Feature

Science in the time of love

Stargazers and environmentalists say Valentine's Day is an ideal prop for heartfelt messages.

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.29 Published online 14 February 2020

A representative picture of a man looking at the 'pale red rose' Betelgeuse in the night sky.

© Pooja Tolia

Enterprising science and environment popularisers in India have found an unusual vehicle — Valentine's Day — to deliver messages of science wrapped in love and compassion.

In the past few years, Valentine's Day has seen protests by radical activists in India, who find the public display of affection among couples offensive. They have objected to the celebrations and shunned the festival as a 'western import'.

A bunch of imaginative science and environment enthusiasts are now seeking to turn this intolerance on its head.

On Valentine's Day 2020, a group of amateur astronomers in Mumbai will gaze at the night sky to look for a star 800 times the size of the Sun — the Betelgeuse, their symbolic 'pale red rose'. Amateur astronomer Anjanee Rao is spreading the word among people, especially long-distance partners and family members, to connect over Betelgeuse, the eleventh brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest in the constellation of Orion.

Rao couches these astronomy nuggets in a simple message which asks partners or family members living apart to find at an appointed time the bright star, known to astronomers as a red giant. "Look up at the evening sky around 8.30 pm (India time) on 14 February. Ask your friend to do the same. You will see the majestic Orion (The Hunter) constellation," she says in an email message circulated to astronomy enthusiasts across the country.

A map of where to look for the red star Betelgeuse on Valentine's night.

© A. Paranjpye

In her Valentine's Day astronomy outreach, she slips in some more interesting information about Orion, the constellation of wonder for astronomers. Right in the centre of the constellation are three prominent stars in a straight line — Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. They form the belt of the hunter. They are flanked by four bright stars that form the shoulders and knees of the hunter. "Imagine that the hunter is facing you, and look at his right shoulder. You will see a star that has a reddish hue, like a pale red rose," Rao says.

Gifts, flowers, or cards with personal messages are the norm on Valentine's Day. But joint stargazing is an innovative way to celebrate the festival of love, connecting with your loved ones through a common cosmic point across the mists of space and time, she says.

Love your planet

In Delhi's sprawling Lodhi Gardens, Rachit Tiwari, an undergraduate student of geography at the University of Delhi, and his friends from the climate action group Youth For Climate India are hosting a “Date with Mother Earth”. 

"We thought why not celebrate this day to express our love for mother earth who gives us everything we need." The symbolic awareness-building event has brought together more than 200 people to draw the India government's attention to various environmental issues hitting the people of Delhi hard. Through on the spot paintings, acapella singing and extempore speeches, school and college going students are airing views on air and water pollution, waste management and the impending climate crisis.

The climate crusaders at an earlier event seeking corrective action to curb pollution in Delhi.

© YFCI

"We must stop seeing the natural world as a commodity and start seeing it as we see a family member — something to love, protect, care for and cherish," Tiwari says.

Ingenious messaging

Washington-based Smithsonian Science Education Center runs a Valentine's Day Pinterest board with an assortment of fun science activities. Ashley Deese, who manages digital media for the center says the board gives scientific answers to young students' curiosities such as the science behind why the colors red and pink are often associated with this day, or about the science of love and the chemical compounds responsible for mush.

Using Valentine's Day for science popularisation, however, is not new, says Arvind Paranjpye, Director of the Nehru Planetarium in Mumbai. "In the 1990s when the concept of Valentine's Day caught on in India, I was doing a sky show for a group of people in Pune on February 14. This red star Betelgeuse was almost over our heads when I jokingly suggested to a colleague that he could use it as a prop to convey his love to his fiancée in Bangalore," he reminisces. This struck everyone as amusing and Paranjpye wrote about it later in a sky watching column.

"The most common opportunities for astronomers are eclipse and meteor showers. Or conjunctions of planets," he says. 

Though puritans may not agree to using Valentine's Day for such messaging, science popularisers must grab every opportunity to get people attracted to science, Paranjpye says.