The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Khagen Babu Jr and other marvels

It’s a “lovers’ paradise”, where only you and your partner will be able to hear each other. The secret of the whispering room is a weather-forecasting balloon, filled with carbon dioxide at a certain pressure. So, those sitting on diagonally opposite ends of the room may not be visible to each other on account of the ball, but can talk clearly, and in careless whispers. And no one else present in the room can eavesdrop on the conversation.

Another delightful addition at the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum (BITM), in honour of its 44th anniversary on May 2, is Khagen Babu Junior. He can move, responds to his name, can tell the age and sex of a person, recognise a playing card by colour, type and number, and read a person’s handwriting (depending on the legibility, of course). Khagen Babu is a robot.

The “intelligent machine” will be unveiled to the public on May 2 and technical tests are coming along just fine. “He always manages to calculate the correct age, based on a series of questions he asks. But when it comes to determining the sex of a person, since the distinction is based on voice modulation, he sometimes confuses it,” explains Samaresh Goswamy, director of the Gurusaday Road museum. As for Khagen Babu Senior, “he has retired to our district science centre in Burdwan,” smiles Goswamy.

That is just for starters. The biggest draw that BITM has readied for public viewing is a renovated and upgraded motive power gallery, with interactive exhibits on old and new technology, and taking a look at the future. “Since our main visitor group is students, we have to attract the youth. Hence, the museum is no longer a repository of ancient artefacts, but it is in fact about bringing science closer to the people,” Goswamy says.

Two-and-a-half years of planning and fabrication have resulted in a wind tunnel, displaying the hows and whys of aerodynamics, demonstrative mechanisms on wind, water and solar power, the inner workings of the internal combustion engine, complete with a magnified spark plug, and a machine that converts potential energy to kinetic, and then mechanical. Colourful and descriptive diagrams add to the attraction, at a total cost of Rs 12 lakh.

“We don’t have the capacity to redo a gallery every year, so we target about 15 to 20 years after a gallery has been built. This also allows us to upgrade the technology in keeping with the times, to avoid becoming obsolete,” Goswamy adds. Visitor numbers are always on the increase, but not in proportion to the population. “But a visitor survey proved that they come in with one objective in mind — learning and assimilation of knowledge. We help them do that in a fun way. Behind every display is a scientific method, and that is what we want people to think about.”

So, constant innovation is the key to scientific success, and that is the purpose of the authorities at BITM. Half busts of nine famous Indian scientists are on display in the museum’s garden, but the plan is to have an audio-visual programme on all nine, on the lawn, so that “the youngsters can learn a little about the history of Indian science”. And next March, it’s the turn of the new hall on biotechnology, now under construction, to be the centre of attention. “We never stop trying to come up with new things,” Goswamy sums up.

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