As a child, Varun Bhalerao’s comprehension of the night sky was limited to admiring its beauty. This changed when he started taking part in the high school quizzes organised by Pune’s Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA). In 1998, Bhalerao, who grew up in the Maharashtrian city and is currently associate professor with the physics department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, was selected as one of the students for India’s maiden foray in the International Astronomy Olympiad in 1999. He was in class X at the time.
“IUCAA contacted my school to send the same quiz team for training in their campus. It was school-level physics and maths that needed to be applied in unconventional ways. I thoroughly enjoyed it,” recalls Bhalerao, 39. He represented India in 2000 as well, winning gold medals on both occasions. The experience sparked his interest in astrophysics. Today he’s part of the team setting up GROWTH India, the country’s first fully robotic telescope, in Hanle, Ladakh.
Bhalerao is among the many who have benefitted from Pune’s community of astronomy enthusiasts. The city is home to three premier astronomy-related institutes—IUCAA, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s (TIFR’s) National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research—which have played a significant role in taking the science to everyone.
“Pune is an important centre of amateur astronomy,” says Ajit Khembhavi, former IUCAA director. IT professional Bhushan Karmarkar, a co-founder of the Amateur Astronomers Group set up in 2014, agrees. “The enthusiasm for astronomy has increased, information and experts are accessible and there are more local vendors selling telescopes now,” he says.
The city’s interest in astronomy predates independence. One of the country’s first observatories was set up in Pune in 1880, and shifted to Nainital in 1912. When Jyotirvidya Parisanstha (JVP), one of the country’s oldest amateur astronomy associations, was formed in 1944, it was to mathematically calculate the path of the planets that would help with the panchang (Hindu astrological calendar). Mathematicians and physicists worked together, says JVP’s Aniruddha Deshpande. The association currently has 500 life members, from scientists to actors, business leaders and laypersons. It owns six telescopes, ranging from 900-15,000mm, for members to use.
Pune-based Elton Fernandes’ interest in space and astronomy deepened when his father gifted him a four-inch telescope one Christmas when he was still in school. “I would gather people in my building for sky-watching or planet-watching on the terrace with my telescope,” says the 33-year-old. Though he went on to become a food entrepreneur, his passion for astronomy remains. In 2012, Fernandes became a member of JVP.
Enthusiasts give much of the credit for the city’s abiding interest in astronomy to IUCAA, which has always had an active outreach programme, and its first director, Jayant Narlikar, who helped popularise the science through newspaper columns, even sci-fi books, in Marathi. Around the same time, IUCAA’s Arvind Paranjpe and JVP’s president, Prakash Tupe, gained a loyal following through their columns in Marathi.
The district today boasts of the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope observatory near Narayangaon, about 90km from Pune, set up by the NCRA, and IUCAA’s 2m optical astronomy telescope at Girawali, 80km from the city. Both can be accessed by students and enthusiasts. IUCAA and Mumbai-based TIFR’s Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education will now be leading the India centre of the Office of Astronomy for Education (OAE), a project of the International Astronomical Union and Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.
It may come as a surprise, then, that the city doesn’t have a planetarium. This appears to be a minor blip, though. IUCAA has three portable planetariums that can each accommodate 30-35 children and an instructor. Today, these are lent free of cost to NGOs and schools in and around the city.
The aim of OAE’s India centre is to use astronomy as a tool for societal development, says Khembhavi, who is currently principal investigator of the Pune Knowledge Cluster (PKC), set up recently by the office of the principal scientific adviser to the Union government. The PKC aims to tackle social problems through scientific knowledge and skilled human resources in academia, R&D institutions and industry.
Even today, scientists and researchers are encouraged to give talks in Marathi. “Language has played a very important role; with scientists writing and giving lectures in Marathi, it has increased astronomy’s popularity in the city among all age groups,” says Raka Dabade, a physics professor and faculty coordinator of Fergusson College’s Astro Club, set up in 1997. The city’s College of Engineering too has an Astronomy Club; many of its 50 members are working on sponsored projects, says Rajshri Mahajan, adjunct faculty at the college and the club’s faculty adviser.
Dabade recalls how the students sought IUCAA’s help when news of the Mars Pathfinder landing came in 1997, the same year the club was formed. They wanted to put up an exhibition but didn’t have any photographs. “We went to IUCAA’s office, as only they had internet then, and took photos of the images on the screen with a DSLR camera,” she says.
“Not all children who attend our lectures or training pursue astronomy as a profession. However, they remain astronomy enthusiasts and become amateur astronomers,” says Samir Dhurde, IUCAA’s public outreach officer.
Karmarkar still remembers attending Narlikar’s lectures as a student. He couldn’t afford a telescope at the time but bought his first one, an 80mm refractor costing ₹18,000, as soon as he got a job in 2010. Today he owns four telescopes.