by Salman Hameed
LAST members after the meeting
Umair's observatory is really good. It was cloudy that night - and later blindingly foggy. Observations were therefore impossible. But he have me a short tour of the observatory on top of his house that hosts a 14-inch Celestron telescope. Right next to the dome is a comfortable control (warm in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer time) from where he can control the telescope and does image processing. There was a couch that can also serve as a bed on long observing nights. Umair told me that this control room also becomes a place for midnight (more likely 2am) philosophical musings for astronomers using the telescope. I can totally see that. The observatory is located in Lahore - so light pollution is high. But he can still get quite good results and can push the seeing to 4-5". Plus, LAST organizes observing sessions, both for the public and for its members, in areas with darker skies (see some of their activities here). I did not get a chance to see the new H-alpha telescope to observe the Sun - but if you have a chance, go here and see the spectacular images taken by the telescope. Oh and did I mention that the whole observatory is powered by solar power? "Going completely green" was one of the things Umair announced at the beginning of the meeting along with an impressive list of activities that LAST accomplished just in the month of December.
The meeting and my talk was set outside (yes, there was a running joke about the wedding shamiana and wedding chairs). It was cold, but 50-60 members showed up. There were artists, musicians, photographers, science students, a yoga teacher, physicists, - all united by their love of astronomy. It was easy to geek out over discussions on f-ratios, ccd imagers, and exposure times. This enthusiasm was also visible in the Q & A - both during and after my talk. Just to give you an idea, the session lasted close to two and a half hours and most of the audience stayed there even as a thick fog outside was beginning to envelop the area. The quality of questions was outstanding: Relativistic effects on light, the possibility of variable physical laws in the universe, the impact of galaxy recession on H-alpha filters we use, etc. Oh - and of course, the reality of supermassive blackholes as depicted recently in Interstellar. Noteworthy also was an absence of any religious questions. This was surprising as I'm used to fielding statements or leading questions about miracles or other claims about astronomy in public talks. In fact, just the night before, I had such an experience at a family dinner. But I'm delighted that people mostly stayed on science at the LAST meeting.
I think I would be doing a disservice by not mentioning the return drive home. Umair gave me a ride back in a blinding fog. The visibility was zero - and I mean "zero". In fact, initially we kept on trying to clean our windows, but it turned out that they were clean - the fog outside was hugging the windshield. I have never seen such a fog before. I'm glad that everyone on the road was driving at 10 km/hour. My brother was trying to give us directions for home by following some landmarks. He would ask, "What do you see on your left?" My answer was the same - "we can't see ANYTHING". We got lucky with the turn and ended up at the right place. But this was certainly an added adventure for the night.
Here are some pictures:
Umair highlighting LAST activities in the month of December
Here is a daytime picture of Umair's observatory (left) and the control room (right)
An example of LAST pubic outreach