To the stars

At a time when many parts of the world are developing the scientific expertise and technical know-how to survive in the future, very little is being done to develop scientific inquiry amongst Pakistani children in their formative years. While education transforms itself from a social service into a profit-oriented business venture, our future seems bleaker still. While few projects aimed at creating an interest in science amongst children have seen the light of day, perhaps none have literally reached for the stars. That may soon change if a group of people has its way in rolling out a new initiative for promoting astronomy in Pakistan.

Conceived when 2009 was declared as the International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations, a consortium of non-governmental organisations and the National Space Commission applied for and won a grant of a hundred telescopes for Pakistan. As a responsive party to the global call for proposals, one is proud to be part of the winning consortium and pleased to announce that the telescopes are now in the country and distribution plans are getting the finishing touches at the time of writing. Even the Honourable Chief Minister of Punjab took the time to set up a working group to help distribute the telescopes amongst educational institutions and underprivileged communities in the province. While the gesture is certainly appreciated considering the many political and official commitments of the Chief Minister, such is the state of compliance within the Punjab administration that not a single meeting of the concerned individuals has been convened despite several reminders by one irate columnist. That is either a good thing, or the very worst. Being able to secure scientific equipment for Pakistan is a feat in and of itself, but to gain official patronage in distribution brings hope that perhaps a new scientific awakening embedded in a sustainable science policy may emerge from what is primarily a philanthropic venture. If that doesn’t merit whole hearted support of the public sector then what else does?

Officially referred to as Galileoscopes in honour of Galileo Galilee, the telescopes are designed to show heavenly bodies as the legendary Italian astronomer would have seen when he challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church over four hundred years ago. Produced with high quality materials for superior optics, each Galileoscope can be assembled within minutes and enjoyed as a basic observation tool for many years. Considering the potential impact and utility of the instruments, the only regret one has is not being able to donate them to each and every educational institution that can commit to promoting astronomy.

It would be easy to pick and choose beneficiaries in an arbitrary manner, or oblige them with a special favour, for we have a knack for doing that pretty well as a nation. Instead, perhaps adopting a targeted approach to ensure beneficiary ownership and participation is necessary. It is hoped that the distribution of Galileoscopes can be supplemented with a teacher training program which develops the capacity of institutions to impart cutting edge knowledge of astronomy with proper educational tools that can spark the imagination of our youth. Local astronomy clubs such as the Society of the Sun and the Lahore Astronomy Society have been trying to promote astronomy amongst organisations like the SOS Children’s Villages and Punjab University for several years, and the time is now right to scale up efforts with the support of the public and private sector. While our decision-makers have been investing heavily at the tertiary level, we run the risk of neglecting the role of science and technology in educational institutions catering to the primary and secondary level.

If the future leaders of Pakistan are to have a vision for the country, then it should be a universal one developed relatively early in their academic curricula. There is a good reason why it is important to nurture astronomy amongst school going children in Pakistan. Often called the mother of all sciences, astronomical inquiry into stars and planets ultimately leads down a route where chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and universal awareness hold all the answers. It is indeed a most desirable route to nudge our youth towards, and it all starts with the contents of a cardboard box. With the right mix of institutional support, governmental facilitation and grassroots participation, it is hoped that the Galileoscopes would soon be in the hands of the intended beneficiaries and the youth of the nation can learn to reach for the stars.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.