Promoting science in Urdu

With an easy-to-understand local language research can be communicated to a larger audience

Muhammad Zaheer April 25, 2021
The writer is an assistant professor of Chemistry at LUMS

At the end of a four-year rollercoaster ride at a public university in Germany, I had finished writing my PhD thesis. The last missing piece of writing I had to add was the summary of my research work in German. With the help of a colleague, I managed the translation, but the idea of having a dissertation summary in multiple languages got stuck to my mind, and I wondered if we could do the same in Pakistan.

With an easy-to-understand local language — read and understood by millions — research can be communicated to a larger audience. The Netherlands allows PhD students to write thesis summaries in their native language besides Dutch so that their family members can get a bit of the work done. I remember it took me days to explain my PhD project to my father, which was when I realised the importance of science communication.

Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering (SBASSE) at LUMS has recently announced a policy that other universities might follow to promote science communication and education in Urdu. Now MS and PhD students at SBASSE will have to add an Urdu title and summary of their dissertations. Unconventionally, this summary will be a non-technical explanation of their research work to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research accessible to a larger audience outside the scientific circle. It also aims to promote science journalism by making the latest research accessible to journalists.

English is the lingua franca of STEM. However, a layman remains unaware of the latest developments in STEM because they are disseminated via highly specified journals in technical jargon. A science communicator contextualises and makes technical research comprehensible for a broader audience, thereby bridging the gap between scientists and society.

While several enterprises translate technical research into an easy-to-get English language, similar platforms in Urdu are limited. In India, several Urdu magazines are playing a leading role in popularising science. For instance, Urdu Mahnama Science has been publishing since 1994 from New Delhi, and the oldest Urdu magazine Science ki Duniya since 1975. Historically, a bi-annual journal Science was initiated by Anjumen Taraqqi-e-Urdu in 1928 under the supervision of Baba-e-Urdu Maulvi Abdul Haq. After publishing for 21 years, the journal was discontinued in 1948. The earliest efforts of popularising science in Urdu were the translation of Western works of science to Urdu by the Scientific Society of Aligarh, headed by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

In Pakistan, however, the number of Urdu publications is scant. A few names to mention are Global Science publishing since 1998 from Karachi, and The Particle published by SBASSE. The latter is the only bilingual quarterly magazine that publishes science stories and the latest research in English and Urdu. A few Facebook pages (for example, Science ki Duniya), websites, and forums such as the Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS) and Urdu Science Board play a pivotal role in popularising Urdu science. The Lahore Science Mela, a flagship activity of KSS, also includes all exhibits and demonstration names in Urdu. The Urdu Science Board has published more than 800 books on science subjects.

Medical and science communication in Urdu was never more desirable than during the current global pandemic. How does Covid spread? How do soap, sanitisers, and face masks work? Do we need to disinfect frequently touched surfaces? How effective is street fumigation and walk-through disinfecting gates? Answers to all these in easy-to-get Urdu have contributed pivotally in containing the virus. An Urdu explanation of how vaccines work might help convince more people to get vaccine jabs.

There is a need for effective Urdu science communication so that scientific knowledge and discoveries could reach masses in a language known and understood by them. It will play a pivotal role in attracting young minds to STEM research besides creating awareness about drug resistance, climate change, pandemics, and other national and global challenges.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th, 2021.

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