December 30, 2016 12:48 am | Updated 12:52 am IST

Bringing science out of the laboratory

Scientists are stepping out of their academic cocoons to get the general public more enthused about the work they do

Mumbai: “I hope everyone had a sumptuous Sunday breakfast before you came here,” Suranjana Pal says, smiling. “Just like the protein in your breakfast will soon break down into energy, biological recycling systems break down dangerous proteins and turn them into fresh building blocks for the cells, the discovery of which won Yoshinori Ohsumi the Nobel Prize in medicine this year.” Ms. Pal, a Ph.D. aspirant at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, isn’t motivating a bunch of college students; she is speaking to a motley crowd of laypersons, at Chai and Why, a forum TIFR runs, which meets every alternate weekend to discuss scientific issues in a ‘science café’ format.

Chai and Why has been running for eight years, Dr. Arnab Bhattacharya, Professor and Chair of TIFR Public Outreach, says. “Our programmes have been well received in and around Mumbai, especially with their strong connect with children through the sessions with hands-on activities. Now that people have heard of the name, it's sometimes easier to get scientists to come and talk at one of our sessions.”

India may be one of the only countries in the world whose constitution speaks of developing a scientific temperament among the population: Article 51A, Sub-clause (h), on ‘Fundamental Duties’ says, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

This goal can’t be met by only offering formal scientific education in classrooms. In fact, the education system as it is, with a focus on marks and passing examinations rather than learning, can work against creating a scientific temper. “I think we’re losing the joy of learning science,” Dr. Arnab Bhattacharya says. “Mugging up a couple of equations, solving a few formulae and finding out that g equals 9.8 metres per second squared isn't science.” It’s not just about investigating the unknown, he says, “We live in a world where you are going to be influenced by what is happening in the world of science. Unless you have some basic understanding of the subject, you cannot take sound decisions today, from reducing your electricity bill to supporting genetically modified crops.”

Chai and Why, though, is just one of several regular programmes in the region that are focussed on kindling a love for science, or at least a scientific attitude to life.

The Exciting Science Group in Pune is a similar initiative. Run by scientists from the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) and faculty from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, it which focusses on school-kids between classes 8 and 10. Dr. Guruswamy Kumaraswamy, who heads its coordination team and also teaches at NCL, says, “We send our Ph.D. students from NCL and IISER to municipal schools to run science clubs there and hold workshops. The kids there then come up with independent projects and compete with the best schools in the city in science fairs. It is very important and only fair that they get this exposure before they choose their streams.”

ThinQ is another initiative based out of Pune which, through its team of experts, deconstructs science syllabi taught in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions and helps design more integrated ways of learning. Among other things, ThinQ curates resources in the form of books, videos and audio which are accessible to everyone through their website, and also runs open workshops for interested people.

In 2012, Aishik Ghosh and his classmates in St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, curated and started a science festival called Paradigm. “We were a bit frustrated that there was nothing beyond the curriculum for science students. And we were naive enough to think we could make a difference. But to be honest, we were blown away by the amount of support we got,” he says. Paradigm, like many other annual college festivals such as the recently concluded Techfest by IIT Bombay, hosts an array of public lectures, exhibitions and competitions related to science.

There are also older examples of science outreach.

Arvind Gupta, a Pune-based toy inventor, has been using trash and recycled material to demonstrate the principles of science and design to children for over 30 years. “We believe that the best thing a child can do with a toy is to break it,” Mr. Gupta says. In workshops, lectures and demonstrations in schools and outside, Mr. Gupta uses material ranging from matchsticks and straws to used packaging material and CDs to explain complex concepts like centrifugal force and chemical bonds to children, work that has earned him the Indira Gandhi Award for Science Popularisation in 2008.

Away from the glare of urban light sources, the Akash Ganga Centre for Astronomy (AGCA) in Badlapur brings people together to share their knowledge and excitement about the science of the skies. While the group mainly focuses on meteors and organises sky-observation programmes during meteor showers, it also organises exhibitions, camps and tours on a range of other topics, from making one's own telescope to solar observation programmes. Dr. Bharat Adur, former director of the Nehru Centre Planetarium in Mumbai and now a senior member of AGCA, says, “We have students, retired air force officers, retired municipality office workers and people from all other walks of life who come and join our programmes.” The AGCA has also developed its own observatory, with its own telescope and accessories to facilitate a wider variety of astronomical events to be hosted at the centre.

In research institutions in India, most of which are publicly funded, outreach is traditionally done not through dialogue but by a public relations office through what Dr. Bhattacharya calls an information-deficit model: “Basically a one-way flow of information that says, ‘If you knew what I knew, you would believe what I believe.’” Institutions like the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune and TIFR in Mumbai, among many others, conduct Open Days for the public, where anyone can walk into their laboratories and understand where the current research is heading.

Then there are institutions established by the government, such as the Nehru Science Centre (NSC) and the Nehru Centre Planetarium (NCP), that have a limited mandate to popularise science among the public, and unlike many research-oriented bodies, they have a dedicated staff who look after only outreach activities. Arvind Paranjpye, director of the NCP, says while most of planetarium’s shows are sold-out, a large part of the audience is school children on guided excursions, or tourists brought there by tour guides. “but we are doing as much as we can to reach out to the public. We hold regular public lectures, support amateur astronomy groups and organise star-gazing nights to attract people to astronomy.” Shivaprasad Khened, director of the NSC, says, “The NSC tries to bring the activist and the scientist together to solve problems of society. Just the other month, we invited people to observe the eclipse here and then offered snacks to bust the myth that one shouldn't eat during eclipses.”

This kind of outreach, most of the administrators of these programmes say, is necessary to tackle the rise of a faith-based attitude to science. Where political figures — not just in India — have made public statements citing religious texts and myth as fact, a deeper evidence-based understanding of our world needs to be built. As Dr. Bhattacharya puts it, “There is a long way to go, but the future is looking up.”

The writer is an intern with The Hindu

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