How come Mumbai’s night skies appear clear and starry in spite of bright city lights and polluted air? The puzzling question has been teasing my mind for a while. So, when DNA’s ‘Your City Your Day’ listed an astronomy event, organised by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), I told myself to go find the answer.
After all, astronomy experts will be at the venue (Matunga’s picturesque Ruparel College). Moreover, given the IPL season, multiplexes, malls, summer vacation and the telecast of Satyamev Jayate, not many would turn up on a hot Sunday morning for a science event, I’d imagined. So, I’d probably get a decent chance to chat up the experts.
I’m happy to report that mine was an unfounded expectation. The hall was full: tykes, boys, girls, men, women, senior citizens – space junkies all, in the 8-80 age-group, spanning all religions and professions – were enraptured by ‘Sky and Why’, a talk-cum-presentation by Mayank Vahia, principal investigator of TIFR’s astronomy project.
Black holes, the Big Bang, theories of relativity; cosmic insights in the Gita, Rig Veda and the Upanishads; myths and beliefs about constellations held by central India’s Gonds, one of the most ancient tribes on this planet; India’s ‘Stonehenge’ Byse and its possible links with solstices and equinoxes; the Pole Star phenomenon; why Newton is still relevant; how astronomy gave us clocks, calendars and navigational aids; the future of the Earth and humanity, and what have you – no topic was left untouched, especially by the knowledgeable and curious kids.
Yet, Vahia was quick to add that man knows very little and there is so much more that remains a mystery. For instance, where does all that magnetic energy in the universe emanate from? What happened in the first nanosecond after the Big Bang? Is it a universe, or are there multiverses? No one knows.
A precocious chubby boy was relentless. Why are planets’ orbits elliptical and not circular? If the sun’s gravitation makes planets revolve around it, how come they don’t get sucked into it? How...? What...? Where...? When...? Why...? (He not only impressed the speaker but the audience so much that an old Christian woman went up to him, complimented his young Hindu mother, held the child to her bosom, blessed him and encouraged him to become an astronomer.)
How to use a telescope, asked an enthusiast. A tenth-standard scholar wanted to know: how could he become an astronomer in future? (By mastering mathematics and physics till the master’s level, followed by specialisation in astrophysics.) Does the moon affect health and digestion? (No, it does not, contrary to myths about the moon’s influence on mind, emotions and lunatics. Only the sun, with its light, has a direct bearing on life forms.) Among the audience was a young cricket journalist who took copious notes.
Here’s a piece of useful info for Mumbai’s amateur star-gazers: the best night sky views are possible from the Karjat-Kasara strip and from land patches off the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway. (Safety and security precautions apply.)
By the way, Vahia unravelled the Mumbai night sky mystery: small open spaces surrounded by multi-storey buildings act like virtual pits in the ground, thus offering stunning views of night sky, in spite of city lights and polluted air. But the view from building terraces would not be as clear. So there.