Remember phone cards?

While emptying out a bag for travel, this card dropped out of a forgotten pouch. The card must be twenty years old; the chip has verdigris on it. It seems that this kind of chip card came in use around 1994, and I have a faint memory of using them around then. On visits to Paris it was convenient to pop into a phone booth in a street, insert this card into a slot on the phone, and make a quick call home. Soon after that I began to buy services off the net, where you only had to memorize a phone number and a pin to make a call. This period was brief, because Skype was available already in 2003. In ten years we profoundly changed the way we make calls home while traveling. This card called up as many memories as a photograph.


Time bound

When I was a young boy I read a story called Intangibles Inc, in which a corporation sells intangibles, such as a purpose to your life. Our trip to Ujjain turned out to be similar. Ujjain has a history older than Rome or Xi’an. One of the most ancient pieces of lore about the city is that it lay at the intersection of the prime meridian and the Tropic of Cancer. This prime meridian is one of the many intangibles that dogged our half day in Ujjain.

Different cultures use different prime meridians, and the one that used Ujjain’s longitude is the ancient Hindu culture, whose computational apparatus is still embedded into the religious calendar. The computational recipes can be found as poems in a text called the Surya Siddhanta (which would translate as Solar Treatise). The oldest version of these algorithms comes from a manuscript written before the birth of Alexander, and probably collects together recipes known from significantly older times. This book places Ujjain at the center of its computational cosmos. The standard day, for example, began at the time of sunrise in Ujjain.

As a practical matter, I knew that Ujjain would be like Banaras, full of medieval rituals and 18th century temples located in a city which is older than recorded history. The oldest sites that we know of are ancient temples, and even these are only at about the midway point between us and the oldest known version of the Surya Siddhanta. I had read about parts of temples which were a little less than a thousand years old. I created a detailed map of these locations, although I did not expect to be able to access these spots. I was right. Eventually, walking through Ujjain gave us only an intangible connection to the oldest history of humanity.

So I was happy to walk into an observatory built here by Sawai Jai Singh in 1725 CE. He was a Mughal courtier, the king of Amber, the founder of the city of Jaipur, an avid amateur astronomer, and a scholar. He assembled a team of astronomers from three cultures: those who knew the Hindu astronomical texts, a set of people who knew the Islamic texts on astronomy, and a company of Portuguese Jesuits who knew European astronomy. He sent delegations abroad to collect books and learn about astronomy from foreigners. Eventually he built five observatories in various parts of India, driven by a perception that accuracy is important. The time-keeping instruments in the observatory in Ujjain would connect this 18th century structure to the most ancient text that we have regarding Ujjain.

The computations of the Surya Siddhanta were clearly incorrect by the early 18th century CE. Many of the numbers in the treatise are correct only to 1% by modern standards. This is true, for example, of the statement that Ujjain is on the Tropic of Cancer. If that were correct, then Ujjain should have been 57 Kilometers north of its position. This is an error of almost 1%.

Sawai Jai Singh’s instruments are built in masonry, as you can see in these photographs. All four photos show what he called the Samrat Yantra of Ujjain, something that we would call today an Equinoctal Sundial. It is built large in order to gain accuracy (this sundial gives an accuracy of about 2 seconds in the measurement of local time). The photo above shows the gnomon which casts a shadow on the dial whose photo you can see below. In the featured photo you can see how the gnomon and the dial are placed.

The huge gnomon points towards the true north. So the staircase makes an angle to the ground which is exactly the latitude at the spot where it stands. This is the principle of the equinoctal sundial. At the base of the staircase which is this large gnomon you can see a barrel with two smaller sundials. These are oriented in such a way that on the days of equinox you can tell the time by either. In summer the south-facing one (visible in the featured photo) will be in shadow, and in winter the north-facing one (visible in another photo above) would be unusable because it will be in shadow. We walked around this instrument on the birthday of Alexander the Great, when weather conditions in India generally render any sundial useless.

This gave us time to consider the greatest mystery about Sawai Jai Singh. Although he assembled a stellar cross-cultural school of astronomers, how did he miss out on the most important advances in astronomical history? Why did he continue to improve an outdated medieval astronomy? Galileo had invented the telescope in 1609 CE. Copernicus had published his treatise on the heliocentric system in 1543 CE. Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published in 1687 CE. And Sawai Jai Singh was eager enough (for a king) to learn about the most advanced work on astronomy from across the world. What went wrong? I asked The Family these questions as we walked around the observatory.

The answer that I find most believable is given by Prof. Virendra Nath Sharma (a copy of his paper is here, and a refutation is here). Prof. Sharma holds the Portuguese team of Jesuit priests responsible for this. He thinks that they followed the church’s proscription against teaching the Heliocentric system and Galileo. But this does not explain why Jai Singh’s team did not learn about the Vernier scale, which were invented in 1631 CE. The intangibles keep adding up.

Steamy New York

It seems to me that my reaction to New York is conditioned by my first experiences. In the late ’80s the city was a gritty place. Some parts of it were too dangerous to walk about in the evenings. You were told to be careful in Central Park, Times Square and Bryant Park. And through it all, steam wafted out from vents and chimneys, making everything look even more weird. It’s a new and more pleasant city now, but the steam still rises from the streets.

It has never been as easy to read about the world as it is today. I sat in a little cafe off 5th Avenue and found out more about this. I was not surprised to learn that the 170 kilometers of steam pipes under the streets of New York make it the steamiest city in the world. What surprised me were the uses to which the 40 million kilos of steam that flow these pipes daily are put. I’d lazily assumed that it was mainly for heating. Not so.

New York City: Steam chimney on 5th Avenue

The superheated high pressure steam is used for energy. Restaurants use it to power their dishwashers, and buildings to power cooling units in summer. The Guggenheim uses it to fine-tune the humidity in the building, and hospitals sterilize equipment using it. The system has been operated by Consolidated Edison since the 1950s, when it acquired the business from the NY Steam Corp which started up in lower Manhattan in 1880. As mid-town was developed in the 1920s, electrical cables and steam pipes were laid down together. ConEd claims to have around 2000 buildings as customers and seven generating stations. In three of these stations the steam is a by-product of ConEd’s electrical power generating plants. it seems that the operation is fairly green.

The boatmen of Bhitarkanika

When I talked to people in Bhitarkanika and heard about boats I imagined little things like the one above. My imagination was influenced by photos of birders in Mangalajodi, which is the hot birding destination in Odisha. Imagining an open boat, I was little concerned about the weather. The temperature had started reaching record highs across the country even before Holi. As it turned out, it was only moderately hot when we reached Bhitarkanika. That, and the fact that bird-watching avoids the hot afternoon, meant that we had fairly comfortable weather.

Tourist boats of Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Due to my preconceptions, the first sight of the boats of Bhitarkanika (photo above) was shocking. They are large, with a two person crew, and capable of carrying more than ten passengers. They have a passenger cabin and an upper deck. Interestingly, they also have a head. We decided that sitting in the cabin would restrict our view of the birds, so we climbed up to the deck and leaned on the cabin. The crew handed us cushions and told us to sit on the roof of the cabin. We did that, and can certify that it is a very comfortable way to navigate the tidal creeks of Bhitarkanika while looking out for birds.

Small boats like the one in the featured photo are used by the locals to travel short distances. Occasionally we saw a man standing in one of these boats, poling himself along a stream. We also saw, once, two men in such a boat, letting out a fishing net.

Boatman of Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

This part of Odisha is poor. While great strides have been made in the last decade or so in bringing schools and primary health care to the people in this region, their income levels have not risen much. Direct employees of the forest department, even temporary workers, are much better off than those who are not government employees. The crew of the boat we were on (one of them is in the photo above) spent time foraging at the edge of the forest, but our wildlife guide did not bother to. This low level of income results in poorly maintained boat engines. There must be expertise out in the wide world on cheap and easy to maintain boat engines with low emission. I would definitely love to hear about it.

First tourists

The Family and I saw the movie "Hidden Figures" recently, on the recommendation of my eleven year old guide to Chicago. The week before, she’d told me about the movie which her school had taken her class to see as we walked through the Adler planetarium. We liked the movie, and recommended it to many others. The first text book on programming that I had ever read had a photo of Dorothy Vaughn in it; it has taken me many years to find out why her photo appeared there.

The movie reminded me of descriptions of the first flights, and the expertise that had to be created. It was not known what physiological effects space flights would have, how hot or cold the capsules would get, and, as the movie tells us, how to even predict the orbits of the capsules. I found a recent newspaper article which talks of the way those early flights were put together.

We stopped in front of one of these early space crafts, Gemini 12, which you can see in the featured photo. Standing in front of it, I understood why they were called capsules: they are nothing but a couch with a few controls in front of it, and a heat shield behind for re-entry. In 1966 James Lovell (famous later as one of the three astronauts in Apollo 13) and Edwin Aldrin (later famous as the second man on the moon, in Apollo 11) flew in this little capsule for over four days. I usually feel cramped in a space like this in a two hour flight, and have to get out into the aisle to take a walk. Aldrin took three walks in space during this flight.

I doubt that I will ever be a tourist in space, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful if I had a photo of the earth from space on my phone, as a souvenir of my last vacation?