Have you ever wondered that every time you step on the earth, there is a history of 5 billion years under your feet? The environment in which we live has been on earth in different conditions over the last 5 billion years.
In this series of articles, I am sharing my experiences and exploits with Astronomy. The journey, I hope, might inspire a few young minds.
One of my early memories of Astronomy is the phrase – ‘My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets’. A mnemonic that helped me remember the nine planets. As of today, it is eight planets and a dwarf planet Pluto. I am sure children of the next generation will only read about this in the books but I am happy and somewhat proud to say that I lived in the time when Pluto was still a planet and saw its official transformation into a dwarf planet. For an astronomer, this is like living at the end of the 19th century that saw the transformation of the classical ideas of Newton graduating into the relativistic models of Einstein.
The beauty of Astronomy attracted me when I was in grade 4 and my aunt showed me the Halley’s Comet. In grade 5, I had the opportunity of viewing the Moon through a 6-inch Newtonian reflector, though at that time I had no idea of the specification of the telescope.
My interest in Astronomy peaked when I was at the first crossroads of life after my 10th grade. This is the time I had to choose the course for college and further. At this juncture, I had already made up my mind to take Science in college but didn’t really know what it entitled.
The skies are calling:
If I remember correctly, my first choice was to become a pilot and take to the skies. This was due to the influence of my uncle, late Squadron Leader Varadarajan from the Indian Air force. This dream was short-lived as I found out that my eyesight was not anywhere near the acceptable standards of the medical fitness required by the Air Force.
So, I decided that if I cannot fly into the sky, then I would go beyond and this time not physically but mentally. As a student of Science, I started developing a deep love for Astronomy and later Astrophysics. This craze was so much that my email address was astroyogi @ any domain.
I am intrigued by Mother Nature, including humans. I have always wondered, what is the purpose of these creatures on the surface of the earth? Why is there life only on earth in the solar system? Is there life beyond the stars and galaxies? Does God exist? These are some of the questions that I mull over even to this day. Every time I look at the Orion constellation, I feel that someday someone or something is going to wish me from the heavens. This imagination has stayed with me for a long time.
Day and night:
The heavens as they call it has been a fascination for humankind for a very long time. The observation of the motion of sun, moon, and stars in the sky has led humans to discover the idea of time and how to measure it.
At this point, I am reminded of a story of Alexander the Great. This happened around the time he was crossing the Hindukush mountain, while crossing a small stream Alexander saw a sage crossing the stream, stopped him and asked him, “Was the day first or the night?” As a kid, I have had this question bother me a lot. I didn’t pay much attention to it until I read it in Alexander’s story. What fascinated me was the sage’s answer. He says, “The day was a day earlier than the night”. Now this answer has stayed with me since the time I read the story.
The idea of time and the essence of it can be understood from the answer. It is not easy to understand the answers to troubling questions like the one above. In the modern era, a similar question is, “Was the chicken first or the egg?” The most probable answer to this is mutation.
The idea of day and night led humankind to understand the shape of the earth and the relevance of circular motion. Another question that baffled me during my childhood was “Are we on the earth or in the earth?” Probably, the director of the movie ‘Journey to the centre of the earth’ (2008) had the same question. There is also a group of people who think that the earth is flat, and it is a conspiracy that misleads people with images of a spherical earth. Have you seen satellite images of the earth? Oh, they are awe-inspiring!
Where we stand:
The globe helped me understand our position on earth. In the beginning, I believed that somehow earth held on to me and didn’t let me fly off into space. Later, I got a firm grip on the concept of gravity, it helped understand the idea of standing on the surface of the earth. I think the best summary and clarity of understanding the position on earth came from my Ph.D. supervisor Dr. G S D Babu. Babu Sir as we all call him, started his lecture on Positional Astronomy with the opening line, “Astronomers are on the top of the world”. This is so true that every time I look up at the sky, I feel that the entire world is under my feet and the universe above. If you want to realise this, go to open ground at night and gaze at the stars.
The idea of Positional Astronomy was the greatest contribution of the Indian civilizations to the world. Owing to the trade links between Indian civilizations and the middle eastern and European civilizations, knowledge sharing happened too with Greeks, Romans, and Turks. I realised this when I learnt about constellations. I was completely blown off my feet when I found out that the 12 zodiacal constellations are the same across all civilizations and their understanding of the skies. Without any sophisticated equipment, the ancient astronomers had visualised the Ecliptic – the apparent path of the sun around the earth as seen from the earth.
Beliefs and Astronomy:
In the Indian context, it was believed that people should not cross the seas and that the hell was in the southern direction. I had known this belief and had not given much thought to it. During one of the classes on continental drift and the formation of continents, I realised that the southern hemisphere does not have as much land mass as the northern hemisphere. Hence, the southern oceans have strong currents and very strong waves. This provoked me to think: how did ancient seafarers navigate the southern seas? Could it be possible that most travellers from India who went south of the equator never returned? And the ones who stayed back realised that it was like going to hell – the point of no return? This might be the reason they frowned upon the idea of crossing the seas. Was this the real idea in their minds? We will probably never know.
As a kid, I had noticed that the Indian festivals did not occur on the same calendar day every year as other western festivals did. Though my parents tried their best to explain why this was so, I was not clear about the reason. Surprisingly, the festival of Makara Sankranti occurred on 14 January of every year. This fact fascinated me. Have you thought about this?
I will continue this journey in the next article. Until then, happy thinking and stay safe.