Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Sun Chasers in Kashmir, 1913-14-15-16


Photo: Jammu. 2012.
In August 1913 the strangest of pilgrim to Kashmir arrived in the valley. He was on a three month leave from work. But working, He found the valley to be a paradise, a place perfect for pushing the limits of his ideas. He returned in May 1914 with his wife for performing the perfect exercises recommended for men and women on new age.

"A doonga was hired, and all instruments and stores put aboard, and on May 11 we started on a prospecting tour up the River Jhelum as far as Islamabad, observing the sun from the river bank at various localities. A very convenient site for a temporary Observatory was found about 10 mile out from Srinagar near the village of Pampur. This was a small grass-covered hillock about 100 yards from the river bank, rising some 20 feet above the general level of the plain. On this, most conveniently arranged for our work, were some foundations of an abandoned building with stone walls about 3 feet high, and plenty of building material lying near. A very small amount of masonry work was needed to adapt these walls for mounting the polar heliostat, which had to be raised above the ground about 7 feet in order to reflect the sin downwards at the correct angle.[…]

On June 22, having obtained a satisfactory series of visual and photographic observations, both of the day and night definition, the Observatory camp was placed in charge of the official chowkidhar of the village of Tengan, and we started on a tour to various localities to test the influence of local conditions on the definition of sun. During this tour observations with the 3-inch portable telescope were made at a large number of stations in the valley and in the mountains, the route chosen being from Awantipur on the Jhelum river to Trall, and thence over the Bugmar pass to the Lidar valley, ascending this to an altitude of 11,000 feet at Zojpal. Returning from the high elevations, the Jhelum river was reached again at Bijbihara and the journey continued by river to near Awantipur and thence by two marches across the valley to the foothills of the Pir Panjal range near Romu. These last marches gave us an opportunity to test the definition in th midst of vast streches of wet rice cultivation, and also in low hills of about 200 feet elevation above the general level of the valley. From Romu the plain was re-crossed diagonally back to Pampur, the observing camp being reached on July 8. After a few further observations wight he 4 1/2-inch telescope the whole equipment was pack and transferred to the doonga, and the expedition reached Srinagar on July 13."


The pilgrims were spectroscopist-astronomer, John Evershed (1864 - 1956) and his wife astronomer Mary Ackworth Orr Evershed (1867 Hoe, Devon - 1949). John was known to have designed his own spectroscophic instruments and Mary was adept at taking readings. Together the two went on to photograph things like solar spots and the tail of Halley's comet. John Evershed was the first to observe the radial motions in sunspots, a phenomenon now known as the Evershed effect. Something we are taught as kids in Science class even in Kashmir. What is not usually taught is that Kashmir and Evershed played a little part in proving Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity of 1916. Around 1911, when man was still a couple of decades away from making his own 'miniature suns' - the 'Hydrogen Bombs', Einstein's theory of relativity was still fiercely debated and contested by scientific community,in such an atmosphere, Einstein started proposing another theory extending his theory of relativity to include theory of gravitation. Based on the new theory one of the claims he made was that the wavelength of light emitted by a massive body should be increased by an amount proportional to the intensity of the local gravitational field. This came to be known as 'gravitational redshift' or 'Einstein shift'. If the effect could be observed in case of Sun, Einstein's theories could be 'prooved' in real world. It was one of three basic tests of Einstein's theories that could be proved by observing the solar bodies. Astronomers around the world tried to find the proof by chasing the sun. 


One of the first proof of this particular effect was provided by Evershed by observing the sun in Kashmir in 1915. He was running the famous hill top observatory in South India, Kodaikanal of Tamil Nadu. He was known to make his own spectroscopic instruments while his wife helped him take the readings. He was part of the revolution in which 'observation' of solar phenomena were ahead of theories about sun. Around 1913, he was also looking for a better place to see the sun and other other stars. He found environmental conditions in Kashmir valley, particularly Srinagar, the city of the Sun, to be better than those in Kodaikanal even though he couldn't find a single local person who could be employed to help him photograph the sun. In a report titled 'Report on the Conditions for Astronomical Work in Kashmir' (1914), excerpts of which were previously quoted, he wrote:

"These islands were visited on June 13, and from the Sona Lankh in the Bod Dal the seeing was estimated as from 4 1/2 to 5 continuously between 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. From this island the water surface is practically continuous for about 3 1/2 miles to the south or south-east, and there are many water channels and marshes to the south-west. No doubt this fact contributed to the good seeing, because of the absence of disturbances in the lower strata of the air by contact with the sun-heated soil or rock surfaces.

It was found that no particular advantage was gained by ascending the low flat-topped hills called karewahs that stretched out into the plain from either side of the valley. The definition here seemed slightly less good than on the level plain among the rice fields."

Out of these observations came the the theory that one of the best spots to observe the sun would be not the high mountains but islands surrounded by water bodies.  

It is interesting that Karl Alexander A. Hügel, the Austrian visitor to Kashmir in around 1835 should have noted, "We followed the course of the Jelam for two hours through an uncultivated district, ending in a marsh, and finally entered the Wallar Lake, into which the Jelam flows in two places. Not far from the shore is a little island called Lankh, a name which might lead us to imagine that the Kashmirians once had an observatory on it, where all their astronomical calculations were made."

It is interesting to note here that now most of the water bodies in Srinagar and around it would be considered unsuitable for such scientific activities as the water canals and the bodies have drastically shrunk under the pressure of human habitational activities. Island on Wular can be reached by foot, and no one in the valley cares that the two islands on the Dal Lake could easily have been developed as small space observatories. 

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In 1916, a rather strange phenomena was observed across Britain. The population of wasps had drastically shrunk. While the previous year there had been many, in 1916 English people noticed that usual stingy visitors were missing. The same phenomena was reported from Kashmir by John Evershed. In a letter to 'Nature' magazine in September 1917, he wrote about 'Scarcity of Wasps in Kashmir':

"The abnormally dry season in Kashmir beginning' in May, 1915, may have been specially favourable for the development of these wasps, but if so it is not easy to account for their subsequent scarcity. As in England, the year 1916 was remarkable for the rareness of wasps. The winter was mild and dry, and the shortage of rain persisted through the spring. Scarcely a single wasp of the smaller species was seen during the summer and autumn following. The only nests of the larger kind I saw were two very small ones suspended from the woodwork of the spectroheliograph, where I could daily watch the process of construction. This, however, was a most tedious operation, for after several months the nests were no larger than 1 in, or 2 in. in diameter — that is, about a quarter the size attained in 1915 — and instead' of swarms of active workers, only one or two rather sluggish insects were seen on the nests. The apparent despondency of the wasps in 1916 was in strong contrast with their energy during the previous season. Yet, so far as human beings could judge, the two seasons were equally inspiring as regards clear blue skies and brilliant sun."

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Did more Sun Chasers follow Evershed's path and reach Kashmir?

In the travel guide book, 'Beautiful Valleys of Kashmir' (1942), Samsar Chand Koul, gives the following interesting casual anecdote from his 1937 visit to Kausar Nag Lake:

"A certain American professor once came here to ascertain the depth to which ultra-violet rays can penetrate, 10,000 ft. above sea level. He adjusted his machine with proper screws and places it in the centre of the lake. The screws and somehow became loose and part of the machine sank, so the experiment was not successful."

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