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Sky gazing from the sidewalk

Posted on May 07 2014 | IBNS

Watching the celestial bodies can be fun as a group of amateur astronomers from Mumbai tell everyone. In April, the Global Astronomy Month, the group organised sidewalk astronomy sessions even for passersby. Uttara Gangopadhyay reports.

Look at the moon!" cried Manoj as the volunteer adjusted the eyepiece so that the diminutive seven year old could look through the telescope. For over a quarter of an hour, Manoj was watching the big boys setting up strange contraptions in the dusty field that went by name of a playground in Thane area of Mumbai. At first, he was a little scared when one of the boys beckoned to him and asked if he wanted to have a look. Look at what, asked Manoj; the moon, replied the volunteer. Manoj was crestfallen. He could be barefoot and grimy, and lacked many basic amenities in life but surely he had watched the moon plenty of times. So what was the big deal about the moon? Smiling indulgently, the volunteer showed him how to shut one eye with his palm and peer through the lens with the other eye. As Manoj bobbed his head, trying to adjust with the sudden brightness of the moon seen though the telescope, he was awestruck; he found it difficult to believe, there were big craters on the moon!

While Manoj and the other kids were watching the moon through one telescope, a senior manager of a transport company was looking at Jupiter through another telescope. His joy at seeing the red planet up close was no less than the little Manoj. "That's the main idea behind the programme sidewalk astronomy- to get the public to enjoy the night sky and celestial objects," explains Umesh Ghude, an astronomy enthusiast and co-ordinator of the event.

The idea of 'sidewalk astronomy' was mooted in the late 1960s by John Dobson, whom Smithsonian magazine editor Don Moser described as "astronomy's greatest cheerleader" and someone "who brought the farthest stars to the man on the street".

Dobson was born in China in 1915. His family moved to San Francisco in 1927. After graduating as a chemist, he joined the Vedanta Society of San Francisco in 1944 and became a monk of the Ramakrishna Order. Apparently, he was given the task of 'reconciling the teachings of religion with that of science'. Dobson, keen to know what the universe looked like, built his first telescope in 1956 from a lens he found in a junk store and an eyepiece from an old Zeiss binocular. A fellow monk taught him how to grind a telescope mirror, and Dobson made his first mirror out of a marine-salvage 12" porthole glass. Dobson's joy knew no bounds as he observed the sky with his home-made telescopes. Now he wanted everyone to see what he was able to see.

Dobson's preoccupation with astronomy, however, displeased the monastery and he had to quit. He returned to San Francisco, only too happy to devote himself full time to the cause of popularising sky watching. He also taught people how to make low-cost telescopes from easily available material. Besides, he developed a mount for the bulky telescopes to be set up easily. Although he never patented or copyrighted the name, the Dobsonian telescope is hugely popular among amateur sky watchers. Along with two of his students, he founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomy Club.

From ancient times, India has been on the forefront of studies related to astronomy. The studies conducted by 15th century mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata and his contemporary Varahamihira were path breaking. Maharaja Jai Singh II, founder of the city of Jaipur, constructed five astronomical observatories (Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura, and Varanasi) between 1724 and 1735; the instruments were built on a giant scale so that studies and observations could be as near accurate as possible.

Today, India has a slew of planetariums and associations for professional and amateur astronomers and sky watchers but overall there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm among the general public.

"We wanted to tell people that sky watching can be fun and doesn't require any planning," says Mumbai-based science communicator Henna Khan who spearheaded the event in Mumbai.

As April is designated the Global Astronomy Month by the US-based Astronomers Without Borders (their motto being 'One People, One Sky'), Khan decided to test her idea. With active participation from her fellow sky watchers, she organised an evening of sidewalk astronomy in and around Mumbai. Although the team had spread the word through social networking sites, the volunteers soon noticed that a lot of passers-by, especially families with children, were queuing up for the show.

"In the US, sidewalk astronomy is a fairly popular concept", says San Jose based Sreeparna Mukherjee who, as a graduate student at San Diego University, would often attend the programme at the city's Balboa Park. "The experience was a highly enriching one," says Mukherjee, a student of Modern High School, Kolkata. "We were lucky to have a planetarium in school. So the sidewalk astronomy was a great opportunity to continue with the hobby. "

Most leading planetariums in the country conduct public demonstrations, courses and workshops on sky watching, astronomy and telescope making, etc. Serious astronomers often gather for 'star parties', programmes involving night long sky observation and sharing of ideas. "Our intention is to make everyone, young and old, interested in watching the night sky. And out of them, especially the children, some are likely to take up astronomy be it as a hobby or as a subject of higher study," says Ghude, who was attracted to the subject after reading about Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman in space.

Khan says that although sidewalk astronomy is not entirely unknown to Indians, the efforts are sporadic at best. Hence she and a few of her fellow amateur astronomers are trying to contact their counterparts across India for a country-wide movement. The facebook page floated for the purpose has already attracted responses from people from various corners of India willing to organise and participate.

"In India, where more people are influenced by astrology than astronomy, it's very important to spread the idea of sidewalk astronomy so that people can really understand what are planets, stars, constellations, etc. "Someone who has once seen the beauty of the planet Saturn will never be able to believe that it's an evil planet determined to wreck your life," observes Mukherjee.

It was late at night when the programme got over at Thane. Manoj's mother, a house-maid, wanted to retire for the night but before that she had to collect Manoj from the park. Pleading with the volunteers to come again with their machine, Manoj, who has not seen the inside of a school, tugged at his mother's sari, "Ma, see that moon over there; it looks so small and plain; but did you know it is huge and there are craters on the moon, and seas too? Can I go to school Ma? I want to learn more."

· Astronomers Without Borders have a slew of activities to mark the Global Astronomy Month including astro-poetry and photography contests; details on
· To know more about or join Henna Khan's initiative for a country-wide sidewalk astronomy programme, check the facebook page AstronomyOutreachIndia.

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