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IAU Commission 25, and the development of early photometric systems

  • Christiaan Sterken (a1)


The International Astronomical Union was conceived in 1918, and was formed one year later in Brussels. One of the 32 initial Commissions was the Committee on Stellar Photometry that later on became IAU Commission 25 Astronomical Photometry and Polarimetry, and since 2015 Commission B6 with the same name. The initial functions to be exercised by the Committee were

  1. (a)to advise in the matter of notation, nomenclature, definitions, conventions, etc., and
  2. (b)to plan and execute investigations requiring the cooperation of several observers or institutions.

The basic philosophy was that IAU Commission 25 was to be an advisory body, rather than a decision-making committee that imposes its regulations. This position was reconfirmed at the 10th IAU General Assembly in 1958.

From the early days on, the Commission members engaged in the teaching of the principles of photometric measurement – either via the Commission meetings and the ensuing reports, or via external means, such as lectures and publications. The topics of instruction dealt with absorption of light in the atmosphere, the modification imposed by the character of the receiving apparatus, the unequal response of different receivers to a same stimulus, and variations in the data-recorder response from one experiment to another.

From the 1930s on it was suggested that IAU Commission 25 takes responsibility in matters of standard stars, standard filters and standard calibration methods.

During the first half-century since its foundation, Commission 25 was an active forum for discussions on the basic principles of astronomical photometry, including the associated problems of transformability of magnitudes and colour indices from one instrumental configuration to another. During the second half-century of its existence, the Commission has served as a sort of news agency reporting on the developments in detector engineering, filter technology and data reduction. All along the Commission members were committed to accuracy and precision, a struggle that was primarily driven by the jumps forward in performance and sensitivity of every new detector that was introduced.

The development over one century shows that the Commission was continuously touching on the philosophy of precise measurement, where accurate measuring – for a select group of pioneers – was an end in itself.

This presentation looks back on the opinions of key players in the photometric standardisation debate, and briefly presents two case studies that illustrate the illusionary accuracy reached over a century in determining, as Commission member Ralph Allan Sampson put it, “a detail like magnitude”.

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IAU Commission 25, and the development of early photometric systems

  • Christiaan Sterken (a1)


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