Science for social progress

Published : May 07, 2004 00:00 IST

A phase of the sun on a day of total solar eclipse. -

A phase of the sun on a day of total solar eclipse. -

The tireless efforts of Vigyan Prasar to popularise science and inculcate a scientific temperament in people through the media and through various innovative methods are yielding results.

IN a country where literacy has eluded nearly a third of the population, promoting scientific awareness is not an easy task. But that is what Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India, has been doing for the past one decade with its message, "Think scientifically, act scientifically".

People do not question traditional practices that are handed down from one generation to the next. Similarly, there is a general lack of awareness about the scientific basis of many natural phenomena.

In view of the rapid strides being made in the field of science and technology, and their influence on the day-to-day life of the people, inculcating a scientific temperament and a rational outlook in them has become all the more important. This would help people to make the right choices.

It is in this context that the science popularisation efforts of Vigyan Prasar assume significance.

Although it was set up in 1989, Vigyan Prasar started functioning effectively only in 1994 when it undertook science popularisation activities on a large scale by deploying emerging communication technologies through the media. Publication of popular science books and periodicals has been the mainstay of Vigyan Prasar since its inception. It has brought out over 100 titles authored by experts and well-known science communicators in English, Hindi and other Indian languages. The topics include India's scientific heritage, natural history, health, environment and biographies of scientists. It has brought out some books in Braille for the benefit of the visually handicapped.

Vigyan Prasar has been utilising fully the wide reach of the print and the electronic media. A survey on the coverage of science and technology (S&T) in Indian newspapers revealed a dismal picture. According to the survey, newspapers are not reluctant to cover S&T but the inflow of information has been inadequate. Vigyan Prasar has chosen to correct the situation by improving the flow of information to the print media, particularly the regional and language newspapers. Among other things, it has made available ready-to-print science pages to the print media, promoted regular columns in newspapers, organised science quiz programmes and supplied articles on contemporary topics. It also issues a monthly newsletter titled Dream 2047.

Vigyan Prasar has been utilising the services of All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan too. A number of radio serials and phone-in-programmes on various scientific phenomena have been broadcast in different languages through the regional stations of AIR. Video films on eclipses, comets, scientific institutions and so on have been telecast on Doordarshan. Vigyan Prasar produces video films and documentaries on S&T-related topics. A noteworthy production was a three-part programme in Hindi, "Ananth Yatra", commemorating 100 years of the golden decade of 1895-1905 when major discoveries that changed the face of the world were made. Currently, Vigyan Prasar is producing documentaries on the life and work of eminent Indian scientists, besides projecting the development of India's scientific capability through the country's historical and heritage sites. Vigyan Prasar hopes to build a national repository of S&T video films.

In addition to AIR, the worldwide satellite digital radio system, "WorldSpace", and the FM radio network of the Indira Gandhi National Open University, "Gyan Vani", are being utilised to popularise S&T. Three programmes were produced to be broadcast on WorldSpace on an experimental basis. The inaugural broadcast took place in May 2002 in five schools in Delhi. In January 2003, similar demonstrations were organised in schools in Bangalore and Chennai. Vigyan Prasar plans to extend such demonstrations to schools across seven metropolitan cities. A variety of software that would be of interest to students, teachers and the general public is being produced with the cooperation of schools, scientific organisations and departments concerned. The main objective is to introduce teachers and students to the power of digital satellite transmission. Vigyan Prasar broadcasted the 110-episode serial `Manav Ka Vikas' (Human Evolution) on WorldSpace channel from February 28, 2003, both in Hindi and English. It continues to broadcast S&T programmes on Equalaccess, the WorldSpace channel, for one hour every day.

Ham radio is another important tool that Vigyan Prasar is using to popularise science. Awareness programmes are organised on ham radio for the benefit of schoolchildren and the general public. It maintains a Ham Radio Club station at Technology Bhawan in New Delhi and a VHF Ham Repeater Station, which is widely used by radio amateurs in Delhi and its neighbourhood. It is trying to develop indigenous and inexpensive ham radio transceiver sets. In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Gujarat in January 2001, Vigyan Prasar established contact with other ham radio stations set up in the quake-affected areas in order to pass on messages relating to relief measures. Realising the important role of ham radio as a medium of communication, Vigyan Prasar has been organising workshops and other programmes for those interested in radio.

The goal of inculcating a scientific temperament and a rational outlook among the people could be achieved easily if science as a subject is made interesting for the younger generation. Vigyan Prasar has been promoting the establishment of science clubs all over the country to make science learning joyful and meaningful. Currently, the Vigyan Prasar Network (VIPNET) consists of 6,000 science clubs. If 10 persons get together they can form a science club and get it affiliated to VIPNET. Vigyan Prasar has been involved in designing and developing activity kits and other source materials for VIPNET clubs. The activities of these clubs are highlighted through a monthly newsletter titled VIPNET News. The State S&T councils have evinced a keen interest in VIPNET in order to popularise science in rural areas. It is proposed to connect clusters of VIPNET clubs through WorldSpace Digital Radio and disseminate and market S&T software through VIPNET clubs, especially in rural areas. VIPNET clubs have not only disseminated information but also mobilised the community for action. At a meeting of VIPNET club activists in Indore a few months ago, it was reported that the VIPNET clubs in the Ratlam region had successfully mobilised the community to build water-harvesting masonry.

Com-ComVIPNET NewsDream 2047

The activities undertaken by Vigyan Prasar have had a positive impact. For instance, public awareness about the scientific aspects of eclipses is found to have improved. An ambitious programme to expand its activities in the coming years is on the anvil. It plans to bring out publications on a variety of topics in all the Indian languages and develop its monthly newsletter, Dream 2047, into a popular science magazine. It hopes to get 50,000 science clubs under VIPNET in the years to come and have them connected through satellite radio and television network. Dedicated core-groups would be developed in all States to look after, promote and supplement its activities. Efforts would be made to set up small FM stations that are dedicated to the creation of scientific awareness in remote areas. The number of training programmes would be increased and learning material, including kits, software, charts, posters and slides on different aspects of science would be developed.

Major scientific events are being used by Vigyan Prasar to spread scientific awareness. For instance, the transit of Mercury on May 7, 2003 was a rare phenomenon, which takes place only 13 to 14 times in a century. Vigyan Prasar made use of the occasion during which Mercury comes between the Earth and the Sun, to spread awareness among the public. Arrangements were made for the public to view the celestial event through a telescope with the image of the Sun projected on to a screen. An online demonstration was organised at the Office of the Department of Science and Technology and on the Vigyan Prasar's website. During the phenomenon, which lasted five hours, the web site recorded 3,000 hits. A lecture-demonstration was also organised to make the public familiar with different aspects of the transit.

On August 28, 2003, when Mars came closest to the earth, arrangements were made to enable the public to view the red planet through a telescope. Vigyan Prasar is looking forward to the transit of Venus, which will occur on June 8, 2004, to launch a nation-wide programme of science awareness in collaboration with the National Council for Science and Technology Communication. The transits of Venus, which offered scientists opportunities to measure the planetary distances from the Sun in the 18th and 19th centuries, will provide science communicators an occasion to disseminate information to the general public on the scientific aspects of various astronomical phenomena. Programmes will also be organised in time for the total solar eclipse, which will occur in 2009. The National Science Day, observed every year on February 28, is another occasion to popularise science.

As its basic aim is to inculcate scientific spirit among the masses, Vigyan Prasar has recognised that it cannot depend on English alone for the sourcing of materials needed for science popularisation. According to Dr. V.B. Kamble, acting Director of Vigyan Prasar, quality works in one language need to be translated into other Indian languages. For this purpose the idea of setting up a translation bureau has been mooted.

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