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Thursday , February 4 , 2016
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Sky above, earth below and everything in between

- It is a pity that modern life has distanced the sky from us and deprived children of a natural source of delight and knowledge, writes Devi Kar

It was quite serendipitously that a year-and-a-half ago, three of our students and their teacher found themselves in Hilo, Hawaii. And there they discovered the magic of the sky. The following year, three more students and another teacher followed suit and now all of them are hooked to the stars and others are being infected by their enthusiasm.

The story began with Professor Puragra (Raja) Guhathakurta's annual visits to our school over the last decade or so. Guhathakurta, astrophysicist, University of California, is clearly passionate about his subject and is equally passionate about spreading this interest among young people. It is because of him that in 2014 our students were able to represent India at the second annual Pacific Astronomy and Engineering Summit.

Sponsored by the Thirty Meter Telescope and hosted by the Imiloa Astronomy Center, located on the University of Hawaii campus, PAES 2 was attended by high school students and educators from the TMT partner countries: Japan, China, India, Canada and the United States of America (Hawaii Island). We were pleasantly surprised when our school was invited to PAES again the following year.

The PAES conference gives a unique opportunity to students each year to interact with scientists, engineers and astronomers. The broad objectives of PAES seem to fit in with the objectives of education in general, namely, the exploration of the universe, the preservation of our earth and the advancement of society. The practical purpose of developing workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) is also attended to through "Hands-on and Minds-on" workshops. Topics range from indigenous engineering and robotic programming to exploring meteorites and finding exoplanets. PAES 3 required students to make presentations on topics as diverse as how early Polynesians used the Hawaiian star compass to navigate; moon phases and probability of destructive tsunami activity and landing a spacecraft within the atmosphere using helium balloons. Our students rigorously researched the topic of their choice: 'The nature and motion of the Andromeda galaxy's stellar disk'. They were mentored and guided right through by Raja and his assistant, Emily, through Skype sessions at mutually convenient times. The students prepared their slides, practised their presentation in front of their teachers and were finally ready to fly off.

Last December, Raja contacted us to say that he was stopping in Calcutta very briefly and though he knew it was holiday season, was it possible to meet? At once I emailed the Hawaiian contingents and believe it or not, all of them turned up that Saturday morning on January 2, 2016 - such is the pull of a good teacher and such is the magnetism of the stars. They came wearing big smiles and carrying a box of mishti for their beloved professor. They exchanged New Year greetings and settled down for the science adda. Some of them had exams the following Monday and one of them, who was studying in Manipal, just happened to be in town. As I was watching the group and listening to their animated chatter, I thought to myself that this was the substance of real learning. The students who were gathered in the conference room were not there to prepare for any test - the subject was not even in their syllabus - yet they were so involved. They were bursting with questions and listened intently to every word that the professor had to say. I would definitely count this as one of the wow experiences of my career.

In the course of the discussion (which ran into the afternoon with nobody showing any sign of wanting to leave), Raja explained that there were several stages in the process that the students had embarked on. The first was learning to do proper research, next was interacting with scientists, the third was working with scientists and the final stage would start with the evaluation of their findings and then applying them to life. These students had been painstakingly taught the principles of research. They learnt how to state the intent of research, specify the scope, background and methodology, write an abstract and follow up after the conclusion with the bibliography. I felt very proud of these young girls - they appeared poised and confident as they made a point, asked a question or responded to one. It was clear that they had read extensively and had learnt to check and cross-check data and examine different theories or interpretations. It was that day that I concluded that everybody should take a course in astronomy some time or the other in their lives. In school, students feel burdened by the number of subjects they are required to study for their public examinations. Generally, they have been observed to give the most attention to those subjects that are deemed to be 'useful' for their chosen careers. But I saw for myself that studying the sky brought its own set of rewards, dividends and practical uses.

Astronomy has been described as the ultimate inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary or cross-disciplinary subject one can think of. Mathematics, all the traditional science subjects, literature and history can be very naturally and smoothly incorporated in a course in astronomy. "It's a great inroad to science and it melds physics, chem, bio and math together with a wow factor" said someone on Twitter.

Iris Schrijver, professor of pathology at Stanford University said, "Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes." Iris and her husband Karel Schrijver, an astrophysicist, wrote a book called, Living With the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets, and the Stars. They declared that Joni Mitchell was absolutely right when she famously sang "We are stardust" at Woodstock. "We are made of star stuff", wrote Carl Sagan in Cosmos. "The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, and the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars." This all-pervasive connectivity comes across strongly when you study the stars. The theme for PAES 2 was "He Lani Ko Luna, He Honua Ko Lalo: The sky above, the earth (and the sea) below and all that is encompassed therein". It was derived from a Hawaiian proverb that speaks of the synergistic relationship between the sky, earth, ocean and all forms of life. Who knows, there may be a grain of truth in what is told to a child when a loved one dies - that the dead person is now a twinkling star gazing down upon the earth from her new home in the sky.

In Hawaii, our students worked closely with people from different countries. They said that this was one of the most cherished experiences. All that mattered was that they belonged to planet earth and that they were all engaged in studying the heavenly bodies. Time and distance took on a different meaning altogether. The magnificent spectacle of countless stars in the night sky reminded them that the earth was merely one of hundreds of billions of objects in our galaxy, which was only one of billions of galaxies in the universe. How petty most of the human concerns seemed! Learning to look beyond ourselves is indeed very important.

I also heard from them about Celeste Ha'o, the outreach coordinator for the Imiloa Astronomy Center. She had successfully navigated her canoe from Cook Islands to the islands of Samoa even though all environmental clues had been wiped out by inclement weather. Currently, the canoe is on a voyage round the world without the help of modern technology - by just reading the sky, the wind and stars. According to Celeste, by connecting with one's ancestors and nature, one became a part of something bigger than oneself. Celeste is now studying a course in culture-based astronomy that she had partly designed herself. The students were completely fascinated by Celeste's life and work.

All children cannot have a Hawaiian experience but all can learn to study the sky. From an early age, their observational skills are sharpened and they get an idea of the vastness of the universe and become aware of the innumerable planets and galaxies that are waiting to be explored. The daily theatre of the night sky brings home to them an important truth that the universe functions in an orderly way. It is for children to ponder the power behind this order. We have seen that for some reason small children are naturally drawn to dinosaurs and space. This inclination can be wisely harnessed. History would have already taught them that from the earliest of times, man had looked up at the sky to get a sense of time, place and direction that would enable him to navigate the seas and explore the world. It is the movement of the heavenly bodies that helped him to draw up his calendar of activities around the cycle of seasons. Indian astronomers have a special place in history but I am not mentioning the study of astrology because to this day, I don't know how to deal with the beliefs that connect the movement of celestial bodies and one's fortunes on earth.

Today's children take an avid interest in the latest developments in man's quest to explore the space - currently they are excited about the discovery of water on Mars. It is a pity that artificial illumination, polluted air and urban living have distanced the sky from us today and deprived our children of a natural source of delight and knowledge. The sky has something for everybody: rigorous science and mathematics for some, sheer poetry and drama for others, history for those who wish to study the work of ancient astronomers and for all - a sense of wonderment.

Because it is the sky that makes even a child ask the all-important questions that cannot be answered but must be asked: "Where have we come from and where are we headed?"

The author is director, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta

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