My First Sidewalk Astronomy event

I first read of sidewalk astronomy in 2007 when I read about the work done by John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers . I have been wanting to do it and the dream died a quiet death as I began working. Lucky for me that someone else had also been thinking of doing the same and set up a page on Facebook for the event which was to be held across Mumbai.

Sidewalk Astronomy involves setting up a telescope on a sidewalk with the idea of showing the public the night sky through the telescope. Since these events happen in a city and we’re faced with bright city lights that drown out the fainter objects, this event seeks generally to look at brighter objects – usually the Moon, the planets and if one is lucky, a few bright stars.

The first sidewalk astronomy event in Mumbai was to be held at various locations – Nariman Point, Worli Sea Face, Shivaji Park, Bandra and Thane. I went to the Shivaji Park event to volunteer.

The event was slated to begin at 7 o’clock. At half past six, the venue was clouded out. I was joined here by Henna and Arpit Gada. Henna was organising the event across Mumbai and Thane. Phone calls at this point seemed to suggest that other venues too were clouded out. We took a round around Shivaji Park to look for a nice place to setup the telescope. We ended up selecting a spot opposite the Cafe Coffee Day at Shivaji Park.

We got curious eyeballs as we began setting up the telescope at the spot. People walked upto us and asked if there was a special astronomical event that we were out to observe or if we were doing a specific research. An old couple had also come reading about the event published in Daily News & Analysis, the newspaper. Unfortunately, it was still clouded out.

We had spotted the Moon a couple of times as we walked around Shivaji Park as it played hide and seek. We spotted glimpses of the Moon and began showing late evening walkers the Moon through a pair of binoculars. We had setup a telescope but it was too rickety to show anything through. We used three pairs of binoculars to show the Moon.

As we began reaching out to people, asking passersby if they wanted to see the Moon, we were helped by a few people who had come to see and had seen the Moon. I was tasked with seeing to it that nobody robbed the binoculars and began counting the number of people who were watching. I lost track at a 110 where a huge crowd of people came in and there were small lines.

That number may seem small but we were doing this between 8 o’clock and 9 o’clock at night as India was batting in the finals of the T20 World Cup that was going on. We’d also chosen a less crowded spot since this was everyone’s first experience.

People who watched the Moon through the binoculars loved it and expressed interest in wanting to do it more regularly. We promised to come back in May if we could before the Monsoons. It was a wonderful experience for many. Struggling with the binoculars, their weight, then getting a grip and then learning to focus and then the wonderful sight of the Moon. Some even spotted Jupiter which was hanging around near the Moon this night and were curious to know what object that was. A few people enquired about getting binoculars and costs and where one could get them. Some were reliving their childhood experiences of going out with Khagol Mandal and similar amateur astronomy groups in and around Mumbai. A couple even went home and got their kids back to the spot to see through the binoculars. We got a few people who were quite afraid of even taking a peep through the binoculars and then wouldn’t leave it after they saw the Moon through the binoculars.

This is the real joy of astronomy. Sharing a sight with people who miss this. I wish we had spots within the city that were as dark as villages so that people get a chance to see galaxies and planets that are now invisible. But, for now, people wanting these sights have to travel quite far to catch a glimpse of some of the wonders of our universe.

Changing Mumbai in places where I walk

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as https://parallelspirals.blogspot.com. I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on March 14, 2011 as per the permalink. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

I have made it a practice of going on early morning walks (if my father wakes me up). It used to painful in the early days which surprised me given the amount of walking I already did. Dad set a new understanding of what it means to walk quickly. I took my time getting accustomed to faster walking. Friends have always complained that I walk fast. In the mornings, I walk faster. Those early days of pain made me not want to walk again in the evening. Habit set in and I slowly lost my evening walking fun.

In the last two days, I have started the evening walk routine again. This slower walking is for me to notice the changes around my suburb of Chembur. Hit by projects like the Monorail and the Chembur-Santacruz Link Road projects, the places that I walk in is transforming at a very fast pace. Now, I feel that I have lost something of the memories by not photographing it.

The construction work in these lanes has transformed the once sleepy lanes into a very different experience. Walking down these roads is less fun now. I don’t know how it would be after the roads and monorail are built. Some one has to chronicle this history of a metamorphosing metropolis. Once sleepy lanes that I used to haunt could in the near future become crowded monorail stations or metro stops. Nostalgia is slowly walking in and I am looking for other sleepy lanes to haunt.

Liam Wyatt and the Mumbai Wikipedia GLAM Meetup

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as http://parallelspirals.blogspot.com. I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on February 14, 2011 as per the time stamp. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

For the past few days, Liam Wyatt has been going around cultural institutions in Mumbai. We had a meetup yesterday at the Pinstorm offices in Santacruz. Our thanks to Netra there who offered and allowed us use of space on such short notice. We had a nice turn up today of around 20-25 people.

We started off with directly with Liam’s talk on his work with the British Museum. His work/documentation of his work here can be found here. He then talked about his idea behind doing a project with the British Museum after a controversy the year before with the British National Archives. He said that the relationship was mutually beneficial to both and did not compromise on the principles of either Wikipedia or the British Museum. He talked about the series of conferences called GLAMWIKI that have already happened in London and Paris and are planned in Washington DC and Barcelona.

He then went on to talk about five of the events that he conducted during his 5 month stint as the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the British Museum. These included the Backstage Pass, One on One Collaborations/Photos Requested, Feature Article Prize, the Hoxne Challenge and the School Translations.

Backstage Pass involves a free tour of Museum objects in display and out of display by curators of the Museum for Wikipedians working on an article. The One-on-One Collaborations was an exchange of requests between Curators and Wikipedians who needed each others help – curators to improve articles on Wikipedia and Wikipedians for expert advice on articles in Wikipedia. Photos Requested requested for photos in different parts of the museum. Feature Article Prize was an interesting if controversial experiment. The British Museum offered 100 pounds for the 5 articles in Featured Article in Wikipedia related to an item in the British Museum. This became similar to the pay-for-edit idea. However, the rationale was that since the prize money was not for an article on the British Museum and was for an object/topic related article, it was okay. The Hoxne Challenge was an effort to see how Wikipedians could improve an article on one subject given access to subject experts etc.The subject given was that of the Hoxne Hoard discovered in England in 1992. I think it goes without saying that the article reached Featured Article rating pretty quickly. The last was the School Translations project where a group of French school children that Liam knew translated the articles on certain items in the British Museum from English into French as part of their English class homework. The students later visited London (like they regularly apparently did) and visited the Museum to see the objects they had written about as part of class.

These were some of the implementations possible in the 5 week period whilst Liam was with British Museum.

Bishaka and Liam reported on their visits to The Museum (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay) and Jnanapravaha. I accompanied Liam and Bishaka to The Museum. I am pleasantly surprised by the way they have transformed it! We’ve reported on positive responses from these cultural institutions. Liam and Bishaka will be visiting one more institution tomorrow.

In the discussion that followed, we had a discussion about GLAM applications in Indian libraries and archives. Ashwin Baindur asked about how to work with institutions like Maharashtra Archives which are facing a brunt of the budget cuts (they get the money after the song and dance shows, museums etc all get their cut) and have trouble with up-keep of their archives. Liam replied that this would mainly be in helping them digitise records. The trouble, Liam said, was on where to begin and how to priorotise work. Stating the example of the National Library, Kolkata he said that some books were not even catalogued. We agreed that Libraries and Archives also suffered because there was no good Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software for Indic languages. Liam suggested a French example of how an old French cursive text made it un-OCR-able (new word – mine!) and got help from Wikipedians to manually type in text onto WikiSource.

Bishaka raised the point that all of the GLAM activities could also be simultaneously done in various languages in-parallel. So, during a Backstage Pass event in Mumbai, we could improve the English, Hindi and Marathi (as an example) articles at once.

We then had a brief introduction to pad.ma (I have written about this in detail earlier). The part that relates to Wikimedia Commons was a demo on how a plugin for Firefox developed by the same team helped in uploading files in the .ogg format to Wikimedia Commons.

We had a small reference to the Workshop for Women on Wikipedia (WWW) and we suggested the idea to two students who had come from SNDT Women’s University to the meetup. We’ve requested them to check on the possibility of using their labs to conduct the Workshop in Mumbai on or around March 8, 2011 (to re-iterate: the centenary celebrations of Women’s Day.

All-in-all it was a fun 7th meetup of Wikipedians in Mumbai.