Dec 13, 2010

Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory

This weekend i happen to be in London and what better way to spend a day than to visit some of the free museums! The plan was to visit the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory which also houses a planetarium. Both places have one thing in common - they symbolize man's eternal search for the last frontier; indeed humans have a gene for exploration. I consider myself a seeker too, which explains why i was there. Here is quick summary and some tips on these places.

The Maritime Museum had several nice exhibits, the most famous being Nelson's uniform, Frederick's boat and countless sea-farer artifacts. The theme of exploration and how brave men in Europe risked everything to find new passages to India and the East was the most impressive. The museum has done a great job of bringing those episodes to life, and also set the context behind such expeditions. Exhibits showing how the strengthening Ottoman empire stifled routes to the East forcing Europeans to take to the sea, how the Renaissance era equipped them better and changed their world view, and how the missionary zeal of King Henry of Portugal instigated the likes of Dias and Vasco da Gama to go explore, were all very insightful. If so many cross currents had not come together in history, then I am sure the British would have never come to trade and rule India!

After the museum tour, i made a brisk walk uphill (reminded me of the fast walks during the Rupin Pass trek) to the Royal Observatory. They had a section on the Greenwich Meridian (which was very touristy) and a full fledged Planetarium with regular shows. I skipped both for lack of time, and headed straight to the Astronomy section. The ninety minutes spent here were most rewarding.

One of the good books i read (rather, managed to finish) this year was "The Edge of Reason" by Anil Ananthaswamy. After reading this interview with the author, I bought the book on flipkart (India's The book moved me and rekindled my childhood interest in astronomy. This interest stems from a basic question that is also deeply spiritual; it starts as "What the hell am i doing in this world?" and soon leads to other questions like, "What is this world?". The book helps you realize how insignificant our world really is in the larger scheme of things in 'The Universe'. Hundreds of billions of galaxies in this universe and the possibility of multiverse i.e, multiple universes (10 to the power of 500, exactly) both flummoxed me and excited me.

Anil's book takes the reader to sites in the world engaged in cutting edge physics and astronomy using various advanced telescopes. The Observatory had a wonderful exhibit (similar to this image) that shows where each such telescope would fit in. Along the large wall there was a sine curve showing the electromagnetic spectrum; one can easily contrast the frequencies of radio, microwave, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays. Since we cannot see much outside the visible light and the atmosphere absorbs many of the frequencies, some of these telescopes had to be taken into outer space. The most famous one, of course is the Hubble Telescope. During my previous trip to London three months ago, i was looking for the Observatory but somehow ended up going to the Science Museum, where i saw an IMAX movie featuring the Hubble Telescope. That movie showed pictures of distant galaxies and supernovae that are a slight peek into the beauty and grandeur of the universe.

The Observatory has done a decent job of explaining many of the basic concepts about the universe (Big Bang, black holes, etc). It was nice to see several pre-teen kids swarm around some of the exhibits. There was a nice 'Make you own Launch Vehicle' to explore Venus, a comet OR one of the moons of Uranus; a team of three individuals had to choose two spacecraft objects each and then launch the vehicle. The launch would fail if a wrong combination of components was chosen. There was also a telescope like exhibit which allowed you to zoom into one of four cosmic objects.

Moving down to the ground floor, there was a display of images by the winners of 'Astro Photographer of the Year' contest conducted in association with Flickr. The images were literally 'out of the world'. Flickr also has an Astrophotography group that is worth checking. If you are visiting London, then i strongly recommend a visit to the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. And do read Anil Ananthaswamy's book.

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