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Wednesday, August 11, 1999

Between sun and superstition

BHUJ, Aug 10: On the eve of this millennium's last total solar eclipse, science and superstition seem to be going together at Bhirandiyara village, which will witness the solar disk being blocked by the Moon for a full 69 seconds -- the longest duration of totality in the country.

At Bhirandiyara, a roadside village of maldharis (cattle breeders), the eclipse will begin on Wednesday at 4:52:20 p.m. But the Sindhi-speaking Muslim maldharis of the 40 odd villages in the Banni grasslands of Kutch, which are in the path of the eclipse, are already beset by superstitious fears. They see eclipses as a curse that will bring grief, and have planned a special namaz throughout the period of the eclipse to ward off its ill-effects.

There are well-based fears, too, especially for the astronomers, eclipse enthusiasts, and television crew who are enquiring their way to the village with telescopes, cameras, and other equipment. Villagers say that in the more than a minute of darkness, when the stars and moon will suddenly be visible before sunset, scared cattle might break free of their tethers and run helter-skelter, damaging equipment. In Bhirandiyara, as in the other villages of the Banni, cattle far outnumber people.

Besides, weather could play truant. The weatherman has forecast a partially overcast sky across Gujarat on Wednesday. There are chances of around 40 per cent monsoon clouds over Bhuj, Vadodara, Surendranagar, Saurashtra and other regions from where the solar eclipse will be best visible. For the enthusiasts, this could mean disappointment.

Though some eclipse enthusiasts have trickled in, most of the 5,000 expected to arrive at these villages are putting it off till the last few hours before the eclipse begins. Says a villager of Bhirandariya, ``We don't even have potable water to offer them. But we have asked the authorities to bring water here by tanker.''

It is no different at Lakhpat, where the total eclipse will last 60 seconds. There are no hotels or restaurants, no public amenities. Some 40 science teachers and over 150 students from across the country are expected to arrive here on Wednesday.

While the government has made arrangements at Lakhpat, nothing has been done at Bhirandiyara.

In other places in the districts it is a different story. All hotels and rooming houses are full. Taxi drivers have hiked their fare from Rs 3 per km to Rs 8 per km.

Perhaps the first team to arrive is that headed by Dr Bahauddin. It is at Samakniyali village, 80 km from Bhuj. The team has with it equipment worth Rs 70 lakh.

A team of scientists from the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) already camping at Dhrangadhra in Surendranagar district. The PRL team, consisting of associate professors Dr T Chandrashekhar and Dr N M Ashok and their three research assistants is going to study the corona a high-temperature gaseous envelop around the sun. The temperature of the corona is some 2 million degrees Celsius.

The PRL team will photograph a spectrum of emission lines emerging from the corona. However, the visible surface of the sun has a temperature of about 6,000 degree Celsius. What puzzles the scientists is how corona is heated to such a high degree. ``Our effort is to study the temperature structure of the corona and what makes it so hot,'' says a scientist.

However, the scientists are worried that bad weather might disappoint them. But the PRL has left nothing to chance. A team of three PRL scientists from Udaipur Solar Eclipse Observatory has already gone to Iran, which is considered the best place to study solar eclipse because of good weather conditions. This team will click pictures of the corona using CCD camera, which has an electronic imager.

Besides the PRL, a team of scientists from the Uttar Pradesh State Observatory (UPSO) is camping in Samakhiali town in Kutch district. This scientist, too, will take pictures of the corona using CCD camera.

Also, about 50 members of Indian Physics Association, Ahmedabad chapter, are reaching Kutch early on August 11 to observe the celestial spectacle. J N Desai, one of the members, said that they would see the eclipse using protective devices.

Some members of the Amateur Astronomers' Association and a member (educator) of the Nehru Planetarium are also camping at a place about 50 kms north of Bhuj to study the eclipse.

Besides Bhuj and Dhrangadhra, the eclipse would be best visible from Malia, Bhachau, Petlad, Lakhpat, and Vadodara region. The eclipse will begin at around 4.54 pm and will turn into total eclipse at 5.59 pm. The duration of total eclipse will be about a minute.

A solar eclipse also facilitates study of the stars in close to the sun or behind it and the phenomenon of the gravitational bending of light.

Also expected are Dr Amit and Prashant Vaidya from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, and Prof J.V. Dave and Dr D.V. Jani of Gujarat Council on Science & Technology.

Then, of course, there will be the television crews from BBC, CNN, Discovery Channel, Star, and Zee TV.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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