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     Volume 4 Issue 34 | February 18, 2005 |

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The Cosmic Touch

Mustafa Zaman

“They are a mixture of art and science." This is how David Malin defines the work he does. "The pictures I take are natural scenes but they are not scenes that you can see with your eyes, as they are too far away. You need special equipment like telescopes to produce the images, but they certainly are part of the natural world," he clarifies.

Malin is an astro-photographer of international repute. His works appeared in many publications. "It is his photos that I have been appreciating in many posters and calendars for years without giving much thought to his name," reveals Milon, who is the energy behind the Bangladesh Astronomical Association.

The ability to beguile the mortals of this planet with glimpses of heavenly bodies is the specialty of Malin. It is the British Council who flew this Briton in from "down under" to Dhaka as part of a series of programmes centred on astronomy. His work is one of the highlights of the month-long programme that the British Council, the Ministry of Science and Tenchnology and the Bangladesh Astronomical Association have arranged in collaboration to induce an interest in astronomy among Dhakaites. There is an exhibition called, "Exploring the Solar System" as part of the programmes. As for Malin, he arrived in Dhaka just for a week to introduce Cafe Scientific, an informal way to have discourse among the participants, and give talks mostly to school children.

"The concept of 'cafe scientific' came from France. It imitates a cafe environment where people talk about the issues of the day, except that the issues have to do with science. And it is done in the presence of one or two scientists to get people started. In Australia we had a great success with this programme," Malin emphasises. He hopes it will have the same effect on Bangladeshis.

Syed Masud Hossain, the Culture and Science Programme Manager of the British Council, testifies that the kind of feedback the programmes have received is inspiring. "Even Malin was impressed with the quality of the questions he had to face in two schools he went to on the second day of his visit," he adds.

The craft behind astro-photography is unique. The imaging technique certainly differs from all other photographic fields. Without the knowledge of astronomy, an astro-photographer will have no handle on the subject that he deals with. However, it is the end results that are of prime importance. The images become the window to a world that remains inaccessible for most of us. For them the photos replicate the real experience of peeking through the telescope.

Malin sees himself as a scientist "exploring scientific information of images". But, he is emphatic about the aesthetic aspect as well. He says that the aesthetics never compromise the science. But the pictures that carry the scientific information are often aesthetically pleasing. "They go together, but science always comes first," Malin points out, never losing sight of priorities.

As an astronomer he had received no formal education or training. "I am an astronomer now, but I was not when I joined the observatory back in 1975. I began to make some important discoveries quite quickly, I rapidly began writing research papers on astronomy and is now classified as an astronomer," he explains. "The Anglo-Australian Observatory, where he worked for 26 years, was in a sense like a university. If one has the intelligence and is ready to take the challenges, there are some senior arthromeres who would teach one the essence of many things," he adds.

Malin's career began in the 1960s. As a photographer he first dabbled into the microscopic world. "In a sense it was exactly the same. You are photographing some image that most people have never seen, providing scientific information both to a non-scientist and a scientist." Maline considers himself to be a visual person, one who "responds strongly to the things that one sees".

When he was six or seven years old, he found an old fashion box camera in his grandparent's house. "I discovered that if you took the back of this thing and put a piece of tissue paper at the back you could see on the paper the picture of the world upside down and in colour. It fascinated me," Malin reflects. The fascination for visuals provoked him to work for a big international chemical company in the north of England, where he used photographs to solve chemical problems and it is the company that paid for his subsequent university education. He completed his study part-time, which "took seven and a half years to complete".

It was not until 1975 that he went to Australia and began his work on the macrocosmic world. "I took up a job at the Anglo-Australian Observatory, which was then a completely new institution," remembers Malin. It was in August of 1975 that he joined the institution and immediately started taking pictures using the newly set-up large telescope. "Luckily, I was able to use some of the techniques invented for the microscopic work on the telescope plates," Malin recalls. Retired in July 2001, he now runs his own business alongside maintaining a website.

The sky of Bangladesh is hard to penetrate; compared to Australia's it comes with navigational hazards. "You never get a good view of the sky in Dhaka. The weather as well as the pollution makes it difficult for astronomy," says Malin, who is all too impressed by the children interested in taking the course that he took at his early years. "You don't need an expensive camera for this," assures Malin. The motivation is one thing that helped perch him on the apex of his ambition and it is motivation, he believes, that may finally get some of the enthusiastic Bangladeshi children to make some forays into the vast and bountiful cosmos.

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