Embers Of Science

Embers Of Science
With all that is happening politically, is this any time to talk about science? But then, maybe this is an appropriate time to find some candles in the dark.

The state of science and science education in Pakistan can generally be categorized as abysmal. In fact, a recent Aga Khan University study of 15,000 students in 153 public and private schools found that only 10% of class 8 students could answer basic science questions. It will not come as a complete surprise to know that the same study classified 90% of science teaching in their study as “weak”, and the remaining 10% as “mediocre.” If my math is correct, this does not leave many good or excellent teachers!

To focus on the doom and gloom is appropriate. The state is even doomier and gloomier when it comes to space and astronomy for Pakistan. This is at a time when the space industry is booming, with several Asian countries having spacecrafts orbiting the Moon or Mars, and telescopes, like James Webb, are revolutionizing our understanding of the universe.

But this article is not about lament. I am fascinated by the passionate efforts of some in keeping the flame, or at least the embers, of science burning in the country. Many of these initiatives are driven simply by a desire to share the knowledge of the universe and to see the eyes of a child or an adult light up on hearing some fascinating bit about the universe, like the fact that lakes and oceans on Saturn’s moon Titan are made of liquid methane.

Ironically, the stars in the night-sky are becoming harder to see from cities like Karachi and Lahore. The “city of lights,” as Karachi is also known as, now has darker (no-pun intended) undertones. It is not just the loss of wonder that is at stake. The loss of the night-sky also impacts negatively on biodiversity and on human health.

Rayaan Khan, a human from Karachi, is doing his best to bring this to a broader attention. He is the founder of Cosmic Tribe and uses theater to highlight the challenges of light-pollution. Some of the information on the loss of ecosystems can potentially be dry and preachy. But Rayaan dresses up as a night-sky superhero and tailors his message of night-sky conservation for kids and the general public.

A real-life superhero, Abdul Rauf, runs Pakistan Science Club in Korangi, the industrial hub of Karachi. The club produces low-cost STEM activity kits for schools, including on robotics and beginner’s telescope building. But what caught my attention was their bigger telescopes with 6-inch and 8-inch mirrors, that are both easy to use and can provide excellent views of night time favorites like the Orion Nebula and the rings of Saturn.

These embers of science occasionally become a full-fledged flame in annual events, such as the Lahore Science Mela (LSM), organized by the Khwarizmi Science Society. Aimed for general public, this two-day festival includes hundreds of science-demos and hands-on activities. The last one was held in late October and attracted over 75,000 people!

Clearly, there is hunger for such activities. When presented well, science can be a lot of fun. This is something that Lahore-based Science Fuse has been doing. Led by a Malala Fellow, Lalah Rukh, Science Fuse is using science experiments and making them fun, especially for kids. In the same vein, Yumna Majeed is engaging kids on astronomy and space related themes with Exploration with Yumna. It definitely helps that she leads the activities, sometimes, wearing an astronaut uniform.

Discussions on science has also found a wonderful new forum in Islamabad called The Blackhole. A brainchild of physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, this is a place where intellectual discussions range from particle physics and satellites in space to Urdu poetry, psychology, and the state of Pakistan’s economy.

Then there are amateur astronomy clubs in different cities. Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST) and Karachi Astronomers Society, in particular, are very active. They take pleasure in bringing out telescopes to public spots and share their knowledge of the universe. Karachi Astronomers Society also take its members for their all-night Rutjugas, to spectacularly beautiful sites in Baluchistan that also offer some of the best conditions for looking at the night-sky.

It is hard to sustain such volunteer-run groups over a long period of time. However, I have been following these groups over the past three decades, and they seem to have reached a critical mass required to continue their activities more or less at a regular pace. Another sign of maturity is that these have led to the development of sophisticated observatories for serious amateur astronomers, such as Eden Astronomical Observatory in Lahore and Taqwa Space Observatory in Bela, Balochistan.

In fact, the team at Taqwa Observatory, led by Shaheer Niazi, recently captured an incredible picture of faint wisps of light being bent by the gravity of a cluster of galaxies a few billion light years from Earth! This requires patience, dedication, and skills, and I’m sure that this will inspire and challenge others to push the limits of their telescopes as well.

Similarly, two of the early founders of Karachi Astronomers Society, the brothers Muhammad Mehdi and Muhammad Abkar Hussain, now have a technology start-up, called Mareekh Dyanmics, that has recently won patents for designing potential habitats on Mars. Yes, on Mars! The company is registered in Australia, but their inspiration came from Baluchistan, in particular the mud-volcanoes of the province located near the favorite location of Karachi Astronomers Society’s Rutjagas.

One of the bigger embers is the spectacular science museum, MagnifiScience Centre, located on I.I. Chundrigarh road in Karachi. This multi-story museum has enough exhibits to keep both kids and adults busy for hours. One of my favorite parts of the museum is right when you enter the building. There are mangroves growing inside. For the ever-growing population of Karachi, it provides important context for the need to protect mangroves in and around the coastal city.

The museum provides a space for younger and older kids, from learning about the human body to visualizing calculus and exploring the science behind the production of energy from wind and water. Their astronomy exhibit is not open yet, but Karachi Astronomers Society has been holding lively astronomy nights on the roof the centre. On a personal note, we create astronomy content in Urdu both for kids (see Kainaat Kids) and grown-ups (see Kainaat Astronomy), and some of that content will be part of the astronomy exhibit as well.

My goal for writing this article is not to present a grand scheme or solutions to Pakistan’s extraordinary challenges in science. Rather, I want to highlight the embers of science that are already glowing. If they get some extra oxygen, these embers will turn into a fire of curiosity. But they are not waiting for this extra oxygen. They are simply taking pleasure in sharing the joys of science with others. That is a fire of its own!

Dr. Salman Hameed is the founder of Kainaat Studios that produces high-quality astronomy content in Urdu. He is also Professor of Integrated Science & Humanities at Hampshire College, USA, and an astronomer affiliated with the Five College Astronomy Department (FCAD) in Massachusetts, USA.