Astronomy and astrophysics - the very words sound esoteric to the common man, encompassing subject matter that may be beyond the scope of our everyday comprehension. Trying to break through this barrier and build a bridge between the public and the research scientists working with their telescopes and lengthy calculations is the renowned Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune and its Public Outreach Programme (POP). The latest in its series of activities to take astronomy and astrophysics (A&A) to the public is the Muktangan Vigyan Shodhika or the Muktangan Science Exploratorium - a science centre exclusively for children which is expected to open doors in February 2004.

The IUCAA is an autonomous institution set up by the University Grants Commission to promote nucleation and growth of active groups in A&A in Indian universities. It aims at being a centre for excellence within the university sector for teaching, research and development in A&A. At the same time, it does not believe in confining the pursuit of these subjects to the academia. The IUCAA is probably the only organisation of its stature to have taken up the task of reaching out and familiarising the public them with the tenets of A&A as part of its regular agenda. Says Arvind Paranjpye, who is a Scientific Technical Officer at IUCAA and closely involved with the Public Outreach Programme, "We are trying to reach out to the public and tell them about the science of astronomy. Our POP target group is actually every non-astronomer interested in astronomy. Along with this we also take up science popularisation programmes, i.e. getting the younger generation interested in astronomy."

Towards this end comes the Muktangan Exploratorium, which is aimed at students in the age group of 13 to 17 years, i.e. from Standards VII to XII. This is the target group of IUCAA's existing school children's programme. "This is the outcome of a grant received from Sunita Deshpande, wife of the Marathi literary legend, the late Pu La Deshpande, and additional funds from the US-based Maharashtra Foundation," writes Dr Jayant Narlikar, in an explanatory note on the Muktangan Exploratorium. "A possible name for the building is Pulastya, which is one of the stars of the Saptarishi group, and also underscores the Pu-La connection. The premises contain an auditorium for lectures and demonstrations, a library-cum-computer centre, a laboratory with interesting pre-set experiments as well as area for the children to design their own experiments, and a roof-top telescope," the note says further.

Open to all school children from in and out of Pune, the Exploratorium also plans on inviting children to be individual members. The idea is to reserve such membership for children who are especially interested in continuing interaction with IUCAA. This will also enable the concerned staff at IUCAA to monitor the progress of these children. Along with the younger lot, the Exploratorium also has activities for school teachers of science and mathematics. Regular programmes on new teaching methods or innovative scientific toy-making have been lined up for them. Accordingly, some new members have joined the IUCAA family like the reputed IIT-alumnus Arvind Gupta, who has dedicated his lifetime to science popularisation activities like innovative scientific toy-making out of waste.

While the Exploratorium is a new venture, the POP has been a regular feature of IUCAA for quite some time now. One wonders about the need for such programmes, especially in this age of information explosion. Paranjpye replies, "It is true that students have access to a lot of information on the internet etc, but they still have so many questions that they need someone to answer, and IUCAA's POP helps clear such doubts. It's not just students, by and large, people are interested in astronomy at some level and we try and provide them with the basic facts. That's what SciPop (science popularisation) is all about - making people 'science literate'. Not all kids may pursue astronomy as their career, but we want them to get a feel of the excitement in the subject."

However, not many organisations take up public outreach programmes in a serious way. The institute and its researchers function in their ivory towers, while the masses are often in the dark. "That's probably because SciPop involves time and effort, coming down to the level of the layman," points out Paranjpye. And if there is no dedicated staff, it means taking time out of your own research activities, which is not always acceptable to all. However, in the wake of IUCAA's success, other organisations such as the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, and TIFR, Mumbai have started similar public outreach programmes.

IUCAA's Public Outreach Programme addresses three groups - school students, amateur astronomers and the general public. It has different activities lined up to cater to each of these different groups. Since 1983, IUCAA has been organising Saturday lectures for students - both school and college level. Supplemented with slides and live demonstrations, these are conducted every second and fourth Saturday in English, Hindi and Marathi. Along with this, every year, IUCAA invites schools to nominate two scientifically motivated students to participate in its School Students Summer Programme that lasts for six weeks. The students work all day with a faculty member for five days. They also attend a special session of on-line or live observing, during which they control a 14 inch telescope installed on Mt. Wilson, California, USA, via Internet.

For the amateur astronomers, IUCAA's major activity is the telescope building workshop that started in 1999. Since then around 175 telescopes of different types have ‘rolled’ out of its Public Outreach Laboratory. These telescopes are powerful enough to observe the rings of Saturn and bands of Jupiter and many faint astronomical objects. Another annual programme is the celebration of National Science Day (28 February). It's an open day for the public to visit IUCAA and take a look at the ongoing research, along with the contemporary work happening elsewhere in the world. Short lectures, film shows, quizzes, essay and drawing competitions mark these celebrations.

In the wake of IUCAA's success, other organisations such as the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, and TIFR, Mumbai have started similar public outreach programmes.
All around the calendar year, IUCAA ensures that its doors are open to the public and there is continuous interaction between its faculty and the outside world. On any given day, one can see curious passers-by staring at the unique construction of the IUCAA building and its imposing statues of renowned scientists such as Isaac Newton and Galileo. Even if they are not interested in the research updates, there is enough trivia to keep them amused like the apple saplings that Dr Jayant Naralikar got all the way from United Kingdom. The story goes that these are cloned descendents of the very same tree whose fruits led to the famous Laws of Motion! One never knows, but there may be newer Newtons hidden in the visiting hordes of students, waiting to be discovered by the encouragement received at IUCAA.