KARACHI, Feb 13: One of the most neglected research facilities at Karachi University is the Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics (Ispa), which has been deprived of research equipment and regular staff for many years. The institute’s decades old astronomical observatory has been shut for over a month as no arrangements could be made for power supply after its generator was stolen with a set of costly binoculars. The university administration’s apathy towards the institute can be gauged from the fact that the observatory has had no regular electricity supply for the past five years.
The observatory power cables have been stolen many times and running the observatory on a generator has always been a problem for students and teachers who often face difficulties in getting fuel supplies on time from the administration.
It needs to be mentioned here that the observatory was the only place in the city that was used not only by students, but also from the general public to watch astronomical events, for instance, an eclipse of the sun/moon.
Elaborating upon the reasons behind the lack of funding for the institute, sources said that the university administration had always been more interested in departments that could ensure good earning.
“In good old days, the university spent huge amounts of money on new projects many of which failed to take off because of budget cuts made later.
“But, it refrained from investing in old science departments. Still, it has money to build a new administrative block, but refuses funds to buy a new telescope for students,” a senior teacher said.
It’s surprising to note that the KU’s website makes no mention of Ispa in the list of institutes being run on the campus.
Currently there are 35 students enrolled with the institute which has awarded 12 M.Phil and four PhD degrees since 1999 when students were formally registered for research. The man behind Ispa
Prof (Dr) Jawaid Quamar, currently serving as the dean of science faculty at the Dadabhoy Institute of Higher Education, was the first director of the institute and remained associated with it till his retirement in 2003.
According to Dr Quamar, though Ispa was set up as an autonomous research institute in 1994, the idea for a space science astrophysics programme and an astronomical observatory was conceived right at the inception of the KU.
“Late A.B.A Haleem, the first KU vice chancellor, procured the telescope with relevant equipment from a German company. The equipment remained in boxes at the old campus until the beginning of 1960s when the university moved to its present new campus.”
Dr Quamar, the first PhD in astrophysics in Pakistan, said that many students did their research under his supervision and he also introduced new programmes in the relevant field in the country.
“At an international conference held in Karachi in 2000, 10 research papers from Ispa were accepted while two were from rest of the university.
Research activities were carried out day and night in my days,” he said.
The dome of the observatory was an evidence of Dr Quamar’s hard work and dedication.
“The observatory initially belonged to the mathematics department and later became part of Ispa. We had to replace the dome structure because it had eroded. I didn’t spend a single penny of the university and designed and developed it with the help of students and financial support from philanthropists. It was all-out of sheer love for science and madness,” he remarked. ‘More theory than practical’ The institute comprising a few classrooms, a computer laboratory and an observatory, set up on a hillock near the Silver Jubilee Gate were all found to be in a poor shape during a visit by Dawn.
Although it wasn’t possible to go inside the observatory as its rooms were all locked, one could see the broken furniture covered with layers of dust through the windows. The bulbs fitted outside the building were all broken.
No staff was deputed for the daily management of the observatory, which was also deprived of water supply as its water tank had developed leakages.
The state of the department established in the vacant boys’ hostel wasn’t different either.
Upon inquiry, the staff said that a renovation process was in progress and “the conditions will improve within months”.
Speaking to Dawn, students complained that they were disappointed with the state of affairs at the institute that offered hardly any facility related to space research and had no permanent faculty member.
“All our teachers are visiting professors from other departments. I cannot understand that why students are being admitted to the institute if the university does not have regular faculty and research facilities here,” said a student.
About the utility of the observatory fitted with a powerful telescope that was functional till a month back, he said that the telescope was obsolete and couldn’t be used for research.
“The telescope has a limited capacity. Its optics are not clear any more and though we can see some stars and planets with its help, it cannot capture the spectrum, a very important element in space research. The spectrum of a star tells about as its temperature¸ motion, composition and other such things,” he said, adding that the institute needed to have a powerful digital telescope with an entire set-up for the data analysis.
“This is the basic need. Right now, we are more involved in theoretical work. The telescope was usually used on celestial events. The research being undertaken here generally involved data evaluation which we acquire from different sources using the Internet and mathematical techniques,” he said.
Expressing reservations over security measures on the campus, the student said that though thefts had often been committed at the observatory, the Rangers had never taken any action.
“They question us when we visit the observatory at night for study purposes. But, it’s more than surprising that they have never taken a single thief into custody. How come someone lift a heavy generator, which could only be transported in a pick-up, and drive away calmly from the campus,” he asked.
Another student pointed out that if Suparco (Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission), the only institution in the country currently involved in space research and technology, had supported, the state of KU institute would have been very different.
“Instead of developing a technology institute, Sparco should have supported Ispa and offered fellowships to students involved in pure science research here. Research in pure science creates innovative technologies,” he said.
Upon contact, Dr Jamil Kazmi, the chairman of the geography department who has the additional charge of Ispa, said that the renovation was under way while efforts were being made to lay down a cable.
“The observatory would be fully functional from July,” Dr Kazmi said.
Regarding the lack of practical work at the institute, Dr Kazmi explained: “Students are learning about different things here, including remote-sensing, flood modelling, geographical information system, mathematical modelling, image processing and ozone monitoring. Astrophysics is only a part,” he said, adding that limited job opportunities were a major hindrance in attracting students to this field.
Vacancies for teachers, he said, had been advertised last year and the funds for the institute had been increased to Rs500,000.