FOOTPRINTS: SCIENCE FOR ALL

Published December 27, 2022
Dr Aquib Moin talks about astrodynamics and the motion of satellites around Earth during his lecture at TBH.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
Dr Aquib Moin talks about astrodynamics and the motion of satellites around Earth during his lecture at TBH.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

I feel a bit out of my depth as Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy demonstrates simple, yet fascinating, experiments at the children’s science lab on the first floor of ‘The Black Hole’. This lab is for kids aged 12-16, Dr Hoodbhoy tells me as he continues to tinker with an electroscope — an early scientific tool used to detect electric charge on a body — but I find myself as captivated as a fifth grader might be.

On the wall to my right, a whiteboard is littered with math equations; on the other side hangs a copy of the periodic table. “Usually, this lab is filled with kids,” Dr Hoodbhoy says as I observe my surroundings.

I ran into Dr Hoodbhoy outside ‘The Black Hole’ (or TBH for short) and he was kind enough to take me on a tour of the facility.

TBH is located in a street just off the pine-lined Ibne Sina Road, surrounded by Soviet-style apartment blocks and hostels. The exterior, adorned with brown arches apparently inspired by Renaissance architecture, stands out in the otherwise mundane Islamabad alley.

In addition to a science lab, the facility also houses a cafe and library, where a picture frame of public intellectual Eqbal Ahmed adorns the wall amid rows of books and magazine stands.

The purpose of TBH — where concepts of high science are explained in simple terms — is to make science popular, alongside promoting music, culture, and discussion around social issues.

The way science is taught in schools, says Dr Hoodbhoy, is so tedious that it usually drives people away. TBH aims to change that.

“Here, children are very happy to do experiments and our summer camp school earlier this year was overflowing,” the jeans and jacket-clad intellectual tells me as he shares a pamphlet about an upcoming winter camp.

It is almost time for a talk by the guest speaker, Dr Aquib Moin. We walk together to the auditorium in the basement and I plant myself in the fifth row, far enough back to observe how those in the audience will react without going out of earshot.

One of the first things that catches my eye are the illustrations painstakingly drawn (and coloured) in chalk across the hall blackboard. Is it graffiti, I wonder to myself.

Later, I track down the in-house artist, Mr Alam to satiate my curiosity. “I don’t have a particular name for this, I just stand in front of the board and draw whatever comes to mind,” he tells me.

Nayyar Afaq, who is part of the TBH team, describes them like poetry. “In the words of Ghalib: ‘aate haiñ ghaib se ye mazamin khayal meñ’ (out of the unseen these thoughts are conceived).”

The Black Hole has organised more than 300 events since it opened in March this year and every piece of blackboard art displayed since has been unique.

Back in the hall, which is nearly brimming with college and university-going students by now, Dr Moin is talking about ‘Space R&D and the Intellectual Capacity Building Loop’.

He shares information about the Emirati space programme and its Mars mission. However, the conversation soon turns to the education system’s impact on science. There is an agreement between Dr Hoodbhoy and the speaker that ‘intellectual capacity building’ does not come with degrees, but only through reasoning and critical thinking.

“The degree only teaches you know-how about a subject, but intellectual capacity is acquired through the use of reason that helps you become proficient at interpreting things,” Dr Moin says.

Dr Hoodbhoy blames this deficiency on the ‘rote learning’ inherent in the local education system and calls it antithetical to the progress of science in the country.

India’s space programme was started after Pakistan but now it’s sending missions to outer space and also leading in the IT sector, he says.

The UAE is not too different, Dr Moin tells his audience. Even though they have been sending missions to space — a source of national pride — they have not developed their homegrown intellectual capacity proportionally, he said.

As the talk ended, I asked Daud, a student intending to study at the National Defence University, about his experience at TBH. “I mostly sit in the library but [I] do attend events in the auditorium,” he responded. These lectures are an opportunity to develop a thorough understanding of a topic “as opposed to books which only give a preview”, he told Dawn.

Like T2F in Karachi and Cafe Bol in Lahore, this place provides a space for intellectual conversations in a vibrant atmosphere.

It is already dark outside as I leave the building; and as I exit, I ponder the providence of the name ‘The Black Hole’. While its namesake cosmic phenomena may be considered a ‘graveyard of stars’, one can hope that the terrestrial TBH will help produce some bright minds in the days to come.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2022

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