Dr. Jayant Narlikar is an Astrophysicist and the Founder-Director of Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) at Pune, India. A strong advocate of science outreach programs, he has authored many books on science for children, in both English and in his mother-tongue Marathi. On a recent visit to ICTS-TIFR, Bengaluru, Dr. Narlikar spoke to us on the evolution of science culture in Indian society, science education and research in the field of astrophysics in India.
IH: You have always advocated the need to cultivate a culture of science in society. How can one propagate the culture of science?
JN: Today planetariums are found in many of the larger cities in India. This spread or growth of planetariums I have observed as I have grown older. The first planetarium, I remember was first set-up in Kolkata and it was the only one for many many years, until one was built in Bombay. Now, you have a chain of planetariums in many cities around the country, including one in Bengaluru.
These planetariums have a very good role to play in influencing the culture of science- if they do it right. By this I mean for example, there exist many superstitions in India in/related to astrology-where people believe the positions of stars and planets govern an individual’s destiny. These baseless claims must be refuted. This is where planetariums can help. They also must be used to educate the masses about what is happening around us, not just in the cosmos but also throw light on the many new scientific discoveries around us. There is a lot being discovered here on earth and some of these should be included in the planetarium programs.
IH: Are youngsters today, receptive to science outreach programs?
JN: I am very optimistic about the younger generation-at least the school going group. They seem to be asking many more questions than the generation before them. They also seem to be aware of the scientific discoveries and advances happening around them, even if they might not entirely understand the science of it completely. We have to use their curiosity and give them feedback. That way they will be encouraged to ask the right kind of questions. Eventually it will translate to a more knowledgeable group of people.
IH: What is your opinion on the current system of science education in India?
JN: Science should be a subject that children like. But that is not how it is most likely perceived. Many children grow up scared of science instead of being excited about it. Some others think of it as a subject that requires a lot of memorization. That kind of thinking should not be there. Children should be taught to appreciate science as a tool to answer many questions and feel more competent by learning to use it. In order to be able to achieve this, the way in which science is taught in schools has to change first.
IH: You have been in the field of astrophysics for many decades now. In which direction do you see the research in this area progressing?
JN: One has to see the historical growth in this field. It all started with astronomy-observing the sky and stars. Later, human curiosity is such that people wanted to know why things happen. This led to advances in the field of astrophysics. Then there was a time when a new aspect of astronomy called astrochemistry caught the attention of many researchers. Scientists previously believed that there occurred no chemistry in interstellar space, as there was hardly any matter in there and therefore found it largely uninteresting. But they turned out to be wrong, as it was found that space has many complex organic molecules. So astrochemistry is now a fast-developing field of science. And as you might have guessed, the next direction the research is expected to take off in is astrobiology. For a very long-time people have been interested in finding out if life as we know, exists elsewhere in the universe. This is where the research will be headed next. Currently, there are more students taking up advanced studies in astronomy and astrophysics. But fields like astrochemistry and astrobiology remain unexplored. It will take time for research in these subjects to pick up and progress - especially astrobiology.
IH: In what ways can scientists contribute towards science education in India?
JN: Scientists can take part in various ways towards public education. On various aspects of science. For example, I had many school children come and ask me for autographs. And instead of just signing on a small plain piece of paper, I used to ask them to write a science question on a postcard and I would answer the question and sign it too. I felt that was one way of making children think about science. There are many methods that can be used to make science interesting and child friendly. Many organizations and groups are doing good work on this and there is scope to do more such programs. Experiments can be demonstrated to show that things don’t work by magic but follow laws of science. A lot is currently being done. But it is not enough, more of it should happen.