Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sky gazing, Halley's Comet and more

Even since my younger days, star-gazing has been one of my smaller passions.  The 'Evening Star' [planet] Venus was the brightest object seen above the row of houses on the western side opposite our main door. The elders used to show it to me from a young age, telling it is 'Shukra Graha'.  Even now, it is a habit in the evenings to look for it in the evenings.  Some seasons it is a 'morning star'.  On numerous occasions Venus has guided me in knowing the direction when I am out of Mysore.  Of course, I used to watch the moon phases. My grandmother used to show the 'bidigay chandra' - the first crescent of the moon phase.  It became visible around sunset, low on the western sky.  Even this is a habit now.

[Picture by author]

When I was very young, I vaguely remember having got up in the wee hours of the night along with other elders in the family to watch a comet [in Kannada as 'dhoomaketu'], visible on the eastern sky, behind our mango tree!  I remember the tail to be pointing down and they compared the comet with a broom for its shape! This was probably in the mid 1960s.

In the 1970s or thereabouts, another uncommon phenomenon was observed above the Mysore skies. It was a colourful cloud-like thing, pinkish at that time, which they called as 'Aurora'.  It was also reported in the next day's paper. I remember it to have seen on the southern sky when it was getting dark that evening.  Auroras are common in some parts of the world.

There was another celestial event when planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn had lined up one above the other on the eastern sky on that known day, sometime in the early 1980s.  I remember having watched it from the kitchen window from where it was clearly visible.

I have also not missed watching eclipses also.  

Old wives' tales go around and get stuck.  Will mention just two here.  Arrival of comets signal a bad omen and watching a 'falling star' or shooting star [meteor/ite] will bring bad news.  My grandmother had brainwashed others about such things, among many, to the extent that they left a deep impression on our young minds.  Once I had seen a meteor while walking with others in the family.  'Nakshatra bitthu!'.. I announced ['a star fell'] and someone said..'something bad may be waiting.'  A few days later an aunt died - in 1971.  After that, I had become so frightened that I dreaded to look at the night sky, lest I noticed any shooting star!  I now wonder, about people watching meteor showers or astronomers who keep watching meteors every night?

Halley's Comet flew by in 1986.  It was doing so after 76 years and because of its long periodic cycle, it was getting wide publicity.  It was to be visible to the naked eye for nearly a month.  Its mania also had gone to the extent that many countries, including India, issued postage stamps of this celestial event and Halley himself.  Astronomers, in an attempt to create awareness about the comet and to drive away superstitions, were giving frequent educative short lectures.  The sessions also included setting up of a telescope for showing the comet and other planets which were on that night sky.

[Image of Halley's Comet from National Geographic website, Photo by James Balog]

When they say 'naked eye visibility' it means that the object is not bright and clear, but it had to be located and spotted amidst a sea of stars.  Once we knew where exactly to look for, it was easy to see the object.   Myself and my friend Keerthichandra had both attended a lecture given by a professor from the University. It was an inspiring lecture.  He taught us where and how the comet could be spotted.  Clarity of sky is a critical factor in star-gazing.  I must tell that skies were clear and vehicular pollution had not affected so much as to create a strong haze, as it has now.  We were able to see a lot many 'dots' and even fainter 'dots' [celestial objects] before the 1990s. .

I want to mention here that the most brilliant and clearest night sky I saw was at Subramanya, a place in the midst of green forests in the great western ghats.  This was in very recent years.  There was power failure at that time.  It had become pretty dark with no substitute lights on the railway platform.  We were waiting for our train back home from that pilgrimage trip.  When I looked up, my jaw dropped, in awe!  It was the starriest sky I had seen in a long long time!  I called out my children to take a look too.  We can count only hundred stars from our city, but there, zillions of them, bright and dull, all were on crystal clear display!  That is the reason why astronomers and star-gazers go far away from cities.

Back to Halley now.  For our 'sky gazing cum Halley sessions', myself, Keerthi and sometimes Krishna would gather.  The place was either near one of the beautiful stone benches on the peaceful Krishnaraja Boulevard or a stone bench in the open field of what was the M.D.T.D.B.College [now housing the Zilla Parishad] - gates were open.  The benches on the Boulevard have been removed and replaced with an ugly lawn but at the erstwhile 'College' [where famous Kannada actress late Arathi studied], a nice garden has replaced the thorny field [our cricket pitch as well]. The Boulevard and the field was so close to our homes that we could run back from there in one breath!

Our meeting time was usually at 9 pm, after dinner.  There was no Television [in most homes] in those days and so we had all the time for good things!  We would spend the next one hour watching the skies, looking at the comet many times and discussing various things.  Let me show the telescope I had made myself around 1976-77.

Lenses have been diamantled. 

Here they are. The wide one was the objective.  I had combined 2-3 small concave ones for the eyepiece to get more 'power' [magnification].  Boast- boast..... I had secured 24 out of 25 in my 12th Std [2nd PUC] Physics practical exam! :)  Beg, beg...... don't ask about other subjects and result!!

My telescope consisted of lenses from toy binoculars I had broken in my childhood, junked flashlight cases and a table lamp stand! It was a crude instrument, but still good enough, despite the difficulty in bringing the object in the view-range. I used to focus to the Great Nandi Bull on Chamundi Hill. People moving around it could be seen from the top of our house through it. The view was unobstructed in that time when I made it. 

At the time of watching Halley's in 1986, I was armed with my own, but Keerthichandra had his powerful12x binoculars.  With this it was easier to spot the comet.  Once it was done, the 'comet haze' was visible to the naked eye itself. It was in the Orion Constellation which itself  is easy to identify, with its near rectangle arrangement of bright stars and a cluster of fainter stars in its centre.  Observing its path for the entire month until it disappeared, was a good experience for us.  So much about Comet-following.

Now, back to that lecture.  Besides information about Halley's Comet the professor also gave some other interesting tit bits on astronomy.  For people to easily remember and recall the order from the Sun, the nine planets in our solar system, he mentioned a mnemonic, "My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets".  The first letter of each word represents the first letter of the planet names, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Pluto. It reminded me of the two typewriting mnemonics, "A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." and "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.", which contains all the letters of the English alphabet.  Just FYI, a mnemonic is a device such as a formula or an acronym, or a rhyme used as a memory aid.

After a few years, there was an article on star gazing in the local paper.  So I thought it was relevant at that time to let others also know about this impressive planet-mnemonic. My short letter was published.

Very soon, to my great surprise, there was this letter written by Sri G.T.Narayana Rao, who was a very renown personality in Mysore, an expert in astronomy and a science writer and critic, to briefly mention about him.  He was known to react strongly to matters that had even a slight inkling of  'astrology'.  He always argued with the planet number.

After a few years, I once met him during his walk, but he could not remember about this letter, quite expectedly.  I wanted to meet him again, more leisurely, to learn a bit more about stars and constellations, but that never happened.  He is no longer with us now.

I now found out from the web that there are quite a few mnemonics on this, besides the one I heard for the first time from the professor.

My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets.
My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.
My Very Evil Mummy Just Sat Upon Nathan's Potty.
My Very Easy Memory Jingle Seems Useful Naming Planets.
My Venomous Equestrian Monkey Just Sat Underneath Napoleons's Plantation.
My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Noodles.
Many Very Earnest Men Just Snubbed Unfortunate Ninth Planet.
Mary's Violet Eyes Make John Stay Up Nights.
My Very Educated Mother Just Said Uh-oh No Pluto.

Some of the above, without the 'P' were coined after Pluto was recently downgraded to a non-planet status, leaving the number of planets to eight.

In this link, you will find an interesting presentation about the comparative pace planets rotate round the Sun.

The tail of Halley's Comet touched earth in its previous visit, in 1910.  Something wonderful happened in the south Indian city of Kumbakonam. You can read a bit about it here in this link [click].  In 1986, it was not a close encounter.  I know not how close it will be when it flies by again in 2061.  There will not be many who survive to watch and also remember two 'fly bys' of Halley.

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