Friday, November 24, 2017

A Jyotirvidya Parisanstha (known as JVP) volunteer, while pointing at a brilliant bright dot in the sky: “That there is Saturn, which is a lot further away from the Sun than the Earth. The difference in distance is the reason Saturn takes 29 years to complete a rotation. A year there corresponds to 29 here on Earth!”

Voice from the crowd: “But what about Shani’s seven and a half year cycle?”

JVP volunteer: “Science does not recognise that Shani. It exists only in our heads.”

Overhearing this wonderful and at the same time hilarious conversation at my first astronomy-related event, endeared me a bit more towards that most fascinating branch of science. The event in question was the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, organised by Pune’s own Jyotirvidya Parisanstha. Formed in August 1944 by a group of eminent Punekars, JVP is the oldest association of amateur astronomers in India. It primarily works on propagating the science of astronomy through numerous activities and events.

I admit my astronomy-smitten wife had to shake me out of my usual end-of-day laziness and drag me along after a tiring day at work. But how grateful was I by the end of it! Not only did we see the beautiful conjunction through a huge telescope (I’d never seen a telescope that big!), we also managed to catch a glimpse of three of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, of Saturn’s stunning rings, and of the moon in such detail that it’s remarkable craters did not leave my thoughts for days after. Not to mention a big enthusiastic crowd with lots of little kids, quarter my size, rattling off names of planets, moons and constellations I’d never even heard of! The energy was just brilliant and all this at an event promoting science!

Pleasantly surprised and smiling all the way home, we decided to go for JVP’s next star party, which we didn’t know a lot about except that it involved staying awake all night and staring at a sky full of bright stars. Not a big deal until you realise that you have to do it sans any alcohol (umm, is this really a party?) to be able to make any sense of it. So on a Saturday evening (maybe it is a party after all!) we headed to Abhyankar farm in Nasrapur, away from the pollution of the city, to enjoy the luxury of a clear and star-filled sky. A team of JVP volunteers greeted us and walked us through the packed schedule for the night. Our star party had attracted a crowd of around 200 science-loving participants from almost all age groups. Their anticipation and excitement could be felt in the crisp late evening air!

And boy did the night live up to it! We saw constellations being drawn across the night sky with laser pointers as we gaped wide-eyed, we saw the striking Andromeda galaxy through a telescope, we saw planets, clusters and nebulae, and learnt about raashis and nakshatras. We heard stories about the great Goddesses and Gods of Greek and Indian mythology and how those countless stars in countless constellations were named after them. What astounded me most was the knowledge of the little ones in the crowd. They couldn’t wait for the JVP volunteers to finish the stories and would attempt to end them and show off in a hurry only to be pleaded into silence by the ever-patient volunteers. It felt a bit like being the unknowing backbencher in school all over again. A happy one at that!

The Rain Gods did eventually play spoilsport though but that did not deter the crowd’s fervor. We played astrogames (beat one of those kids in an astro-antakshari and I’ll bow before you!), had a wonderful Q&A session and the volunteers introduced us to some very useful software to track our favorite heavenly bodies. When the rain did subside we saw the beautiful Venus rise up in the early morning sky before leaving for home with beautiful memories and a treasure trove of newly found knowledge.

All this for a nominal fee of Rs. 550/- including dinner! Maybe ditching your normal Saturday night party for a starry one isn’t such a bad idea after all. The next one is being held on the 30th of April and details about it can be accessed here.

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