For the love of Science


For the love of Science

 The J N Planetarium in Bangalore has been successfully running a research-oriented programme in the country and abroad, notes Nandita  G

Daunting equations are sprawled across the blackboard. But the undergraduate students listening to Prof Lokanathan are unfazed. They are engrossed.

The professor is tackling the ‘Least Squares Fit’ method that helps to minimise deviations of observed values in any experiment. For example, when current is plotted against voltage, we often get a set of points. They do not all fall strictly on a single line but “because of theoretical expectations, you fit a curve to the points and make it a linear curve!” Doing a Least Squares Fit makes it more accurate.

Science is NOT a religion, Prof Lokannathan tells his class, noting how Ohms Law does not apply to semiconductors and how free electrons are not really free, but only free within the structure and he is ready to shoot questions at the class — why do we do an experiment so many times? Why use mercury instead of water in a thermometer?

Why was the standard of length changed? The students come up with possible explanations. He shoots some down with logic, some he challenges, others he probes — the class learns a vital lesson in reasoning.

He then explains the lifestyle of wasps. and how ingenuous these creatures are. They craft tiny mud pots in convenient corners and fill it with paralysed caterpillars and one egg sitting comfy in the middle. Somehow when the time is ripe, the baby wasp finds its way from its sealed womb.

These are the topics students are taught during the weekend classes at the planetarium. Addressing these sessions are experts who guide them in the art of thinking and problem solving.

The weekend classes held at the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium in Bangalore were first started in 1997 by a group of scientists and the planetarium staff under its Bangalore Association for Science Education (BASE) chapter. Called Research Education Advancement Programme, (REAP), it is meant for undergraduate students to be motivated and trained for research.

At present, Physics and Biology are taught. Classes are held by scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Raman Research Institute, Indian Institute of Astrophysics and JNCASR.

The modules cover many topics and ten lectures are delivered on a topic over five weeks. The basics are covered in the first year and more advanced topics are covered in the second year. During the third year, students take up work with a faculty at one of the research institutions. The IISc, RRI and IIA have been funding this programme as an outreach project to college students in Bangalore.

REAP was initiated by Prof C V Vishveshwara, the first director of the planetarium. It began with a need to make students think and solve problems. The only requirement to join is “interest to do Science”. A nominal fee is charged.

REAP classes often begin with large numbers, almost 70-80, and soon fall to 40 when assignments are handed out and by the second year down to 25 and in the third year where students do actual research down to a handful!

“We carry on even if we have only two students. Who knows, they may go on to become Nobel laureates!” says the professor with a smile.

But many have ended up writing full-fledged papers in the third year. The list of REAP-ites boasts of Rhodes scholars, IITians and many in top universities abroad and at home. A student of REAP-Biology was selected for the Int.PhD Program in Biological Sciences last year. The competition to gain admission to that programme is intense and only 15 students from all over India are selected from the 3000 applications!

It is Prof Vishveshwara’s dream to add a session each for Mathematics and Computer Science. He laments how the latter is not studied as a Science but as Software Engineering. He also hopes to extend the programme to actual research done on the planetarium premise. A student has begun work on table top black holes.

Summing it up he says, “there is nothing like REAP anywhere in the solar system!”
To Prof S Lokanathan, Science allows people to enjoy the choice in democracy. “For example, there has been so much debate at higher levels on nuclear energy —even the so called experts disagree and it is the people who will, we hope, decide on it. But they can hardly do it for themselves without a modicum of knowledge of what it is. And then again, Science should be as much a pleasurable source of enjoyment of reflection as music, painting or literature — no more, no less.”

REAP has, to a large extent, what it set out to do — attract students to research. As Bala Iyer, a fellow researcher at REAP, notes, “the number of students from Bangalore’s colleges who now sign up for research has gone up.”

The director of the planetarium, Dr B S Shylaja, who has been associated with REAP from the beginning, and teaches astrophysics to the students, says, “When I meet bright, motivated students from rural areas, I feel that we are yet to go a long way; how we are going to do it remains a big question.”

H R Madhusudan, faculty at the planetarium, views REAP as something that aims to develop problem-solving skills. “This makes the students understand the concepts along with their applications at a deeper level than what they learn in their formal course. Some of them have taken to teaching, which is encouraging for others,” he notes.

The experiments set up in the basement as part of the practical sessions are a class apart. Simple, yet profound. Using a simple set up of coupled oscillations, most phenomena in systems are explained.

Madhusudan explains how “resonance in a system explains almost up to 90 per cent of all that happens in systems optical, mechanical or quantum. It is a fundamental principle of Physics that encompasses all systems.” The experiments are meant to teach some underlying fundamental principle of physics. Students are free to work on them through the weekends.

Science students can submit their applications to REAP by July 23, 2012. For more information, visit

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