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Eye on the sky
An artistís impression of the Huygens probe en route to Saturnís moon

August 27, 2003 (Mars comes closest to earth in 60,000 years): Around 10,000 people queue up at MP Birla Planetarium to watch the phenomenon while 35-40 city schools send students in groups of 650-700 for special shows.

June 8, 2004 (Transit of Venus across the sun after 122 years): Over 3,000 viewers at Birla Planetarium, around 1,200 at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum (BITM), over 1,000 at the Positional Astronomy Centre in New Alipore, about 500 at VIP Market, Kankurgachhi, and 700 at Salt Lake's CD Park.

March-April 2004 (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter line-up), January 14, 2005 (black spot on the sun), June 28 (conjunction of Venus, Mercury and Saturn)'

The list of astronomical activities in recent times that has prompted the Calcuttan to keep an eye on the sky is a long and lustrous one.

And if how these phenomena would affect fortunes was foremost on the sky-gazer's mind till not so long ago, it has now been replaced by the urge to know the scientific reasons behind these events and grapple with the great mysteries of the galaxies.

'The interest in astronomy is certainly greater than before,' says Debiprosad Duari, director, research & academics of MP Birla Planetarium. 'More and more people seem to realise that the sky is a part of our environment and that nature is not just trees and hills' it's the sky as well.'

According to Duari, the number of casual observers during astronomical events has dwindled and questions asked by visitors have become more probing. The number of phone calls from school students as well as from trainee college teachers seeking help on astronomy projects has also gone up.

Agrees Kaustuv Chowdhury of Calcutta Astronomy Centre, a four-year-old body of astronomy enthusiasts: 'Even in remote villages, people now watch a solar eclipse with the prescribed filters. The superstition is fading fast.'

People profile

At MP Birla Planetarium, the 43-year-old institution, the biggest group of star watchers is still tourists from beyond city limits and state boundaries. 'Particularly for those from the suburbs who don't have the facilities there, the planetarium is always on their places-to-see list in Calcutta,' says Duari.

The other major chunk comprises school students. 'But here we see a change. It's not just a school trip, like going to Nicco Park, any more. Students are really interested in the subject these days.'

Then there is the lot that offers prayers during occasions like Gangasagar Mela and then visits the planetarium for stories and pictures of their gods and goddesses ' the planets. But that number is dropping slowly and there's a surge in a new kind of planetary people.

'Increasingly, a number of people visit us who either see planetarium shows and feel really interested in it or are drawn to astronomy through their kids,' offers Duari.

'We see full families coming to see our exhibits on astronomy,' says Jayanta Sthanapati, director of BITM. 'More and more, people seem to be thinking that astronomy is an integral part of their lives.'

Deep impact

The best draw, of course, is any rare spectacle in the sky ' from a starry line-up to a planet travelling across the sun, solar flares to a Mars drawing close to earth. 'Usually we have around 1,000 visitors daily,' offers Sthanapati. 'But during these events, the average footfall is over three times.'

The biggest crowd-puller in recent time was the Venus transit. Queues at MP Birla Planetarium went right up to Rabindra Sadan and the planetarium had to deploy additional staff and equipment to meet the rush. Interest groups that had organised viewing across the city also had a tough time satisfying the cosmic curiosity.

Explorations like the Nasa's Huygens probe which landed on Titan in January 2005 for a closer look at Saturn or the space collision of Nasa's Deep Impact spacecraft earlier this month also help shift the focus on astronomy from the realm of niche to general interest.

Star trek

For those interested in the subject, MP Birla Planetarium offers a free evening programme that not only attracts the casual candidate but also draws 'highly educated' professionals from various fields. It also conducts a 10-month post-graduate diploma in astronomy and planetarium sciences, preparing the candidate for a job in national science museums. An MPhil programme, through a tie-up with BITS Pilani, is also on offer.

'I started with the evening course. After finishing that I really wanted to know more and enrolled for the diploma course,' says Anita Saha, a government employee. 'Relatives and friends often ask me about how they, too, can do such a course.' A science graduate, Saha plans to complete her masters and then pursue a PhD in an astronomy-related subject. 'But there aren't many opportunities for an amateur astronomer in India, unlike the West,' she feels.

BITM organises a sky observation programme thrice a week. 'We get around 50-60 people every day,' Sthanapati says. The institute has recently procured a high-end 10-inch reflecting telescope for a 'more detailed' view of the sky, while its celebrations of the year of physics with the event Fascinating World of Physics in December will have a major section on astronomy. There are also awareness courses in winter and hobby camps in summer.

Amateur bodies like Calcutta Astronomy Centre and Skywatchers Association catch the crowds during winter fairs, particularly Book Fair and conduct short courses on the subject.

'But there must be greater government support and increase in the astronomy portions in school curriculum for the trend to continue,' suggests Chowdhury.

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