Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Small Humans and Science Outreach

One good place to follow science research is Science Friday on National Public Radio. Last week they had a interesting talk on newly discovered fossils of humans from the island of Palau. The unusual aspect of these fossils is that they most probably represent the remains of an extinct population of pygmy humans that inhabited that island about 2000-3000 years ago. Small body size is a common feature of hunter gatherer populations living in tropical habitats and these fossils show a body size comparable or slightly smaller than pygmy populations of S.E.Asia and Africa. The scientist in conversation Lee Berger gave quite a few insights into the phenomenon of island dwarfism which is an extreme reduction in body size as a response to living on resource poor islands where life spans are short and early reproductive maturity evolves at the expense of continued body size growth. I thought this topic would be of interest to Indians, since we have our own pygmy island populations in the Andaman islands. Recent genetic analysis suggests that these original inhabitants of the Andaman represent a population of great antiquity perhaps descendants of people who migrated out of Africa in the Late Pleistocene around 50,000 years ago and settled in the Andaman islands shortly thereafter. Their short stature is thought to have evolved independently of the African pygmies. The thought that a pygmy population living in another place went extinct is sobering given the current situation of the various Andamanese tribes such as the Onge. These people now number in their few hundreds and live in special reserve areas mostly out of contact from other island inhabitants. Anthropologists believe that such small statured human populations were once common all along the S.E. Asian islands from the Andaman to Malaysia to Philippines to Indonesia. Immigration of agriculturists in the past couple of thousand years have marginalized them. Only a few pygmy tribes remain today along these island chains. The Palau population may have been such an island outpost of small people.

Shifting tracks what struck me about this talk was how entertaining it was. Even someone with no special interest in anthropology will find that "the excitement of doing science" really comes through the enthusiastic give and take between host Ira Flatow and the guest Lee Berger. I feel this kind of a conversation about science is missing between Indian scientists and the public. Our scientists are by and large invisible. During school we used to meet them on that boring tiresome "science day" where hordes of kids are paraded through labs and given pep talks by all too grave looking scientists. Elsewhere they get invited occasionally on TV and in the print media, but the topics discussed are always too grandiloquent, India's moon mission, launch of a new satellite, general discussions on global warming. In newspapers too there is a lack of regular science columns where specific research topics or a specific piece of work carried out by Indian scientists in Indian labs is written about. Online editions now offer an opportunity to invite scientists or science journalists to start blogs but so far our media have not used this avenue. I am really not sure how much to blame the media for this. Science does not seem to attract most young Indians as an exciting career option and the lack of engagement of scientists by the media is probably a reflection of this. There may also be a perception that unless you are doing some earth shattering piece of research its not worth reporting on. But that is really not the point of a science conversation. The point is to engage the public and instill in them an interest in the practice of doing science. All discoveries big and small are interesting to the working scientist and programs such as Science Friday convey that excitement to listeners with great effectiveness. Besides mainstream media today there are avenues for Indian scientists to create their own audience primarily through their own blogs. This opportunity for science outreach still remains woefully unexploited by Indian scientists. I don't have a count of how may science faculty and science researchers blog but I suspect hardly any do. In Pune for example, there are several institutes of higher education and research, University of Pune, IUCAA, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, National Chemical Laboratory but I have yet to discover a blog by a faculty or researcher from any of these places. What are other ways for Indian scientists to have a conversation about science with the public? An initial step may be University radio stations. These are essentially low power community radio stations. Mumbai and Delhi University have already started broadcasting and hopefully science will get some space. Individually their reach will remain local. But can a network of such University stations be set up with program sharing? Another way to get around the local coverage would be to set up attractive websites and provide online radio streaming and podcasts of programming. In general community radio may prove to be a really good tool for science outreach and our science institutions need to capitalize on the recent FM boom and be more proactive in using airwaves to promote science conversations with the public.

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