A slightly longer day-to-day blog of the IYA opening ceremony

astronomy, IYA

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) launched 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) under the theme, The Universe, Yours to Discover. I was selected by the Royal Astronomical Society to be the UK Student Representative for the Opening Ceremony, held in Paris at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). The opening ceremony launched the year with definite style.

I provide here a more detailed, day-to-day account of my time in Paris, the event and receptions alongside it in addition to the press release of University of Leicester e-bulletin (29th January 2009)

Wednesday 14th January

I get up early with the excitement that it wont be long until I have to leave to start making my way for the 08:18am train from Leicester to London St. Pancras. I arrive at St. Pancras for the 10:23 Eurostar train to Paris, Gare du Nord. This is the first time I have ever been on the Eurostar, so a new experience for me. To me it seemed surprisingly easy to check in then just sit around in the waiting room (not for too long) and then get on the Eurostar. The Eurostar seemed looooong, though I guess no different to the popular high speed London services. I went to find my seat, put luggage down as you do and soon I was on my way. Announcements, I guess as you would expect were in both French and English. Luckily I still understand enough French from school to figure out what was being said, before the English was said. It was like hearing it twice – somewhat amusing but self-satisfying to think, wow I understood it. Now for the journey…

Eurostar just seemed like any other train journey and was reasonably comfortable, except the only difference of course is you are crossing the Channel for which I didn’t know what to expect. I was shocked that it only took around 30 minutes to cross Dover to Calais and you could barely tell any difference. I just sat back reading my copy of the Daily Mail and listened to my MP3 player with my cup of coffee, probably a combination of 3 of my favourite things I like to do, especially when I travel. I could tell the moment I was in France when my phone alerted me to change local time. Soon I arrived in Paris at Gare du Nord. The IYA Opening Ceremony awaits me. I’m actually here in Paris and this is all happening! Now I had to find my way across the Paris Metro and find my hostel.

Luckily I had mapped out the route I needed to take before the event, so it wasn’t too bad. It was strange to hear everything in French, see everything in French, having just only come off a train. When you go on holiday and you have flown I think you have more of a realisation that you’re in a foreign country. To think I have been on a short journey, by train, across the channel I don’t think it set in at first. I’ve been to France and Paris before but I guess this was quite different. Finding my way across the Metro was easy enough. Luckily I didn’t have to get change and get metro tickets, which was a huge problem during my first visit to Paris. I just found the Metro part of the station, hopped on as you do and almost got there, except…we had to get off at Place de Clichy. I wasn’t too sure why, though it seemed there were cancellations with the route (later I found out due to some strikes) and I understood we had to get on the replacement buses to other stations. So I found my way toward the relevant bus and got on – a big squeeze!

Finally I got off my stop, Mairie de Clichy and now for finding the hostel. I remembered I needed to look for signs saying “auberge de jeunesse”. I knew I was on the right road at least. It seemed it wasn’t far. Finally I was at a Youth Hostel, although was it the right one? I had forgotten its name. I was in luck though and I was there, finally. I couldn’t see many other people and I suppose I was early. My room was empty. I dumped my luggage and crashed for a short while. I later explored the hostel, but mainly around the hostel. People soon also arrived. Some people had travelled so far, from all four ‘corners’ of the Earth and it seems, unsurprisingly were asleep. Later some of us met and we went to a local Pizzeria, and now for remembering how to order in French, errr….”Je voudrais (in bad French accent)..”

I asked for orange juice, ‘Jus d’orange’ though I got given an Orangina. Prices, as you expect were expensive – that’s Paris, but 3 Euros!!! Oh well. We had a good time. We weren’t too sure what to expect in terms of sizes of Pizza. I was at least used to inches, though it was interesting to hear of these little differences from my new friends from around the world. Afterwards we had a walk around the hostel, near this Pizzeria – cold, but good to speak to everyone. We decided to retreat back to the hostel. Some of us went straight to bed, for our early start. I wasn’t sure if I had met my room mates yet and I was exhausted myself. It seems I was sharing with two Serbian guys, Andre and Boba (Slobodan). I decided to hit the shower in case of the worst case scenario that I couldn’t get one due to a large queue in the morning, and after a long day. I then spoke for a short while with my room mates, but soon went to sleep. A long and exciting day ahead.

Thursday 15th January

So, the day had come. None of us were too sure what to expect. I’d gotten up at 06:30am (so 05:30am in the UK) to give time for breakfast and getting ready. I wasn’t sure how formal people were going. I’d brought my suit just in case, which I wore. I took my tie just in case, but I was fine. We needed to get to UNESCO for 08:00am ideally, but 08:30 at the latest for a 09:00am start. We were told to expect queues for checking in. It was very much like airport security, I guess as you expect being a government building. It wasn’t too bad though, we had to queue a while to get our passes, but we were here. It was quite an honour, thinking I was among so many people from around the world involved in astronomy, especially Nobel Prize winners. I had read that representatives were present from over 100 countries, as well as other students like myself that were specially selected to attend. Nobel prize winners including Robert Wilson, as well as other top scientists of the world were present – such a prestigious honour to be selected to be alongside. There was planned a live video conference with the European Very Large Telescope in Chile, to hear from researchers there at the cutting-edge of science. A great day ahead to look forward to!

8.55am and we are all called to be making our way in the main room for the 9am start. It kicked off a little later than planned but soon it was underway. The ceremony started with an inauguation by ministers and other important personalities, including the IAU president, Catherine Cesarsky. An opening was given by the UNESCO director general and the IAU president highlighted the IYA visions and goals and the importance of this year for being the International Year of Astronomy.

The coffee break was said to be cut short due to the late start, although this was seemingly ignored and all events became slightly late throughout the day. It was good to get some of the formalities out of the way with the opener I found, as much as it was enjoyable, and get more into hearing the talks from the main scientists. First we were treated to talks on Astronomy and Culture and then from Galileo (400 years) to Apollo (40 years) – all really good. I personally looked forward to hearing the later talks, after lunch by Nobel Prize winner Robert Wilson and Lord Martin Rees. These were truly spectacular and I very much enjoyed these. Kevin Govender (from South Africa) gave a brilliant and touching talk about Astronom
y for Humankind.

As well as many great talks, we had a reception on later that evening at the Palais de la Découverte. A video clip was presented of ‘Around the World, Around the Sky’ by Robert Pansard-Besson and a film of the Adler Planetarium presented by José-Fransisco Salgado with the music ‘The Planets’ by Gustav Holst.

After the reception many of us walked (a lot!) by Champs-Elysees towards L’Arc de Triomphe and around those parts of Paris.

A spectacular first day of events! Wow, technically half way through now though.

Friday 16th January

The following day started much the same as the first with breakfast then straight off to UNESCO on the Metro link, although less rushed as the first due to a slightly later start. The day at the conference started with a fascinating live video-conference with the European Very Large Telescope in Paranal and observers in Chile. Joceyln Bell-Burnell particularly I felt gave an excellent talk later on pulsars with an amazing demonstration that captivated the audience. Amongst other great talks, David Southwood from ESA also told us of the “Cosmic Vision” of ESA.

Yesterday’s events were spectacular, though I much preferred this second day of talks in particular (not only for the earlier start but) due to the range of activities that were given. The evening provided a spectacular entertainment of the ‘Sun Rings’ performance by the Kronos Quartet with the participation of the UNESCO choir, providing great imagery of the sky.

This day seemed to largely fly by. It was a shame once it was all over, but it was great to have been part of such a prestigious occasion.

The ultimate message from the ceremony and receptions, following from the theme is that ‘the sky belongs to everybody’. No matter where you are from, whatever your background, it is there to inspire. ‘Astronomy is one of the oldest fundamental sciences, yet continues to make a profound impact on our culture and is a powerful expression of the human intellect. This is the year in which we can all make a difference,’ – a message from the IAU President, Catherine Cesarsky.

Saturday 17th January

On the Saturday we were given the great opportunity to visit L’Observatoire de Paris, the Paris Observatory. The rest of the time we were given to explore Paris in its magnificence. Paris of course wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower, for one, which we were very close to for the conference. We also visited the museum Le Louvre, Notre Dame, Les Invalides and L’Arc de Triomphe as well as much, much more. This day was fun-packed, touring Paris throughout all the day ’til around 8pm.

Night time was interesting. Our group arrived slightly later into the evening and later we got a few drinks and decided to make a good (what would be most people’s final) night of it. Someone had brought a Twister board and we had a lot of fun – interesting but compromising positions, funny poses, an absolutely fantastic time! Some people said their goodbyes as they would be leaving early in the morning. It was a shame we didn’t get to spend time in Paris a bit longer. It got to 4am and most of us were getting really tired. Most of us I think felt it was worth staying up late to make the most of the rest of our time together. Finally though most of us just had to retire to bed. I, at least, wanted to try and get up fairly early to maybe tour Paris a little bit more, in particular visit the Louvre.

Sunday 17th January

It was sad, but this would be my final day in Paris and I would be ready to make my own way home. I wasn’t sure if I would have time to visit some of those sites briefly before I had to get to Gare du Nord for around mid-day. That wasn’t going to happen! For one, there were people I still wanted to say goodbye to but unsurprisingly I got up a little bit later than intended. My Serbian room mates were heading off slightly early, back home and I decided to get up then as well. Breakfast was long as we all congregated, exchanging photos, particularly with Alex (from Romania) who said he plans to put them all together in one HUGE album. We mostly said our final goodbyes, exchanging some of our details. Then at 11.15am I decided to make my way to Gare du Nord for my journey home. And there we go. An amazing few days, with so many great people, meeting so many different people from all around the world, and exchanging our ideas, our interest about astronomy.

Attending this spectacular event and particularly meeting others from around the world has truly given me an even greater passion to travel. Meeting people from so many different countries enabled us to share our cultures, experiences and idealisms which rarely one would experience, as well as our passion for astronomy. It was a great chance to see what other students are doing around the globe and how they make an impact on astronomy; to share our knowledge and our ambition, then to go home with new ideas for how we can get even more involved in the subject and make an impact in the subject in our home country. For me, it has fuelled a desire to further share my passion and enthusiasm with the general public and to promote the subject more widely. By working together we can make this International Year of Astronomy a success!

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