Monday, July 7, 2008

A bit of Autobiography

My tryst with the night-sky started way back, when I was a child fascinated by the heavens above. I wanted to know more about them, but the school textbooks had too few information to offer. As I grew up, I learnt from my textbooks that one can see planets with the naked eye and that each had its own unique characteristics, but no one told me where to look out for them in the sky. Years passed by with me continuing to be a 'frog in the well' and it was up to occasional articles in the newspaper to rekindle my interest in astronomy.

Notable among these were the Shoemaker Levy comet crashing into Jupiter in 1994, the appearance of comet Hale Bopp in 1995, and the outburst in Leonid meteor shower activity in 1998. I still remember 1994, when I was in the fourth standard. Rumors spread in the class room that the world was going to end because of a huge object going to hit the earth and so on (In connection with the Shoemaker Levy incident).

Once in a while there would be a live telecast of a solar eclipse on the TV. My mother was too scared and superstitious to let me outdoors when the eclipse was going on, preventing me from experimenting with the ideas put forward by the TV guys to watch the eclipse. My mother used to say that food would turn to poison when the eclipse was going on and we were not allowed to eat anything. The house would be cleaned, special prayers and ceremonies (pujas) would be conducted.

A breakthrough finally manifested itself in the form of starcharts that appeared every month in the Hindu newspaper. It was just a small unclear picture with no instructions and hence the misfortune continued. The jinx was finally broken when I teamed up with my friend, Gokul in my ninth standard or so (I don't remember exactly). He was also greatly interested in Astronomy and had read some books and downloaded a starchart generating software called Starcalc which I use even to this day. We spent a lot of time together observing the heavens and discussing astronomy among other things. We used to print starcharts and go to the observatory hill in Trivandrum.

The observatory had two old but large telescopes with which we were able to take our first magnified glimpse at the planets. We could see the polar caps of Mars, the rings of Saturn, the satellites and the dust band of Jupiter, the majestic full moon and the spectacular Orion nebula. We made friends with the observatory chairman and we had a lot of discussion going on. All these experiences satisfied the thirst that has long been unquenched.

Meanwhile, I attended a workshop called 'Red rover goes to Mars Project' at the Trivandrum planetarium. It was about selecting a few students to NASA for working on the Red rover project. It was a bit advanced for my standard, but I was still fascinated. I took home whatever I could fathom.

During the whole of my eleventh standard, I spend many of my evenings clinging onto a home made telescope, inspired by the telescope making workshop conducted by the Trivandrum planetarium. My telescope had a 100 cm focal length, 3" aperture convex lens as objective and a 20X eyepiece. I used an indigenous mount made from the remains of an old table-fan and I was proud of my telescope. Though there was significant chromatic aberration, I could see the Orion nebula as a cloud, an enlarged moon and the satellites of Jupiter as tiny dots if not anything else.

We came to know about the Astronomy Olympiad and we decided to have a go at it. By then I had become an avid reader and used my father's library to get books. He works at the Indian Space Research Organization and it has the finest technical library in all of India. I cleared the rounds until I finally qualified to appear in the National Astronomy Olympiad. It was to be preceded by a 10 day camp in Mumbai at the Nehru Science Centre. My home is some 1500 km away and I had fallen sick also which finally prevented me from attending the camp.

We attempted to organize an Astronomy club at school called SciQuest, the brainchild of me and Gokul. Most of my classmates attended our first get together, but they were there more because of their friendship with us rather than interest in Astronomy. This was pretty clear when not even a soul turned up for the second meeting at our favorite observatory. What a disappointment!

I was so frustrated that I was not able to attend the Olympiad that I parted ways with Astronomy (temporarily) but it was the busy academic schedule that played spoilsport. Finally I got into college and there again I was pressed for time. I failed again in an attempt to create Astronomy awareness at college, this time me being the culprit, I simply couldn't find time! (Oh my God, I should have). The plan that failed was to create a Special Interest Group (SiG) in Astronomy under the aegis of the IEEE. I feel final year was too late to start such an endeavor. Nevertheless, I spent quite sometime in browsing information on Astronomy, occasional stargazing outings and Meteor shower observations. I had made it a point not to miss the wondrous meteor showers. I would tell my friends well in advance and we would head to the college's Open Air Theatre(OAT). What an experience we had!

During my college days I started a community in the social networking site, Orkut called 'Stargazing and the Nightsky'. It has 276 members as of now from different parts of the world and I am glad that they all joined on their own accord without me sending out a single invitation! It was my attempt at not losing touch with astronomy. Now that I have passed out of college and plan to do something new, I have decided to start this stargazing blog. I is my hope that this blog symbolizes my comeback to Astronomy and that I can spare enough time from my work schedule to pursue amateur astronomy with renewed zeal.

Clear Skies!