Lift the Veil and Look

Dilip D'Souza
Grist Media14 March 2014

The icing on top came at 7.21pm. The thousands of high-spirited kids who had been roaming the GMRT campus all day had left. The only folks left were some professional astronomers, a few students, some weary staff and me, also weary. Some of us went for a long walk, then returned. And at precisely 7.21pm, a bright dot appeared in the northwest sky and slid swiftly past overhead. For those few minutes, it was the brightest object in the sky: the International Space Station.

One of the astronomers, Ananda Hota, flopped down beside me on a patch of lawn. "We become professional," he said, "and we forget about the amateur stuff! I'm so glad we saw the ISS!"

Science Day at the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT): when the professionals are amateur again.

So how many of us know that the world's largest radio telescope sprawls across the landscape near Narayangaon, 80km north of Pune? That's GMRT, actually 30 individual dishes that are arranged in a rough "Y" some 25km across. Working in concert, they behave like one huge antenna. (Though if you think 30km is huge, which it is, imagine the ongoing joint Australian/South African project to build such a telescope that, given its presence in both countries, will effectively be thousands of kilometers across). Work began on the GMRT in 1992 and was the vision of Govind Swarup, one of the country's best-known astronomers. About 15 astronomers work there, and by now, it has been used by astronomers from over 30 countries around the world; in fact, about half of GMRT's observations have been made for projects led by scientists outside India.

While I have some idea what happens at GMRT, Divya Oberoi, an astronomer there, wrote me lines that put it more eloquently than I ever could: "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 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."

* * *

India celebrates National Science Day every February 28. The great physicist CV Raman discovered the Raman effect on that day in 1928, and won the Nobel for it two years later. The GMRT celebrates Science Day too, actually over two days - February 28 and March 1 (well, in leap years that's February 28 and 29). And they do it in the best possible way, as far as this dabbler in astronomy and mathematics is concerned: they reach out to the community around the GMRT and exchange science.

If that's a mildly clumsy locution, it's also a good way to put it. Because this is what happens: tens of thousands of kids from nearby schools and colleges flood onto the campus. Some of them bring science projects and put them on display, so it's like one gigantic science
fair. At the same time, the GMRT folks put their science on display too, so the kids and their teachers can get a sense of why all these mysterious antennae are here and what they can actually do.

And everyone at GMRT - engineers, contractors, scientists, administration and other staff - pitches in to make it all happen. I even overheard 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. An often-futile reminder, admittedly - how do you really control thousands of high-spirited kids out for the day? - but his diligence said something about the dedication that goes into Science Day here.

Several colourful shamianas have been erected on a large open area adjoining one of the antennae. In one of them, Vinod Suradkar of the Shri RD Bhakt College of Polytechnic in Jalna explains to the hordes shuffling past how his Mobile Hand Crank Charger works. Sure enough, I can actually see those little bars on his Nokia screen moving. Elsewhere, a 10th Standard girl from Kukadi Valley Public School in Yedgaon is overflowing with enthusiasm for how her idea of solar-powered timer-driven lampposts will both save electricity and improve traffic flow. Pratik Kulkarni of Samarth Polytechnic tells an 8th standard kid about his solar multi agro-cutter, a large device for harvesting crops. The kid interrupts to say, apropos of nothing, "I speak Hindi, Marathi, English and French!" Seeing a chance to practice my own painfully limited French, I ask: "Parlez-vous français?" He says "Yes", but Pratik cuts off any further exchange with this intriguing observation: "If you want to learn scientific techniques you must speak Marathi." When I ask, Pratik just smiles enigmatically. A few tables away, Priyanka Shete, a final-year student from Dilip Valse Patil College waves me over and spells out her plan to make biodiesel from algae. "Don't we have a lot of algae?" she asks me, and I have to admit we do.

There's a model of a sensor-operated railway level crossing, a simple way to cut down human error and therefore accidents. There's a coconut-tree climbing device in which you trust your life to tension and friction - not a bad bargain, actually. There's an idea for a voice-controlled wheelchair. There's an irrigation system that senses how wet the soil already is before releasing water.

There are over 300 such student projects on display, all being judged. And there's plenty more, including lectures, film screenings and the sale of science kits and books.

In a shamiana across the field, a scientist in a greying beard and brown kurta does a number of simple but delightfully telling experiments with candles, glass tubes and bits of orange peel. The flame goes off when he does this, it stays lit when he does this other thing, it flares up when he squeezes the peel at it - and in this way, Surendra Kulkarni of the Science Popularisation and Public Outreach Group at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research manages to keep a few hundred kids at a time enthralled. It must get exhausting, because nearly 20,000 kids streamed into the campus over the two days and they all seemed to have stopped to listen to him. But he never loses his unhurried good humor.

Ringing the nearby antenna is a series of shamianas that complement these efforts, showcasing astronomy and the GMRT. One is devoted to the ongoing upgrade to the telescope that will make it even more sensitive than it is. Another details how to build an Affordable Small Radio Telescope (ASRT) using a Tata Sky dish and other easily found components that will set you back by only about Rs 2,000. Yet it can make real observations.

A third shamiana has charts and a model to explain how those curious cosmic phenomena called pulsars work - very dense, compact stars that rotate rapidly, and in many cases, several hundred times a second. They beam radiation into space and we catch that beam once per rotation: thus their brightness seems to pulse. Think of a lighthouse and its rotating beam.

Outside the ASRT shamiana, the GMRT astronomer Niruj Mohan Ramanujam and two volunteers are bent over a long tube. It's an optical telescope. They rig it so that it projects an image of the sun onto a bulletin board. "Don't look into the telescope!" Niruj admonishes someone who is about to try exactly that. "Well, unless you want to burn out your eyes!" - which is what the sun, concentrated through these lenses, will do. Clearly visible in the projected image are several sunspots - dark dots in that bright disk, oddly like an outbreak of herpes. The volunteers tell us that these spots on the sun's surface are "cooler" than elsewhere on the surface. This is relative, of course: they are still at 4000°C. You'll need a fan.

Under the antenna itself, Divya Oberoi explains to a small crowd why the antennae are constructed as gigantic wire meshes. That works because astronomers here, he says, are interested in long-wavelength (of the order of a meter) 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 reflect (pun intended again), would speak of radio waves as perceptive beings that "know" what they are doing. And I overhear another volunteer telling an awestruck student, in Marathi, that the GMRT is laid out "Ingreji akshar Y saarkha (Like the English letter Y)". With that introduction, she explains how the GMRT works. Over in the "Ask an astronomer" booth, a visiting journalist tries to impress the resident astronomer with "Tell me about the Schwartzschild radius." The astronomer obliges, though what he says about Schwartzschild leaves the too-clever journalist baffled.

Much of this is interesting to anyone with the slightest scientific bent. But in thinking about the visiting kids in particular, it seems to me that the intrinsic scientific value of their projects is less important than their willingness, their eagerness, to engage with science. And that's the really encouraging thing about this Science Day.

And that's why I like the idea of this celebration so much. I've always felt that too many of our elite scientific institutions - the engineering colleges, the research labs, the telescopes - are set down in the midst of communities that they don't engage with enough. Minimal contact between an institution and its surroundings sometimes lets loose a creeping resentment of its existence. But the GMRT tries to slice through 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. You can imagine those thousands of kids going home thinking, "You know, this is not some esoteric place that's forever closed to me. No, this is somewhere I can visit and learn from. This is a place that belongs to me too."

I've never had much time for the calls for some Indians to "sacrifice for the greater national good" or some other such emptiness. But you make Indians feel they're part of a great national enterprise - and to me, the search for knowledge that GMRT stands for is right up there - that's a different story. And I think the GMRT is trying, in its own small but significant way, to tell that story.

CV Raman himself, I like to think, had that same spirit in him. About the acclaimed mathematician Euclid, he once wrote that reading his work "lift[s] the veil and show[s] to our vision a glimpse of a vast world of natural knowledge awaiting study."

At the GMRT, I can almost feel that veil lifting, that vast world beckoning to us all. After all, as Raman also 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."

Speaking of intellectual strength, there's this confession. The too-clever journalist? That was me.

Dilip D'Souza writes to keep his cats fed. This pursuit has resulted in four books (most recently, "The Curious Case of Binayak Sen" and "Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America") and several writing awards (the Newsweek/Daily Beast Prize and the Outlook/Picador prize, among others). The cats seem happy. Follow him @DeathEndsFun.