Marmalade Skies: How the Urban Skyglow is Killing Amateur Astronomy

Marmalade, or at least the modern version of the tangy orange spread — as the story goes — was born in eighteenth century Scotland when a storm-struck Spanish ship had to take refuge in a harbour in the City of Dundee. The Seville oranges in the cargo made their way into the kitchen of a local merchant where his wife turned them into a preserve. Marmalade, in all its red and orange hues, has been a part of British identity ever since. These shades and tints of marmalade feature in the 1967 Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds as well — tangerine trees and marmalade skies — an imagery inspired by the Alice in Wonderland stories. But marmalade skies that shroud our cities on so many nights are no sweet imageries.

Growing up in an Indian city, the night sky was always something full of delight and mysteries, but it was never something to feel really proud of, particularly after the occasional visits to more pristine pastures away from the city. Years later, attempts to share a sense of beauty and wonder with school kids during the sky watching sessions within the confines of the city always ended with feelings of both joy and guilt. One could explain to them how looking at the night sky is like looking back into the past, or how just analysing the light from stars while still being earthbound can reveal so much about them. But one could not share the delight of feeling dazzled by a star-studded Milky Way stretching across the sky, or the intrigue of discovering that what looks like a fuzzy little star is actually Andromeda, a galaxy very much like ours. Because you cannot see any of them! Our night skies, all red and orange with the skyglow, are not just good enough any more.

While this may not exactly be true globally, at least in an Indian context the urban skyglow has pushed the amateur astronomy scene to a state of almost complete irrelevance. Kids across the country with their decent homemade reflectors have to wait patiently for the nights when the sky is, well, not that bad. The same pretty much holds true for college-level astronomy clubs in the country that have predominantly survived on night-sky observations made from hostel rooftops and secluded parts of the campus  (and on relatively less frequent trips to nearby farms and hills). To place this issue in its proper context, one can easily factor in how important contributions from amateur astronomers have historically been — and there are more than a handful of them to lend support to the argument. One can even keep aside this entire discussion about how useful such contributions have been and just think about all those scientists and painters and poets and writers who have looked up at the starry night skies and have drawn inspiration to make their marks on the world.

Like the solutions to most problems, the first step — as cliché as it may sound — is to realise and acknowledge that the urban skyglow is actually a serious concern and one that is primarily an outcome of our blatant ignorance of our impact on the environment. In the fight for clear night skies, where we are both the perpetrators and the victims, the outcome quite heavily depends on the level of awareness at all levels. And even though night-time lighting in itself is a complicated issue, switching to more responsible options and getting rid of redundant lighting — both indoors and outdoors — are some very simple solutions that can bring about a significant favourable change.

Originally published in the April 2018 issue of Dhruv, the newsletter of Aakashganga, the Astronomy and Astrophysics Club at IISER Pune.
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Celebrating the Cosmos

Standing under the night sky, humans for long have been staring at the stars; thinking and questioning about the vast expanse of universe that surrounds them. This curiosity, innate to all of us, has been the driving force behind the evolution of human knowledge.

Astronomy, the oldest of the natural sciences, owes its origins to the curiosity of our ancestors over the ages. This curiosity eventually facilitated the foundations of other branches of Physics, famously exemplified by the formulation of the Universal Law of Gravitation by Sir Isaac Newton.

Physics and astronomy are probably the two most highly intertwined components of natural sciences. Both emphasize on the formulation of relevant questions, the testing of alternative hypotheses by the careful analysis of data and rigorous logical and analytical thinking. Astronomy has further led to the development of astrophysics and cosmology; and at present the boundaries between the three realms of science — astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology — have blurred to such an extent as if these boundaries never existed. Although, the theoretical and observational divisions do exist, owing to slightly different approaches; very often one paves the way for the other. The prediction of the existence of the planet Neptune by the French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier in 1846 and its subsequent discovery by astronomers was very aptly termed by Francois Arago, another French scientist, as “discovering a planet with the point of his pen”.

The night sky has always been a part of human lives. It has served as a storybook for generations of young kids. And on numerous occasions, these stories have led to new insights about our universe. Young and amateur astronomers are now substantially contributing to the ongoing research. Their contributions are no longer limited to the naming of planets and asteroids; discoveries of comets and supernovae have joined the list of credits.

Today is perhaps one of the most exciting times to be working in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology. Technological innovations have accelerated the development in these fields. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) being constructed in Hawaii, promises to enable astronomers to study the universe with details never achieved before. Apart from being the world’s most capable ground-based optical, near-infrared, and mid-infrared observatory, TMT will also be special in the aspect that it will be built and operated by institutions from five different nations: Canada, China, India, Japan and USA. It will stand as an exemplar of the demolition of the narrow domestic walls for satisfying the human quest for knowledge; an exemplar of science being a unifying force.

The mysteries of the cosmos will continue to intrigue the generations to come. They will also continue to inspire humans to improve their understanding of the universe and eventually, their place in the grand design.

Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Dhruv, the newsletter of Aakashganga, the Astronomy and Astrophysics Club at IISER Pune.

Edit: For the last few years, construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has been mired in controversies over its proposed location on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The issue is currently with the Hawaii State Supreme Court awaiting a final verdict. You can read more about it here.

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ICTS at Ten!

Entering the second decade of its existence, the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (ICTS-TIFR) is organising a three-day-long celebratory scientific gathering ICTS at Ten starting today.

The speakers include some of the most illustrious researchers from the fields of astrophysics and cosmology, string theory and quantum gravity, mathematics, theoretical computer science, condensed matter and statistical physics, and physical biology, and will deliver broad perspective talks on some of the most exciting questions in these areas.

You can catch the entire event live on Youtube.

Edit: The links to the videos have been updated and can be found here.

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Chaos and Creation in the Bard’s Backyard

What better a state than a state of complete confusion to write this post in? I had plans of writing some (hopefully interesting) stuff on chaos. I mean, on the kind of chaos physicists are interested in. (It’s another thing that you can get them interested in any kind of chaos if you know the tricks well.) But then, I also discovered a new-found love in Shakespeare plays yesterday evening, courtesy a charmingly chaotic performance by The HandleBards at Ranga Shankara.

So, to save myself from the trouble of having to make a choice between the two, I’ll just set chaos afoot by talking about both together, with a hope that you’ll end up in a state of complete confusion, too, but one that you’ll be able to find some charm in.

The nice thing about chaos is that it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think of a system that will display some sort of chaos. The not-so-nice thing about chaos is that it makes it very, very difficult to study such systems.

Try visualising a complicated system. How complicated? Well, let’s say that any system with a large number of interacting components will serve our purpose. Now, you can choose being lazy and not do anything. But you can also choose being not-so-lazy and make a small change to some part of the system. Hold your nerves, wait for a while and behold, the small change made to a part of the system changes the entire system altogether and does so very significantly.

Your system has many interacting components; it’s not surprising then, that with time the itsy-bitsy perturbation you’d created spreads throughout the system. This is what chaos is: small changes at initial times leading to very drastic changes sometime later.

Like many other Shakespeare’s plays, ‘As You Like It’ is a narrative that oscillates between order and disorder, harmony and chaos. It is about the madness and the energy and the whole lot of confusion that the forest of Arden is overflowing with. A perfectly complicated system, right? The bard was a genius, no doubt!

Systematic studies of chaos have helped us realise that it is an important cogwheel in the clockwork that our universe is. It is a common feature of the classical world that we perceive to be inhabiting. And we do understand a great deal about chaos in such classical systems.

But then, we also understand the universe to behave in not-so-classical manner at a more fundamental level. Well, it does not behave classically at all! There are these weird, mystical quantum mechanical laws that dictate the underlying dynamics of all systems. As it turns out, it is even more difficult to make sense of chaos in quantum mechanics. But physics has a knack for providing more of an interesting answer the more difficult the question is.

Alas, this post has its limitations. You’ll have to stay tuned for the next one to read about where this discussion about chaos in quantum systems is heading to. (Hint: What is common to scrambled eggs and a weasel that falls into a black hole?)

The HandleBards are four-strong troupes of cycling actors which perform environmentally sustainable Shakespeare plays the world over. An all-female troupe of The HandleBards is touring India right now. You can join them at different venues across Bengaluru over the next few days.

Postscript: Ranga Shankara, the theatre where The HandleBards performed yesterday was opened in 2004 in the memory of the illustrious actor and director Shankar Nag. Many of you who grew up in India would probably still have fond memories of the television series Malgudi Days based on RK Narayan’s short stories; the series was envisioned and directed by Shankar Nag.

The title of this post has its origins in the title of Paul McCartney’s thirteenth solo studio album released in 2005, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

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Why I Loved Fluid Dynamics as a Kid (and Still Do)

Like many other Physics undergraduate/graduate students, my first introduction to Prof. Julia Yeomans was as the author of the brilliantly written textbook Statistical Mechanics of Phase Transitions. Prof. Yeomans is a theoretical physicist at the University of Oxford who does some pretty cool stuff involving bacterial swimmers and water drops on hydrophobic surfaces among many other things.

It was indeed a delight, then, for the seven-year-old fluid dynamics-loving kid in me to listen to Prof. Yeomans speaking about the science of fluids yesterday at Kappi with Kuriosity.

Hold on. When I say the seven-year-old fluid dynamics-loving kid, I do not mean a seven-year-old crossing-out-the-time-derivative-term-in-the-Navier-Stokes-equation kid but rather a seven-year-old intrigued-with-his-toy-steamboat kid.

It was a lot fun, I remember, watching the noisy steamboat moving around in a tub of water. A couple of years later, it was Janice VanCleave’s Physics for Every Kid that added more substance to the intrigue and delight. A remarkable book in many ways, Physics for Every Kid was where I got my first introduction to the physics behind the swinging of a ball and the upward push or lift on an aircraft. A number of years and physics courses later, I do understand more of fluid dynamics than I did then, or so I think. Though, in any case, the love for the science of fluids remains the same.

Well, as I said, yesterday’s talk was a delight. You should watch it online when it’s up; you’ll find it on the ICTS YouTube channel.

A science outreach initiative of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS-TIFR), Kappi with Kuriosity is a series of monthly public lectures organised in collaboration with the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium and the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum, Bengaluru.

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Adieu, Maryam…

To Maryam Mirzakhani, one of the finest mathematicians of our times, who passed away yesterday at the age of 40.

Dear Maryam

Your going away is, indeed, a loss, to mathematics, and to all of us over the world for whom you were no less than an icon. But in this loss, I believe, many more young people will find hopes, hopes to achieve greatness and to contribute to the world in whatever way they can.

When, at present, we are busy building walls and spewing hatred and animosity, I wish that your life and work will stand exemplary of noble human pursuits, of human creativity and the universality of human endeavours.

I believe that very much like me, there are numerous students and young mathematicians and scientists across the globe, who, even though, barely understand the intricacies of your work, realise the importance of the role you played as a mathematician and as a citizen of the world.

I believe that you will forever remain a wonderful example telling us how shallow and meaningless the stereotypes that we fabricate are. And I hope that in your going away, we will all find motivation to work wonders, for ourselves, and for the world.


A Young Fan

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All Those Years Ago

What’s the decade dearest to a Beatles-loving physics enthusiast? The 60s, of course!

Now yesterday and today, our theatre’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation. And these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool, who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you’re gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen.., The Beatles.

This was the iconic television show host Ed Sullivan’s introduction to the Fab Four in New York City in February 1964. George, John, Paul and Ringo, the four twenty-something English lads who had started playing together less than four years ago, were already a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. They were to sweep the entire of the decade, a decade that is dear to me for one more reason – particle physics!

I’m a second generation Beatles fan (or the third, it doesn’t matter, anyway). And for about last five years, I have this bug called The Beatles. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.) Born too late to attend a live Beatles performance or to buy vinyl records of Beatles albums, I fell in love with The Beatles when I discovered them on the internet.

It was impossible not to fall for them; in less than a decade, they’d influenced music like no band or artist had ever done. They were winning hearts and earning lots of money (they are the most commercially successful band of all time).

Fifty years ago, in the summer of ’67, they released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An experiment in a number of ways, the album became an instant commercial and critical hit (like almost all of their albums and singles). (Sgt. Pepper’s ranks number one in the Rolling Stones magazine list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)

But 1967 was phenomenal for another important reason. That very year, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg, two scientists working in the United States, produced their seminal work on the unification of the electromagnetic and the weak nuclear force.

Now a little something on what this means to help you understand and appreciate its importance. All objects in this universe interact with each other through one or more of four forces – what we call the fundamental interactions. Now, each of these forces has a very specific characteristic; and obtaining a proper and complete description of each of them is quite non-trivial, enough to have kept physicists busy all these years.

Though understanding the behaviour of all these forces is difficult, one smart thing to do is to think of them as interactions between particles mediated by, well, some other particles. So, for example, you’ve electromagnetic interactions between charged particles which are mediated by photons, the corpuscles of light. And gravity which can be understood as a manifestation of interactions mediated by what are very creatively (?) called gravitons.

Now, this is where Salam and Weinberg come into the picture. What these two gentlemen were able to show was that the weak and electromagnetic interactions, which are mediated by different particles, and of course, have different behaviours, are two different manifestations of one fundamental electroweak interaction. First proposed by Sheldon Glashow in 1961, the electroweak unification, as it is called, marks an important milestone in our understanding of nature at the most fundamental levels. (Glashow, Salam and Weinberg were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for their contributions to the theory of electroweak interaction.)

In fact, the entire of the sixth decade of the last century saw numerous contributions coming from theoreticians and experimentalists alike – all these culminating into what can unarguably be called a triumph of human endeavours – the Standard Model of particle physics. Efforts of countless individuals have given us this fine theory which not only classifies all the elementary particles but also explains how the electromagnetic, strong and weak interactions are related to one another. (As for gravity, it still is a hard to nut to crack.)

The sixties were rather strange, though; the silliest and longest of wars was going on in Vietnam, there were successful lunar missions, but there were assassinations, too – JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. were killed; it was like a win some, lose some kind of thing, perhaps it has always been. But then, there were The Beatles – young, energetic and innovative. And thinking about why a twenty-something guy in India, over forty years after the last Beatles performance, is fascinated by them, I realised something.

It is not just about the music, it is about the themes as well. So, you have this boy band, singing beautiful songs about love and friendship. Four twenty-something English lads generating admiration with their songs and charming personas, captivating an entire generation (and more). Listen to this to get a feel of what I mean (and possibly, to get a break from this tedious read as well).

Following The Beatles album by album made me realise that all the while these guys were growing up, too. Their music was maturing, and so were their themes. I couldn’t help but admire the variety and the depth in their themes. They were not just talking of love and friendship now, there were also talking of nostalgia and were spinning yarns about the lives of regular people and at the same time, using their songs to express their worldviews. They were experimenting with music and songwriting, and in the process, producing a sheer volume of invention. And if I am able to connect to a band that played all those years ago, it is because of the wonderful music, for sure, but probably, it is also because their songs represent what I feel; they cover an entire spectrum of emotions, all the essential themes.

Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam, Steven Weinberg, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, they all symbolise how important ingredients creativity and innovation are in human endeavours. We, as a species, have come quite far, learning and evolving, but probably sometimes repeating the same mistakes again and again.

I’m not sure if the world today is better than that in the sixties or not, but for sure, not everything is fine at present. I’ll leave you with something which I believe is important for all of us to understand, a 1968 Beatles song called Revolution. (And as I tell everyone whenever suggesting a Beatles song, read the lyrics of the song as well, especially when it is as meaningful a song as this one.) Because, though these are troubled times, don’t you know it’s going to be…alright!

The title of this post has been borrowed from that of a 1981 single by George Harrison. All Those Years Ago was Harrison’s tribute to John Lennon who had been assassinated in December the previous year.

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