June 30th is observed as World Asteroid Day each year to raise awareness about the harmful effects of asteroids on Earth and the measures that should be taken to mitigate their effects. But little do people know about it? Limited only to a select few who are zealous about these things, the study of cosmos- Astronomy has received very little attention until very recently, especially in India, despite being so crucial to life itself.
On the occasion of World Asteroid day, Incredible Goa is in conversation with astronomy enthusiast Devansh Cholera from Panjim, who talks about his exploration of his passion, the amazing work done by the Public Astronomical Observatory, Junta House in this regard, and the many facets of Astronomy as a hobby and as a career, especially for the people of Goa.
“I used to be very excited to watch eclipses once a year and with time my fascination for the subject grew,” he says. His parents then started looking for a platform that could help him nurture his interests and found the Public Astronomical Observatory (PAO), Panaji. What initially started as a curiosity has now led him to become a permanent member of the association as Secretary of PAO.
Reminiscing, he recollects that his love for astronomy started when he first joined PAO at the age of 10-11 and has moved up his ranks in the association. From guide to event programmer and now finally, Secretary.
Established in 1983 and headquartered at Junta House in Panaji, PAO is the very first public observatory in the whole of India. They also have to their credit, the biggest telescope open to the public in the country, which is a 14-inch telescope. This is a matter of great pride for us as Goans but sadly not many know this.
Before the pandemic, PAO used to frequently visit several resorts and hotels, organizing stargazing programs for the guests and tourists there. But what interests Devansh more are the ritual school programs they would organize. “We have scaled the length and breadth of Goa, spreading awareness about Astronomy and talking to children about it, teaching them the basics so we can get their interests piqued in the subject”.
The team has visited schools right from the Pernem in the extreme North to Kotigao village in the remote South of Goa. Students from the Dayanand Bandodkar School here were from the nearby tribal community who would trek 10 km each day to visit their school set deep inside the wildlife sanctuary.
They organize programs for people of all ages, people coming from different cities in Goa, different states in the country as well as tourists from around the world who visit Goa and are astronomy enthusiasts. Their overnight star-parties called Fun Nights are very popular among school-going kids. They also have more advanced Astro-Safari Camps, as part of which the groups camp out at Chorla Ghat for an entire night with the challenge to observe the sky and locate constellations, nebulae, and star clusters among other deep-sky objects.
They have 8 other branches across Goa in Mapusa, Morjim, Porvorim, Vasco, Margao, Canacona, Ponda and Borim. This, he says, is very important for them as a community of astronomy enthusiasts. “Astronomy is an expensive hobby but you can be a team player and join a group wherein everyone pools in their resources and shares them, that is precisely what we do at PAO”.
“I also started a group like at GEC, we have a telescope but not much else other than that, we don’t even have a terrace where we can place it but we are still trying and we have a group of passionate individuals together”. He has also been striving to achieve the same in various other institutions in the state such as the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Ponda, and another group called ‘Astro-Goa’ in Bandora.
The reason for this he says is that in case of hobbies such as Astronomy which are not so popular and which as both as a field of study and recreation have not been given much impetus, the only thing that keeps the ardour alive is getting to share it with fellow enthusiasts, and spreading more awareness about it so that they can build a tribe of their own.
“Owing to the niche nature of our interests and the fact that it is not so developed yet, for me and all my fellow astronomy enthusiasts, our community is all we have and we try our best to nurture it. That’s why the bonding within us is so strong”.
Ask if astronomy is an “elite” hobby that is difficult to permeate into and he says, “Astronomy is for everyone”. There are several apps nowadays that utilize the gyroscope built into our phones. One can thus point the camera to any place in the sky and it will point out the constellations in the background. “Sky Maps is a great app to start with, for someone who has had no formal initiation in the field. You can then move on to more complex apps,” he said.
Talking about the enthusiasm for Astronomy among the youth, he says, “Curiosity among people to learn about these things is only getting lower”. With pollution making city skies increasingly opaque, people visit fancy places such as Spiti Valley or Ladakh and participate in stargazing events as tourists and return to their normal lives here. Even students are too pressured with academics to devote time to these things. By and large, people prefer entertainment over learning in their free time.
There are a number of impediments to the promotion of astronomy as a hobby or a career in our country but the scope is nevertheless aplenty. “The field of Astronomy is outrageously understaffed and overworked, scientists, therefore, need junior researchers under them, and there is immense scope for this field here”. He also spoke of Citizen Science Projects for budding astronomers in Goa. one can register for it at [email protected] wherein scientists outsource their work which can help in their research.
Astronomy is a fundamental science that tells us about the creation of the universe; it involves our past, present as well as future. Calling it the “Mother of all sciences”, Devansh spoke about how the field is not only meant for astronomers but in fact, needs people from different walks including machine learning, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and computer science and AI, thereby opening up numerous opportunities to youngsters.
Devansh himself pursued his Mechanical Engineering degree from Goa Engineering College, Ponda, and is now doing a research-based course in Astronomy at GEC so that he can enter an Astronomy institute as a researcher. He wishes to redirect his career path towards his passion, for good.
This story is a message to all astronomy lovers out there to come forward and join hands, taking full advantage of the many resources and clubs that thrive in Goa. The manner in which the youths at PAO and the Association of Friends of Astronomy (AFA), Goa did not get demotivated by circumstances and have instead, worked towards creating a platform for themselves and introducing more and more people to the world of astronomy shows that eagerness and dedication can make great things possible.