Home / Opinion / Columns /  When it’s time for the amateur stuff
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Something happened at 7:21pm on the last day of February a few years ago. The thousands of boisterous kids who had roamed the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) campus all day had all left. Left were some professional astronomers, some students, some weary staff and me, visiting for the day. We took a long walk past the GMRT’s antennae, then flopped down on the lawn for a chat. At precisely 7:21pm, a bright dot appeared in the north-west, scudded swiftly across the sky and vanished to the southeast. This was the International Space Station (ISS), making one of its regular passes overhead: for a few minutes, the brightest object in the sky. One astronomer mused as the dot vanished: “We become professional—then we forget about the amateur stuff! I’m so glad we saw the ISS!" On Science Day at the GMRT, the professionals are amateur again.

The GMRT sprawls across the landscape near Narayangaon, north of Pune. At some 25km across, it is one of the world’s largest radio telescopes. It is actually 30 individual dishes, arranged in a “Y". Working in concert, the 30 dishes behave like one huge antenna. But even so, “huge" is relative. There’s the upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, which will have dishes in both Australia and South Africa. So it will effectively be not 25, but several thousand kilometers across. Think of that.

Divya Oberoi, a GMRT astronomer, once wrote to me these eloquent lines about it: “Research conducted using the GMRT spans a large range—from studying the Sun to the most distant galaxies and even the early history of our universe. Astronomy, at its heart, is a quest to satisfy human curiosity, and what happens at the GMRT is no exception. As Sherlock Holmes would have put it, it is the epitome of ‘the art of logical deduction’: a curiously engaging attempt to understand the world around us and the laws of nature which govern it." Something of that spirit erupts from the GMRT every 28 February. The great physicist CV Raman discovered the Raman effect on that day in 1928, and won the Nobel for it later. This is why we know it as National Science Day. The GMRT celebrates Science Day in the best possible way: they reach out to the surrounding community and exchange science.

It happens like this: thousands of kids from nearby schools and colleges flood the campus. Some bring science projects and put them on display, so it’s like one gigantic science fair. The GMRT folks put their science on display too, so the visitors understand why these mysterious antennae are here and what they can actually do.

And everyone at GMRT pitches in. Like one of the security guards, patiently telling students, again and again through the day, a fundamental GMRT rule: don’t use cellphones! Because they interfere with the working of the telescope.

Speaking of which, I watched Vinod Suradkar of the Shri RD Bhakt College of Polytechnic in Jalna explain to the hordes shuffling past how his Mobile Phone Hand Crank Charger worked. He cranked, I could see the phone charging. A 10th Standard girl from Kukadi Valley Public School in Yedgaon bubbled with enthusiasm for her idea of solar-powered timer-driven lampposts - they will both save electricity and improve traffic flow, she assured me. A few tables away was Priyanka Shete, a final-year student from Dilip Valse Patil College. She spelled out her plan to make biodiesel from algae. “Don’t we have a lot of algae?" she asked. I admitted that we probably do.

There was a model of a sensor-operated railway level crossing, a simple way to cut down human error and accidents. There was a coconut-tree climbing device in which you trust your life to tension and friction—not a bad bargain. There was an idea for a voice-controlled wheelchair. There were over 300 such student projects on display. Ringing the nearest GMRT antenna were several shamianas complementing these student efforts, showcasing astronomy at the GMRT. One explained an ongoing upgrade to the telescope that would make it even more sensitive. Another detailed how to build an Affordable Small Radio Telescope (ASRT) using a Tata Sky dish and other easily-found components: make serious cosmic observations for just about 2,000.

Outside, a GMRT astronomer and two volunteers were bent over a long tube, an optical telescope. They rigged it to project an image of the sun on a board. “Don’t look into the telescope!" they admonished someone who was about to try just that, “unless you want to burn out your eyes!" For that is what the light of the sun, focused and concentrated through a telescope, will do. Clearly visible in the projected image, though, were several sunspots – dark dots on a bright disk, oddly like an outbreak of herpes. The volunteers told us that the spots are darker because they are “cooler" than elsewhere on the surface. Relative, of course: they are still at 4000°C. You’ll need a fan.

Under the antenna itself, I overheard another volunteer telling an awestruck student, in Marathi, that the GMRT is laid out “Ingreji akshar Y sarkha" ("like the English letter Y"). With that introduction, she explained how the telescope works. Nearby, Divya Oberoi told a small crowd why the antennae are constructed as gigantic wire meshes. That works because astronomers here, he said, are interested in long-wavelength (of the order of a metre) radio waves. That’s so long that “the waves don’t know" they are bouncing off a mesh rather than a smooth surface. Only scientists, I reflected (pun intended), would speak of radio waves as perceptive beings that “know" what they are doing.

Much of all this—students to astronomers—is interesting to anyone with the slightest scientific bent. But in thinking about the visiting kids in particular, it seemed to me that the intrinsic scientific value of their projects was less important than their eagerness to engage with science. And that was the really encouraging thing about Science Day. And that’s also why I liked this celebration so much. I wonder if too many of our elite scientific institutions – engineering colleges, research labs, telescopes – are set in the midst of communities that they don’t engage with enough. The GMRT certainly seeks to change that. Its scientists work hard not just to tell Science Day visitors what they are doing, but also to hear about the visitors’ own brushes with science, however elementary they might seem. I still imagine those thousands of kids going home thinking, “This Y-shaped place is somewhere I can visit and learn from. This Y-shaped place belongs to me too."

C.V. Raman would agree. He once wrote: “The true wealth of a nation consists not in the stored-up gold, but in the intellectual and physical strength of its people." And perhaps that’s also why, on the lawn that evening, the astronomer remembered “the amateur stuff."

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun.

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