Looking to the heavens

Published: June 5, 2011
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Young, educated Pakistanis are looking at heavens, not to seek help, but to appreciate the grandeur of the universe.

Young, educated Pakistanis are looking at heavens, not to seek help, but to appreciate the grandeur of the universe.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde

It is an understatement to say that Pakistan is going through a tough time. Scores of civilians have died, and continue to die, in spates of suicide bombings. Many of the recent terrorism suspects in the world have had links to the lawless areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And now, with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, the world’s accusatory fingers are squarely pointed at Pakistan.

But this is also a time when – of all things – amateur astronomy is blooming in Pakistan. An increasing number of young, educated Pakistanis are looking at the heavens, not necessarily to seek help, but to appreciate the grandeur of the universe.

Lahore has seen its share of terrorism in recent years. More than 3,000 lives were lost in these attacks in 2009 alone. But 2009 also marked the rise of popular astronomy in the cultural capital of Pakistan. The Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS), based in Lahore, organised its first Falakayati Mela (Astronomy Festival) at Punjab University in January 2009. The Mela invited children and adults alike to look at the sky with the help of a telescope. The turnout was spectacular: over 500 people showed up to view the majestic rings of Saturn, as well as a close-up of craters on the Moon.

The KSS was not content to open up the universe only to those living in big cities. They brought their telescopes to public schools in small towns in Punjab too. Just a week after the infamous attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, young astronomy enthusiasts from KSS had their telescopes setup at Government High School Number 1, in Phool Nagar, 50 km south of Lahore.

Falakayati Melas continued through 2009 and 2010 in Okara, Jehlum, Shahdara, Swabi and Lahore. At some places 500 people showed up to look at Jupiter, at other places, 1500! While the appetite for wonder was on full display here, suicide bombings also continued throughout Pakistan during this time. Lahore, Rawalpindi, Mian Channu, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan. The total number of people dead in these attacks, unfortunately, outnumbers those who were looking through telescopes at these Falakayati melas.

But the universe goes on.

One of the architects of the Falikyati Melas is Umair Asim. A senior vice principal at a school, he has spent his lifesavings on a telescope and an observatory at the rooftop of his house in Lahore. He is one of the leading amateur astronomers in Pakistan. He recently captured a close-up of some of the Moon’s craters, and this image was picked up as the Lunar Photo of the Day (LPOD) for April 27, 2011 – the first ever from Pakistan. One of the craters in the image, Maupertius, is 44 km in diameter. The entire city of Lahore can comfortably fit in there.

Umair and other astronomers from Lahore are not alone. There are a number of amateur astronomers in Karachi. They delight when power goes out in the city of lights – which seems to happen more than it should. Just this past year, Karachi Astronomy Society (KAS) organised an all-night astronomy session at Badro-Jabel – a dark site, located about 300 km from Karachi. This was an unprecedented gathering of Pakistani astronomers, with some joining in from as far as Lahore. Multiple telescopes were present; the star amongst them was an 18-inch Dobsonian telescope, perhaps the largest of its kind in Pakistan. Its owner, Khalid Marwat, has not only been generous in sharing the telescope, but also in imparting lessons about the night sky.

For one night, a small part of a Pakistani desert had eyes that could see and appreciate the beauty of the Orion nebula – a gas cloud that is forming new stars. This nebula is located about 1500 light years away and is lit by the light of baby stars. It wasn’t in the Orion nebula, but our own Sun was also born in a stellar nursery such as this, a few billion years ago! For a moment, however brief, the news of terrorism seemed to fade away in this cosmic context.

I have my own affinity with the bright night sky of Karachi. I was first smitten by astronomy in the early 1980’s, when Pakistan Television (PTV) aired the first episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. My perspective on life and the universe was never the same. The Karachi night sky did not show many stars, but this encouraged me to imagine planets around other stars, gas clouds being consumed by hungry black holes, and strange galaxies formed “only” a few million years after the Big Bang.

Pakistan, at the time, was under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. The history of US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan was in the process of being intertwined in ways that few imagined at the time. Oblivious to the political realities, a few of us formed an astronomical society by the name of Amastropak – The Amateurs Astronomical Society of Pakistan. In the late 1980s, a few small telescopes in Karachi would regularly scan the skies and bring the rings of Saturn into focus.

I left for the US and received my PhD in astronomy in August 2001. My thesis explored the causes for the triggering of star formation in galaxies millions of light years away. But closer to home, the next ten years would see a dramatic increase in terrorism in Pakistan. Even the shrines of Sufis would not be spared the carnage.

But at the same time we have also seen a growing interest in astronomy in Pakistan. The cause may not be easy to explain, but evidence is there for all to see. Can we build on this interest and have a program that promises small and easy-to-use telescopes all across Pakistan? “Yes to telescopes, no to guns!” Can we make astronomy our national obsession – like cricket or mangoes? Instead of being Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, can Pakistan one day be known as the nation of stargazers, that crazy country where almost everyone has seen the rings of Saturn?

Salman Hameed is assistant professor of Integrated Science & Humanities and director of the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) at Hampshire College, Massachusetts, USA.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 5th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Jun 5, 2011 - 7:09PM

    Salman might be away from Pakistan, but he has persistently helped the astronomers in Pakistan – by donating loads of books, making personal appearances at innumerable lectures in the town and recently, making himself available for live video interactions. What he started back in 80’s continues to grow and cherish and he has a lot to do with it.
    Keep writing the articles Salman! Lets make it a permanent feature of the magazine!Recommend

  • Ramiz
    Jun 5, 2011 - 10:21PM

    Great article… Astronomy has been such a neglected and overlooked subject in Pakistan which is a shame because Muslim scientists of the past were pioneers and had given us a legacy to live up to. You have summarized the booming activities of amateurs and hobbyists very well and I am glad to know that it is taking off!

    And Mr. Editor: We need more articles like this on ET!Recommend

  • Bilal Karim Mughal
    Jun 5, 2011 - 11:48PM

    Yes Dr. Salman, one day we will achieve this target of making this nation “A Stargazer’s Nation” . Agreed to Omer bhai, Dr. Salman’s online lecture was a superb experience which I still remember even after 2 years. Astronomy in Pakistan has a long way to go, but I am glad to see that we are not in a bad state. Started from a few friends, now we have South Asia’s largest telescope too.. :)Recommend

  • Maroof
    Jun 6, 2011 - 1:31AM

    I joined Lahore Astronomical Scoiety in 2005. Have participated in some of KSS Falkyati Melas. The intrest of school childern in Astronomy is remarkable. One student from Okara went on to make his own telescope.

    I did participate in Badro-Jabal event. I have not seen such a dark sky since childhood. The bus trip from Lahore to Hyrdabad and two sleepless nights was all worth it.

    Thank you Salman for the encouraging article. One can not undersatnd the grandure of the Creator without looking at His vast creation.Recommend

  • Jun 6, 2011 - 6:47AM

    Nice tribute to our astronomy efforts in a chaotic country. Throughout Pakistan, we are all a part of one big team. I have a few points to raise here:
    While mentioning the contributions by specifying individuals, I am wondering if we have seriously missed out the amateur telescope making by Pakistani astronomers here? No mention of astronomy for any country is complete without it. And we have a share in it too. Especially to mention the young 17 years old Asad Mehmood of Okara who is capable of figuring out parabolic mirrors and make quality optics out from scratch within his extremely limited resources, and only one of his kind in Pakistan as far as I know. There are other telescope makers in other parts of Pakistan, details of which are not that unknown as the article would have suggested otherwise.
    Telescope designing and making is one of the biggest contributions one can do for astronomy especially in a country like Pakistan where there are no astronomy telescope outlets otherwise. Apart from that, currently we are entirely resorting to either bringing smaller equipments from overseas or getting bigger ones shipped to Pakistan with hefty costs involved.
    Secondly, discussing the extremely delicate phenomenon of emerging astronomy in our country in relation to the ongoing terrorism and war in the region is a bit creepy. I wonder if it would be a good idea to keep these separated. We really don’t want our astronomy to become a political symbol of ‘modernism’. It is best be portrayed as a continuum of our culture and tradition. This is the very reason why I used an Ajrak shroud for my 12.5″ Newtonian (under construction), to symbolize the strong adherence of astronomy to our indigenous culture. Anyways it is a good thought to present our astronomy as something evergreen, transcending any situation, good or bad. We keep going.Recommend

  • Ali
    Jun 6, 2011 - 11:02AM

    Well said Salman. For me, whenever I want to move away from depressing news coming out of Pakistan I watch Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.

    By the way, when are you writing about the interaction of science and religion? :)Recommend

  • T magazine
    Jun 6, 2011 - 2:38PM

    @All
    Thank you all for the comments, we are trying to make a determined effort to highlight the positive aspects of Pakistan, and any help in this is greatly appreciated. Please send in the ideas etc to [email protected]
    @Akbar
    Thank you for the information. Would it be possible for you to give us a little help on this issue as far as locating the amateur telescope makers is concerned?
    @Ali
    Mr Salman’s piece on religion and science is with us, and we are just waiting for one more link in the chain before we print it!Recommend

  • Masud
    Jun 7, 2011 - 10:30AM

    Great, I like the article. Recommend

  • Jun 7, 2011 - 11:15AM

    This is truly an inspiring article. It’s great that Pakistanis are going on to live their lives and not be fully consumed by the war and hatred that is going on in their country.Recommend

  • Waqas Qazi
    Jun 8, 2011 - 9:38AM

    Dr. Salman.

    Very nice article. I remember meeting you at lectures you gave at Punjab University and then at LUMS, must have been 2004 or 2005. You have aptly summarized the development and contributions of various amateur astronomers in Pakistan. I hope you write again soon on the same lines, and if you can, please mention some activities of the vibrant amateur astronomy community in Islamabad/Rawalpindi also, along with Lahore and Karachi.

    As Akbar said in his comment above: We keep going!

    Cheers,
    Waqas.

    P.S. Happy to see many names I know in the comments :-) Recommend

  • Ali
    Jun 8, 2011 - 11:09AM

    Thanks Salman Sb. Yes astronomy is such great fun, a voyage of discovery filled with awe and admiration. One never gets enough of it and keeps coming back to the objects. Even star formations are fun in themselves. Light pollution has almost ruled out naked eye astronomy in Lahore.Recommend

  • Asim Qadri, Karachi
    Jun 8, 2011 - 4:34PM

    To the Editor
    About 48 hours ago sir, I posted my comments the great encouraging article published here http://tribune.com.pk/story/180915/looking-to-the-heavens/,
    But its yet to be rendered on Tribune page..Do I need to repost it?
    I seek your feedback.
    Regards.Recommend

  • Muhammad
    Jun 8, 2011 - 7:00PM

    very nice article, we all appreciate efforts of omar asim and all astronomy lovers who have spent their personal resources and precious time in developing taste for astronomy and star gazing activities. thanks to all members of astronomy society who have maintained passion in this difficult era of terrorism.
    keep writing articles like this Dr. Salman
    i had the opportunity to absorb your knowlwdge/understanding about new born stars in a lecture in CIIT islamabad, was lecturer in Meteorology that time.
    with best wishes.
    MuhammadRecommend

  • Asim Qadri
    Jun 10, 2011 - 1:50PM

    Hats off for Dr Salman! Surely, such articles are need of the day; firstly because they articulate about astronomy in a region, which belongs to progeny of heralding astronomers of the Middle Ages. A happy note here is: Some unbiased occidental sane minds have already started to acknowledge this worthy era of contributions, seeing the development in continuity.
    Secondly, this monograph is vitalizing too, as it focuses upon the regional potentials of amateur astronomy to be exploited for the World benefit; these are some possibilities which invariably may lead to valuable ventures and sciences… So it’s not just a hobby, an admirable peaceful activity too, hence deserves to be highlighted through multiple dimensions.
    Finally, the most commendable aspect of the article, I think: It unifies several efforts by the untiring compatriots in the field; individually and collectively _ and this is for none lesser than three decades. Here, ample of instances are cited to help the reader conclude the same what Akbar Sahib said in readers’ comments: “Throughout Pakistan, we are all a part of one big team.” I dare to extrapolate the statement into broader perspective: The World can rightly see Pakistan, as an important arc-area over the globe, endeavoring to play its due role in all realms of knowledge.
    For publishing articles full of hope, I am grateful to you Mr. Editor. Further in this regard, may I paint just two words, onto your optimistic canvas of “The Express Tribune”
    “Do More!” Recommend

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