If Americans think of UNESCO at all, it's probably with a quizzical look or a frown, either because it's connected with the United Nations, which we believe to be ineffective, or because its goal -- to "build peace in the minds of men" through education, science and culture -- may even be harder to achieve than civil peace.
And wasn't it UNESCO that the U.S. withdrew from, charging that it was poorly managed, antagonistic to American values and corrupt?
Yes, it was -- and in 1984 the U.S. pulled out. But the U.S. rejoined UNESCO in 2002 after the agency implemented reforms. UNESCO has changed; many of its programs can now be applauded. And this year, there's one that's fun, enlightening and universally engaging. It's one you may even want to participate in.
Galileo's telescope (detail) Florence
Practically, the celebration involves a galaxy of activities and events around the world that have already begun but have received very little notice in the U.S. Nearly 150 countries, including Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ecuador and the Vatican, have joined in.
Led by their astronomers, they are mounting conferences like "Astrofest," which in early February put scientists onstage in the U.K. to explain how stars are born, what's up with those red spots on Jupiter and how to predict sun spots. They have started initiatives like the Galileoscope, a U.S.-led program that is assembling simple, easy-to-use telescopes to distribute to millions of people who've never ogled the skies with anything other than their own eyes.
In April, many countries are arranging 100 hours of "open days and nights" for people who want to visit observatories and staging a 24-hour Webcast that will go behind the scenes at the earth's largest telescopes for those who'd rather visit the frontiers of astronomy from their home. You don't have to leave home either to enjoy a book called Eyes on the Skies -- 400 Years of Telescopic Discovery and its accompanying 60-minute DVD documentary, which may be shown on your local TV station but can also be viewed online.
One project, called StarPeace, aims to connect people living on opposite sides of land or sea borders via joint "star parties." One recently brought together children in villages in India and Pakistan to look at a lunar eclipse -- in hopes that the universal sky may help bridge the gap between people separated by race, culture or nation.
And there will be "star counts," exhibitions of astronomical images in parks, subway stations and other non-traditional venues, and other initiatives far too numerous to mention -- including some that reach beyond science into art.
Mechanical Celestial Globe, Kassel, 1574. Coll. Kugel
Many of these programs have their own Web sites that can be accessed through the main International Year of Astronomy site.
True, this is soft diplomacy, and it may or may not help ease world tensions. But somewhere, somehow, it can't help but cultivate an interest in science among people who don't know enough about it, which includes most of us nowadays.
And if, when the year is over, you find yourself unengaged with astronomy or satiated with new knowledge about the skies, just wait another two years. The 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations has adopted a resolution proclaiming 2011 as International Year of Chemistry, again making UNESCO a lead agency.
This follows, I recently learned, a somewhat less widespread slate of activities for the World Year of Physics in 2005. Something, I guess, has to replace Mr. Wizard. Why not UNESCO?