Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Enduring Enigma

The Backdrop            
Sometime in February 2010, I received an email message from Dr S V Narasimhan (referred to as SVN in the rest of this post) of Virajpet in Coorg district of Karnataka, inviting me to read his latest blog post relating to his adventures and experiences on the day of the great Total Solar Eclipse of 16 February 1980.  A casual mention of Bhatkal as the place from where he had successfully viewed the total eclipse of the Sun in the nick of time that day set off a chain of developments and events, both exciting and puzzling, which are still reverberating in my memory and I am keen on sharing these with my readers in this blog post.  My narration of these is perhaps an unintended illustration of the ‘scientific method’ referred to in my last blog post titled “Is science education promoting scientific temper?”
Incidentally, SVN is a well-known practicing physician, with varied interests and hobbies.  Like me he is an amateur astronomer, but unlike me, he lives in a place where the night skies can be seen in much greater glory that I am able to.  More prominently, he is a wild-life conservationist, an artist and a bird watcher whose publication, Feathered Jewels of Coorg, is an outstanding work of its kind.   I have had the pleasure of corresponding with him frequently and meeting him once in a famous residential public school not far from his home town.  He had been introduced to me by the late Prof G T Narayana Rao who had triggered in him a passion for observing the night sky.
Incidentally also, it was after reading this particular blog post of SVN that I discovered the great communicative potential of blogging, decided to start my own and wrote my first post to mark the 30th anniversary of the great total solar eclipse of 16 Feb 1980 which was a marvellous experience for me personally and had left a permanent imprint in my memory.  Further stimulus was provided by my former colleague at RIE Mysore, Dr N N Prahallada, who wanted me to write about my China experiences and offered to get them published in a local newspaper.  While I was not particularly enthusiastic about writing for any newspaper, I took his suggestion quite seriously and wrote about my China and other experiences in considerable detail in my own blog.
Origin of the Riddle  
After reading SVN’s blog I recalled my own study of the path of totality of the eclipse on that day thirty years ago, with a faint recollection of having rejected Bhatkal as a potential viewing site.  When I opened the NASA Eclipse website and computed the parameters for Bhatkal I was proved right and wrote to SVN, I have just read with great interest your description of the memorable total solar eclipse of 16 Feb 1980 .... While your description and observations match my own experience of the day closely, the mention of Bhatkal as your viewing location intrigues me.  From that place you could not have seen the eclipse in its totality (it would have been about 99.5%, but still only partial).  Is it possible that some uncertainly has crept into your recollection of the event? - after all it was almost thirty years ago....” 
[I later made a reference to this discrepancy in a tailpiece to my blog post dated 16 February 2010, the 30th anniversary of the great total solar eclipse.  This post was devoted to my own memorable experience of viewing the eclipse from the Tungabhadra dam site in Hospet, north Karnataka]
My comment seems to have stung SVN to dig deep into his memory, make an incisive analysis of the whole chain of events as he could recollect and try to place his location as accurately as possible.  He conveyed the impression that the place from where he saw the total eclipse ‘lasting not more than a minute’ that afternoon could not have been more than a few kilometres north of Bhatkal town on the western coast of north Karnataka.  From his vivid and wonderful description (in Kannada) of the eclipse in his blog there is no way he could have mistaken the 99.5% partial eclipse predicted in Bhatkal for the (nearly) one-minute duration total phase he had actually observed.  Understandably, he said: Though it occurred 30 years ago, I still have the fresh feeling of it as if it happened yesterday!”  Indeed, nobody can ever forget the magnificent and mind-boggling sight of a total solar eclipse, and for most people this is an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Mystery 
SVN’s response made me study the path of the eclipse over the subcontinent from a variety of authoritative sources, again including the highly informative and technically accurate NASA Eclipse website.  Given below is a Google map of the belt of totality computed and reproduced from this website. 
As I had found out earlier, Bhatkal town falls just outside the totality belt and the eclipse could not have been total there or even a few kilometres north of it for that matter.  However, considering the conviction implicit in SVN’s reply, I strongly considered the possibility of a cartographic error in the preparation of the map of the subcontinent, perhaps just confined to the neighbourhood of Bhatkal.  Hastily, though tentatively, I even concluded so.  I communicated this to him and promised to investigate the matter further.  Looking back, this was an unwarranted and embarrassing slip up on my part.
For a fleeting moment I also considered the possibility of an error in the computation of the eclipse data, but immediately abandoned it as a preposterous proposition considering the extraordinary accuracy of astronomical computations now achievable – indeed a mind blowing precision that can be counted in micrometers and nanoseconds!   The NASA website uses the renowned Google maps and the calculations of astronomer Dr Fred Espenak, who is regarded in such high esteem that he is often referred to as "Mr Eclipse".  Espenak's eclipse calculations combined with possible cartographic errors reflected in Google maps are now known to be in error by utmost a few metres, but here we are facing an uncertainty of tens of kilometres!  Newtonian mechanics is not good enough to produce such precision and indeed the computations utilize Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, once regarded as an exotic idea and something that has now become an essential part of any geographical positioning system (GPS) employing earth orbiting satellites and atomic clocks.
SVN and I had both successfully and independently simulated the total solar eclipse at Bhatkal using the Starry Night Pro Plus (Ver. 6.3.6) astronomy software package which is perhaps the finest and best known software of its kind in the world.  This misled me into taking the cartographic error proposition more seriously than the situation demanded. We had both made the mistake of not examining the simulation outcomes deeply enough.  Had we done that we would have discovered that this package not only simulated a total eclipse at Bhatkal when none was possible, but also showed that it could last as long as four minutes!  This was absurd since the duration of totality was nowhere close to this figure.  We would have certainly concluded that Starry Night Pro Plus was thoroughly unreliable, at least for the purpose of simulation of complex astronomical events.  SVN had also tried out a few other other, lesser known and not necessarily less reliable, software packages and obtained quite conflicting results.  The message was loud and clear – only the NASA data based on Espenak’s calculations could be trusted!
Before I could delve into a deeper study of the anomaly, SVN wrote back in considerable detail about his own follow-up investigation which led him to believe that he could have mistakenly equated Bhatkal with Murudeshwar, about 15 km north of the former.  He gave me some very convincing reasons as to how this could have happened.  In a humorous vein he has elaborated on these in his latest blog post dated 12 April 2010 in which he also graciously acknowledges the mystery opened up by my observations.  Apparently, thirty years ago Murudeshwar was not the famous tourist destination it is now and there may have been nothing distinctive about it then.  
The Enigma   
It is here that the mystery deepens further and becomes an enigma.   Murudeshwar, though about 15 km north of Bhatkal, it is still not exactly inside the totality belt, certainly nowhere near the one-minute duration of totality observed by SVN (see Google map below).  To have observed a one-minute total eclipse, SVN should have positioned himself further north of Murudeshwar by about 10-12 km – perhaps just south of Manki shown in the map.  Even if he was somewhere there it would be almost impossible to recall it in precise detail after such a long lapse of time.

Murudeshwar & Bhatkal
Let me take the readers away from the main theme for a while and narrate my own experience of visiting both Bhatkal and Murudeshwar which are only about 15 km apart and curiously related to each other as described by SVN.  I had an occasion to visit both during October 2005 on some official work at several places along north coastal Karnataka.  I was residing with a colleague at an excellent hotel within the Murudeshwar temple town complex adjoining the sea.  It is a great place, very well maintained, of special interest to tourists, and hosts the world’s tallest statue of Lord Shiva as well as an even taller and impressive rajagopuram (incomplete at that time) as part of the temple complex.    Sunset is a spectacular sight against the backdrop of the greenery in the complex.  Here are two photographs I had taken during my visit:

Bhatkal was a busy, bustling town with considerable commercial activity and quite the antithesis of Murdeshwar.  The two are connected by National Highway 17 and there is also a shorter bypass route between them.  An engineering college is located on top of a hillock in Bhatkal and the temple complex of Murudeshwar can be easily seen from there.
SVN’s Vantage Point
I now revert to the main theme of this post.  In 1980 it appears that Murdewhwar was a sleepy village and the eye-catching temple complex it is now famous for was developed much later.  Bhatkal must also have been a relatively small town.  Apparently SVN was unaware of Murdeshwar and may have treated it as part of Bhatkal.  If this reasoning solves the mystery, the enigma still remains, i.e., he could not have observed a one-minute total eclipse from either place and should have travelled further north of Murdeshwar by at least 10 km.   In his blog post, SVN recalls that he got down in a hurry somewhere on the highway north of Bhatkal, was very anxious not to miss out on the fast approaching total phase of the eclipse, walked a short distance and joined a diehard group of 50-60 enthusiastic people who had resolutely defied superstition and gathered to see the eclipse in a large open area in front of a school close to the highway.  He thinks that this information may not be sufficient now to pinpoint the exact location from where he had watched the eclipse.  So, he is not sure if an attempt to retrace his journey now would bear fruit.  I tend to agree.  If he tries to retrace his route someday, as indeed he intends to, his best hope is to locate a school in the neighbourhood of Manki, preferably with a large open space in front of it and close to NH 17.  I have suggested to him that he might like to undertake the journey primarily to see Murudeshwar as a major tourist attraction and try to locate the vantage point too as a welcome bonus if successful.  I have also suggested that he should carry a GPS device with him to find out the geographical coordinates of the vantage point accurately if he succeeds in identifying it.  This should enable us to settle the issue definitively.
Much ado about nothing?
Why am I so concerned about where someone could or couldn’t have observed a natural event however rare or spectacular it may have been? Why do I keep pestering someone about information on something that happened over thirty years ago?  Am I not carrying my obsession too far?  Fortunately, SVN understands that I am motivated solely by my eagerness to resolve a conflict that I myself had just stumbled upon and is willing to try to find the answer if possible at all.  Till then, quoting Winston Churchill completely out of context, this wholly academic and otherwise trivial issue will remain “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma”.  It is quite possible that the answer will never be found.  However, all available pieces of evidence rule out both Bhatkal and Murudeshwar as the location from where SVN observed the total solar eclipse that eventful afternoon over thirty years ago.
[Dr Narasimhan’s blog posts are accessible at:]