Passionate astronomy educator who helped many reach for the stars

Nandivada Rathnasree’s loss of life on Might 9 after a battle with Covid-19 has been mourned by the astronomy group not solely in India however internationally. The Director of the Nehru Planetarium and Science Museum in Delhi touched the lives of innumerable younger college students and introduced the story of the cosmos to their school rooms.

Rathnasree was appointed director of the Nehru Planetarium in 1999 and held the place till her loss of life. In these 21 years of service, she was not solely the torchbearer of astronomy training in India, but in addition a guiding gentle for astronomy communicators across the nation.

Throughout her tenure, the Nehru Planetarium grew to become a hub of thrilling astronomy actions. She mentored many college students who labored along with her on short-term astronomy initiatives. Over time, she organised a number of exhibitions on essential astronomical occasions and Indian astronomical and house actions.

“I’ve seen her relentlessly engaged on making planetarium reveals on very brief discover on an essential astronomical phenomenon that had been within the information,” mentioned Ravi Kiran, the director of Jawahar Planetarium in Allahabad. “She was maybe essentially the most enthusiastic amongst us.”

Added Shiva Prasad Khened, former director of the Nationwide Science Middle in New Delhi, “Any astronomical occasion be it the latest tremendous conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn or the photo voltaic or lunar eclipses, she was one fixed whose never-ending ardour to take this to the folks was there for everybody to see.”

Throughout Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th beginning anniversary celebrations in 2019, as an example, she organised “Bapu Khagol Mela”, a year-long marketing campaign throughout which she performed astronomy outreach actions at many places the place the chief had lived. Throughout my tenure on the BM Birla Science Centre, we have been the South India nodal centre for the marketing campaign and organised a number of lectures and public evening sky statement actions. We additionally organised a number of actions to commemorate 50 years of the primary moon touchdown in 2019.

Rathnasree believed that astronomy outreach accomplished at archeoastronomy heritage websites and archeoastronomy devices had nice potential. She performed fieldwork to review astronomical devices at 4 extant Jantar Mantar observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, and Varanasi. They’d been constructed between by Sawaii Jai Singh II of Jaipur between 1724 and 1730 however had been deserted after his loss of life in 1743. Due to Rathnasree, they have been redeemed as energetic centres for novice positional astronomy.

She made these gigantic devices and their astronomy accessible to the general public. She created an in depth physique of labor round these devices and introduced her analysis at a number of worldwide conferences. She additionally served on the restoration committee of Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

A fortuitous assembly

Rathnasree was born on November 26, 1963, in Hyderabad. After ending her education at Kendriya Vidyalaya in 1981, she went to College Faculty for Girls in Hyderabad. She did her Grasp research at Hyderabad Central College from which she graduated in 1986. She was theoretical astrophysicist Alak Ray’s first doctoral pupil at Tata Institute of Basic Analysis. She was awarded a doctoral diploma in 1992 for her work on binary stars.

She later moved to review pulsars throughout her post-doctoral fellowship with radio astronomer Joanna Marie Rankin on the College of Vermont from 1992 to 1994. Right here she carried out pulsar observations utilizing the Arecibo radio-telescope.

Nandivada Rathnasree at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar.

I first met Rathnasree as a ten-year-old pupil when she visited our faculty in Agra in 2004 to conduct a telescope-making workshop. My first reminiscence of Rathnasree is her standing within the class and passionately explaining the fundamentals of astronomy to us. After the category, I waited for her on the door and requested for suggestions for books about astronomy. Amongst different books, she talked about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

There was no solution to order books besides to ask a bookshop to get a duplicate however they weren’t very useful. In addition to, it was tough for my household to afford books for me that weren’t a part of the syllabus. I wrote a letter to Rathnasree telling her that I used to be unable to seek out books she’d beneficial.

A couple of weeks later I obtained a parcel from her. These have been the primary books I learn on widespread science and astronomy. It had a sky map that I used for the following couple of years to find stars.

Flooded with calls

All through my faculty life, she was a relentless supply of inspiration for me. Once I began visiting Delhi often, I volunteered on the Nehru Planetarium in 2008 and in 2009. Till I graduated from faculty in 2015, I spent loads of time having discussions along with her and dealing along with her on small initiatives.

We used to obtain an amazing variety of calls from colleges asking us they might ship their college students to attend her lecture on astronomy. I’ve by no means seen such enthusiasm.

In 2016, I organised a Winter Faculty on Astronomy in collaboration with Shantanu Basu of Western College, Canada. Organising a global assembly on astronomy was new to me. Rathnasree took the onus of serving to me assist me plan the convention intimately. Due to her, we hosted an astrophotography exhibition through the winter faculty. She supported the varsity until the final assembly earlier than the lockdown in February 2020.

Once I bought my first job because the curator of the House Museum when it was nonetheless being constructed on the BM Birla Science Middle in Hyderabad in 2017, I known as her from Canada to present her the information. I used to be on a analysis go to to Western College. She was not solely thrilled to listen to that I bought a job, she was additionally excited that we may collaborate on initiatives in astronomy training.

We had a number of events to do this throughout my tenure on the Birla Science Centre. She taught me the best way to write a planetarium script – a screenplay of the planetarium reveals that requires meticulous particulars about voice overs, star positions, audio-visuals, and ia coding chart. She was concerned in each step of the House Museum design and made beneficial solutions to it. When the museum was inaugurated in July 2019, she known as me to congratulate me.

A couple of years in the past, once I began compiling an anthology of poetic work on astronomy, she invited me to take a look at the present that she had designed on astronomical references in William Shakespeare’s work.

The present began with a citation from Julius Caesar: “I’m fixed because the northern star, / Of whose true-fixed and resting high quality/There isn’t a fellow within the firmament.”

She used that to point the Northern Star, Polaris, and constructed the story from there. She defined all the evening sky with Shakespearean sources. It was fascinating how she may ingeniously think about alternative ways of astronomical storytelling. She did the identical with John Milton’s Paradise Misplaced.

Rathnasree helped rework the best way astronomy outreach was performed in India. It was her untiring enthusiasm that made it attainable for the astronomy group to speak to a wider viewers. In her immense physique of labor over the a long time, she impressed two generations of astronomers and science communicators.

She is survived by her husband Dr Patrick Dasgupta and her son Ujjwal.

Pranav Sharma is a science historian who lives and works in New Delhi.

Scroll to Top