Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.
The first stars I learned about were the ones that made The Big Dipper, which, in turn, is the group of stars that makes up the rump and tail of the Great Bear. We were taught in primary school geography how one could trace the line from the two extreme stars of the ladle and it would lead to Polaris Borealis, the north star. In India, the Big Dipper is known as the Saptarshi (The Seven Sages). One of the sages is Vasishtha. It was a cute discovery of sorts when a friend mentioned to me that, on a clear night, one can see very close below Vasishtha, a dim little star known as Arundhati (Alcor), who is the wife of Vasishtha in Indian mythology. Often, the stars were portals to other things. Another eye-opener came when we found that Polaris, revealed unambiguously by the Big Dipper, is part of a group of stars called the Little Dipper. As if that is not enough, the Little Dipper itself is a part of a constellation called the Little Bear. One dipper moving around the other, one bear circling the other!
In the opening reel of Carl Sagan’s film, Contact, Ellie Arroway gets her first lessons in astronomy from her father. One of the things that captures her imagination is the possibility of life in other worlds. Her father replies that he doesn’t know for sure, but goes on to say that, “If it’s just us, it would be an awful waste of space”. It is a wonderful thing to say to a child. As it is for most children, astronomy for me began at home. Mother would cut out the month’s star maps from the local newspaper and we would go off to the terrace to see if the shapes on the paper corresponded to the shapes in the heavens. Often, light pollution or clouds meant that we had to do this when the world was fast asleep, around 2:30 am. It was not at all unusual to ask at bedtime, “Will you wake me up for the eclipse?”, or “Will you wake me up when you go to see the comet?”. Father used to think that we were crazy (He was right).
Most apartment buildings in India have terraces on the topmost floor, and in the summer, it is possible to get a few neighboring families to bring out their bedding and sleep under the stars. Gatherings like these made for amazing conversations, silly jokes, and were great for stargazing. Now that I think of it, Hyakutake, Hale-Bopp, the Leonid showers and a few lunar eclipses were seen along with an inquisitive neighbor or two.
I don’t think that my first attraction to astronomy had anything to do with extra-terrestrial life and the “awful waste of space”. It had more to do with the fact that there was A LOT of space. The numbers boggled the mind and it was hard to get a feel for their magnitudes. If the Sun’s surface temperature was 6000 degrees Celsius, how close would one have to go before one started feeling the burn? The distances were tremendously large; larger than any numbers we had hitherto seen. All those billions and trillions and quadrillions had the effect of making the Earth and her creatures seem awfully small. And yet, fortified by Sagan’s books and a blithely egoistic application of the anthropic principle, I was captivated by the exhilarating idea that intelligent life was the Universe’s way of knowing itself.
Whatever the reason, it is hard to downplay the role that beauty plays in luring the novice astronomer. Astronomical images, such as the ones obtained by The Hubble Space Telescope could legitimately claim to have global aesthetic appeal. Is it possible to remain unmoved by Saturn’s rings? Is it possible to not be charmed while looking at the band of the Milky Way on a clear night? If you haven’t done this, please do so at least once, for it is one of the great pleasures of naked-eye astronomy. The sight is worth driving many miles away from the city’s lights. If the time is right, you will also discover that Cygnus (The Swan) is drinking from the Milky Way. The last time I saw this was a year and a half ago. We were in Bar Harbor, Maine and decided to drive into Acadia National Park at midnight to get a good view of the sky. Here, happily reacquainted with the hundreds of shapes that I had stopped noticing for a few years, I felt compelled to call home (where it was afternoon) to share the moment with the family.
There is another strange way in which some of us are bound to the stars. My sister is named after a star in the Bootes constellation; its Sanskrit name has a beautiful interpretation which will wait for another day. My second name, which has not been used after the naming ceremony, refers to a star in the Summer Triangle. Many times, we have looked for these stars, waited for them to rise and set, wondered about their size, their distance, their temperature, their neighborhood (Do they have planets?), their age, their death (Are they big enough to “go supernova”?). In a weird way, the stars were the very first gifts that the two of us received. Before we could take our first steps or mumble our first words, some wise people decided to link us for life with distant, gigantic furnaces in which hydrogen atoms smash into each other all day long.