I was on a long-distance call with my relatives in the far-western region of Nepal a week before December 21, 2012. I was explaining to my cousin that astronomers all around the world knew that no astronomical event would cause anything significantly destructive, let alone apocalyptic, on that date. I had to convince him against the rumors in Nepal—and everywhere else in the world—exacerbated by some primetime Indian news channels. I was having a hard time explaining to him how scientists around the world collected observational data of most astronomical objects around us and could simulate their future motion and behavior with high accuracy. Beginning at elementary school, students in America learn about the space around us in hands-on approaches such as making clay models of the solar system.
But most students in Nepal get only statistical facts and theoretical knowledge of the Universe we live in. With advances in technology, scientists in developed nations are expanding the limits of their knowledge about the Universe with highly sophisticated equipment, their locations ranging from the depths of the South Pole to the edge of the solar system. Of course, some of the scientific achievements made with such efforts make top news, and we are reminded of how much we have advanced. But would any such astronomical endeavors of the 21st century be significant, rather than merely astonishing, to a general Nepali like my cousin?
I recently watched an insightful documentary titled Guns, Germs and Steel, in which the writer tried to answer a question from an impoverished New Guinean: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo (meaning material wealth) and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” He examined the case, and through research, came to the conclusion that the level of development each country has now is mostly a result of the geographical condition they have lived with since the beginning of their settlement.
Relating this theory to the present situation in Nepal, I concluded that even though political turmoil has a lot to do with the lack of development in our country, the most important factor that has hindered our development is geography itself. Development flourishes with trade and economy, and transportation is a requirement for these. And it is very difficult – both technically and financially – to construct roads in hills and mountains, which are what more than half our country is made of. Luckily, the same mountains are what we are recognized for all over the world. Eight out the fourteen mountains above 8,000 meters are in our country, offering myriad possibilities for tourism. We have been using them to generate income for decades, but there should be more to our mountains than just trekking. My conversation with my cousin Bibek about space exploration reminded me of this.
Atmospheric density grows thinner with altitude. This leads to less air pollution in high altitudes, which subsequently means low hindrance in telescopic observations of heavenly bodies. This makes our mountains very favorable for optical astronomy, but what we can see through our eyes using optical telescopes is only a small part of modern astronomy. Light is, in physicists’ words, just an electromagnetic radiation, and visible light is just a part of all light that’s produced in the universe. Radiowaves (used in radio signals), microwaves (used in telecommunication and in ovens), infrared light (that’s how we get heat from the sun) and X-ray (used to ‘see’ fractures) are all parts of electromagnetic radiation. They differ only in frequency (or, inversely, wavelength). We get all of these radiations from space.
Each radiation has its own significance in studying the properties of heavenly objects. For example, radio waves of 21 cm wavelength are used to detect areas containing cold hydrogen gas in a galaxy, X-rays are detected to identify synchrotron radiation around distant pulsating stars, and microwaves are used to study the history of the universe (it’s also the same radiation that’s detected as noise when your radio gets tuned off). Among all these radiations, our topography favors the tracking of millimeter waves. The millimeter-wave range of electromagnetic spectrum is useful to study the properties of enormous, cold gas clouds in which stars form. Molecules such as carbon monoxide, ethyl alcohol, formic acid, etc. are formed in these regions, which emit radio waves in the millimeter range.
Studying these molecules hints at information about the physical conditions within these clouds associated with formation of stars, evolution of galaxies, and about chemical reactions going on in astronomical environments that cannot be duplicated in laboratories. Detection of these waves is hindered by the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere and the dry, cold, high-altitude northwestern region of our country offers less obstruction in the detection of these waves. The fact that this region is away from urban settlements, and for the most part, does not have electric light, favors not only millimeter and sub-millimeter astronomy but also optical astronomy since objects can be seen more clearly with telescopes where there is minimal ‘light pollution’—excess amount of light coming out from urban settlements.
These nature-given conditions can be utilized to develop an entirely new area of tourism in our country—Astrotourism. I attribute the concept of Astrotourism to my mentor Prof. Jayanta Acharya, one of Nepal’s most experienced astronomers, who envisioned the idea of taking tour groups to high altitude telescopes for astronomical observations. Indeed, it would be a lifetime experience for many tourists to be able to see distant objects clearly—not on their computers or televisions, but through their own eyes or using a telescope they can control. This will attract not only the people that are physically fit to indulge in trekking, but also the less physically capable senior citizens from all around the world who will then have fewer excuses to not fly to the mountains of Nepal. Along with this income-generating aspect of astronomy, setting up telescopes, especially the millimeter wavelength ones, will clearly help boost scientific and technological advancement of our country.
If serious research is done regarding potential locations for these telescopes, our government can seek financial and technical assistance from international astronomical collaborations. For example, NASA has its Deep Space Network antennas in Australia and Spain and other collaborated telescopes in many different countries. Such efforts will help not only in the local development of the region, but also in the overall scientific literacy of our country. We can even attract students from other countries in the region; that’s how the University of Hawaii, which is located in a distant Pacific island, attracts astronomy students and experts from all around the world. Moreover, the growing amount of technical manpower that our country is producing will get more employment opportunities.
Such establishments can also, in however small a scale, define our part in the exploration of the universe. Just as the Indian-American astrophysicist S. Chandrasekhar contributed to the discovery of the theory on the evolution of stars and the Pakistani theoretical physicist Abdus Salam co-discovered the unification of two basic forces of nature (the weak force and the electromagnetic force), in the future, Nepali scientists can contribute to mankind’s understanding of nature, using resources available in our own country.
Curiosity’s landing on Mars, Cassini’s revolution around Saturn, or Voyager’s journey to the edge of the solar system do not lead just to knowledge of Martian surface, Saturnine rings and solar winds. Just like any other scientific discovery, knowledge gained through these missions creates the foundation for more knowledge. They create more curiosity and more inspired minds who will later explain why the world is not ending in another December, or show how we can create more efficient telecommunication satellites or find out where else life exists in the universe. The success of one space mission can lead to the funding of another. Information gained about a star in one spectrum can lead to the funding of a telescope that can acquire data in a different spectrum, employing people in a different country. This is why scientific achievements such as the discovery of the Higgs Boson or the landing of Curiosity should be important not only to physics students in America, but also to a general Nepali. We have had enough stories about the droughts in Humla and Jumla. We should now create a foundation for stories about future scientific discoveries made in our Karnali.
The author is JPL/NASA Solar System Ambassador, 2012