Science outside labs

Various outreach programmes are bringing science to the masses, but there is more to be done

November 20, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Horizontal vector illustration showing inventor/scientist and his mind processes. We can see the inventor silhouette surrounded with different elements which are showing different processes and approaches while solving a problem. We can see magnifying glass a metaphor/symbol for identification/closer look on a problem; puzzles for looking the right parts; light bulb for idea; ladders for improvement; gears and wheels for thinking; speech bubbles for different thoughts/ideas; arrows for direction of thinking; question marks for questioning and self verification; connectors for integration. There are also lot of icons related with science: DNA, microscope, laboratory equipment, molecular structure, cells, bacteria,  ect. Illustration is vibrant and eye catching and also nicely layered.

Horizontal vector illustration showing inventor/scientist and his mind processes. We can see the inventor silhouette surrounded with different elements which are showing different processes and approaches while solving a problem. We can see magnifying glass a metaphor/symbol for identification/closer look on a problem; puzzles for looking the right parts; light bulb for idea; ladders for improvement; gears and wheels for thinking; speech bubbles for different thoughts/ideas; arrows for direction of thinking; question marks for questioning and self verification; connectors for integration. There are also lot of icons related with science: DNA, microscope, laboratory equipment, molecular structure, cells, bacteria, ect. Illustration is vibrant and eye catching and also nicely layered.

‘Chai and Why,’ a popular outreach programme conducted by a group of faculty members of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, hosted its 250th event on November 18. The programme, which has been going strong since 2009, comprises talks and demonstrations by scientists or research scholars on a science topic, pitched at an easy-to-grasp level. These talks take place on alternate Sundays at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, among other places.

A similar annual event, ‘Science at the Sabha’, is conducted by scientists from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. For three years since 2016, SATS, which includes four talks from four different disciplines in science, has been held at the Music Academy, Chennai, known as the premier city platform hosting musical and dance programmes. As a bonus, at last year’s event, the organisers distributed dodecahedral calendars for free.

The National Centre of Biological Sciences has in its cocktail of outreach activities a programme called ‘Out of the Lab,’ in which scientists from the institute can be invited to homes, where they address fascinating aspects of their respective fields to neighbours who have gathered together.

There is little doubt that outreach programmes have come far from the days when they were thought of as additions to academic work. Science in its very practice tends to lead researchers into ivory towers. The more demanding the task, the less time the scientist has to communicate the relevance of her work. The first casualty of this traditional workflow is that knowledge of what goes on within the lab is understood by few outside. The other is that labs within research institutes get separated from the universities, colleges and schools where future scientists are groomed. Add to this existing social gaps due to language, class or caste, and you have an apparently insurmountable situation.

Outreach programmes do a lot to break the notion that research can be understood only by people within the lab. They do, however, suffer from a couple of drawbacks such as of scalability and of reaching beyond urban borders. The Indian National Science Academy encourages its Fellows to travel to remote locations and give talks. Delhi-based Vigyan Prasar, in conjunction with science clubs across the country, holds camps to demonstrate science experiments beyond textbooks. For three years now, they have roped in many partners to commemorate zero shadow day (for two days in a year, those within the tropics can observe that a vertical pole does not cast a shadow).

While such activities enthuse participants and stoke scientific temper, they still may not convey the power of science fully. If collaborations proliferate that leverage the willingness of research institutions to engage in outreach, and use it creatively, much more can be achieved.

The writer covers science for The Hindu

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