Does astronomy have a role in society?

This week I am attending and presenting (you lucky people) at the IAU Symposium 260 (The role of Astronomy in Society and Culture). It is the first conference of 2009 endorsed by the International Astronomical Union and is supposed to getting professionals and amateurs all worked up into a frenzy about the International Year of Astronomy 2009.

A year which is dedicated to inspiring the general public to take another look at science, a subject which they probably have bad memories of from school, is a worthy venture. What better vehicle to choose than one of the more approachable science disciplines (astronomy) and one of the more auspicious anniversaries (400 since Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter).

What IYA 2009 needs is people who will use innovative ways to grab the attention of people who would normally shake their heads and look away, or throw two fingers up at a science programme on the TV, newspaper or breakfast cereal box.

There have been some unmistakably good talks, particularly by Martin, Lord Rees of Ludlow (President of the Royal Society and ex-astronomer royal), and Lawrence Krauss (a particle physicist, who was effortlessly entertaining and yet scientifically rigourous).

Sadly the movers and shakers consist of some of the worst people who I have ever heard give talks. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell talking about astronomy poetry, and her penchant for country dancing, was not really what I had in mind when I signed up for the conference. Undoubtably, a way to engage with people is through the medium of poetry but I tend to think it would be more likely to inspire astronomers to read poetry and than any number of lay people into astronomy.

I was expecting leading scientists to say what is the really exciting work being done; latest discoveries, space missions, contraversial results. I was expecting leading outreach people to say what their plans are, what successes they have had in the past, how they are going to address the Cornerstone Projects of IYA 2009, what hasn't worked with different demographic audiences.

We have listened to no talks about the latest exciting events in Astronomy. We have listened to talks about the historical context of cosmology. I personally sat through 3 of them today, including one with a full treatment of deriving Freidmann's equations from the Einstein field equations. A talk with no images but just the text on the screen being read out (one talk was entirely in French, without any for warning - no-one batted an eyelid and I thought it must be a dream), talks with no slides delivered in a monotone and accompanied by the phrases 'imagine a four dimensional cube intersecting a three dimensional plane'.

This is wrong on so many levels, and I hope that person was marched from the lecture and told by the more stern members of the IAU that they should never give public talks. I suspect they were congratulated by all the fusty professors who think the average man on the street, or Joe the plumber should be able to cope with a bit tensor calculus in a lunchtime.

The good thing about this symposium has been the international aspect, the representation from Europe, its many cultures and novelty accents represented in glorious TechniColor. Strangely the Eastern European countries had the worst Powerpoint presentations as did the old people (regardless of their nationality). Many talks have been in French and 1 in Spanish (which I found substantially more entertaining than several of the English language ones), which reminds me more of the Eurovision song contest than a conference - plenty of talks would have been awarded 'null pointes'.

The really sad thing was that people have stopped going to the talks, leaving people who have travelled from Kazakhstan, Iran, Mexico and other exotic and mysterious lands (braving the xenophobic French immigration process) to talk to 15 people.

We did have a very enjoyable organ recital on a rare historical instrument. One of the LOC played in a forgivably haphazzard way, but mice must have sneaked into the king of instruments and blown the fuse - we sat in darkness for quite a while, as the organist revise and transcribed his programme for the piano, and suitably Liberace candelabre!

This whole week is a missed opportunity, and I would not hurry back to an IAU symposium.

Does astronomy have a role in society and culture? Some people think it does, but I'm not so sure their arguments would persuade anyone else or on a large scale.