Prof U R Rao (1932-2017)

Prof U R Rao, who passed away in the early hours of July 24, 2017, is very well known internationally for his immense contributions to the growth and development of India’s Space Programme. His conviction about the role the space technology would play in the Indian context is there for all to see in the fields of communication, remote sensing of natural resources and weather prediction - to name a few. This is largely known to the entire world. Here, we would like to briefly write about Prof U R Rao’s vision, guidance and support to Science Education and Popularization as Chairman of the newly instituted Bangalore Association for Science Education, the parent body that governs the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium (JNP).

Prof Rao’s association with the JNP dates back to the time in early 1980s from the time it was conceived as an embryo. He strongly recommended to the then Bangalore City Corporation to set up the planetarium at its present location. His eye for choosing the right people in right place recognized that Prof C V Vishveshwara, another visionary, should be the Director of the planetarium. This was in 1987. Persuading Prof. Vishveshwara to head the JNP was in itself a huge success of Prof Rao in the cause of science education and popularization. The City Corporation, in 1992, handed over the administration of the planetarium to the new born autonomous body, the Bangalore Association for Science Education. Prof U R Rao was invited to take the mantle of the Chairmanship first Governing Council, guiding it through thick and thin until the day he passed away. He was ever encouraging with various programmes that were planned, often, gently but firmly correcting us when he felt that we could do better or differently. The operational freedom that he extended to the day-to-day functioning of the planetarium instilled great confidence in us to carry out the work creatively knowing fully well that Prof Rao was there to correct if our trajectory were to deviate from the required goal, much like he would correct the trajectories of his satellites in space whenever they veered off their prescribed orbits! For instance, the shows produced by the planetarium received constructive criticism from him. He would not express his ideas soon after the show. However at a later meeting he would point out the flaws. No direct appreciation, either - just as a father would do. He would mention it to a third person usually an outsider in a meeting or in meetings outside the planetarium that "our shows are wonderful and completely indigenous". We miss and crave for such fatherly advice.

Prof Rao had a rational mind. In almost every one of his addresses at the planetarium, he would deride astrology and astrologers who deceived people. He would tell that inculcating scientific attitude and developing scientific temperament were the only antidotes to superstition and that there is a lot that the Planetarium could do through its programmes. He was always interested in talking about the future - be it science or technology. He believed that planetarium shows should instill enthusiasm among children who constituted the majority of the visitors. He would often tell that "we should do something for children who will carve out the future; not for those who are dead and gone". Prof Rao himself retained a child-like curiosity about science. Just a few months ago he saw one of the recent additions to science park - the anti-gravity cottage - where water flows 'upwards' and a ball also rolls 'upwards'.

As usual, there were no immediate reactions. Later he told one of the Members of the Governing Council, “you must see that room where these people have made the gravity topsy-turvy"! Prof Rao protected the interests of the planetarium with the same affection that a parent would and would leave no stone unturned to safeguard it. His great wish was to make the entire planetarium campus buzzing with science activities and brimming with young minds. This is how we make the future strong and stable. The JNP has done much in that direction and a Lot more needs to be achieved. Even though we miss Prof Rao’s presence, his wisdom and the line of thinking demonstrated over the years will continue to be there as our guiding light.