Pakistan does not have an enviable record in the sciences. The current Nature Index for research output places Pakistan at number 52 – just between Georgia and Bulgaria. However, there is currently a thriving amateur astronomy scene in several Pakistani cities, where the love of the sciences and the joy of sharing the knowledge of the night sky are in full display. Later this month, the various amateur astronomy societies in the country will gather together to launch a new umbrella organisation, The Astronomical League of Pakistan (ALOP). Given the state of the education and the sciences in the country, it is worth exploring the reasons for this unqualified success.
I have been involved with and following the astronomy scene in Pakistan for close to thirty years. I was part of a group of FSc. Intermediate students in Karachi who started Amastropak, the first amateur astronomy society in Pakistan back in 1988. While there were ups and downs in the activities of the society over the years, it could never muster a critical mass of active members, and it eventually shut down in the late 1990s. But now things are different and I have never seen the state of amateur astronomy in Pakistan so lively and so strong. Last month I had the pleasure of meeting astronomy enthusiasts in Lahore and Karachi, and what a treat it was! Both the Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST) and the Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS) boast an active membership of well over a hundred each and they are passionate devotees of the night skies. Most of the members have day jobs unrelated to astronomy, but they squeeze every last second of their free time (or not so free time) for astronomy.
The dark skies of Balochistan or rural Sindh are also a boon for those interested in deep space astrophotography
The centre of gravity for LAST is Umair Asim and his Zeds Astronomical Observatory, built in 2003 on a residential roof. Named after his mother, Zahida, the observatory houses a state of the art 14-inch telescope (the size of the telescope is measured by the diameter of its main mirror). Some of the photographs taken from the telescope have been selected for the international Lunar Photo of the Day (LPOD) page – a first for Pakistan. While astrophotography is the observatory’s mainstay, Umair has recently added a spectrograph to the telescope. This instrument allows him to break the light coming from stars and planets into different components, and identify elements that make up these objects. Professional astronomers have historically used this technique to classify different types of stars. In fact, it is precisely because of this technique that astronomers know that we are made of ‘star stuff’. Instead of intuitively beautiful astronomy pictures, the beauty of spectroscopy can only be appreciated through understanding its underlying physics. It is in this tradition that Umair and his band of amateur astronomers recently replicated the classification system of stars, even while observing through the light-polluted skies of Lahore.
It would have been hard to sustain this kind of enthusiasm had Umair been alone. Instead, he found others who love astronomy with the same passion and intensity. Indeed, he is now training some of them on how to use the telescope and take astronomical data. Four LAST members, including three women, are currently doing a telescope internship at Zeds Astronomical Observatory. Working with Umair, Amna Saleem and Roshaan Bukhari have already contributed over three hundred observations to international organisations such as the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). One of these interns, Roshaan Bukhari, is a former medical student, who left medical college in his fourth year with the aim of pursuing astronomy full-time. He hopes to start his undergraduate study in astronomy early next year. “I want every curious kid out there to know more about astronomy and their ‘place in space’,” he told me. “My ultimate goal is to help set up astronomy departments across all major universities in Pakistan. But first, I need to get the appropriate academic ‘miles’.” Amen to that.
If astronomers in Lahore are focused on obtaining scientific data, then the ones in Karachi are into building their own telescopes and organising observing sessions from dark skies outside of the megacity. The focal point for Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS) is Kastrodome, an observatory that houses a 12.5-inch Newtonian telescope. A team of brothers, led by Mehdi Hussein, has been responsible for constructing the dome and building the telescope (the primary mirror was donated by a British astronomer, David Rutledge). If LAST holds training sessions on how to take data from the telescope, then KAS astronomers hold workshops on how to build your own telescope. One KAS member even started a business of importing telescopes and then selling them to astronomy enthusiasts in Pakistan. This is a thankless job, as getting a telescope through Customs as an individual can be harder than escaping the gravitational pull of a black hole. No doubt, the availability of telescopes in Pakistan has played a large role in the blossoming of astronomy in the country.
One of the most exciting activities of KAS is Rutjaga (“stay up all night”). Once a month, KAS takes its members to a dark site, away from the lights of Karachi, for a night of astronomy and astrophotography. This started as a smaller activity in 2009, but now it attracts over a 100 people for each Rutjaga session. There is now so much interest, that the organizers have to place a cap on the numbers who can attend these night sessions. No doubt, some join these sessions for a sense of adventure, but a large fraction wants to get the best look at the rings of Saturn or to catch the glory of objects such as the Orion nebula, away from Karachi’s light pollution. Indeed, the dark skies of Balochistan or rural Sindh are also a boon for those interested in deep space astrophotography (you can learn more about it at rutjaga.com).
The availability of telescopes has allowed Pakistanis to go beyond simply learning about the skies from books
It is not just the night sky that has been the target of these astronomers. Both KAS and LAST have sophisticated telescopes for looking at the Sun (Readers: please don’t look at the Sun without a solar filter!) In fact, the nickname of one KAS member is Chacha Shamsi (Uncle Solar), as he specialises in taking pictures of the Sun. The Zeds Astronomical Observatory also hosts one of the largest solar telescopes in the country and has captured some spectacular images of the activity on the surface of the Sun.
Perhaps one of the most awesome parts of the current astronomy scene in Pakistan is the desire of amateur astronomers to share with the public. It is easy to keep the telescopes to themselves. But public outreach is a cornerstone for both LAST and KAS, and it is not unusual for them to get 500 or 1,000 individuals show up for observing. LAST has been taking telescopes to public schools all over the country. The sight of young students (and their teachers) standing in long lines to glimpse at the Sun not only bodes well for the future of astronomy in country, but also shows that given an opportunity, students get excited about the sciences. In fact, Umair Asim received the 2014 Jon Wood award, from the international Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project, in recognition of his public outreach work. The award came with a solar telescope. One LAST member, Roshaan Bukhari, recently gave lectures in schools all across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and received an outstanding response. Similarly, KAS has been taking a slew of telescopes for viewing at public parks and the Karachi Planetarium.
KAS and LAST are not the only astronomy societies in the country, but they are certainly the most active. Apart from individuals pursuing this in different cities, you have the Pak Astronomers Islamabad (PAS), the Hyderabad Astronomical Society and Peshawar Astronomical Society. Then there is an active Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS), a Lahore-based group, which has often worked closely with LAST in organising public events.
All this leads to the question: Why are we seeing such a flourishing interest in astronomy in Pakistan? After all, there is no significant State support for such an endeavor nor are there any organized activities at the school level.
I think we can point to several reasons for this success. First, astronomy has an intrinsic broad public appeal. It doesn’t hurt that the spectacularly beautiful photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope garner worldwide attention, and force us, however briefly, to ponder about our place in the universe. Furthermore, science popularizers, such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, have globalized astronomical wonder, and their respective versions of Cosmos have been available to television audiences in Pakistan as well. My own path to astronomy was paved after watching Sagan’s Cosmos, when it aired in Pakistan in 1984.
Second, the internet provides more than enough free information about astronomy. One of the challenges we had in the 1980s was the lack of astronomy books in our bookstores and libraries. Today, however, you can find not only the latest news about astronomy, but also, if you look carefully, detailed lessons about the foundations of astronomy online.
The availability of telescopes in Pakistan has allowed people to go beyond simply learning about the skies from books, and gain practical experience. You can appreciate all the beauty of Saturn’s rings, taken by orbiting spacecraft, on your computer screen. But a glimpse of the rings through even a small telescope is a transcendental experience. If the government can make the import of telescopes and related accessories relatively pain-free, we may see a whole new generation of science and astronomy enthusiasts in the country.
Perhaps the biggest reason astronomy is flourishing is that there is now a committed community of astronomers around and they are eager to spread their own knowledge and passion. This community did not materialise overnight. No one guided the process. No one pressed for any direction. But there has been a thread of continuity, sometimes tenuous and sometimes strong, over the past three decades, and it is that thread that provided comfort in knowing that are others who share common interests across local space and local time.
We are now seeing a maturation of amateur astronomy in Pakistan. The formation of The Astronomical League of Pakistan (ALOP) is the logical next step. Given the enthusiasm of these astronomers and their eagerness to communicate wonders of astronomy to a wider audience, it is likely that in a couple of decades, we may see the development of a thriving astronomy scene at a professional level as well.
In the mean time, let’s celebrate the renaissance of amateur astronomy in Pakistan.
Salman Hameed is Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College, Massachusetts, USA. He hosts an astronomy show in Urdu called Science ka Adda (sciencekaadda.com) and co-hosts with Umair Asim another show in Urdu, Hamari Kainaat (hamarikainaat.com). He runs the blog ‘Irtiqa’ at irtiqa-blog.com