are being built to try to probe the atmospheres of some of the nearby planets to detect any gas associated with life forms. These large telescopes will also address another big question: How did the universe begin?

“These two questions have huge outreach opportunities and AAS is helping astronomers take their results to the public through open public talks at meetings, visiting speaker lists, and more.”


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