In the Light of Candle Flames: Lahore Science Mela 2022

The sight is characteristic. Bricks washed in red and whitewashed walls shedding off flakes of decades old paint represent the quintessential Pakistani public school. Yet there is more to the well deserved notoriety of these institutions than just crumbling infrastructure. More often than not, what goes unnoticed is the teaching and learning taking place (if at all) in the classrooms of these state-sponsored schools. In practice, they represent the state’s grotesque inability and unwillingness to impart quality education to its citizens. This particular public school too was a close manifestation of the previously mentioned archetype. Round the year, the same outdated curriculum gets taught via the same ineffective practices. At the close of the academic session, typical school festivities celebrate its high achievers who through drill and practice have mastered the rote based pedagogical method of the matriculation exams. This time around, a very different type of festivity was due.

School students arriving for the Lahore Science Mela in the early hours of 29 October 2022.
A student peeks at the sun.

The Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS) was all set to hold its Fourth Lahore Science Mela (LSM) which promised to be a display of genuine curiosity and wonder — two virtues deemed either insignificant or threatening by the state’s education apparatuses. A celebration of life amidst the ruins of a necropolis illustrates more than just a passable contradiction. Maybe the point of putting up conflicting ideas is to elucidate the possibility of their existence to those who have grown accustomed to the monolithic nature of things. Maybe lighting up candles serves no other purpose than to render the supposed inevitability of the reigning dark superfluous. Maybe the purpose of pointing out contradictions is to resolve them.

Exploring the world of Virtual Reality (VR) at Lahore Science Mela 2022.

Through the vantage point of a volunteer for the LSM 2022, I had the privilege of observing this resolution of contrasting views and ideas first hand. This observation primarily consisted of individual instances which when taken in context are symbolic of greater social and societal dynamics. Instances, though momentary in their existence, hold great value for us momentary beings. Our lives, composed of countless individual moments, give disparate attention to certain instances of importance and are, in turn, disproportionately influenced by them. From time to time, it just so happens that a particular observation of ours radically transforms our way of thinking, our thoughts on life and provides us with a shattering and profound sense of clarity. These transitory occasions of inspiration are the most concentrated in childhood; when we look at things with no preconceived notions and are receptive to novelty. This is the fundamental mechanism through which millions have found meaning and purpose to life and have gone to great extents in pursuit of whatever they see fit.

Lahore Astronomical Society’s amateur astronomers talking about planets and starts at their stall.
The BioRobotics Institute, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna team showing all that their life-mimicking robots can do.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and many other public figures in science recount the origins of their lifelong passions via such moments when a scientific excursion, project or concept appeared to satisfy their innate curiosity and provide answers to their daily and universal questions simultaneously. The United States’ public education isn’t something to be sought after either but it is the availability of extracurricular avenues of science and technology that lights up curious minds. Apart from the mass import of foreign intellectuals, maybe this explains the existence of a robust scientific culture in that part of the world.

There are no Hayden Planetarium and World Science Festival in Pakistan. The Lahore Science Mela aims to counter this unfortunate fact. There are many ways in which this may come true. Whether it be Professor Nidhal Guessom discussing the aftermath of a supernova and the prospects of Pluto with a group of students after his enthusiastic lecture or the students of remote areas of Southern Punjab explaining their hydro turbine model to interested passer-byes, it is the democratisation of science communication and culture that is of the utmost effect. This allows the children’s intrinsic wonder to be utilized and exacerbated rather than tamed and put off. The joy on their faces tells us that they too are equally excited about and receptive to the marvels of the natural and physical world. It’s just that the world of grown men decided not to cater to their growth.

Children inside the KSS planetarium at LSM.

So the fault appeared not to be in our stars but in ourselves. “But what stars?”, the child who has grown up in urban centres might ask. For the artificial luminosity from thousands of sources on ground dims the light from the heavens. So it is justified that her face lights up when she sees the night sky in all its vigour in the planetarium. The narration tells her of neighbouring worlds and their chances at life, that what appear to us as mere points of light might harbour an alien civilisation of their own and that they may too look at our star and wonder the same. It is reasonable to assume that she will never look at the night sky the same way again. It is also probable that of the hundred of thousands of people who visited, the LSM touched many of their lives in numerous and varied ways. If that probability does not cease to exist, the people who have put all their efforts into bringing the Mela to life can rest assured that their labour has bore fruit.

Here’s the thing about hope: it’s fickle. It’s existence is as volatile as the flickers of a candle flame. The solution is not to stop trying altogether but to light as many candles as possible in our ephemeral existences. We arrive again at our initial emphasis that the point of contradictions is to resolve them. Only then can the candle of science effectively counter the dark of the demon haunted world. There was a time when Abu Musa Al Khwarizmi borrowed whole numeral systems from the subcontinent and astrolabes were made in Lahore. In the light of candle flames, we see a distant hint of a future not so different. It is time that our skies should not remain devoid of stars!

A young girl’s journey into STEM

“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity and form.”

Aima Ahmad’s father didn’t know beforehand about the occurrence of the first-ever Lahore Science Mela in 2017. He was mildly curious about the crowd of people gathered outside the venue and decided to take a look for himself. Being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event and the sheer number of scientific wonders at the display, he decided to bring his children the next day. The festival was set with all sorts of models, projects and demonstrations by various exhibitors from all around the country. There, Aima discovered her hitherto dormant aptitude for robotics and mechanics and found people who could provide her with further opportunities to learn and explore. She was nine years old then. One thing led to another and soon Aima was enrolled in a robotics boot camp organised by students of the IT University Lahore.

“Science welcomes everyone with open arms.”

Aima Ahmed with her siblings, father posing with the team of Lahore Science Mela.

Her passion for creating and inventing was appropriately kindled and nurtured. Located in the same building as the university, the US Embassy’s Lincoln Corner was offering a short course on programming. Aima became a regular there too and also won the English Access Microscholarship Program from the American Consulate.

Her innate desire to imagine and innovate was sufficiently sparked, she was now assembling technical models and solving scientific puzzles in her free time. But she didn’t keep it to herself. Aima regularly puts up demonstrations and arranges relevant sessions for free under the banner of the nonprofit organisation she runs along with her father, Aim of Awareness. Her home and school have become a congregation point for the curious children in her neighbourhood where she demonstrates projects and teaches techniques for assembling robotic models. She does all this in the hope that other children may also find their passions and interests in the process much as she did at the Lahore Science Mela in 2017.

“Life imitates art, and science imitates life.”

Two years later, she herself was an exhibitor at LSM 2019 where she brought the many models and robots she had engineered and organised a Rubik’s cube-solving marathon. She set a personal example too by being the youngest and the best competitor in the contest. Young children just like her were in awe and aspired to learn and do the same.

Thus, inspiration had effectively come full circle. Her father credits the Khwarizmi Science Society for organising a science-themed event where people of similar interests show up, find life-changing inspirations and make life-long connections.

In a society where young girls are expected to only pursue medical professions so that a certain monetary and marital value may be achieved in return for their education, aspirations such as Aima’s are not commonplace. She shares much hope and ambition with the late Arfa Karim, after whom has named the building in which Aima took part in the programming courses. What she does not share is the advantage of extreme socioeconomic privilege the former had. The Lahore Science Mela by the non-profit Khwarizmi Science Society aims to attract just such individuals. The LSM has proven to be an annual pilgrimage of the eternally curious towards the greatest reward such people can ask for — the company of individuals with similar interests. This is a pat on the back for many people who otherwise consider their hobbies isolationist and their passions unfound in the context of Pakistan. Science is the ultimate expression of the human urge to think and wonder. Science resides not in the outdated textbooks of regressive curriculums or the impenetrable language of the stereotypical scientist, it resides in the minds and hearts of each one of us. To live and remain unbeknownst to that is a sin. We invite you to pay us a visit at the Divisional Public School, Model Town on the 29th and 30th of October and you may find Aima Ahmad there.

Author: Daud Ali Kharal