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With Dr Venkatavaradan at a reception in Mumbai, 1996.

Sad to note the passing of the lovely, humble, soft-spoken physicist and astronomer Dr V.S. Venkatavaradan at the age of 86 in his native Salem, Tamil Nadu. He was a most effable man.

I knew him growing up in Mumbai as the founding director of one of India’s earliest planetariums, the Nehru Planetarium. He would personally explain the exhibits and working models to visitors, and as a young boy I was fascinated by the simplicity of the way he explained concepts.

Years later, when I was co-editing the popular children’s magazine Tinkle, I invited him to contribute a series on astronomy including the workings of the planetarium. He had this rare gift of being able to explain the intricacies of astronomy and astrophysics to young readers in a simple, straightforward style and the series was great hit.

Then again, a decade or so later, when I was a consulting imagineer with India’s first major amusement park EsselWorld, we invited him over to visit the park, before it was opened to the public. The idea was to pick his fine brain for ideas. He enjoyed the rides with childlike delight offering some great suggestions to explain the scientific concepts behind the rides. He said it would be good to explain how the rides work and what laws of physics were at play on plaques beside the rides.

While Dr Venkatavaradan always talked about developing a scientific temper, he was deeply spiritual. I remembered the good doctor recently when, after the successful launch of Chandrayaan, senior scientists of ISRO’s project team were trolled on social media for praying in temples for the success of the mission. For those scientists, like Dr Venkatavaradan, science and spirituality were part of a continuum, two aspects of existence which could never be mutually exclusive.

I remembered the good doctor because of the discussion I had with him in September 1995. Both India and the world were consumed by the phenomenon of idols drank milk offered by devotees. Spoonsful of milk would vanish when held close to the idols. The papers and television were full of stories from all over the world. A report in a Mumbai afternoon paper said Dr Venkatavaradan himself visited a temple near the Nehru Planetarium to check it out and was quoted as saying that the idol seemed to sip spoonsful of milk.

I called him a few days later and asked what he thought of the phenomenon. Far from being dismissive as one would have expected from a man of science, he said it needed to be studied. There could be a quite a few factors at play. Could a miracle be one of those factors, I persisted, remembering well his insistence on the scientific temper. One shouldn’t presume anything until it is fully understood – whether there is an explanation known to science or it is an as yet unknown phenomenon. It would be premature to assume anything.

I thought that agnostic stand was a true example of scientific temper.

Dr Venkatavaradan kept in touch on Facebook over all these years until recently, sharing his poems on Messenger and exchanging wishes on birthdays and festivals. He is a man I will always have fond memories of. And every time I visit a planetarium or an observatory, I will always look out for him among the stars.