Let's go eclipse chasing!
The sport of eclipse chasing is fascinating students, science buffs and amateur astronomers. Are Indians ready to zoom in?brunch Updated: Apr 11, 2015 18:24 IST
(Photos: Deepak Bhimani)
"I owe it to my father," chuckles Bahmba as he recounts that day: "There were announcements on TV and radio about how people should stay indoors because an eclipse was happening. Doordarshan showed Pakeezah on the day to lure people into staying home!"
Bahmba, now 41, is the chairman and managing director of Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators (SPACE), an NGO he set up with other astronomy enthusiasts in 2003. SPACE, says Bahmba, was set up to promote awareness of astronomy and space sciences. It takes students and other amateur astronomers on eclipse expeditions across the country or beyond, depending on where the eclipse is happening.
On 22 July, 2009, SPACE collaborated with travel firm Cox and Kings and chartered a flight that took 74 passengers to witness a total solar eclipse from the skies, arguably the best seats to watch the celestial show (for the longest duration total eclipse of the 21st century).
An incident while finishing his MSc in physics from Delhi University, gave Bahmba a concrete sense of what he wanted to do. He went to Bhind in Madhya Pradesh to study a solar eclipse with his friends, and set up all apparatus on the terrace of a government school building.
But the night before the eclipse a group of men approached Bahmba and said they also wanted to view the eclipse. Since minor disturbances, like someone walking, could also affect the apparatus, Bahmba initially refused. But later realised that the men were dacoits – something Bhind was infamous for. Bahmba did help them see the eclipse from an open-air ground nearby. He realised the importance of popularising science among people, and SPACE was born.The great chase
Ajay Talwar, another senior scientist and fellow astronomer, helped launch the Eclipse Chasers Athenaeum, a SPACE group community dedicated to only eclipse lovers. "The first eclipse I saw was in February 1980. I was 15 at that time," says Talwar, who has travelled extensively to Ranchi, Metz in France, Side in Turkey, Gaya in Bihar, and Varkala in Kerala chasing solar eclipses.
All the effort, says Talwar, is worth it every time. "One understands how humans are really small in the grand scheme of things. Watching the pearly white corona is a sublime experience." For the uninitiated, a corona is the plasma surrounding the sun which can only be seen during a total solar eclipse.
Deepak Bhimani has been a devoted star gazer since his school days.
A brush with the sublime outerspace also occured early for 74-year-old Deepak Bhimani, who owns a chemical manufacturing plant in Ankleshwar, Gujarat. When he was in the seventh standard, he chanced upon his grandfather’s pre-World War era telescope – his star gazing began soon after. Bhimani’s first eclipse chase was in 1995 when he accompanied the Amateur Astronomer’s Association of Mumbai to Andhiari village in Rajasthan.
Since then, he’s been chasing eclipses across the world, from Turkey to Sahara desert to Antarctica. Surely this makes eclipse chasing a bit expensive an experience for the common man? Even the SPACE 2009 eclipse flight cost about Rs 76,000 for the ‘sun-side’ seat.
And that’s where SPACE may well look to capitalise. Their Heliodyssey project aims to take students and young amateurs, who clear an open book examination, to eclipses around the world – free of cost. It’s taken student batches to Turkey, China and Russia till now, and has plans in place for examinations of the next batch in 2016.
Shashank Shekhar, 25, a lawyer, was in the first batch of SPACE selected students to go to Turkey in 2006. He happens to be the grandson of Chandra Shekhar Singh, former prime minister of India. "He shared my enthusiasm for astronomy!" says Singh.
Those who clear Heliodyssey exam get to chase an eclipse with SPACE free of cost. (Photo:
Dark side of the moon?
However, the beauty of an eclipse is often overshadowed by superstitions and talks of bad luck rooted in age-old prejudices. It’s a common belief in India that during an eclipse, one should not be consuming food because it may adversely affect the health; and, pregnant women should stay indoors during an eclipse to avoid any harm to the child.
Bahmba rubbishes the claims and puts the blame squarely on astrology. "They’ve planted the idea of rahu-ketu in our heads without logic," he says and adds that, "even my wife was pregnant and with me during one of the eclipses. But my daughter is completely fine and it didn’t have any bearing."
Explaining the context Bahmba says that during an ongoing eclipse people may just forget to take their eyes off the unfolding spectacle. When the moon grazes past the sun and a diamond ring is formed, the intensity of the light can cause the retina to burn.
"The eye is light sensitive, not heat sensitive, which is why by the time you realise it’s time to look away, the damage may have been done. I suspect that’s what must have happened a couple of times in the past. Which is why even the government didn’t want to risk people out in the streets."
He further explains the concept of shadow bands – alternating light and dark lines that move across the earth before and after a total solar eclipse. "To an unlettered farmer who happens to see such lines across the fields it may well appear as shimmering snakes. Add to it the sudden drop in temperature that always follows an eclipse which can suddenly make you feel quite cold. All this is bound to make him think about the supernatural."
Bahmba though is upbeat about the future of eclipse chasing in India. He cites the example of the young students who’ve accompanied SPACE, and others who pursue their interest on their own. Their knowledge and awareness levels are high. He talks excitedly about the first ever ‘astroport’ in India, set to open very soon in Sariska, Rajasthan: it’ll be a well spreadout area devoted to all activities related to astronomy.
The next total solar eclipse visible from India maybe years away (visible from Leh and Delhi in 2034 and 2309 respectively!). But the future of Indian astronomy for now looks as bright as a diamond ring!
What are the different kinds?
Best way to see it?
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From HT Brunch, April 12
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First Published: Apr 11, 2015 13:42 IST