Sep/Oct 1994 Table of Contents
Gregory H. Feldberg, Bloomberg Business News
1994 Astronomical Society of the Pacific
is soaring economically, but it lags behind in science education.
Starting virtually from scratch, astronomy proponents are building
an astronomy education program. Its focus is a gleaming new planetarium
in Kuala Lumpur.
Lake Gardens park, on Kuala Lumpur's second highest hill, a 12-foot
model of Stonehenge pokes through the trees. Next to it is a playground-sized,
red-brick rendition of Guo Shou Jing observatory, which, a sign
explains, "helped order Chinese life" while Europe was
mired in the disorderly Dark Ages. On the right stands a miniature
Jantar Mantar, New Delhi's 18th-century "house of [astronomical]
the main attraction is a bright-blue Moorish onion dome, with matching
minaret. Welcome to Malaysia's brand-new, 45 million ringgit ($17
million) National Planetarium, a monument to this Asian Tiger's
development aspirations and multicul tural heritage.
complex is the brainchild and political triumph of Mazlan Othman,
the planetarium's contagiously enthusiastic director -- and Malaysia's
sole astronomy Ph.D. For years, she and amateur astronomers in Malaysia
struggled with meager equipment and public indifference to science.
The turning point came in 1986, when Halley's Comet stirred public
excitement in Malaysia, as elsewhere.
always say celestial events don't affect events on Earth,"
she said, lounging in blue jeans in her office. "But Halley's
40,000 people visited Mazlan's comet exhibit at the National Islamic
Center, just downhill from the planetarium site. The bustle caught
the eye of Malaysia's autocratic and intellectually inclined prime
minister, Mahathir Mohamad. He took a personal interest in Mazlan's
project and set up the Space Science Studies Program within the
Prime Minister's Department. The planetarium opened this past February,
and Mahathir was there to cut the ribbon.
sponsoring the project, Mahathir had an eye not just to the stars,
but to Malaysia's neighbors and competitors. Singapore, Thailand,
and Indonesia have bigger telescopes, more established planetariums,
and probably more Ph.D.s. Indonesia launches its own communication
are extremely behind," says Mazlan, who studied at Otago University
in Dunedin, New Zealand.
planetarium, part of her plan to catch up, runs shows six days a
week, packed with schoolchildren. The onion dome houses the "star
ball," a nifty $2.5 million Minolta Infinium donated by the
Japanese government. It projects stars and planets at a tilt, accentuating
the sense that you're floating in space. At the top of the minaret
is one of the country's biggest telescopes, a 14-inch Celestron.
the facility opened, most Malaysian astronomers relied on binoculars,
recalled S. Sivakumaran, a member of the Astronomical Society of
Malaysia, Malaysia's oldest astronomy club. The club organizes free
lectures every month at the planetarium. Newer groups, such as the
Planetary Society of Malaysia and the Islamic Astronomy Group, also
yes, astronomy no"
shows and lectures have helped astronomy advocates to get around
their biggest stumbling block: overcast skies. The rainy season
lasts from October to January, and this fall, massive forest fires
in Indonesia have filled the air with heavy smoke. On a clear day,
one jokester quipped, you can see the clouds.
visibility has caused problems for Islamic scholars in Malaysia,
who need to see the Moon's phase to determine the lunar date for
Moslem holidays. Recently, Mazlan has worked to base the Islamic
calendar on astronomical calculations rather than uncertain sightings.
schools, it's tough to excite kids about stars they hardly ever
see. "Teachers have to know how to make science interesting
because we are competing with this new thing called television,"
Mazlan said. P.S. Mah, a teacher at the Bukit Bintang Boys School
in the suburbs, said, "My friends always say, 'Astrology yes,
science apathy is drawing government attention. At the request of
the Ministry of Science, the Astronomical Society two months ago
prepared suggestions for engaging kids with science, according to
D.J. Batzer, society secretary and a retired British engineer.
troubles me today is we are not able to attract enough young people
into science," said Mazlan, the only scientist among 13 children.
"Our economy has developed. Now you can make a lot of money
going into the stock market. A science career is very foreboding
when there are so many other, easier ways to make money."
she said the nation must spend more on education generally before
students will aim for careers in science. When Mazlan was a student,
she said, an average class had 20 to 30 students; now, 40 or 50
cram into each classroom. Unable to build schools fast enough, the
government now divides schooldays into two sessions: Some kids go
in the morning, others in the afternoon.
1990, schools started to teach 25 hours of astronomy during third
form, roughly equivalent to junior year in an American high school.
The University Sains Malaysia in northern Penang and the University
of Technology Malaysia in southern Johor now offer undergraduate
astronomy courses. And Mazlan, who moonlights as a physics lecturer
at the National University of Malaysia, just started to instruct
Malaysia's very first astronomy graduate student. Unfortunately
for promoters of Malaysian astronomy, he's Indonesian.
is the Malaysia correspondent for Bloomberg Business News, a New
York-based wire service. Last year, he quit his job as policy analyst
to the governor of Rhode Island and backpacked across Asia. He ran
out of money in May, landed the job with Bloomberg, and became interested
in development issues in Malaysia.