“Yeh mein ne Jupiter banaya hai”
Afzal swung a ball of crumpled newspapers in the air, and a smug grin took over his face.
“Jee, ab mein Mars aur Saturn banaun ga,” he explained, answering my puzzled expression.
His eyes shone with excitement as he shrunk the solar system to a magnitude he could fathom.
In the summer of 2017, I worked with an NGO, Next Generation Pakistan, to organise a summer school in an underprivileged area of Lahore. My responsibility of heading the science department led me to formulate a syllabus that focused on teaching science beyond what is taught in a conventional, rote-learning oriented classroom; the syllabus comprised experimental science, environmental management, and astronomy, to accentuate the prevalence and importance of science in our everyday lives thereby linking what is in textbooks to what lies on our Earth and beyond.
The beginning of this story lies in a small seventh grade classroom that is etched onto my memory: the scorching mid-July heat of Lahore, the humidity of nascent monsoon, light fluttering through huge windows to compensate for the ruthless power cuts, shrieks as vinegar dissolves the outer shell of an egg, a collective “whoa” at the bizarre magic that makes a solution turn from orange to green, faces perplexed at the sight of a magnet causing a wire to move, a roar of laughter as an experiment did not go as planned, and Afzal. If I close my eyes, I can see his face staring at me amidst all those children, challenging every word I say, bombarding me with “lekin aisay kyun?”
Afzal, unstirred by the heat, attended all three weeks of the summer school. He wanted to know why wet hair appeared darker than dry hair, why water was blue in the sea but transparent in his bath tub, what made the solar system flat, and the earth round. As classes on astronomy progressed, Afzal found himself spending all his free time with me, discussing phenomenon after phenomenon, watching videos after videos, and simply unraveling the great mysteries of this universe. Flames of curiosity raged within his eyes, holding the cosmos captive. All those months of planning the syllabus could not stop me from stumbling for words to shield myself against the intensity of his questions as I struggled to find ways to explain concepts far more advance for a student who has not studied atomic structures or laws of physics. Young Afzal’s imagination was as relentless as his curiosity; age was not much of an obstacle. He imagined aliens intercepting Voyager 1, and finding an endangered animal in his backyard. He often gazes at the night sky, wondering what massive events might be happening up there that are changing the universe forever, as the world remains indifferent.
In just three weeks, Afzal allowed me to observe the miracles of curiosity in close proximity, helping me see the world through a pair of eyes very different from mine. It made me learn what I did not know, and relearn what I already knew. It reminded me that the thirst for knowledge is insatiable, and there is joy in understanding the cosmic clockwork better.
As he bounces his Jupiter into air, I want to tell him that the storms of Jupiter cannot match the intensity of his perspective. With every twirl of his Jupiter, I want to tell him that I see his excited eyes staring back at me in images of spiraling galaxies.
Instead, I tell him that the universe is as much his as it is anyone else’s, and he should not hesitate to look up at the sky and soak up his share. Just by doing so, he might inspire others the way he inspired me.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan