When Dr Jen Gupta takes her dog out for a walk, the pooch sometimes stops to stare at the sky.
For Gupta, an astrophysicist and science communicator with the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, based in Portsmouth, UK, this is not strange. After all, the sky is her workplace.
When she was 14, the UKborn Indian-origin girl visited the Kennedy Space Center in the US and was fascinated by what she saw. “I started seriously considering a career in astrophysics,” says Gupta, who is on a British Councilsponsored trip to India. She was recently in Loni, where she spoke to students about stars and what was beyond.
Gupta’s family hails from Shillong, Meghalaya. Almost a decade ago, she was in Pune, visiting the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research at Narayangaon. This time though, it was all about the students.
Did she find the questions from Pune interesting? “I came across fantastic questions,” she says. “One student wanted to know what would happen if the Earth fell into a black hole? Luckily, this cannot happen.” A regular on the BBC, Gupta is a “science communicator” and even uses astronomy to make people laugh on comedy shows. It’s not easy to use physics in humour considering her doctoral thesis was on ‘Multi-wavelength studies of active galactic nuclei in the Fermi era.’ But her role as science communicator has allowed
her to study how countries study science. So, is there some kind of reluctance on the part of the young, especially in the US and the UK, to avoid studying science? “I do get asked what is the point of astronomy when we have many other issues to worry about,” she says.
But she believes what makes us human is our curiosity. Besides, much of modern technology arose because of research in astronomy, she says. Wi-fi was developed by astronomers in Australia, while CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras and phones were first developed for telescopes. “Even the World Wide Web was invented by particle physicists,” she says.
Gupta also discussed the declining role of government agencies in space exploration and the entry of private players. She is one of the people sceptical about the “commercialisation of space”. A recent interaction with astronaut Chris Hadfield — a former commander of the International Space Station — also provided insight into how the second space race was shaping up. “Today, it is a very different world in space technology. But I would not want space to be commercialised.”
The writer is a journalist based in Pune