Friday, September 26, 2014

All that twinkles is not a star

I am not sure where it all started. Or if it was anything unique about me. Every child loves to look up at the night skies with a dream to reach the stars I guess. I was no different. I just put that in words, as my first career objective.

It was a weekend outing with family and friends, at a beautiful little bungalow named 'Saavli' (Shadow) in Nagaon, a couple of hours drive to the north of Mumbai. Some of the elders were having a round of drinks at night, and we kids were called up as part of the introductory games planned for the evening.
"What do you want to be when you grow up, son?", asked one.
"Astrophysicist... mala chand taare pahayla avadtat (I like to watch the moon and stars)", I replied.
"Viju, tujha porga tula divsa chaand taare dakhavnar ahe... (Viju, your kid is going to show you moon and the stars in the day..)". The pun was intended and laughter ensued.

Astrophysicist. Not even an astronaut. I was that clear about what I wanted from life. I wish I had that clarity now. The seed may have been put in my mind by a book gifted to me by uncle Mohan. 'Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science' written by the much-celebrated scientist Carl Sagan, had fabulous short stories based on a plethora of scientific wonders with one chapter named 'Can we know the Universe? Reflections from a grain of salt'.

My parents seemed to take my vocation seriously and encouraged my half-formed ideas. They bought me a star-chart which you hold up against the night sky, spot the North Star from the small hole in the center and align the direction of the sheet. This was a time when the concept of personal computers was just setting in, and they were more about the Prince of Persia and Lion King than to be seen as aids to education. One Christmas, I asked "Santa" for a rocket filled with Gems (shabbily sketched on a greeting card) and the wish was magically granted. The next year, I grew more ambitious and demanded a book on Astronomy, and poof, there it was, neatly placed under my pillow the next morning! Santa must have had vested interests in gifting kids who wanted to hone their navigational skills by reading the night sky.

In school, we designed a magazine (kind of a little encyclopedia with paintings and written material) every year and the topic we went for in 9th standard was Space Exploration. I still remember the beautiful cover drawing of a Space Shuttle by my classmate Manali, and my feeble attempts at drawing something similar. All those colorful A4 pages, distributed to our writer team and our "committee meetings" to avoid attending some lectures. The jokes we cracked, the fights we had about someone stepping on others' talents. A microcosm of future corporate lifestyle.

It wasn't only about books. I participated in a Mars Rover contest at school and got to play around with the controls of a simulated rover vehicle. In summer holidays, I was enrolled in a 10-day astronomy workshop at Nehru Planetarium. It was a long drive from home with a couple of school friends Aneesh and Makrand, but I enjoyed every aspect of it. The thorough polishing of glass with sandpaper to design a lens for a cardboard telescope, the paper sundial I designed which may have been my first watch; and my personal sky-chart. In our free time, we were left spellbound with the informative shows about the universe and our place in it. Then there was always the Science Center nearby which had countless activities to engage the young minds in.

Finally the day arrived when life stopped handing out lemons and gave me a college form instead. I attended some seminars for a degree of Bachelor of Sciences, majoring in Physics. Apparently, it wasn't the coolest (read: lucrative) career goal for kids with better-than-average grades in Math-Physics. So taking cue from the not-so-subtle hints given by my elders, I forayed into engineering.

It feels like ages since I made that decision, but my first love never waned. I signed up my name to be sent to Mars etched on a microchip inside the 'Curiosity Rover' prowling on Mars as of now. My heart went out to all those seven astronauts aboard the ill-fated Challenger. How giddy I was with excitement while visiting the Johnson Space Center in NASA at Houston, Texas! That moonless starlit long drive along California's famed Route 1 alongside the Pacific, those camping trips in Adirondacks or simple quiet walks under the dark skies in tiny villages and national parks. Every time I begin narrating my treatise on how to find the North Star using the Great Bear or Cassiopeia constellations to whoever listens, my friends roll their eyes and quip, "Here he goes again...".

I write about all these today, as I rejoice with billions of other Indians congratulating the team at ISRO who successfully completed the MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission). Along with the spew of positive social media updates about the low cost of the mission, there have also been snarky articles from the naysayers who believe the 450 crores would have been better spent on tackling poverty. As a child who developed a love for the Sciences for reasons quite akin to inspirational missions like these, I have to say, I disagree.

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When US beckoned me by Siddharth Wagh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.