2020 is the bicentenary of the foundation of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). This week the Society will hold its opening reception for the anniversary, part of a plethora of events and activities to celebrate 200 years of our work in promoting astronomy and geophysics. Around 250 guests are expected to gather at the Langham Hotel in London for speeches from the Astronomer Royal and a reading of a specially commissioned poem by the Poet Laureate.
In January 1820 14 ‘gentlemen’ sat down for dinner at the Freemasons’ Tavern, a pub in the West of London, to set up the Astronomical Society of London. Among their number were scientific luminaries Charles Babbage, who designed a mechanical computer or ‘difference engine’, Sir John Herschel, who discovered numerous objects in the southern skies, and Rev Dr William Pearson, who built an observatory at his home in South Kilworth in Leicestershire. The Society received its royal charter in 1831 and since then has been the Royal Astronomical Society, with members in the UK and around the world.
Today the RAS is made up of more than 4,400 Fellows (all members receive this title), with women admitted on an equal basis to men since 1916. Our membership includes professional and amateur astronomers, geophysicists, scientists working on space missions in academia and industry, teachers, science writers and historians. We host and support scientific meetings, publish journals, maintain a historically important library, fund grants for research, back a vibrant public engagement offer including our flagship RAS 200: Sky & Earth, and act as an advocate for our sciences to government and other bodies.
2020 will see an ambitious programme of professional and public events occurring across the UK. A series of public lectures will cover topics from time travel to life elsewhere in the Universe. In February a planetarium will operate from the courtyard of Burlington House and later the same month a special exhibition on the nebula observations of John Herschel, a founding member of the RAS, will open at the Herschel Museum in Bath. Later in the year the Society will host the ninth international conference on Library and Information Services in Astronomy (LISA IX), and in July the National Astronomy Meeting will take place, also in Bath. The autumn sees a parliamentary reception, and throughout the year volunteers will assemble a special RAS commemorative quilt.
A new monthly RAS podcast, “Never Mind the Spacerocks”, will cover anniversary events and focus on science themes across the year. Izzie Clarke (formerly of the Naked Scientists) and Becky Smethurst (an astrophysicist from the University of Oxford) will present the show, with interviews with leading figures in astronomy and geophysics.
Visitors to the RAS website and readers of Astronomy and Geophysics magazine will notice a big change in our look too. To mark the bicentenary, the Society has updated our brand and logo to better reflect contemporary research in both astronomy and geophysics.
Philip Diamond, RAS Executive Director, is delighted with the plans for the year ahead. He said: “It’s a real privilege to be here at the Society during such an important anniversary. Our members are helping put together a great programme that should offer something for everyone with an interest in the universe around us and the planet beneath our feet. I’d like to invite you all to help us celebrate – we won’t be doing something quite like this for another 50 years!”