| Participants of the telescope-making workshop sky-gaze on the school rooftop. Picture by Aranya Sen
“There’s Jupiter. I can see it clearly now. Quick! Get the telescope, before the clouds cover it again.”
“I want to see the rings of Saturn.”
This was the excited chatter among about 40-odd youngsters reaching for the stars on the rooftop of Bidhannagar Government High School, at around 8 pm. Gathered together at the school for a weeklong workshop on telescope-making, the kids spent the night at the school to do some sky-watching. For a lot of these Classes IX to XII students, from around 14 schools in the city and the districts, accompanied by their teachers, this is the first experience of a telescope. At the workshop, organised by the Centre for Space Studies (CSS), they are building around 20 telescopes, four feet long and with a five-inch-diameter lens, with each school taking back one.
From 8 am every morning, till sunset, these youngsters attend lectures and then slog in the heat in the school courtyard, drilling PVC deep tubewell tubes (that form the body of the telescope), sawing wood and rubbing glass. They take notes on how to calculate the focal length and listen attentively, while astronomy enthusiasts and experts explain the mysteries of the universe in lectures like the ‘Evolution of the Universe’ and the ‘Origin of Life’. At the end of the long, hard day, they sleep in the community hall, in makeshift beds on the floor, chatting about the stars and planets till they fall asleep.
Subhashis is a Class IX student of Jenkins School in Cooch Behar. He’s never seen a telescope before. He explains his experience of watching the stars close-up: “There was Arundhati, Ujjala and Vashishti clustered around. I couldn’t see two, because it was cloudy, but I saw Vashishti. It was very bright.” Abhinandan, from Naba Nalanda, in Mudiali, has come on his own steam, because he “couldn’t pass up the experience”. He, too, has never seen a telescope before, but is determined to take one home after the workshop.
The cost for the entire exercise, says Sanjoy Chakraborty of the CSS, is Rs 2 lakh. The volunteers managing the project, from the meal plans to supervising the work, are Chakraborty’s Ph.D students, like Santabrata Das. Despite being a strict disciplinarian with the students, he’s quick to praise their levels of commitment and enthusiasm, and their capacity for hard work. “They’re going really fast and their accuracy is amazing,” he smiles. “We had to settle for slower instruments, which were safer. So, instead of an electric drill, we have a hand drill,” adds Chakraborty.
“We wanted to call schools from villages near Midnapore, Uttarpara, Malda and Birbhum, because the sky there is so clear, one can see the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye. So, these kids can really experience the joy of the night sky,” Chakraborty says.
Asit Kumar Chowdhury, physics teacher of Lalit Mohan Shyammohini High School, in Malda, says: “When these children go back, not only will they be newly enthused, but will encourage others. That will be the biggest benefit.”