'Private initiative required to promote science'

'Private initiative required to promote science'

For several Indians, the prospect of spending a night without power supply is itself nightmarish. For Vishnu Vardhan Reddy though, they were an inspiration to a career in astronomy. Hailing from the small town of Sulurpeta in Andhra Pradesh (where power cuts are as common as the starry sky above), Reddy would spend sleepless nights watching bright stars and constellations on the sky, itching to study them more deeply with a telescope.

Today, Reddy (30) is contributing to research in near-earth asteroids that threaten to collide with earth and could potentially obliterate life on the planet. Even as he qualified in communications and pursued a career in journalism, his interest for astronomy grew bigger with the size of the telescopes he used to scan the space. An interview he had with the asteroid expert Tom Gehrels (University of Arizona) opened up the possibility of pursuing research in planetary sciences in the US. Reddy has the distinction of discovering several asteroids and celestial objects, including Asteroid Bharat.

During his recent visit to Bangalore to conduct a workshop on observation, Reddy spoke to L Subramani of Deccan Herald about his research and the state of astronomy in India.

Tell us about your workshop in Bangalore.

This was a two-day workshop for amateur astronomers which the Bangalore Astronomical Society (BAS) conducted as part of the International Year of Astronomy. I spoke to them on the latest developments in asteroids, comets and meteorites. I also taught them how to observe asteroids and comets and what are their characteristics.

The idea behind having a year dedicated for astronomy, besides commemorating the 400th year of Galileo’s invention of the telescope, is to create interest in the subject among the general public. The best way to reach out to them is through amateur astronomers who have the passion for astronomy and are best placed to take the information to school and college students.

Given that the planet is facing the threat of asteroid collision, which may potentially obliterate life, do you think this instruction would be useful to astronomers?

Even at the global level, the contribution by amateur astronomers in major discoveries and observations have been tremendous. They continue to discover asteroids and objects that pose a clear danger to earth. In fact, one of my colleagues Roy Tucker discovered the asteroid called Apophis that is supposed to come closer to earth in 2029.

Such objects need closer and continuous observation to determine if they pose the danger of crashing into earth’s surface any time in future. This is a collective work carried out by astronomers across the globe and so it is certainly important to inform them of these objects.

What is your precise area of study?

My research has been around studying the composition of asteroids. For instance, if an asteroid comes closer to earth, I would tell scientists what it is made of. This is an important piece of information since this would help them decide on the right kind of strategy — whether to use a missile or other means — to deflect this object from earth’s orbit.

As someone who had taken a different route to professional astronomy, do you think passion alone can help people pursue astronomy or lack of equipment in schools/colleges can be discouraging...

Even as far back as in 1980s, when I started observing the sky in my own little way, passion mattered a lot. I never thought the government or educational institutions should erect telescopes on their roofs in order to stir my passion. So while lack of access to telescopes might deny students in general to observe the sky, those passionate about it manage to keep it alive and even find opportunities to pursue it. 

At a time when technology is understood only to be IT and institutions show no great interest in promoting subjects like astronomy, do you think India may fall short of necessary manpower to accomplish its goals in space science?

It is disappointing to see the mad rush for IT. People don’t take any interest in pursuing knowledge. Probably because we are a different economic entity today than a few decades ago. Also, you don’t mistake the need to put food on the table in a country as big as our’s. However, as we start maturing economically, people are starting to understand that money isn’t everything.

I also feel we as a society need to change the socialist attitude towards science — that only the government should do everything to promote science. There must be more participation of private institutions in this endeavour, as promotion of science is in the greater interest of humanity. There is a need to sustain the big group of amateur astronomers and spread interest amongst students, who are the future hope of our scientific missions. Though this change hasn’t started to happen in a large scale, we see some signs of it on the ground.

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