Space sciences continue to be a neglected area of study in Pakistan
In Pakistan, college students do not have the option to major in astrophysics, astrobiology, astronomy and other such fields. One would be hard-pressed even to find elective courses related to astronomy at the country’s renowned colleges. For a young person who wants to become an astronaut or study space seriously, the only recourse is to apply to colleges abroad that have well-equipped observatories and trained faculty. There is no state-funded or national observatory in Pakistan. Umair Asim, a teacher and astronomy enthusiast who runs a non-profit school for children of middle to low-income households in Shahdara, has dedicated his life and resources to filling this gap.
For years, Asim has been running Pakistan’s first private observatory, which, so far, functionally is the only one in Lahore. In listening to him talk about his work, the passion with which he approaches it is palpable. The fact that this astronomy club is entirely self-funded shows that the sense of wonder that comes from taking in the vast canvas of the universe drives this enterprise.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Could you describe your fascination with celestial bodies?
Umair Asim (UA): As a child, my mother would have to drag me down from the roof for bedtime. Looking at the stars has always been a fascinating thing for me. In the field of astronomy and the study of the universe, so much is still unknown, and I’m always interested in new discoveries. And since I have been a teacher for most of my life, I am always interested in learning new things and sharing them with others. In astronomy, distances, timescales, etc, are so much larger than life that one cannot help but be in awe. Looking through a telescope makes me feel connected to all of existence in a way that nothing else does.
TNS: How and why did you start this observatory?
UA: The Lahore Astronomical Society was formed in 1994 by a group of people interested in telescopes and star-gazers. This was an amateur society, to begin with. And at the start, we all thought we were alone in our fascination with the stars. Initially, there weren’t many members because people generally were not aware of the subject. Before the internet, one couldn’t even find books on astronomy in libraries. But now, due to the internet, there is an ever-growing curiosity in astronomy and space exploration. People who come to us now tend to be interested in black-holes, the big bang and the possibility of alien life-forms (astrobiology). As time went on, we got hundreds of members, particularly young people, who have expanded the society and the nature of our work in interesting ways.
The observatory is used for public observations, training and internships. To this day, my family objects to the fact that I have repurposed the building in this way. I always say that this house is now the property of the stars.
The building that now houses the observatory was once my family home. In 2004, I converted the roof of the house into an observatory with my private collection of telescopes. In 2012, the family moved out of the house and by 2014, I had dedicated the property to the society. Since then, we have regular meetings and astronomy workshops here. The observatory is used for public observations, training and internships. To this day, my family objects to the fact that I have repurposed the building in this way. I always say that this house is now the property of the stars.
TNS: What are the challenges of running a private observatory in a country with a dearth of attention and resources spent on astronomy? In what ways does the fact that there is no national observatory necessitate your work?
UA: There are two other private observatories in Islamabad and Karachi, but our society is the most active, and we host public events on a monthly basis. The Karachi society does interesting outfield dark-sky observations in Sindh and Balochistan. Less urbanised areas tend to offer more visibility because there is less light pollution. In the Punjab, it’s challenging to find a place with good visibility, making observation difficult, even if you are using professional equipment.
TNS: What are the goals of this society?
UA: We conduct workshops and train aspiring astronomers. We also collect data through spectroscopy, photometry and astrometry. Astrometry measures precisely the positions and movements of stars, asteroids and other celestial bodies. There are hundreds of thousands of asteroids visible worldwide, and their trajectories are tracked by amateur astronomy enthusiasts. This data and some of our observations are published on our website.
My goal, especially with new members, is always first and foremost to share the experience of looking at celestial bodies through a telescope. It’s inevitably a philosophical or even a spiritual experience for most people. Just the magnitude of the distances and the concept of light-years – the idea that distances are measured by how long it takes for the image to reach us when we are observing it – make people contemplate the meaning of life and the nature of our existence within the infinite. Science is a purely human experience.
We are always welcoming new members. I love talking to people about astronomy, especially young people because they tend to bring in a lot of curiosity and fresh perspectives and ask genuine questions. But the study of the stars tends to bring out the inner child even in serious adults.
The writer is a staff member. She can be found on instagram amar.alam_literally