Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Musings from the IISc Open Day: Bringing science to the masses

Initiatives like the IISc Open Day strive to make science more accessible, but the debate on the public dissemination of science rages on

“Is this a liquid or a solid?"

“Lllllliqqqquuuuiiddd!" came the reply from a group of schoolchildren congregated around a gooey liquid mass in a tank. The consensus among the hubbub was that this mixture was flowing freely but was nearly incompressible—necessary and sufficient properties for a liquid. 

“Watch," said the 20-something man, as the young faces followed his every word. He might as well have been a top-hat-wearing performer.

“Then why does this ball bounce on its surface?" he asked—as the onlookers gaped in disbelief—dropping a ball on the supposed liquid and catching it on the rebound. The ball seemed to be under his bidding, rising to greater and greater heights as he bounced it ever harder.

Just when the audience was coming to terms with its weird properties, he left the ball on its surface, only for it to sink to the bottom. Just what was this capricious substance after all?

He then leaned in, and, in one sweeping motion of the head, said, “This liquid is gggoooddd for ggggoooodddd people and baaaad for baaaaaad people," stretching the syllables for dramatic effect. Some of the children weren’t impressed. 

“Aiyyoooo, stupppiddd uncle," said one, forehead meeting palm.

Then, at the thrilling climax (sans a drum roll), he proceeded to jump high in the air and feet first into the tank. There were gasps. Others braced for impact, with closed eyes and contorted faces. 

But just like that, the “uncle" was continuously jumping on the liquid’s surface (which had become like a trampoline due to an increase in viscosity), eliciting applause from the crowd. The children soon joined in and jumped on the bandwagon (pun intended).

All those memories (partly embellished, of course) from seven years ago came flooding back while watching a volunteer demonstrate the speciality of corn flour mixed with water (a non-Newtonian fluid) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Open Day in Bengaluru on 4 March. 

Photo: Vyasa Shastry
Photo: Vyasa Shastry

Seven years ago, I was the volunteer who handled the display that evoked the “stupid uncle" response.

Then, when quizzed about real-world applications by curious but unsuspecting audience members, I and my willing accomplice had seen several sheepish iterations of our “add maida and masala to it, dip cauliflower florets, and then fry them in oil to produce gobi machurian" punchline fall flat, before shortly telling them about liquid armour.

This year’s corn flour display eschewed the unintended comic relief (sticking to the “serious" applications, no gobi involved), but it hit the spot, just like always. 

Manjesh Kumar, a 15-year-old with aspirations of becoming an engineer, was clearly impressed with the display: “I had no idea something as simple as corn flour and water could be used to demonstrate concepts of viscosity in such a fun manner. [When I go back home] I’m going to try this one myself." 

The others nodded in unison. The IISc Open Day had made its mark.

Photo: Vyasa Shastry
Photo: Vyasa Shastry

*** 

The Open Day, held every year, is mostly organized and managed by volunteers—largely graduate and research students.

Just what motivates them to stand at a stall for hours on end, explaining their bit of science? Is it really possible to explain everything—the theories and their applications—in a matter of minutes (for that’s likely as long as the audience will stick around at a single stall)?

“I was eager to explain the impact of science to the public," said Vibha Venkataramu, a PhD scholar at the Centre of Sustainable Technologies, who was explaining the advantages of the eco-friendly stabilized mud blocks developed by IISc’s researchers. 

“While it may not be possible for everyone to understand all the details in a short span, many of them showed a lot of enthusiasm and asked a lot of intelligent questions. Some of them even got in touch about using this technology to construct their houses," she said.

However, the constraints of initiatives such as the Open Day—explaining complicated science that has been developed over years in a matter of minutes to the general, sometimes science illiterate, public—cannot be ignored.

Indeed, the various challenges involved in communication of science to the public, and the roles of stakeholders such as institutions and researchers in kindling an interest among the populace, is the subject of much debate. 

While Venkataramu felt the advantages outweighed the constraint, several academics don’t hold outreach programmes like the Open Day in high esteem. Recently, in an article on Scroll, Janaki Nair, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, expressed her displeasure about a similar event at JNU.

“Among the events that revealed this conviction was the Open Day recently organized for school students to ‘see how JNU academics work’. However, turning a research university like JNU, with very few undergraduate courses, into an observable lab animal even for a day speaks of a bankruptcy of vision," Nair wrote.

It must be noted that IISc is also primarily a research university—most of the students have graduate degrees. In any case, the appeal of science is in the spirit of discovery, which an event like the institute’s Open Day offers in oodles.

“My comment was merely that everything that works for a science/technology institution may not work for a principally social science establishment," Nair wrote in an email to me. “The demystification of labs which is necessary for the wider public cannot be matched by a similar demystification of humanities and social science thought processes (largely debate, reading, discussion)."

When probed further about her earlier remarks, she did not respond.

***

The IISc’s Open Day is the brainchild of Vikram Jayaram, divisional chairman of mechanical sciences at the institute. Creating awareness about science by reaching out to the public has always been one of his pet themes, and in 2009, Jayaram (then a professor in the department of materials engineering) and a founding team (of which this author was a part of) envisioned an event open to all, replete with popular science talks, displays on ongoing research and live demonstrations.

“The whole process of getting the right people interested in science starts at a young age," Jayaram says over the phone. “Therefore, I was interested in creating awareness about the department and science among the public, particularly at the secondary school level."

While different departments from IISc had held one-off displays in the past, a large-scale even at the institutional level came about only in 2010, with the first Open Day (held on the founder’s day weekend, celebrating the birth anniversary of Jamsetji Tata), after the concept struck a chord with the powers that be. 

Since then, it has become an annual fixture, with the administration’s full support, and the gates of the institute are wide open to the general public. Visitors of all ages (with schoolchildren galore) flood the campus, eager to catch the various demonstrations/displays at different departments. 

“The Institute has a budget for the Open Day, and departments are given their share based on their requests. Some departments seek additional support either through sponsorships, or through exhibits from other organizations," says Jayaram.

Long queues waiting for their turn to view the exhibits at different departments were characteristic of the IISc Open Day. 
Long queues waiting for their turn to view the exhibits at different departments were characteristic of the IISc Open Day. 

This year’s Open Day was spread out all across all of IISc’s 40-odd departments. The verdant campus spans over 350 acres, and visiting all departments—choc-a-bloc with tens of thousands of visitors—is no easy task, but one well worth the effort. 

The public flocked to all the traditional favourites—drones, artificial lightning, the wind tunnel and demonstrations involving electricity and colourful chemical reactions—keeping the volunteers busy. And that’s without accounting for the bevy of quizzes, panel discussions and puzzles, which drew their fair share of attention too.

***

IISc’s Prof. Gautam Desiraju, whose name is synonymous with crystal engineering and the hydrogen bond, is cautious in the face of calls for opening up scientific institutions to the public.

When asked whether scientists at government-funded institutions ought to explain their work in a public forum, Desiraju, who has delivered hundreds of popular science talks to a range of audiences in a career of teaching and research spanning almost 40 years, says, “People talk passionately about the taxpayer needing to know about what is being done. But, if I dissect it closely, the taxpayers’ money finds its way to the institute via the government and various funding agencies." 

“Therefore, our findings are certainly, and should be, communicated to scientific committees and funding bodies to whom we are directly responsible. It is highly desirable if a researcher communicates his or her findings with the general public. However, this should not be mandated, or expected," he said, echoing some of the thoughts he had expressed a couple of months ago in an article for The Hindu.

How can we hope to solve this conundrum then?

“The primary responsibility of a researcher is to carry out high quality research, and communicate his or her findings to the scientific community by means of a refereed publication and/or a patent," says Desiraju. “I have often felt that when I give popular science talks, even to an ‘educated’ audience, I either end up oversimplifying the science, or in my quest to explain it with all the details, it goes over everyone’s heads." 

The articulation of popular science in public forums, he feels, “is best done by specialists such as Carl Sagan".

In other words, excellence in research and communicating its results through a quality peer-reviewed process is both necessary and sufficient for a researcher, but articulating their findings and theories in a manner accessible to the public is only desirable. 

Vyasa Shastry is a materials engineer and a consultant who aspires to be a polymath in the future. In his spare time, he writes about science, technology, sport and society. He has contributed to The Hindu (thREAD), The Wire and Scroll.

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