Salman Hameed grew up in Karachi. He did his metric from B.V.S. Parsi School and his Intermediate from D.J. Science College. In 1984, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was aired in Pakistan for the first time. Salman was in 9th grade at the time and by the time the first episode finished – with the Cosmic Calendar – he wanted to be an astronomer. But he first wanted to join an astronomy club in Karachi. However, there were no astronomy groups in Pakistan at the time. Along with three other students, he founded the first astronomy club in Pakistan, Amastropak – The Amateurs Astronomical Society of Pakistan - in January 1987 and served as its President until 1989.
One of the first major events of Amastropak was a celebration of Mars’ closest approach to Earth in 17 years in September 1988. As part of the event, Amastropak organized a teleconference with Mars biologist Christopher McKay at NASA with the help of The American Centre in Karachi. Here is a picture of panelists in conversation with Dr. McKay in front of audience at the American Centre auditorium:
In August 1989, Salman left for the US and worked on his undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He continued his participation in Amastropak, and helped organized Pakistan Space Week in 1992 as part of International Space Year.
In 1994, he moved to New Mexico State University, Las Cruces to work on his PhD. in astronomy. Much of his doctorate work was in observational astronomy and he had a chance to use the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, the 1.5-meter telescope at CTIO in Chile, the 0.9-meter and the 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona, and the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico. After his PhD., as part of post-doctorate work at Smith College/UMass-Amherst, he also used telescopes in Mauna Kea, Hawaii and in the Spanish Canary Islands.
Salman’s thesis work explored the causes for the triggering of star formation in spiral galaxies (you can find the thesis abstract here: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2001PhDT.........5H). In particular, he was using a technique called H-alpha imaging to locate places where new stars are forming. Young stars announce their presence by lighting up the leftover hydrogen gas surrounding them, resulting in a signature light that astronomers call Hydrogen-alpha or Ha (for readers familiar with physics, this is the light that results when an electron jumps from level 3 to level 2 of the hydrogen atom – amazing that a jump of an electron can yield secrets of star birth).
The light from a galaxy, however, is a combination of young and old stars. Astronomers use filters at telescopes that can separate out hydrogen-alpha light by blocking light from old stars. As if we have silenced all noise except for the cries of baby stars, we are left with a picture of only the stellar nurseries.
This snapshot of baby stars can reveal past secrets as well as predict the future course of a galaxy. For example, in the galaxy by the name of NGC-1398, the thirteen hundred and ninety eighth object in the New General Catalogue, we find that most of the young stars are located in two beautiful rings, thousands of light years across. These rings may not last forever, but at the present time, it appears that gas clouds are bumping into each other at those locations in some kind of a cosmic traffic jam resulting in the formation of new stars.
Why are there almost no new stars in between the rings? How long before NGC-1398 runs out of gas to form new stars? What will it look like in the future – in the next billion years? The picture of young stars is only the beginning of the inquiry.
But Salman’s inquiries began to shift in other directions. In 2005, he was awarded an Endowed position at Hampshire College, Massachusetts, in Integrated Science and Humanities. This position has allowed him to explore how do people think about questions around our origins. In particular, he has been interested in exploring the way young Muslims view biological evolution and modern science.
In some ways, he has come a full circle. The power of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was in its exploration of the interaction between science, culture and society. It is this aspect that is now a central element to Salman’s research. But astronomy is still close to his heart as ever. In addition to Hamari Kainaat, Salman hosts a bi-weekly video series in Urdu titled Science ka Adda (sciencekaadda.com). In addition, he is a regular monthly guest on Bill Newman’s morning radio show on WHMP 96.9 with a segment titled Musings on the Ridiculously Large and Largely Ridiculous Universe.
Salman visits Pakistan regularly. On one of the visits to Lahore in the mid 1990s, he gave a talk to a joint session of Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST) and Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS). There he met a young astronomy enthusiast named Umair Asim. He found Umair to be one of the most vibrant promoters of astronomy in Pakistan. Over the years they had a chance to meet many times and often discussed ways of disseminating astronomy to a wider audience. Umair took his telescope and enthusiasm to all over Pakistan. During this time, amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan matured tremendously and now there are astronomy societies in several major cities. In 2014, Salman and Umair decided to launch an Urdu podcast in astronomy that resulted in Hamari Kainaat.