How a Bahrain-resident is spreading awareness on light pollution through her astronomy club

Myriam Alqassab’s unique initiative got her discovering the world above

By Anu Prabhakar

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Published: Thu 4 Aug 2022, 7:58 PM

On December 26, 2019, an annular solar eclipse was expected to occur and Myriam Alqassab decided to organise a public event to invite people to watch it. “The eclipse started at 6:15am and ended at 8am, but our activity began at 4am. I thought no one would come — I didn’t think people would wake up early in the morning only to observe the sun,” recalls the founder of the Bahrain Stargazers Astronomy Club. Myriam arranged 20 solar glasses and about five telescopes with solar filters for what she assumed would be a small, low-key event attended by city’s astronomers and members of her club. “We waited on Nurana Islands with our gear and cars began to arrive. Around 100 people ended up at the event, and I had no solar glasses to give them,” she says. Her excitement is palpable as she recalls how she’d asked them to hurry up so that everyone could share the glasses and watch the eclipse. “Thank God there was no Covid then.”

As she watched the place fill up with families — one senior citizen climbed up a slope to watch the eclipse through the telescope — Myriam felt hopeful. It also confirmed something that she had long suspected — that the city was home to a sizeable population of astronomy enthusiasts, but that they had no opportunities to indulge their interest in astronomy.

In an interview via Google Meet, Myriam talks about forming the club in Bahrain, making the stars more reachable through on-ground stargazing activities, and her recent efforts to reduce light pollution.

Discovering astronomy

When Myriam felt a little lost in life at 16, she found Galileo. She chanced upon a documentary on the Italian astronomer, on YouTube. “Back then, we had very little access to the Internet — you had these cards, which you inserted into your computers for 20-30 minutes of access,” she says. “I’d bought my first card and was using my friend’s computer at the time.” By the end of the documentary, Myriam felt there was a cosmic connection between the two. “His story touched my heart and I started to read more about stars, planets and astronomy.”

She worked in the hospitality industry for a few years, although her heart was not in it. “It was just a job to earn money to live,” she says. “Then I got pregnant and stopped working to look after my child. But I realised I didn’t like being at home, doing nothing. That’s not me.”

Meanwhile, she noticed other countries’ and regions’ robust participation in international astronomy events. “But I didn’t see the Middle East anywhere,” she says. “I wanted to get involved and wanted local stargazers to participate not only in local activities, but in international activities as well.” So in 2016, she founded the Bahrain Stargazers Astronomy Club. “It was an opportunity to meet other astronomy enthusiasts in the city so that we could learn from each other.”

The early days were hard, but her organisational skills, thanks to her experience in the hospitality industry, helped. “I did not know where to start or what to expect. I shared a link to register via WhatsApp and we received around 300 applications. I accepted all of them and then created a WhatsApp group for the members. Gradually, those who were only curious about the club went away and today, we have around 90 active members,” she says.

As the founder of an astronomy club, she wanted to polish up her knowledge on the subject so she enrolled for an astronomy course that was being taught via distance education at Liverpool John Moores University. “I am currently pursuing higher studies in astronomy at the University of Central Lancashire,” she adds.

Teaching the young

Since 2019, she has organised around 10 webinars for schools, with space and astronomy experts as speakers. “Our international speakers are from the US, Europe and India,” she says. She has also been organising regular stargazing activities for club members at Nurana Island.

And then, there are the ‘bigger’ events, like eclipses, comets and other such celestial spectacles for which she tries to organise public events. For instance, this year, when Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn aligned in the sky reportedly for the first time since 2004, Myriam spread the news through their social media accounts. “People were welcome to join and use our equipment to observe the skies,” she says.

They also organise workshops in collaboration with organisations like Hope Institute For Special Education and Al Kawther Society for Social Care — Orphan Care. “We taught the children how to use the telescope, about the solar system and Mother Earth. We want everyone to know about astronomy and have the opportunity to gaze through a telescope.”

All this is funded by Myriam and the club’s devoted members — a few of them also double up as volunteers. “They arrange equipment like telescopes, and some members pay for papers, pens, water and utensils for our events.”

Tackling light pollution

More recently, Myriam is focused on reducing light pollution in Bahrain by spreading information about it among the club’s members and then encouraging them to spread it among their friends, like “gossip”. “When we go out to stargaze, our skies are not dark, they are orange. You cannot enjoy the stars, planets,” she points out. “I try my best to educate our society about how even the lights in their houses contribute to light pollution.” In fact, Myriam plans to launch a free consultation service for those who would like to change their houses’ lights and design. “I can show them the type of lights they can use, where and how to use them — anything less than 1,000 kelvins is good for indoor lights and for outdoor lights, anything less than 3,000 kelvins is fine. Also, your lights should be covered by a shield,” she says, adding that they had collaborated with IKEA to educate members and the public on how to choose lights.

Myriam is an International Dark Sky Association (IDA) delegate and advocate — the association, which has local chapters, encourages delegates, advocates and volunteers to work with policymakers to reduce light pollution in public places. “But it’s hard to change the system in the Middle East, which is why I am educating students right from kindergarten, because they can change the future,” she says. She talks about light pollution in her webinars and also translated the IDA’s brochure into Arabic and added it to the club’s social media accounts and websites. “We also organise on-ground activities and teach participants to use the Globe at Night programme, where people look for stars and submit their observations through the app,” she says. Globe at Night, then, puts these observations together and presents data about light pollution across the world, in the form of a map.

She is also the National Outreach Coordinator for the International Astronomical Union (IAU). “My job is to provide the IAU’s activities in my country and help our members participate in them,” she elaborates. One of her standout memories is from the year 2020, when Myriam and the members enrolled in the International Asteroid Search Collaboration to discover asteroids in the asteroid belt. “You have to stack four pictures together and put them in the software called Astrometrica to detect movement.” She still remembers the surge of joy they felt when they noticed an asteroid moving. “We jumped for joy and were over the moon,” she smiles.

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