Monday, September 20, 2010

Autumn Skies in Bangalore

It's been a while since I posted an astronomy update, but you can't really blame me. I'm stuck in Bangalore after all. Like all major cities, Bangalore suffers from severe light pollution, but I should be used to that now, having been here all my life. (Pilani, I'm afraid you've spoilt me.) It's the perennial cloud cover, however, that's truly unique, and truly irritating. Can't our friendly neighbourhood rain gods do clouds in the morning and crystal clear skies at night? Ah well, you can't have everything in life. Besides, things can't be all that depressing - I am writing this blog post after all.

Jupiter. Our beloved gas giant will probably be the only object you will see on an average Bangalore night this month, so I'll start off here. Jupiter's reaching almost Venus-esque levels of brilliance at the moment, and cloud cover or not, you cannot possibly miss it. There's no question of confusing it with Venus either. Just as the evening star follows the Sun down West, Jupiter rises majestically in the East. Don't mistake it for a distant streetlamp/UFO/low flying aeroplane!

Before I proceed further, however, there are a few points I need to clarify. What is my time period of observation? 8 PM - 9 PM. This information is important, because the sky will look completely different at, say, 3 in the morning. Don't worry about sticking rigidly to this timeline though. Thanks to light pollution, there's no point trying to locate objects close to the horizon, meaning that all targets must already be reasonably high in the sky at the time of observation. High in the sky = takes longer to set, so an hour here or an hour there shouldn't affect things drastically.

How long will this post be relevant? About a month or so, I reckon. If you're wondering why this is the case, think of the Earth's revolution around the sun. Think of it as occurring inside a giant enveloping celestial sphere in which all stars are embedded. The movement of the stars relative to the Earth's motion is trivial as they are so far away (relative to the Earth-Sun distance), so the celestial sphere can be assumed to be fixed in space. Obviously as the Earth moves through the celestial sphere, constellations high up in the night sky today start to set earlier and earlier, and 'hidden' day time constellations start to rise earlier. Also, one month in Bangalore terms translates to about five days worth of cloudless nights, so better get your autumn astronomy fix real quick!

Since I started off with Jupiter, the obvious choice for next-up is Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut is what can be called a Southern star; meaning that it lies closer to the South pole and never ventures too far away from the Southern horizon (in the Northern hemisphere, of course). In fact, I don't think it can even be seen from the skies of Pilani (which of course, lies about 20 degrees further to the North). It lies southward of Jupiter, to it's right, and can also be easily identified as there are no other bright stars in the vicinity (it's sometimes called the Lonely Star of Autumn.) Fomalhaut, to some extent displaces Canopus in the sky, as the two stars lie on opposite sides of the South Pole.

If Fomalhaut lies southward of Jupiter, northward lies the Square of Pegasus. The Square of Pegasus is often called the asterism of autumn. It's a flattering moniker as the Summer Triangle (I'll get to that in a minute) is still way more prominent. It isn't particularly easy to spot. Even with sparse cloud cover, I needed a couple of minutes of night vision strengthening to locate it, and even after that I could pick out only three of the four vertices of the square. It's not a perfect square but the arrangement of the stars is quite suggestive, and you should be able to 'guess' the position of the fourth star. Interestingly, the brightest star in the square - Alpheratz - actually belongs to the constellation Andromeda, rather than Pegasus.

The Summer Triangle is easy to spot. It covers a large swathe of the Northern sky, with Altair lying highest in the sky. Vega is probably the easiest of the lot to identify. As the second brightest star in the Northern celestial sphere (after Arcturus) and fourth brightest overall (after Sirius, Canopus and Arcturus), it shines brightly, a lone jewel in the North. (I seem to be referring to a disproportionate number of 'lone jewel' stars and the like, but that can't be helped. Autumn is disproportionately starved of bright stars.) Vega was actually the North Pole star about 12000 years ago, and will be so again another 11000 years in the future. It has been extensively studied by modern scientists as well because of the dusty proto-planetary disc that surrounds it. Altair is quite distinctive too, as it forms a visually close knit pair with the second magnitude star Tarazed. Vega's constellation is Lyra, and Altair's (and Tarazed's) is Aquila but other stars in these constellations are quite faint, so there's no point looking for distinctive 'shapes'. Cygnus the swan is different. Deneb, the third vertex of the Summer Triangle belongs to this constellation. One side of Deneb, you can spot a near-collinear sequence of five second magnitude stars that won't require too much imagination to be visualized as a flying bird.

In the Southern sky, tending towards the West, lie two of my favourite constellations. Sagittarius and Scorpio. Scorpio is probably easier to identify with the bright orange dot of Antares an easy marker. Westward of Antares, you should be able to identify a canopy of three fairly bright stars that make up the pincers of the scorpion (or the head of a cobra, as it's always seemed to me). Eastward of Antares, you should be able to pick up a long chain of stars that slowly climbs into the Southern sky and merges with Sagittarius (the sting of the scorpion). Sagittarius has the distinctive shape of a teapot: but if you are unfamiliar with the constellation, an unexpected orientation of the teapot may throw you off.

You can see the square of Pegasus in the first picture. The second shows the summer triangle. it has been rotated to ensure that it matches what you'll likely see in the sky. The third picture captures Sagittarius and its teapot shape. The fourth picks out Scorpio, but Sagittarius is there in the frame too. See if you can spot it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

On Being Petty

First, there is the good. It is as rare as it is beautiful, but it exists. The good is pure and clear, unclouded by the taint of weakness. It’s true that good people are often disliked – but I think this is no more than an orphaned dislike born out of inevitable feelings of inferiority. Most people however worship the good and revere good people. Whichever way you lean, it is never in doubt that you are leaning. Then there are the truly bad people, the rotten apples in a truck full of Australian imports, the ones crawling with malice, the rapists, the serial killers, the politicians, the sadists, the wife-beaters. The evil that marks each cannot be denied, yet it seems to me that amidst it all there is a paradoxical honesty. These are people who look bad, sound bad, speak bad, and are bad. Is there any way you can look at a racist slave trader, and feel something other than an unadulterated, honest disgust? (No, you don’t count, descendent of Elizabeth Bathory!)

Somewhere in the middle of the good-evil spectrum lie these folks. These are the sort of people who'll pretend to forget your name when the exact opposite may be closer to reality. These are the sort of people who’ll count each time you call them an idiot, file it away in an alphabetically ordered mental cabinet, and at an opportune moment - when you’ve run into some hard times, suffered a heart attack perhaps, dying in a car crash maybe, mauled by a polar bear in Madagascar perhaps - that’s when they’ll give it all back. It won't matter that the perceived slight is likely no more than a part of some drunken banter; they won’t care a whit as long as they get to feel happy calling you by your middle name, and then calling you an idiot.

These are the people who’ll remember that occasion when you accidentally stepped on their foot in a crowded bus. They’ll wait for another bus, another crowd, and deliberately stomp all over your shoes, all the while with a benevolent smile on the face. The carefully combed hair of the respectable citizen, the myopic glasses that speak of industry, the austere solemnity etched into every line, they'll be there, but don't be fooled! Thankfully, such people have been few and far between in my life. Although, (there’s a caveat, there always is), they seem to have taken up some of the best vantage points. No names of course, that would be just like them. These people are not insecure enough to properly turn towards a life of waste and malice. Nor are they instantly dislikeable go-getters. They are definitely not the altruistic sort either. In fact they are too colourless in their lives, too insignificant, to ever be more an unlikely concoction of molecules, cosmically speaking. Perhaps this is what drives their little world of Karmic retribution. 

These are the sort of people who’ll jump queues only where it won’t really matter. Not at movie theatres, not at concert gates, not at bank counters but at hostel canteens. It beggars belief how such superficial acts can hold any sort of significance, but then again self-confidence is a mysterious thing. These are the people who won’t look to massage their egos with some hard work, a promotion and a new car; instead they’ll get their kicks from being the last ones to hold out on dinner plans. This Saturday? What frightful bad luck. They’ll have work, they’ll have meetings, they’ll have deadlines, they’ll have girlfriends to please, when in reality, they’ll be cowering in some dark, dingy corner of a forgotten attic, plotting their next unnoticed triumph. These are the petty people.

The thing about these folks is, by virtue of most of their plots and intrigues being petty, it takes a while to even notice them. And then you’ll hate them. Terrorists you can fight, arsonists you can jail, but the petty people, there isn’t a thing you can do about them. Any riposte you think of will be just as petty as the original thrust, and you’ll have to make do with chanting your principles under your breath. Sigh, there’s another unresolved problem I’ll have to try and sleep off.