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Mercury calling... A chat with four youngsters from Coimbatore who viewed the planetary transit

Setting up the telescope at the Flic En Flac Beach

Setting up the telescope at the Flic En Flac Beach   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

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Sometimes what you learn in school does not prepare you for the real thing, agree the four who went to Mauritius to see the planet transit

“The next one is in 2032. Who knows where we’ll be then?” The three boys gathered round the table laugh. Akshay K Sathish (14), Rishi Chandar RV (13) and Sabareesh Krishnan (12), members of Mango Education’s Astronomy Club, travelled to Mauritius earlier this month to view the Mercury transit along with science educator Obuli Chandran. The other members of the club couldn’t make it because of “exams and school but we got special permission,” they say.

Good-natured teasing, sotto voce comments and asides abound, as Akshay clarifies that this is their first “international trip”. Did it meet their expectations? “I thought it would be like those beach resorts you see in the magazines,” Rishi sounds surprised, “but it was not so very different from Coimbatore.” Sabareesh adds, “We only expected to see the Mercury transit but we saw so much more.”

Obuli explains that the Mercury transit is a rare celestial event that happens only once in 10 to 13 years. While he elaborates on the various scientific experiments one can teach using this, the boys are talking about the planet’s size. “You get a sense of how small it is,” they say. “The size of a pinhead,” announces Rishi. Akshay adds, “We needed around five seconds to actually spot it.” Obuli agrees, “What you learn in school does not prepare you for what you see.”

On November 11, the day of the transit, they reached the venue — Flic En Flac Beach — by 2.30 pm. “It took two hours to align our telescope with the sun,” elaborates Akshay, “We had solar filters too.” Sabareesh looks up sheepishly, “I tried viewing without the filter,” and the others chime in, “and you caught it from anna.”

It was a cloudy evening, and so their sighting was delayed by around 40 minutes. “We were so caught up that we forgot to take photos,” recalls Obuli, adding that Ricaud Auckbur, President of the Mauritius Astronomical Society, and the Rajiv Gandhi Science Museum in Mauritius helped them find the right spot. Since they were leaving the same night, they’d been advised to leave the beach by 5.30 pm but they hung around till 6.20 to get some good images. “Luckily, our driver had been a racer earlier,” chortles Rishi, “and once he knew our predicament, he just...” and Akshay finishes, “took off”.

The Mauritian Pink Pigeon, which wasn’t really pink

The Mauritian Pink Pigeon, which wasn’t really pink   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

They also visited the Ile aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve where they saw the Pink Pigeon (“which was not pink,” says Rishi sadly) and the Aldabra giant tortoise nicknamed Big Daddy. At this point, all three bubble over with laughter.

The team with the original Big Daddy; (from left) Rishi Chandar, Obuli Chandran, Akshay Sathish and Sabareesh Krishnan

The team with the original Big Daddy; (from left) Rishi Chandar, Obuli Chandran, Akshay Sathish and Sabareesh Krishnan   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“That’s what we’d named my telescope bag, because with the counterweights and camera, it weighed 27kg,” begins Akshay and Rishi chips in “But the original Big Daddy was much bigger: 200kg and 105 years old.” From Sabareesh, I learn that the male tortoise shell is “bumpy” and the female’s shell is “polished and smooth” and that the shell is its “most sensitive part”. “Our guide gave it a nice back rub,” says Rishi laconically, “and it went to sleep. We also learnt about a Blue Pigeon, which is now extinct. I wonder how many coloured pigeons there are in the world.”

Checking out “really old instruments” at the Mauritius Meteorological Services

Checking out “really old instruments” at the Mauritius Meteorological Services   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Question of taste
  • Apart from scientific studies, the three also checked out Mauritian food. “Most of it is what we get everywhere. And that’s mainly because of tourism,” says Sabareesh sagely. “I tried the local biriyani,” says Rishi and the other two correct him. “You mean briyani,” sniggers Sabareesh, as Akshay tells me, “It’s missing an ‘i’.” What is the difference? Akshay says the addition of ground chilli paste makes it really spicy. “They have very bland or very spicy; nothing in between,” says Rishi.
  • Then he looks at Sabareesh and begins to chuckle. “We were eating a salad that we thought was veg. He (points to Sabareesh) picked up something and asked ‘what is this?’” Akshay continues, “I ate it and identified it as lobster,” Rishi picks up the tale, “and three seconds later, every single piece was gone.” When Sabareesh good naturedly defends himself, “I didn’t touch it”, Rishi retorts, “but you ate it.”

A visit to a volcanic crater left them quite disappointed. “Overgrown with shrubs, plants and even trees,” Sabareesh is scandalised. At the Mauritius Meteorological Services, they learnt about the “really old instruments they use. Most are non-electronic” and trade information on how temperature varies within the island due to different altitudes.

What’s next? Another trip, they chorus. What will their parents say? They’ll be fine, says Sabareesh airily. “As long as we’re out of the house,” grins Rishi.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2019 2:59:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/a-chat-with-four-youngsters-from-coimbatore-who-viewed-the-planetary-transit/article30136434.ece

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