Scientists have, historically, not mixed well with politics. Lavoisier, the man who discovered (debatably) hydrogen and oxygen, was executed in the Terror during the French Revolution for being a tax collector. Liebniz, co-inventor (debatably!) of calculus, spent many weeks on the roads of Europe traveling in diplomatic service for German princes, only for the great and good to snub his funeral despite being only miles distant. Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit co-discoverer J. Robert Oppenheimer was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and excoriated as a communist; later, hydrogen-bomb designer Edward Teller was excoriated for testifying against him.
If these examples have you worried, but you still crave your Nixon-in-China moment, never fear. A “diplomacy” role involving a bit less risk to one’s reputation (and neck—Lavoisier was guillotined!) is available, ready-made, as an ambassador for astrophysics. Following the lead of former AAS President Debra Elmegreen, the AAS has established a program to train and mentor advanced undergraduates, PhD students, and early-career researchers as astronomy ambassadors. She was inspired to suggest the program because, apparently, fewer than one in five Americans can name a living scientist. I, for one, did not know we were that rare a breed!
But perhaps this is not so surprising when one considers that a scientist’s day to day job may involve little contact with the public, and scientists may be clustered around research universities rather than as homogeneously distributed geographically as other professions. After all, one needs doctors—and has lawyers—nearly everywhere! Not so with scientists, especially astronomers.
The astronomy ambassadors program is to offer mentoring, an online community, and pre-designed outreach resources to those who join. The AAS hopes to recruit around 30 people for the inaugural class, which will kick off with a conference in Long Beach, CA, in January 2013. Applications are due in October, and you can read more here: