Comet Chasing * Chocolate Charms

The children have a shared liking for Calvin  & Hobbes. The adorable pair have been the source of many hysterical giggles between the siblings in our home. In the son’s room, there is a cartoon clip of Calvin & Hobbes that seems to tickle both his whimsy and his innate rapture and curiosity of the universe we live in.

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If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they would live a lot differently  ✨- Calvin & Hobbes

A few weeks ago, I was typing out an email with the ounces of concentration I could muster at the end of a 12 meeting day, and I wasn’t exactly thinking  about 💫 comets, stars, pulsars, neutron stars, black holes, and parallel universes, when the little fellow shot into the room bursting about comets. I turned around , and my face probably looked like some of the spreadsheets I was looking at, for the son gave me a pitying look that seemed to indicate, “What good is a day when you haven’t thought of these important things?”

I laughed at the incredulity on his face: Stars, superclusters, muons traveling the speed of light, quirky  quarks are all thriving right beside his world of super-powers for super-heroes, who are incidentally gifted with important sounding superpowers such as gamma-rays and electromagneto-muon-transporters and what-not. 

“Did you  know Halley’s comet is going to come again in 40 years?” said the son still bouncing and glowing from the stash of chocolate chips he has been chipping into while reading his little books on Physics.

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“Yep! Sounds about right. I was around your age when I saw Halley’s Comet. So once in 76 years means …” and I trailed off.

“What?! You’ve seen Halley’s comet? Aww…..so lucky!” said he, and I had to laugh at his yearning. I did remember the cold nights awaiting the turn at the telescope to catch a grainy sight of the Halley’s comet. I must say that the whole experience felt worth a lot more given the rapture with which he listened to the comet sighting. I seem to remember the hot chocolate provided to the young astronomers more than the telescope and the grainy image itself.

Maybe the universe really did hear his yearnings that day, for within a few weeks, another comet came our way: the Neowise 360 comet sighting was supposedly possible from where we lived. I was so happy for the little fellow. He could barely contain the excitement in his system when his father said at the lunch table that the comet would be visible at 4:30 a.m. He got up and ran upstairs to his room. We were exchanging quizzical glances at this when he tumbled downstairs and said, “Yes! I set the alarm for 4:30 – I cannot wait to see it!”

I had to admit; the young astronomer’s enthusiasm put us to shame. So, for the next few nights, we bundled up and comedically traipsed from location to location in the wee hours of the morning looking for a comet sighting. The clouds were there in one place, some low mountains in another, and then, finally, we managed to find a plain spot in which we caught a grainy sighting.

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Knowing that we caught a fleeting glimpse of something that is not going to come by to see us for another 6800 years is strangely moving. I have to tell you though, that similar to the Halley’s comet sighting, the hot chocolate after coming back, and the the long tail of wishes accompanying the comet sighting, definitely made the hustle worthwhile. 

That morning, the rest of the comet chasers had no problem falling back to sleep, but I did – the comet had kindled dreams of long ago: dreams born of comet chasing and chocolate charms; dreams woven with the magic of stardust 💫 and comet trails – bright, shiny, sparkling, path-breaking and aspirational.

Bill Watterson was absolutely right: People who spend time looking up at the night sky do live life differently!

 

Qi to the Yin & Yang

Fact and Fiction were swirling and creating waves and patterns inside the old eggshell. Harry Potter – A History of Magic was entertaining in ways I did not quite expect. Regular readers and friends know how much I love the Harry Potter series. The sheer brilliance and richness of the world, and the marvelous ways in which J K Rowling examines our world has been written about in far greater depth and width and by far greater minds than my own. (Leaky Cauldron site for instance)

I know I enjoyed reading  this in The Prisoner of Azkaban

“Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless — discuss” – Holiday homework set to Harry Potter and his classmates in the Prisoner of Azkaban.

“Non-magic people (more commonly known as Muggles) were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. The witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle, tickling sensation. Indeed, Wendelin the Weird enjoyed being burned so much that she allowed herself to be caught no less than forty-seven times in various disguises.”
—Bathilda Bagshot, A History of Magic

Harry Potter – A History of Magic book was amazing – Firstly, it contained little tidbits of deleted sections, some planning sketches etc. Secondly, it was organized by subject area: Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Care of Magical Creatures, & Transfiguration. In each section were glimpses into humankind’s long fascination with magic. It is astounding to see the vast repertoire of knowledge that the author herself had to be able to synthesize all this and to create another world based on anthropological details, myths from various cultures and her own dose of fantastic imagination.

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The mind was reveling in the fact and admiring the fiction therein. Our cosmic dance of fact and fiction as a species is almost necessary to examine and understand the world around us. We are story tellers, and we are curious to understand and infer. The Qi to the Yin and Yang of understanding the world around us.

The Astronomy section of the book contained a drawing of the Rudolphine Tables, which helped the reader locate the planets amidst the stars. Containing the locations of 1000+ stars, this was probably the most comprehensive study at the time.

Beside the picture of the Rudophine Tables was a note by Alexander Lock, the Curator
“In 1617, Kepler’s mother was suspected of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death. The accused spent over a year in prison but was eventually released when her son intervened. Kepler was an official astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor – this family intrigue must have been very difficult for him.”

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I could not help linking this with some of the things I read in Carl Sagan’s Science as a Candle in the Dark, especially a chapter titled the Demon Haunted World, in which he talks about the grotesque practice of witch hunts and how it became an increasingly profit driven model as well.

Pope Innocent VIII (if ever there was a name that was totally out of sorts with the meaning, this must be it). Pope Innocent was singularly responsible for starting and popularizing the witch hunts in the 15th and 16th centuries leading to millions of people losing their lives and millions more living in a state of constant fear.

There are demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness. – The Isa Upanishad (India ca 600 BC).

With a single proclamation in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII “initiated the systematic accusation, torture and execution of countless “witches” all over Europe.

While we know of the barbaric practices, little did I realize how pervasive the evil was – The Demon Haunted World -By  Carl Sagan:
It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives down to per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges the travel expenses of a messenger set to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch ‘s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State.

While I am enormously glad to see that we have evolved past this especially cruel phase of mankind’s history it does make me feel terrible about the state of things in the world today. Conspiracy theories, choosing which version of the truth to believe in etc have been problems for a long time, but now it seems these problems have occupied center stage because the leader of the free world seems to spend enormous amounts of time ingesting and spewing conspiracy theories himself.

Maybe it is time for all of us to equip ourselves with Carl Sagan’s famous Baloney Detection Kits.

But there is hope, we have moved past the atrocities of witch-burning to the point that we are now not only able to have witches and wizards in our stories, but also have a clear distinction between fact and fiction.

The yin and yang are sturdily holding their own, and I hope our qi (understanding) will remain unclouded and clear.

 

The Man Who Deciphered the Heavens

I wonder often how humanity figured out things like the Earth revolving around the sun while rotating on its tilted axis every 24 hours. Questions such as our place in the Cosmos, and our understanding of it have wracked humanity for centuries. Religions sought to answer some of these questions through myths and erroneous theories. One man though, was instrumental in moving us from a geo-centric to a helio-centric model.

How one man figured out the vastness of the Universe by contemplating the night skies with his naked eye and working diligently to find the accompanying Mathematical proof is a story well worth reminding ourselves of again.

Nicholas Copernicus was born on Feb 19th 1473, and he died in May, 1543. He was born during the times when the pseudoscience of Astrology and the science of Astronomy were regarded as one and the same. Even then, in his letters, he seems to have warned humanity against believing the astrological predictions based on appearance of comets, and planets, since there was no proof linking our own futures and the astrological happenings in the heavens.

Little is known about the man who revolutionized our understanding of the Cosmos. Copernicus was the Healing Physician for the Bishop, and the Canon (an administrator) for the Catholic Church. His private passion, though, was understanding the Cosmos and our place in it. It is poetic to imagine the man standing and observing the night skies for decades almost every night in Torun somewhere in modern day Poland, figuring out what the Ptolemic system got right, understanding Pythagorean Mathematics, scouring books of scientific interest when he had little access to them. Where they were gaps in the current understanding he fearlessly questioned never resting till he came up with a satisfactory explanation and the Mathematics required to support his own hypothesis. Copernicus expanded his initial calculations through rigorous observations all done with the naked eye. (Galileo’s ’spyglass’ as he called his early telescopes would not be available till 1610.)

Copernicus-Boissard
By Theodor de Bry – Uni Mannheim Mateo (Mannheimer Texte Online); Source [1]; Image:[2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2976063
Though he confided his findings to a few close friends, he was worried about the backlash from the Catholic Church. After all, religion put Earth at the center of the universe, and mythology made the sun ride his chariot to give us life everyday. It would have been dangerous to go all out and refute all theories at once. Man’s place in the Universe would suddenly not just become less grandiose, but downright humbling. We are small specks who happened to evolve into intelligent life on a tiny planet revolving around the sun? The very idea was scary.

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Figure of the heavenly bodies — An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

Finally, his friends, most persistent among them, mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, convinced him to publish his volumes after checking and double checking the validity of the Mathematics accompanying his proofs. Slowly leading up to the theory of Earth being one of the planets revolving around the Sun, De revolutionizes orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was published by a house in Nuremberg in modern day Germany.

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By Nicolaus Copernicus – Commons file De_Revolutionibus_manuscript_p9b.jpg, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58001466

Copernicus died almost as soon as his book was printed, and the book would have languished in the corners never to be read, had Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei not taken it up again. In many ways, what Copernicus feared would happen to him happened to Kepler and Galileo. They bore the brunt of the Christian Church for overturning their understanding of the world and our importance in it. But the book paved the way for further scientific research.

From Newton’s Theory of Relativity to our current forays into Space with telescopes sending us newer images of galaxies far far away, to the detection of gravitational waves, we are now in a constant state of wonder and on the cusp to more wondrous advances, all thanks to one man. One man, who believed that he could unearth the truth if he stuck with the problem, one man whose friends kept him honest and took the time to support and understand his work.

Books:

  • A More Perfect Heaven – How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos – By Dava Sobel
  • The Book that Nobody Read – Chasing the Revolutions of Nicholas Copernicus – By Owen Gingrich
  • De revolutionizes orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) _ by Nicholas Copernicus

The Degree of Shoshin

I wonder sometimes how the brain works. I mean, some references make us link to something else across the bridges of time and space where no ostensible link exists. Was astronomy the link? But that seems weak given that I ogle at the stars every opportunity I get. Could the 12 degree landing of Insight be the link? But the slopes that my mind linked to were at a 11 degree incline. And we were very proud that our little corner of the world could provide just the right 11 degree slope too – that is why I remember the incline so clearly.

Ignorant men raise questions that wise men answered a thousand years ago. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maybe it was something to do with the specific angle at which the Insight can land on Mars that brought back memories of a trip to the Radio astronomy center in Mutthorai in Nilgiris – who knows?  The radio astronomy telescope on the slopes of the Nilgiris was magnificent and awe-inspiring. It still is. I remember hearing that the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) had scoured plenty of slopes in India and this humble village was deemed just the right one to capture radio waves. It had the right level of incline(11 degrees), minimum light pollution at nights, and we were proud of our unassuming Nilgiri hills for providing such a marvelous slope.

By Own work – Ooty Radio Telescope, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7463023

 

I remember going to visit the center with the father one rainy afternoon during the monsoon season. We often piled onto his scooter that the kids had lovingly nick-named Street Hawk given it tore through the streets with a ear shattering noise, even if we could run beside it. (I often wonder how it must feel for someone who goes to India for the first time from a country like the US or Canada, and sees a family precariously making their hazardous way through the haphazard traffic – obviously uncomfortable, but looking joyous and confident. Even cars here seem so cranky – “departing lane, departing lane” it goes on like a parrot on caffeine. Fine – relax! Talk about sticking to the straight and narrow path – sheesh kababs.)

Anyway that is how we toured the Nilgiris during our school holidays. We would start out on a supposedly clear day, the brother standing in front, his feet making sure not to come under the brakes foot pedal, the sister on the pillion seat, and self squashed between the driver’s seat and the pillion seat, my face turning a ninety degree angle to make sure I could breathe, and off we would go on our adventures. Sometimes, our Street Hawk could not quite pull up the intense slopes of the Nilgiris such as the Katteri falls, and we would all good-naturedly pile off, let the pater go up the slope on 1st gear, trudge up there, and pile on again. What was life without these little pleasures?

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Invariably midway through our trips somewhere, the skies would attempt a volte-face: the sun would dip behind the clouds, a brisk wind would start around us, and the first raindrops would start. Sometimes, if the downpour got heavy, we would shelter at a random farm or village and nibble into the ample snacks packed for the trip, and head out again after the fierce downpour stopped. The dubious weather reports then were listened to with the amusing attitude of one indulging a child, and if it all went towards building the weather reporters’ confidence, it was time well spent was the general attitude. Ours was a forgotten corner of the world, and we loved it just the way it was. 

Off I went meandering around the countryside when I should have been sticking to the Radio astronomy tower as usual. The point is, I remember thinking as a child standing on that steep incline with the monsoon winds buffeting us from all directions, struggling to stay upright, and thinking for the first time how we must be standing at all. We are spinning on a very fast ball after all, gravity is all very well, but what would happen if Earth decided to just let us go for one instant? It was a terrifying thought, I clung a little harder to the pater’s solid hands and redoubled my wonder at how we exist at all. 

That is the beauty of space exploration isn’t it? It rekindles wonder. If retaining wonder in our day to day living is the mark of a meaningful existence to paraphrase the German philosopher, it is no wonder that we marvel childhood with its fresh perspectives, and its great capacity for wonder. The beauty of #Shoshin

“The highest goal that man can achieve is amazement.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Lentil Chips Shine Down

The excitement in the bunch of children gathered was palpable. They were united by a sense of wonder and pleasant anticipation. Were they really going to be able to touch the telescope, and see something remarkable? A bar stool had been borrowed from a kindly neighbor and the little telescope was perched on it. An earthworm like line was formed with the children waiting to get a turn at the telescope. It was as wiggly and restless as an earthworm, and just as fascinating to watch from a safe distance.

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Mars in the distance shone with the iridescence of a star. Mars has been exceptionally bright in the evening skies, and the Mars viewing party was happening on the week it was closest to the Earth.

Mars has fascinated mankind for centuries. It started with hoaxes of finding extra terrestrial life on Mars: maybe those rigged lines on the planet were canals? said a 19th century astronomer, and from that hypothesis, sprang a vibrant story of alien life. In our enthusiasm to find extra terrestrial neighbors, the populace went along. That kind of hope is refreshing even if misguided. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_on_Mars

Tonight the telescope we had with us was only as big as a professional camera, and I hoped it would not disappoint the children gathered.

While the telescope was being deftly handled by the husband, I diverted the attention of the children skyward. Their questions about progress were distracting the misguided astronomer who was pointing the lens towards the stile on our neighbor’s roof, and wondering how he could see things fluttering there (I pointed to the sycamore tree nearby that had shed a few of its leaves on the stile, and crushed the poor fish’s soul about finding extra terrestrial life on Mars. Andy Weir might have imagined potato cultivation on Mars, but even by his standards, a sycamore tree was a leap, I told him kindly. He guffawed loudly at this and fiddled on.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_(Weir_novel)

In the meanwhile, I pointed out the familiar constellations to the hopeful looking children. The budding astronomers were skeptical. 

‘How do you know it is Big Dipper?’ 

‘It could be anything or nothing’, said another, and quickly the pendulum swung from hope to disillusionment. I managed a quick save by not letting it swing too far, and told them about the excellent app, Skyview, using which they could confirm the stars for themselves. The older teenagers who had smartphones for themselves were suddenly beset upon to share the marvels of the night sky. 

 

Cecilia Payne would have been proud indeed of the motley group of astronomers gathered in our driveway. It is marvelous to see how the work of early astronomers & physicists set the base for us to be able to map the skies and predict the movements of stars and planets.

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The Glass Universe

Book recommendation: The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

“Oh look!”, said the Big-Dipper-doubter, pointing the phone wildly at the sky, “the moon, the moon!”. 

An experienced hand said he had seen the moon before and there was nothing remarkable about it.

“But it is so beautiful!” said another sounding reproachful at the dismissal of the beautiful moon, and I agreed. The moon has exerted her pull over mankind almost since the beginning of time. Even if we do see it everyday, the moon has a poetic beauty all of its own. That night it was looking achingly beautiful. 

Maybe it was the effect of the scintillating talk I had the privilege of attending earlier that week.

I have never had the opportunity to listen live to a TED Talk. But that week, I had listened to a very TED-esque talk by Jon Carmichael the cosmic photographer. He shared the beautiful story of how he photographed the full lunar eclipse a year ago with the help of a Southwest crew. 

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Please listen to the talk on the site if you can.

I was telling the children about the talk, when the husband let out an involuntary yelp and said this time he was fairly sure it was Mars. 

One child gazed into the telescope and said, “It looks like a Papad in the sky.”, and we all laughed. (Papad  – is a sort of flat, round lentil chip!)

The cosmos has a way of uniting us in the darkest of times. Even during the most inane days, there is always a cosmic show that is ready to enthrall us and fill our souls with enchantment. It is why I was so happy to be standing among the children gazing up at the stars, and soaking in the wonders of the cosmic show above me that day. Even if the children did see a lentil chip in the sky, I hope for some of them at least the magic seed was sown. A seed nurtured by the hopeful innocence of youth, tempered by the wisdom of years, with the potential to mature into a star of their own.

Cosmic Nature of Living

We have several friends who are whiz-kids behind the lens, and rise before larks to photograph that first ray of sunlight through the crevice of the rock and so on. We are grateful to their creative labors, for the pictures show the artist behind the lens, and one needs only look at them to get an instant nature spa. We, on the other hand, forget to take cameras, or if we do, leave them behind in the car before getting out. Plans for sunrises are often derailed by the low trick the sun plays on us by beaming on us and waking us up with his rays before we beat him to it.

So, it is no doubt that armed with nothing but our cellphones, we had no method of capturing the brilliance of the Milky Way galaxy.

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Star Trails of the Milky Way Galaxy

Every time we have the luxury of traveling out of our urban areas swathed in artificial light, we try to step out at night to indulge in star gazing. The winter skies over Zion national park did not disappoint. The wisps of cloud that had floated in during the sunset to show us a more resplendent sunset had flitted away obligingly so that we may take in the iridescent brilliance of the Milky Way galaxy unobstructed.

A friend most kindly took a picture of the husband gazing up at the skies that had me yearning to see the sky like that.

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Photographers will tell you something about shutter speed, and exposures and frames per second: Lark that always has me looking like a glazed doughnut at t+2 of the discourse. Therefore, I produce slightly alarming results that has physicists going back over their calculations to see how the focal length with the curvature and the light ray divided by exposure rate gave rise to the image that I seem to have obtained. (Just a moment: f/1.4 should blur that background, how did it blur the subject?)

I meander as usual. The point is: I thought we required post processing and superior photographic techniques like make-up on a set to be able to see that night sky. However that night at Zion national park, we had no need to resort to these advanced techniques to see the nebulous cloud of the Milky Way. The skies split open, and the stars poured their celestial brilliance upon us. If this was the show our ancestors enjoyed every night, it is no wonder that we have such wonderful myths and shapes in the ‘ever changing panorama of the skies’ (James Woodforde Parson).

As we looked up, we could not help wondering how the desert beauty in the canyons was so different from the beauty of the seaside and yet so unlike the snowy mountain plains. If this many vagaries of nature could exist on one planet, the mind boggles on what exists in the vast cosmos out there. We rarely stop to think of the skies in any color than the ones we are blessed with. It takes children to imagine that. I remember the childrens’ essays in first grade where they were asked to imagine another world, and their skies looked nothing like ours. They opened our minds to the possibility of having rust colored night skies, with swirling colorful gusts of wind and rainbow colored days. When asked to imagine extra terrestrial life, we are so limited by our imaginations that we seldom look beyond the slightly changed human form.

Yet on this very planet, we know that octopuses have a level of consciousness radically different from our own.

For a long time, we thought that being conscious was something unique to human-beings, then Jane Goodall paved the way for several scientists to study animals and not fear being accused of anthropomorphizing their subjects. Finally, in the 1970’s, Jennifer Mather’s work was acknowledged.  Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:

Once overlooked or dismissed outright, Jennifer’s work now is respected and cited by cognitive neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists so that the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”

Days filled with the daily business of living truly and fully demand our attentions so that we often forget the vibrant universe in which we float. The night view from our planet, ‘ a tiny mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’ as Carl Sagan so elegantly put it, is the best cure for arrogance there exists. Instead of taking our place among the harmonious orchestra of the universe, if all our dictators are fighting over, is a small patch in this tiny speck on a remote planet, we must feel sorry indeed for ourselves.