In the Club

Earlier this year I was elected a member of the Royal Astronomical Society Club. This organization shouldn’t be confused with the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) itself. I’ve been a Fellow of that for ages. The RAS Club is basically a dining club whose members are all Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society. All you have to do to join the Royal Astronomical Society is to pay some money and sign your name in a book. To get into the RAS Club you have to be elected by the existing membership. I was elected at the January meeting this year, but this was the first time I’ve been able to dine owing to the long drawn-out affair of my move from Nottingham to Cardiff.

Curiously the RAS Club is actually older than the RAS itself, as the first dinner was held in 1820, before the RAS was actually formed. Nowadays, the RAS Club usually meets at the Athenaeum in Pall Mall, shortly after the end of the monthly “Ordinary” meetings of the RAS at Burlington House (referred to as “another place”) which happen on the second friday of each month. That is except when the RAS meeting is the annual National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) which is held at a different location each year, usually in April. On these occasions the club also meets, but at an appropriate alternative venue near the NAM location.

Although I knew several people already in the club I didn’t really know what it would be like, but my first time there turned out to be very pleasant. The food and wine were good and the conversation was extremely enjoyable. At the end of the dinner my health was drunk – as indeed was I – and I had to reply, which I did by telling the story of my encounter with the Kansas police. It seemed to go down quite well. After other speeches the dinner was declared “informal” which is just as well because by then I was as informal as a newt.

The club’s various little rituals are a bit bizarre, such as calling Burlington House (“another place”), but quaintly amusing in their own way and the proceedings are remarkably lacking in pomposity. I’m now actually looking forward to the “Naming of Names” next month.

I think the RAS Club (and even the RAS itself) is viewed with suspicion and perhaps even hostility by some astronomers, who seem to think the club is a kind of sinister secret society whose existence is intrinsically detrimental to the health of astronomy in the UK. Actually it’s just an excuse for a good nosh-up and some daft jokes, although I was initially disappointed to find out that there wasn’t after all a covert plan for world domination. Or if there is, nobody told me about it.

The other common complaint is that the club’s membership is just a bunch of old dinosaurs. Now it is true that your typical member of the RAS Club isn’t exactly in the first flush of youth, but age has its effect on all of us eventually and there is something very distasteful, if not offensive, about the widespread ageism with which some astronomers tend to regard the older generation. The recent Wakeham review of physics rightly pointed out that UK astronomy is in a very strong international position, second only to the United States. This strength hasn’t appeared overnight. It is founded just as much on the past achievements of older astronomers as it is sustained by the energy and creativity of the young.

So let’s have a bit more respect.

As for me, the age thing isn’t a great concern. I feel I’ve been on the fast track to fogeydom for some time anyway. I like to play Bridge and go to the Opera too. Although it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I actually felt quite at home at the RAS club.

While a private dining club can have whatever image its members feel comfortable with, fogeyish or not, the image of a professional organization is much more crucial and it is important that the former doesn’t impact negatively on the latter. The “real” Royal Astronomical Society definitely has to find a way forward that is a bit more up-to-date and relevant than it is now. If the stuffy air puts off younger astronomers from joining then that can have a very bad effect on the future. Although UK astronomy is very strong, it does need to have better representation in the corridors of power. The Institute of Physics is a professional organization which can deliver much more effective campaigning on behalf of mainstream physics than the RAS is able to do for astronomy, at least at present. Part of the reason is the poor take-up of RAS fellowship by younger astronomers, no doubt at least partly because of its fogeyish image, which in turns prevents it from modernizing. The RAS understands this and is trying to recruit more younger members, but with only limited success.

It’s a difficult balancing act to weigh up the considerable political value of established tradition against the critical need to encourage innovation and change. I know some astronomers think a new professional organization is needed for UK astronomy, and that the RAS should be left to turn into a kind of museum. I think that would be a shame and that it would be better for more astronomers to abandon their antipathy, join the Society and put some effort into making it fit to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

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8 Responses to “In the Club”

  1. Ralph Hartley Says:

    We all know you aren’t allowed to blog about the covert plan for world domination. Are you actually required to deny it as well?

  2. telescoper Says:

    I’m not authorized to answer such questions.

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, the R.A.S. does need to become more representative of the U.K. astronomical community, but I would argue that many of the problems with the current state of the R.A.S. are more a consequence of the character of the community rather than the Society itself. We have a U.K. community where the majority of people are young – PhD students or postdocs – most of whom have no hope of a continued participation in astronomy beyond a period of a few years due to the very poor career situation, and all of whom are under strong work pressure. There is little incentive for them to join in community activities beyond their immediate departments and immediate concerns. The strong hierarchy within the community, particularly within university departments, affects the confidence of young people to participate within organisations. Some of the problems are with the community, not the R.A.S. This truly is an elephant in the room, to refer to one of your earlier postings.

    And in general (as opposed to your specific, intentional posting), we should not bring that rather strange “R.A.S. Club” into any discussion of the R.A.S itself. That Club is an oddity that is of no relevance to 98% of the British astronomical community, and a majority of the community has probably never heard of the exclusive dining club in any case. It does not matter if a self-selected old boys’ network chooses to meet for dinner behind closed doors. What matters critically is that such attitudes do not extend into the wider astronomical community so that access to participation in activities or career opportunities are not dependent on patronage, personal support or favouritism. Sadly, we are very far from that.

    By the way, are there many women in the dining Club?

  4. telescoper Says:

    There are some female members of the club, but not that many. I don’t know what the statistics are. I’m glad that half the new members introduced at the last dinner were female…

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I had thought that women were not allowed into the Atheneum building, but my knowledge of posh gentlemen’s clubs is negligible.

  6. Robert Smith Says:

    Even the Athenaeum has relaxed its rules, but long before it did the Club met in the ‘Ladies’ Annexe’ to get round this problem, and it has had female members for many years. Currently about 25% of the full members are women, including the Treasurer and one of the two Vice-Presidents.

  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    That is encouraging. Clearly the dining club is not quite as exclusive as many people on the outside assume: 25% women members might even be closer to gender balance than is the situation with permanent lecturing posts.

  8. […] I was quite surprised when, after the meal, it was announced that I had written on my blog about my previous dinner there. I’m not convinced that everyone there knew what a blog actually is but  maybe some of […]

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