“Other countries are light years ahead of us in the domain of astro tourism”

Encounter – Bhasker Desai, Amateur Astronomer

* ‘Our night sky is becoming highly polluted with all the artificial lights, which is disastrous for astronomers’

Bhasker Desai, a long serving member and office bearer at the Mauritius Astronomical Society, is an amateur astronomer who undoubtedly enjoys his passion and enlightens us whenever a particular event in the sky takes place. These events may be simply of a planetary or stellar nature (eclipses, comets, asteroids, eruptions on sun or planet surface…) or missions to distant planets from the earth or sometimes of a particular religious significance (e.g.makharsankranti). His comments in today’s ‘Encounter’ will hopefully reawaken interest in astronomy both as a hobby and as a career option for today’s young people. Read on:

* There seems to be few people in Mauritius who take an interest in astronomy, even in stargazing as a hobby. Astronomy clubs/societies, which existed some 60 years ago in a few State Colleges, have all but disappeared, and we do not get to hear much about private societies trying to popularize the science or even amateur astronomy. Why is that so?

You are right. Very few people will go out and look up into the sky at night. The reasons why the astronomy clubs have disappeared from our secondary schools are simple: first, it is a subject to be studied at night, and our conservative society makes it difficult for youngsters to be out at night.

Second, you need some guidance from someone knowledgeable in the subject. Now, will that person be available as and when and where required? As you see, it becomes rather complicated.

Since secondary schools can no more provide for astronomy clubs, there’s fortunately the Rajiv Gandhi Science Centre which has been set up to popularise the science. But even then, few people are taking an interest in the subject.

As for the common man, they will go out and watch the stars, and that’s about it; they will not seek to identify the patterns in the sky or ask some simple questions and try to get some basic information, which is nowadays so easily accessible through the digital medium.

* What is astronomy in simple words? Why do we need to study it and what do you learn from it?

Astronomy is the study of the celestial bodies – everything that is around us up there in space: the planets, moons, comets, stars, galaxies, black holes and everything in the cosmos. The quest of humans has always been to find answers to such questions as: where we came from, where we are going, and why? In fact there aretoo many questions to be answered, but we can also try to get the answers from philosophy, religion or science. I always like to say “science is the search for truth “.

* The literature on astronomy informs us that ‘by studying the cosmos beyond our own planet, we can understand where we came from, where we are going, and how physics works under conditions which are impossible to recreate on Earth’. That sounds pretty serious, and would require academic training to understand – it’s not within the reach of the common man, right?

From where and how everything started and how the entire evolution of the universe begins and ends… physics and advanced mathematics may provide some of the answers to these questions.

This task is mainly for the astrophysicists to figure out for humankind. This is what they are doing at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research, where they have created a very sophisticated lab to try to understand the whole process.

This requires a huge outlay of funds, energy and grey matter.

* One would have thought that astronomy, both as a career option and as a hobby, would have been popular here in view of the geographical location of Mauritius. Does it take long years of training to become an astronomer/research astronomer, or doesn’t it not pay well as a career?

Mauritius is well placed for amateur astronomers, not for professional ones. Of course, I am here talking about optical or observational astronomy. Professionals need 350 clear nights out of 365 — conditions available only at high altitudes of 3,000 meters above sea level or in deserts. These conditions are absent here. Research in radio astronomy is being carried out at the University of Mauritius; I understand that the scope is somewhat limited in that field.

* What brought you to astronomy? Curiosity or fascination?

As a kid, we all have been looking at the sky and wondering – hey what are these little sparkles in the sky? so initially it is curiosity, and once you start reading and understanding the functioning of the little stars, that becomes fascination – that’s magic.

* It’s said that the Southern Skies are rich with many interesting celestial objects (open clusters, globular clusters, galaxies, constellations e.g. the Southern Cross) that any visitor to Mauritius having an interest in astronomy or cares to watch our skies will be simply fascinated. Is that indeed the case?

As a matter of fact, all these objects are visible wherever you are across the world. Somehow in Mauritius we have some of the best open clusters like the butterfly cluster or globular clusters like omega centauri visible from where we are situated. These are not visible from the Northern Hemisphere skies. Hence many of the tourists coming here will be simply very happy to have a glance at them and appreciate their beauty.

* You would perhaps recall that former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam, who by training was an aerospace scientist, said in his speech at the State Banquet given in his honour by the Mauritian government during his visit here, that there was something special about our skies, which he had observed from the airplane. What did he mean?

You see, again it usually takes a foreignerto tell us that we have something special in our skies. Yes, for sure we are lucky to have the centre of the Milky Way galaxy right overhead in the month of July, and do believe me, this is simply a view out of this world. How many of us have tried to observe that?

* Do you think there is scope for developing astronomy tourism here, given our unpolluted night skies, and coupled with cultural and environmental activities?

Other countries are light years ahead of us in the domain of astro tourism – a striking example is that of Chile, which has an extremely well-oiled industry.

As far as we are concerned, our night sky is becoming highly polluted with all the artificial lights, which is disastrous for astronomers.

Even the five-star hotels here on the coast have their flood lights and other “decorative” lights all over their premises – they have not even spared the palm trees from these parasitic lights.

In Chile in each and every hotel they have a completely light pollution-free spot with red bulbs, etc., installed for ease of observation. By the way, Chile is on the same latitude as us- that is 20 degrees south.

* On the other hand, besides Muslim, Chinese and European astronomy, there is also the Indian tradition in astronomy which flowered in the 5th-6th century, with Aryabhata, whose ‘Aryabhatiya’ represented the pinnacle of astronomical knowledge at the time. That tradition has a close association with religion, and is usually followed for the correct performance of religious rituals, residential/altars/temple construction, etc. What’s your opinion on that tradition?

Remember that the first satellite launched by India bears the name of Aryabhata, a pioneer in the scientific domain in India at that time and whose achievements are indeed great.

For sure, Hindu astronomers have taken a keen interest in astronomy. They were excellent mathematicians and worked on various topics of astronomy. They knew from those days about precession (the slow, toplike wobbling of the spinning Earth, with a period of about 25,772 years), which is amazing as it requires careful observation and a lot of trigonometry.

They also did use data gathered from the stars which went into the construct the temples, etc., as per the position of sunrise, the equinoxes and other astronomical phenomena.


* Published in print edition on 6 July 2021

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