Conference proceedings

12. IIA physicists on astrophysics today


On 11 February 2015 NASA released a five-year time lapse of the sun from its space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory. This, among other things, had been the topic of discussion at a three-day workshop on astronomy and astrophysics held at St Philomena's College, University of Mysore, that began the same day. The workshop was organized with, presented and moderated by physicists from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA)—Prof. Ashok K. Pati, Prof. Gajendra Pande, Prof. Jayant Murthy, and Prof. S.P. Bagare—who were joined by ISRO's Dr Shyama Narendranath on the final day. (Although the sessions were not held in chronological order to prevent fatigue from listening to the same speaker for hours, it has been recounted in conceptual ascension.)

In the beginning, there was ... spying?

Prof Murthy, an alumnus of Johns Hopkins, currently researching interstellar dust and who has a passion for following space missions spoke of the historical, espionage-driven birth of space exploration: from missiles to sounding rockets to Apollo and beyond. Calling himself a U.V. astronomer, he explained the need for space-based observation — a whole lot of stuff students of science could grasp but lawmakers, not so much.

He talked of current missions such as Kepler, their collected data and the ideas driving data collection, such as measuring luminosities to detect planets. In his second session (each speaker got two) he spoke of citizen science, projects such as [email protected], Galaxy Zoo etc. which involve public (processors) for scientific data analysis. I run [email protected] on my MacBook, much like a few others in the audience, and this led to some interesting discussions on the weight of such analyses. He also mentioned such resources as arXiv, Galex and IIAP's own CADS.

Instrumentation and a universal view

Prof A.K. Pati structured his talk in a rather interesting fashion, starting with a mathematical and physical picture of the universe as we see it from just outside the Earth's atmosphere, progressing in logarithmic steps from solar system distances, to intragalactic, to intergalactic to galactic clusters and so on up to the edge of the current observable universe a little over 45 billion light years away.

He also discussed the use of stellar spectra to measure a lot of their properties — velocity, distance, composition etc. He also spoke on instrumentation; specifically the kind needed for ground-based observation all the way to space-based data collection starting from as early as Galileo's time to current and upcoming projects including IIAP's proposed National Large Solar Telescope at Pangong lake, scheduled to be the most technologically-forward ground-based solar observatory ever built.

Heliophysics and ISRO missions

Heliophysicist S.P. Bagare spoke of his field of interest. Starting from the Sun's core and going all the way to its corona. He talked about solar observations, their current status and the use of information from both space- and ground-based observatories. He concluded with a detailed explanation of how sites are chosen for ground-based viewing and what makes Pangong lake ideal for the proposed NLST — a project he heads.

ISRO's Dr Shyama Narendranath spoke of India's many missions, the requirements of spaceflight, the ideal conditions a space launch demands, the physical conditions (read, challenges) faced by equipment in space, how these are overcome and briefly how gravitational swings are used while plotting trajectories in unmanned missions.

Talking on time-variance and how automation is the only solution — coupled with foreseeing possible obstacles in a mission — she mentioned the upcoming Chandrayaan II mission, its objectives and her own participation in a geophysics module onboard it. In spite of scientifically hollow press coverage that misled readers as to the technical nature of the talks, the workshop had something for all levels of study, from undergrads to postgrads and beyond.

There were discussions of mathematical bend and purely physical pictures drawn. The real gems, however, were found in post-talk discussions with speakers which saw questions from absurd to exciting accompanying discussions of current research. These were three memorable days, no doubt, but they were — perhaps more importantly — scientifically rich.

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‘There are no physicists in the hottest parts of hell, because the existence of a hottest part implies a temperature difference, and any marginally competent physicist would immediately use this to run a heat engine and make some other part of hell comfortably cool. This is obviously impossible.’
— Richard Davisson