Monday, August 22, 2016

The Flourishing of Astronomy in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

I was in Pakistan earlier this month and I had the chance to meet a number of amateur astronomers in Pakistan. I have highlighted their activities on the blog before (for example see: Public Astronomy Flourishing in Pakistan). However, this time I had a chance to visit the centers of both the Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST) and Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS). These folks are doing some amazing work - both in astronomy and for the promotion of the love of sciences. I have been engaged with astronomy developments in Pakistan more or less for the past 30 years. I have never seen amateur astronomy so healthy in Pakistan before - and there is every chance that it has a spectacular future ahead. Here are some quick highlights on what is going on with LAST and KAS.

You need to get a critical mass in terms of active members to sustain a group. Both LAST and KAS have active members that number between 30-40 and their events can attract over a 100 members with ease. Furthermore, most of the people involved in these societies have day jobs other than astronomy (interestingly, most of the KAS active members present at our meeting had computer/IT related degrees). But astronomy is truly a passion of theirs. They are following their dreams in every second of their spare time.

Group photo of LAST members after my lecture in Lahore.
(and yes - sometimes you see doubles...)

Interestingly, the group in Lahore and the one in Karachi have different central focus. LAST, led by indomitable Umair Asim, has established a sophisticated observatory. They do imaging and spectroscopy from the light-polluted skies of Lahore. However, Umair believes (rightly so) that it is better to use the telescope regularly than worry about dark skies at the moment. LAST astronomers recently replicated spectral classifications of stars and have also taken the spectra of the gaseous giant planets in our own solar system. It is not unusual for me to receive an email from Umair from the observatory at 3 in the morning. They have also made beautiful movies of solar flares and prominences. But this is not why the observatory is great. Umair is also teaching others on how to use the telescope, take data, and get science out of it. Currently, he has four members (3 women and one man) who are doing internship with him - and they have the same level of enthusiasm for astronomy (remember - this is not for any job prospect. This is just to learn about astronomy). One member, Roshaan, recently dropped out of 4th year medical college (yes - only one year was left), to pursue astronomy full time. It will him some time, but this is the path he is now committed to taking. Umair and others routinely submit their results to Amateur Association of Variable Stars Observers (AAVSO).

LAST is pushing the scientific boundaries of amateur astronomy.

LAST astronomers are now doing spectroscopy. Here they replicate the classification system of stars

Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS), on the other hand, have been more focused on building telescopes and in regularly organizing observing sessions at dark locations outside Karachi. The center here is Kastrodome, an observatory that houses a 10-inch 12.5-inch Newtonian telescope. A team of three brothers, led by Mehdi, has been at the center of this effort, including designing and constructing a fully operational dome structure. But then, these brothers started experimenting with optics when they were young, and making a telescope out of their father's spectacles. Just like LAST in Lahore, members of KAS give classes on building telescopes as well as on the broader principles of astronomy. Another KAS member, Sajjad, has a solar telescope and specializes in taking images with that. Of course, he was being called Chacha Shamsi (Uncle Solar). Telescopes have proliferated in Pakistan because one KAS member decided to do a business of selling telescopes from his apartment. And no, the purpose is not here to make a lot of money, but to make telescopes available in Pakistan. Getting a telescope or any of the astronomical gadget through the customs is a herculean task and often they impose duty that is more than the equipment itself. In this context, having a local dealer is immensely helpful (now only one person has to do all the hassle...).


At the KASstrodome in Karachi - outside and inside. In the picture above, Mehdi is the first one on the left. In the picture below, the two people next to me are Umair Asim (from Lahore Astronomical Society) and Khalid Marwat, a pilot and one of the first serious amateur astronomers of Pakistan. 

I also appreciated this sign next to the observatory. Mangoes - after all are a serious issue!!

But it is observing from dark sites that is the hallmark of KAS. Once a month, KAS members would charter buses to go 2 hours out of Karachi. As Mehdi noted with good humor, the lack of development on part of the Sindh and Baluchistan governments offer plenty of dark skies for astronomers. These night time sessions, called Rutjuga, would attract more than a hundred members on each outing! This has also led to some spectacular photography of the night sky done by KAS members.

Rutjuga by Karachi Astronomers Society in December 2015

Perhaps, one of the most awesome part of amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan is that it is not selfish. It is easy to keep these fantastic telescopes to oneself and satisfy one's own interests. But it is clear that these guys love astronomy because they want to share everything they know. LAST has been doing some incredible public events for more than a decade, including taking telescopes to schools in small towns and villages. It is not uncommon for them to get a crowd of 500 or a 1000. KAS has a similar experience in Karachi, and they are holding public seasons in parks and at the Karachi Planetarium. They are all preparing the next generation of astronomy enthusiasts.

An astronomy session in Mardan, KP, led by LAST member Roshaan Bukhari

I am leaving out a lot here. But it is clear that the astronomy scene is only going to grow from now. There already was a news item recently of an astronomy enthusiast from Quetta. There are ongoing conversations about the formation of The Astronomy League of Pakistan (ALOP) - an umbrella organization that connects all the astronomy societies of Pakistan. We are also thinking of possibly having an annual meeting and a Pakistan Astronomy Day, where astronomy clubs all across Pakistan hold events for the public.

In 1988, I was part of a group of 11th-12th grade students who started the first astronomy society in Pakistan, called Amastropak. We had some great few years but it could never develop a critical mass, and ultimately ceased to exist in the late 1990s. Both LAST and KAS are clearly well beyond that stage and I can see a transition from serious amateur astronomy to the development of a thriving professional astronomy scene in Pakistan in  the next decade or so.

Stay tuned to this really fascinating astronomy chapter in Pakistan. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

New SkA Episode: Ibn-Sina and the Supernova of 1006

by Salman Hameed


Here is our new episode of Science ka Adda (in Urdu), and it focuses on a supernova that was observed by several Muslim astronomers (as well as others), including Ibn-Sina, in the year 1006:

Here is the description of the episode:
In the year 1006 C.E. Ibn-Sina observed a bright new star appear in the night sky. He diligently took notes as the star faded over the next 3 months. This was a supernova. Ibn-Sina did not know its nature, but his notes are shedding new light into the nature of these exploding stars! Join us in this episode of Science ka Adda, where we talk about one particular type supernovae, known as Type Ia. For more videos in the series, please visit sciencekaadda.com or join us on Facebook at facebook.com/ScienceKaAdda. For more detailed astronomy discussions in Urdu, please visit hamarikainaat.com
I also did a radio segment on the same topic in English with Monte Belmonte for our local radio station, WRSI - The River. Here is the link to the podcast.

If you want to read more about it, you can find the relevant paper here: An Arabic About Supernova SN1006 by Ibn Sina (Avicenna).