Those who dream of the stars

“We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens…The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.”  — Johannes Kepler, astronomer.
One of my best friends, Kashyap, is such a polar opposite of me that I forever wonder that how we ended up being friends.  Closed-minded and cynical, he is quite uninterested in art, disregards anything involving creativity, ponders on the “usefulness”  of imagination, never reads books, indifferent towards politics and skeptical of space-exploration (good reasons to have several quarrels with someone).   Nevertheless, he was kind and considerate. That was enough.
Once, I went to visit him. We were chatting when his young brother, Sudhir, turned up.  Now, imagine oil and water being in the same container. That would have been an apt analogy – Kasyap and Sudhir were another pair of opposites. Sudhi had read dozens of books (not unlike me, huh?); had a wide field of interest, ranging from F1 to Harry Potter – and, as I would later learn, astronomy.
Night came, Kashyap slept pretty soon. (I was staying there for the night.) Sudhir came to the room and soon struck up a conversation. It was then I found about him. Suddenly, it seemed like, you know, my young self had somehow materialized before me. He was some five years younger than me, entering his 9th std, but he was full of knowledge. No, not like those show-offs who think they know it all, but truly and genuinely curious. It was not long before we went to the high balcony, where the dramatic lights and the night cityscape of Coimbatore was laid in front of us in full detail; and started talking about black holes, red giants, and the ultimate destruction of all life as we know it. Two bright stars shone in front of us, above the Eastern horizon.
“The bright, red one over there is the star Arcturus. It’s a huge red giant, and our sun will become like it one day in several hundred million years, probably swallowing the Earth. Now, that is global warming!” I said. “The one to the right is Spica: it is actually a two – star system, but they are so far away that you can see them only as one.”
He looked at me incredulously, with bright, shining eyes. “You know the names of all the stars?”
“Umm…yeah, all the bright stars at least. I was learning this stuff in my 10th std. instead of studying the things at school.”
That brought us to the topic of education. We both shared the view the education system was bad, as it only teaches memorising and does not foster curiosity.
Soon, he started talking about Ronaldo and F1 racing. One problem: I did not know about F1 or football. So, he offered to show me some of collection of pictures of the players and racers. Somehow,  F1 racing had escaped my interest zone. But, unlike Kasyap, I was curious about everything. That was all that mattered.
“I had never met any one like you – you know so much,” I said.
“Oh, shut up. Are you kidding? Do I know the names of all stars?”
I was into astronomy since I was a kid. But it was a book that really fired me up. I still remember the moment as though it happened yesterday – three years ago, when I entered a bookstore and randomly drew up the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Things have never been the same ever since. It was not long after that I bought a good telescope, and saw wonders in the night sky that I could scarcely have imagined before that. I told him about that.
“Could I borrow Cosmos for a while?”
If this incident had been a scene in a movie, this would have been a good time for a flashback. About the time I bought the book, I was a total loner – perhaps understandably so. I rarely felt understood by my parents or friends, who disregarded my interests. I resolved that I would keep the stuff close to my heart to myself. I would never talk about space or science to anyone, never lend Cosmos to the interested. Could I borrow Cosmos for a while? The innocent question lingered in my mind…
“Yes, of course you can,” I said without hesitation.”Passing the torch” is an expression frequently used that could come in many forms. In this case, though, it was “passing the book.”
Suddenly, everything seemed to have come together – space, sports, Harry Potter – it all seemed as though the vast variety of human thought, expression and deeds was there perfectly in front of us, suddenly so easy to touch, feel and to know. The night sky seemed to have descended, the light-years contracted – until it was available for two young human beings to explore and to be immersed in. Not even the greatest mysteries of the Cosmos could defeat us – for eventually, long after we have turned to dust, our curiosity shall be victorious.
A few weeks after I met Sudhir, I had almost forgotten him as I had to face my life’s most toughest moments, the darkest hours in my 17 year old life. I sat upon the rooftop parapet of my house and watched the sun set. The sky changed colours gracefully, elegantly. Minutes became hours and night descended upon the deadly calm. Towards the gloomy Eastern horizon, a cloud shifted and dissipated. Two bright stars appeared. Arcturus and Spica. Despite the tragedy and chaos that surrounded me then, my tears faded into meaningless obscurity and insignificance, as I looked upon the stars and remembered people like Sudhir. People who are not afraid to be curious, who are bound to discover – the few of those who dream of the stars.

flammarion-cosmos


“We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens…The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.”

— Johannes Kepler, astronomer.

One of my best friends, Kashyap, is such a polar opposite of me that I forever wonder that how we ended up being friends.  Closed-minded and cynical, he is quite uninterested in art, disregards anything involving creativity, ponders on the “usefulness”  of imagination, never reads books, indifferent towards politics and skeptical of space-exploration (good reasons to have several quarrels with someone).   Nevertheless, he was kind and considerate. That was enough.

Once, I went to visit him. We were chatting when his young brother, Sudhir, turned up.  Now, imagine oil and water being in the same container. That would have been an apt analogy – Kasyap and Sudhir were another pair of opposites. Sudhi had read dozens of books (not unlike me, huh?); had a wide field of interest, ranging from F1 to Harry Potter – and, as I would later learn, astronomy. Continue reading “Those who dream of the stars”

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The only home we have ever known

Yesterday, the Boston Globe’s Big Picture section featured two dozen mind-blowing hi-quality pictures of our Solar System’s mysteriously beautiful jewel – our ringed neighbour Saturn, captured by the Cassini-Huygens space probe which is still orbiting the gas giant. I was stunned by this pic, which shows the planet’s far north latitudes…and what seems like gazillions of storms and mega-storms. Each pixel here is 29 kilometres on the planet, which means even the smallest of the storms is about the size of New Zealand:

Makes the Earth actually look like a peaceful place, don’t you think?

All the images were captured by the Cassini-Huygens space probe, still orbiting the gas giant. But they seem to have forgotten to include the best pic by Cassini, the one that shows the planet just eclipsing the Sun, parts of its rings beautifully lit. But that is not all. Just click the pic to see a bigger version. Now, above the rings, in the top left, not particularly significant, forgotten and starlike – is our tiny home. Earth. The only home we’ve ever known. A pale blue dot that in this picture is easily unnoticeable. Sometimes, it is hard to accept that we live in a mote of dust, which shrinks fearfully at this imposing, giant yellow world, which occupies a full thousand times the volume of our own:

In a similar picture (below) of the earth taken from a huge distance – near the orbit of Neptune, to be precise – earth is a tiny dot, and by all miracles of chance a bright sunbeam reflecting off the spacecraft Voyager that took the picture crosses the dot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this is the best example. Carl Sagan, one of my heroes and a world renowned astronomer, once remarked thus on seeing this:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

–Carl Sagan, May 1996

Spot a space station this month

Not many know that – if you know when to look – you can actually spot the International Space Station right from home. All you have to do is go to heavens-above , register (its quick – you only have to mention your location) and click the ‘ISS” link at the homepage. It shows you a timeline of ISS passes over Earth. This is how it looks like for me 

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Just note the time, and go outside with a pair of good binoculars…and voila! The magnitude in the table tells you how bright it will look…the lesser the mag,  the brighter it is. The brightest stars are around minus 1 mag, so the Space station looks real bright on April 6 – indeed, it is the second brightest object in the night sky, next to the moon. The altitude tells you how high in the sky you have to look – so ten degrees is just over the horizon, and 90 is at the top of the sky. The Azimuth, of course, tells the direction.

The Station is nearing completion – so with a good pair of binos you will even be able to see the solar arrays. It wasn’t a long time ago when I first spotted the station. I got out at seven, waited …and waited. Patience was not exactly one of my virtues, so turned to leave – when it  suddenly appeared. It arced across the sky like some bright, wandering star. When it finally began to disappear, I jumped and shouted,  “Bye – bye! See you soon!” to the astronauts on board the station.  I hoped they heard me. 🙂

Chandrayaan looks back at earth

ISRO released a new picture of our lovely blue rock yesterday, centred – of course – on India. You can see the Indus river flowing above the country, the sun reflecting off the waters of the Indian Ocean, night beginning to fall across Africa, and a small chunk of Australia.

It is not the best of earth pics – there is something wrong with the contrast, and it is in black and white. But heaven’s sake, this is a whole friggin’ planet you are looking at. When the Apollo missions took some of the first pics of Earth, it caused something of a paradigm shift – it started an entirely different way of looking at our surroundings. Earth is no flat, infinite extent of plateaus and mountains – it is an fragile island in space, and we must protect it.

When you are in Saturn

You are on board the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, and you have finally reached your destination – Saturn. You look at that yellow, misty, orb circled by breathtaking rings.   You watch the curious interplay between light and dark – the shadows of ring on planet and planet on ring, the sunlight reflecting off the clouds. How would it be if you were on the surface of the planet? The ring would arc from horizon to horizon, faintly illuminated by the sun – a permanent feature in the sky. You watch the moons, Rhea and Dione and Enceladus and much more go past the planet, and one of the largest is Titan – a world so cold that gases such as methane exist as liquids – entire lakes of liquids, complete with shorelines and rivulets. What if you were on Titan? The ground is quite slushy, the atmosphere is thick. If somebody lived there, maybe they wouldn’t even know about Saturn or stars or the sun because of the misty sky. But you could imagine a sudden and rare break through the clouds – and the sky would temporarily reveal all its wonders. Titan was perhaps how the earth was billions of years ago – will it be our new home billions of years later?

The views are still breathtaking – once you happened to pass behind the planet –  in the shadow region, the planet eclipsing the sun. And somewhere, perhaps between the rings, you see a pale blue dot. Home.