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.

Closing Down of public libraries in Chembur

As a teen growing up in the suburbs of Mumbai, I had access to some very fascinating public libraries in Chembur. I didn’t read anything until my teenage years after which I didn’t have time to do anything else but reading. Many of the libraries have shut shop. The recent one is the Ramchandra’s Circulating Library at Amar Mahal which has now paved the way for yet another cycle shop.

My mom and her sisters read at the Shashi’s Three Star Library in Zerox Galli, near Chembur Railway Station. It was here I read most of my Hardy Boys collection (along with the 1 book/week I got in school). It is here I started reading Jeffrey Archer and Sidney Sheldon. He wouldn’t give me many of the other books I was interested in (like horror fiction) and this put me fairly in the pure fiction category in my reading tastes. It was also here that the librarian suggested Wodehouse to me to keep me away from Stephen King. Needless to say, I enjoyed Wodehouse. This library is now a stationary shop.

There were many other libraries too but to which I did not apply for membership and which have now closed.

There was a Five Star Circulating Library at the corner of Ambedkar Garden. This has now become part of clothes store. This had more of the books that women like and very few selections for what would today be called young adult audiences.

There was also a library on the ground floor of the municipality M ward office. This has now been converted into a Citizen Facilitation Center. The library has been moved to a smaller space near the Sai Baba Temple with a smaller but a more Marathi-centric collection.

After losing the Ramchandra’s Circulating Library at Amar Mahal, the only one in Chedda Nagar is run by a very old gentleman – he runs Ankur Circulating Library. He’s recently decreased the size of the library claiming difficulty in maintenance.

Good libraries have also taken a beating as new bookstores like Crossword and Landmark and online spaces like Flipkart have made it easier for book lovers to purchase books rather than borrow books. The libraries that exist are not being able to get some of the latest books in circulation.

I have a growing collection of books that I am waiting to share but am not yet entirely sure how. It’s something in my head. A need for a public circulating library with an updated stock of books.

Talk by Susmita Mohanty at the American Center

It was Srinivas Laxman who forwarded me the email and invited me over since it was a public talk (video) to be held at the American Center, New Marine Lines. Given the rains and a talk about the Shuttle were not really great pull to go attend the event. At the end of the day, though, I am glad I attended the event.

Even though I was born in the ’80s and a video of the Space Shuttle Discovery lifting off with Hubble is what pushed me into space, I have never taken the trouble to sit down and get to know the Shuttle, the vehicle. Watching the last few sets of shuttle launches, space walks, pictures tweeted and shuttle landings have reduced the ignorance but I have never known about the anatomy of the shuttle, which is where Susmita started her talk today from.

Going from there she described the various activities – standing, moving, sleeping, use of the bathroom, controlling the spacecraft, bathing, spacewalking, repairing the Hubble. She tried hard to get the audience to understand how hard it is to do simple tasks inside the shuttle.

She ended her talk talking about the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, SpaceX’s Dragon, Bigelow Aerospace’s space hotels and lunar bases and an EADS Astrium video on space tourism.

The question and answer session was as interesting as any for a science outreach event held in Mumbai. The teens and children asked the really interesting questions – prospects of space entrepreneurship in India, shielding astronauts from cosmic rays and other effects (put by a kid as “are astronauts damaged by air from galaxies”) and prospects of Middle East in space exploration. The university kids (which included people from IIT-B and the Pratham small satellite team) remained silent. The older people asked really weird questions – showing they had selective information which they could not make sense of.

An interesting question that did not get answered was what was the mode of communication between spacewalking astronauts and the spacecraft – audio feed or radio.

The final space shuttle launch will be on July 8, 2011. The space shuttle Atlantis will fly for this mission.

Russian Cosmonaut visiting Nehru Centre

June 9, 2011 is the day when Russian cosmonaut Viktor Savinykh will be visiting the Nehru Center, Mumbai. In the morning he’ll inaugurate an exhibition on space. The exhibition will be open to the members of the public on the first floor of Nehru Planetarium till June 18, 2011.

In the evening Savinykh will talk on “50th Anniversary of the first human Space flight“. Savinykh became a cosmonaut in 1978. He’s flown in space for 252 days 17 hours and 38 minutes on three spaceflights. He flew to the Soviet Salyut 6 in 1981, Salyut 7  in 1985 and the Mir in 1988. On Salyut 7, Savinykh helped restore Salyut 7 with which ground control was lost. He, along with Vladimir Dzhanibekov manually docked with Salyut 7, replaced batteries and restored power and control to the station. 

Chai and Why: Origami and Mathematics

Chai and Why? is a public outreach effort of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Today I went to the session on “Origami and Mathematics”. This begins a series of Chai and Why? concentrated on children during the vacation season.

Today’s talk was by Vijay Arolkar and Mimansa Vahia. Before the talk, Sanjana Kapoor turned up and announced the Prithvi Theater’s Summer Workshop and the idea of having Prithvi Theater and its partners do special activities for kids during the summer. She even hung around till a few minutes into the talk.

Vijay Arolkar began the talk. He introduced his guru Prof. Natarajan who then introduced this group – Origami Mitra which met twice a month at Dadar. Few of its members were also present in the audience. Arolkar is a member of the TIFR’s Low Temperature Facility. His talk was filled with demonstrations that vowed the audience by some innovative techniques of forming basic shapes and models.

Mimansa Vahia, a PhD student in the Maths department at TIFR, took over and spoke about the axioms of origami and providing a strong theoretical basis for origami which enabled its application in mathematics. The example that stood and that got repeated throughout the day was the trisection of an angle which was made possible by origami.

The areas of application held more interest for me. Origami has formed the basis for several interesting applications like packing airbags, crumple zones in cars, camera lens, self folding sheets, folding of solar panels on a spacecraft, fitting space telescopes into compact launch vehicles etc. Origami has made available ways of packing airbags once certain parameters about its usage is known. It has been used to determine crumple zones in cars, places where the cars can fail on impact while causing minimum injury to its passengers. Its application has also enabled multiple camera lens to be replaced by a single lens having diamond shaped crystals arranged in a fashion that enables multiple reflections of the light passing through giving it the same effect that multiple optical lens do. This arrangement was arrived at using origami though the original one uses crystals. This enables camera lens miniaturisation and has been found in 2010. Self folding sheets are sheets which fold in certain ways on the passage of electric currents. The Miura fold is what has been used in the solar panels of spacecrafts.

This was followed by a hands-on paper folding experience in which we made a paper box, a fan, a speaking penguin and a toppling toy. We got to bring these home (although they didn’t let us keep the TIFR folder on which we built these models) and I even showed my brother how to make a toppling toy for himself.

A paper box made from A4 size paper. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

A fan. Credit: Pradeep Mohandas


A Talking Penguin. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas
Toppling Toy. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

This was my first experience in a hands-on workshop at Chai and Why? and I must say that it was fun. I was folding paper after a very very long time and unlike my school experience of crafts, I had a lot of fun. I hope I can attend a few meetings with Origami Mitra and re-ignite my dead crafty characteristics.

I will unfortunately miss the next two sessions of Chai and Why? called  Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star since I’ll be in Kerala.

[While looking for links, I found that the Origami article on Wikipedia has some fun links to explore and also the webpage of Robert Lang whose name continuously popped up along with a picture of him with a 5m telescope. Also many of the spacecrafts have a page where you can get instructions of how to build their paper models. HobbySpace is a good place to start in this regard.]