KARACHI, Oct 3: They say the sky's the limit. But astronomy enthusiasts think otherwise; for them, the twinkling sky is an aspiration, a muse to look beyond and explore the universe that holds life's deepest secrets and glory. Why is then, that other than a few occasions like eclipses and Eid the public at large are not interested in exploring the canvas above?

The excuses are many: it's time consuming, there's too much light and air pollution in cities, it's an expensive hobby and indoor activities do not leave enough time. All these serve as strong deterrent in developing the public's interest in pursuing the celestial activities regularly.

“It's not just about lack of interest, it's also about lack of awareness,” says Asma Inayat, who follows astronomy as a hobby.

“Most people are generally not aware of what's going on, perhaps because they are not taught astronomy from an early school age.”

As for astronomy being an expensive pursuit, “I would call it an exclusive hobby, not an expensive one,” counters Ms Inayat, adding that it doesn't take much to read up on stars and then go up on your roof and stargaze.

There was a time when celestial bodies held much more fascination for an ordinary earthling. They were the guardian angels and a compass for seafarers and those on land. They were the clocks and to some, they were the gods. Yet, with the passage of time, and as inventions came along, the interest in the skies receded, save for those who pursue it professionally, or the very few for whom the skyline still holds fascination.

“I feel there has not been enough government support for this lack of interest,” says Zain Ahmed, an astronomy enthusiast. “It has improved somewhat in the past one year, but still needs a lot of organisation.”

Whereas pollution does create a visual hindrance, Karachians are more fortunate than residents of other cities in Pakistan. All they have to do is drive up to 200 kilometres from the metropolis and they will find areas with exceptionally clear skies, which is not the case with most cities.

“Yes, we have pollution issues, but we must remember that European countries, or for that matter even India, face far more light pollution than us,” says Mr Ahmed, explaining that Pakistan has 50 per cent darker skies than India.

In the recent years, a few amateur astronomy societies have cropped up, which are helping develop people's interest. Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) is also contributing significantly towards raising awareness by holding events on specific occasions. However, in order to cultivate this hobby in people we need a far more cohesive approach. Activities such as private workshops that should involve parents as well as children and school trips to planetariums and open fields for stargazing will up the level of interest.

More importantly, the government needs to allocate funds to introduce Urdu-based quality content on astronomy via the print media like books and the electronic media. Basic astronomy should also be included in school curriculum. Planetariums are an excellent source of information and they have been badly neglected; the equipment needs to be updated.

Furthermore, those enthusiastic about astronomy should get involved and use their skills to spread awareness among the public at large which would assist in organising events. There's a need for volunteers to contribute towards raising awareness. While there's no money required for gazing into space, what remains to be seen is when and who will make the first move.

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