Sahal Kaushik often spends his evenings with stars. Orion, Bootes, Taurus — the 12-year-old takes his 15cm refractor telescope to the terrace of their building in Dwarka to spot many constellations. Sahal, who is home-schooled, was first drawn to astronomy when he read a book on the subject a few years ago. A visit to the Nehru Planetarium in New Delhi with his mother followed, and he was hooked to stargazing.
The milky way: Sahal was named Young Astronomer in 2006 and 2007 by the Nehru Planetarium, Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Sahal watched shows on the universe and the solar system, attended meetings of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Delhi (www.aaadelhi.org) and, in 2004, became the association’s youngest member at the age of 8. These days, he enjoys the theoretical aspect of astronomy because it helps him with physics and math.
Similarly, for Krittika Walia, a class XI student at Sachdeva Public School, Rohini, New Delhi, joining the Astronomica Club in July was a way of making optics lessons in her physics class easier to comprehend. “When they explained how a telescope works, some of the concepts behind our physics lab experiments became clearer,” says the 15-year-old.
The benefits of stargazing go beyond just making optics and math easier to understand. N. Rathnasree, director, Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi, says, “When a child gets interested in astronomy, it helps to improve his observation skills, sows the seeds of interest in research and inculcates a love for all fields of science.”
C.B. Devgun, president, SPACE (www.space-india.org), which runs more than 120 astronomy-related societies in schools across the National Capital Region, and director, Stepl (www.stepl.org), which runs the Astronomica Club agrees. “After all, astronomy is the mother of all sciences, and I have seen kids interested in it finding physics, chemistry, and math easier to understand,” he says.
For a handful of children, such as Sahal and Krittika, astronomy is a discipline, a subject of study. But many others are discovering that stargazing is fun, thanks to some clubs, organizations and amateur astronomers. They are popularizing it as an instructive as well as enjoyable pastime, and the telescope man is making an appearance at birthday parties.
A couple of years ago, Sukanya Chhabra’s son Vidur developed an interest in stars. So, for his birthday, she decided to organize a stargazing session on the terrace of their building in Bandra, Mumbai. Chhabra invited S. Natarajan, an honorary lecturer at the Nehru Planetarium, Mumbai, for a talk on stars. She says the children enjoyed the session thoroughly. Though 16-year-old Vidur’s interest in astronomy has diminished of late, Chhabra continues to organize astronomy-related activities on the terrace for her twin daughters, Ishita and Shuchita (class VII) and other kids. “Even adults join in, and as long as we have about 10-15 people willing to participate, Natarajan is happy to come over,” she says.
Natarajan, a BSNL employee, charges only a two-way taxi fare as his fee, while an evening of stargazing organized by Stepl costs a minimum of Rs6,000 for 40 people. “Elementary information like Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s four moons, etc., excites children very much. And when they can see these planets through the telescope, they get even more enthused. I want more and more children to get interested in the topic and as long as that is happening I don’t mind going anywhere,” says Natarajan.
Members of the Bangalore Astronomical Society (BAS) visit schools and housing colonies in the city on request to initiate children and adults into the mysteries of the solar system. “These visits attract curious children first, but slowly adults also show interest,” says Naveen Nanjundappa, vice president, BAS (www.bas.org.in). “We start at 6pm with a presentation and then move on to the gazing. Sometimes, it’s difficult to wrap up at by 10.30pm because people are so excited about their newly discovered passion.”
With more and more children getting interested in astronomy, parents of pre-teens are now willing to spend the Rs3,000 a year that SPACE charges for sessions it organizes in schools. The 18 sessions include regular telescope viewings, information on local celestial coordinates, and an overnight trip to sites with little light pollution to observe the night sky. “There are two types of kids who join our clubs—for 90% of them, this is short-term fun but for the remaining 10%, somewhere along the line astronomy becomes a career option. I foresee the numbers in the latter group growing,” says Devgun.
With 2009 declared the International Year of Astronomy by the UN, Rathnasree says stargazing is likely to become more popular, but she has a word of advice for parents whose children are beginners: “Don’t rush out to buy a telescope. Encourage your child to join an amateur group first, read up books written by authors such as Patrick Moore, and surf websites such as www.skyglobe.com to get informed about stars, etc.”
Two things that can spark off interest in celestial sciences
# Telescope Making Kit
This do-it- yourself kit is the perfect way to introduce your child to astronomy. For children above 7, Rs245. For telescopes, games and puzzles, log on to ‘www.gnomonastrotech.com’.
# Journey Through the Universe
Take a trip to Agra and visit The Adlabs Cinemas’ 6D movie theatre to catch ‘Journey Through the Universe’—a weekend show about the solar system, the earth, the moon and what the universe looks like now. For details about schedules and tickets log on to ‘www.adlabscinemas.com’.
Pavitra Jayaraman in Bangalore contributed to this story