Sunday, October 30, 2011

Planetary, my dear Watson!

"Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are the nine planets that revolve around the sun in our solar system" was what we learned in school. More than two decades have passed, and since then there have been many new discoveries and Pluto has been un-planet-ed. Demoted. As if it could not get enough votes to be a member of the Planets Legislative Assembly. Imagine the billion gazillion gases and floating things in space queuing up to cast their votes, proudly exhibiting the ink mark on the finger afterwards.

Two anti-Pluto gases in conversation:

GAS 1: "I will not vote for Pluto, he has done nothing for us in the last couple of million years. I think I will vote for this new planet BX54U8Y instead, he looks promising."

GAS 2: "Let the name Pluto be erased forever from memory."

GAS 1: "That's impossible."

GAS 2: "And why is that?"

GAS 1: "Well, there's another Pluto, the one that's very popular with human beings."

GAS 2: "Are you saying this Pluto character has cloned himself?"

GAS 1: "No, not exactly. You see, this other Pluto..."

GAS 2: "Who is it? A human being? An asteroid? A black hole?"

GAS 1: "It's Mickey Mouse's dog."

Okay enough about the planets.

Or maybe not. The reason I thought about Mars (not the chocolate bar) and Jupiter (not the Roman god) and other planets and the universe we live in, was because I went out yesterday evening.

It was almost sunset and I was riding in a very shaky auto. We climbed a flyover, and above the buildings and the  trees and the power lines I could see this big, round orange sun hanging in the sky. The sky was somewhere between blue and grey and there was not a cloud around, not even a bird. Just this big sun, beautiful and majestic and close, so close you feel you could reach out and touch it. I took out my phone to take a picture but by then we had descended from the flyover and all I could see were buildings above me. At every open space I got I craned my neck upwards to look at the sun. Five minutes later it had sunk very low, and its colour had become pinkish - orangeish.

We all know we live in this big universe, that we are nothing more than a tiny speck of dust. But did we ever actually "feel" that we are a part of it? We live our lives everyday worrying about food and clothing and shelter, but did we ever for a minute take the time to think, yes I live on a planet which revolves around the sun, and there are a million trillion other planets and gases and other space stuff floating around me? Never, is my guess.

In the news we hear about an asteroid or a meteor or something about to hit the earth or collide with the earth. We read/listen to it and think, oh that sounds scary. But we were never really scared, were we? We would be more scared, say if we hear that there is a masked robber terrorising the neighbourhood. Because we relate to it. We don't relate to space stuff. Most of us think all these planets and satellites and gaseous matter stuff is only for the scientists. And I am no exception.

So yesterday I was watching the sun, and I thought, hey the sun looks exactly like the pictures of the planets in our textbooks. To be precise, I thought it looked like Jupiter. Mostly because of its orange colour (see picture below). That's when all these thoughts started invading my head.

And just the other day I read that two scientists captured the birth of new planet on camera. Makes one feel smaller than ever.

Here's a video of the Milky Way taken from the highest mountain in Spain, El Teide.

"If you ever wondered how the Milky Way would look through a Sahara sandstorm, look at 00:32."
The Mountain from TSO Photography on Vimeo.

A beautiful picture of the Milky Way by Thomas Zimmer:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Time after time

Imagine yourself stranded somewhere remote, without a watch. The movement of the sun is the only way you can tell the time. And maybe the hunger in your stomach. Wouldn't you go a little bit crazy? I would. I always have to know the time. But I hate wearing a watch, and the only watch I have is lying inside some unused bag. Yet I get on nicely without it, what with mobile phones and computers telling the time and you always have one or the other nearby, and in the rare event that you are stranded without either one you can always ask people around you, and in the rarest event that you find yourself alone without anyone around.. well that's a bit unlikely to happen.

You know what comes to mind? Prisoners scratching the dates on prison walls. Count of Monte Cristo specifically. Maybe a little bit of Robinson Crusoe. Yes I know he was not a prisoner, he was marooned; but he still scratched the dates on rocks (I think). Same difference.

Let's assume that it's a Saturday and I am stuck in the house without any means of telling the time. Here is how I would know what time it is (approximately).

Because of the Telangana employees granting themselves holidays, the whole city of Hyderabad suffers from daily power cuts, anywhere between two and six hours. In our area the allotted time is between six and eight in the morning, and then twelve to two in the afternoon.

So on this watch-less day I wake up and find that the lights are still on. I look at my window and find that it's not yet daylight, so I know that it's before 6 AM. I go back to sleep, and when the lights go out and and the fan stops whirring, I know it must be exactly 6.

8 AM and the lights come back, and I can hear the caretaker sweeping the verandah.

The neighbour's baby cries like somebody dropped an anvil on her foot, so I know it's around 8:30 and her mother is giving her a bath. A cold one, no doubt.

This is when the fun begins.

We live in a residential area, and there are no shops in the immediate neighbourhood. So from morning until evening a dozen or so vendors, selling everything from artificial flowers to fresh fish would come along, peddling their wares and shouting in their own unique ways.

The first one to make his presence known is the Idli-Dosa guy. He doesn't come everyday, but I've heard his shout a few times. Maybe it's because there are not many bachelors in the area.

At around 9:53 comes the leafy vegetables guy, shouting "Kotmeer, Palakka", which are coriander and spinach respectively. Housewives drop down their baskets or polythene covers from upstairs apartments and he makes a good sale every morning.

And then comes the most irritating Saturday morning regular. The religious guy. Comes to our colony around 11-ish, drives around in a small van/cart thing, adorned with numerous pictures of his innumerable gods, burning this and that incense and playing the loudest devotional songs. It must be a famous song because I've heard people use it as their mobile phone ringtones.

The power goes off, and I know it's noon. And when it comes back I know it's 2 PM.

At 4 PM the samosa fellows come cycling, after which the next regular event is at midnight when the local watchman patrols the street, tapping the road loudly with his cane. Although you know it's only one man with a stick who's guarding your colony, hearing that tap-tap in the night when everything's gone quiet can be really comforting.

All through the day you have the paper-vendors and the fruit vendors coming through. Then you have the occasional fishman, the artificial flowers ladies, the broom lady, the flowers-you-wear-in-the-hair man, the bedsheets and cushion covers people, and the ice-cream man.

That's about it. A day in the life, a watch-less day.