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Updated: September 13, 2011 16:53 IST

Loving each dot and smudge in the sky

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Scientist Prajval Shastri File Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.
The Hindu Scientist Prajval Shastri File Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

Growing up in an era heralded by Sputnik and followed by moon landings, I was slowly led into astrophysics, writes Prajval Shastri

Akaasha Gange, Kehkashaan, Neeharika, our Milky Way, our ‘city' in the cosmos, is the most breathtaking sight in our night sky... When you meander into astrophysics, you learn that the milky patches in this ‘Way' are just gazillions of stars all crowded together; and that the dark patches are dark because there are dust particles that hide the stars behind them.

You also learn that the Milky Way's serene breathtaking beauty is deceptive. Each dot and smudge is a star, a boiling cauldron, often more energetic than our sun, and some of them have collapsed into black holes.

Moreover, there is a black hole in the very middle of this galaxy of stars that we call the Milky Way that is about four million times as heavy as our sun, but would fit well within our solar system!

It really all began for me lying on a mat in my garden while growing up, watching the night sky with my parents. The speckled firmament, the moon and the Milky Way were enchanting; and there was always the special thrill of being able to discern the planets that ‘moved', and recognise human-made satellites that wound between the stars.

Inspiration

Growing up in the era that was heralded by Sputnik and followed by Yuri Gagarin's trip and the moon landings, my fantasy world quite naturally fed on science fiction, and my educational choices led me slowly but surely to astrophysics.

I am lucky to get paid to have fun delving into the cosmos with the tools offered by astrophysics. Or am I? I sometimes wonder, especially when hanging out with my amateur astronomer friends. Because it seems like it is in their company that the air becomes thick with awe and wonder at the cosmos, yet totally embedded in the incessant curiosity as to How and Why; and it is they, who I really feel are my kindred spirits.

‘All hocus-pocus'

It is tragic, especially if one were to go by what's in the media, that the only ‘use' astronomy can be put to is for hocus-pocus astrology!

“But how can you claim to understand everything?” they admonish. “It's awful, how cocky these atheist scientists are.” But we don't understand everything! And there is so much more to explore and find!

“But don't you need a spiritual side to life?” they ask. But look, I'm this teensy weensy speck in the whole scheme of things. It takes over a second for light to reach me from the moon, 2.5 million years for light to reach me from our neighbouring cosmic ‘city', the Andromeda galaxy — the farthest thing ever that I have seen with my naked eye — and over 10 billion years for light to reach Earth from the farthest things that we can see, and yet, I can see, grasp and feel that the physics I learnt in the classroom, nay, the physics of gravity that I instinctively learnt as a toddler when I learnt about falling, applies and operates even in these farthest things!! Is that not awesome and flabbergasting enough? Tangible yet intangible? Not spiritual enough?

Prajval Shastri is a professor and scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics

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