I normally try to post at least one item per week in my blog, but I missed last week. That's because I've been frantically busy preparing for a four-week vacation.
I'm off to India. Astronomy's not one of my primary goals, but every place on Earth and every human endeavor has some relation to astronomy, the oldest and most universal of all the sciences (except maybe medicine). So whenever and wherever I go, my vocation and avocation travel with me.
Moving 15° farther south potentially opens up new celestial vistas. But the great southern objects in autumn's evening sky are all galaxies, which require a big telescope to do them justice — and I'm not about to schlep a scope along on this trip. Maybe I'll find out how many of the Fornax galaxies are visible through 10×30 binoculars.
My primary observational goals are to show my wife two things she's never seen: Canopus, the sky's second-brightest star, and the zodiacal light. Eta Carinae will also be poking above the horizon just before dawn, but it will be so low that I doubt we'll get a decent view.
Astronomy is also tremendously important in India's cultural heritage. If you think people are crazy about astrology in the West, you should see India! But that's a topic for a whole 'nother article ...
On a more sober note, it was India that gave us the mathematical tools (via the Arabs) that were required to make the jump to modern science. And India is home to what are perhaps the most architecturally striking astronomical observatories in the world: the five Jantar Mantars constructed by Maharajah Jai Singh II (1688-1743).
What intrigues me most about these observatories is how archaic they were when they were built. Though Jai Singh was a Hindu, his observatories are clearly descended from Islamic astronomical tradition. They very much resemble the observatory in Samarkand built by Ulugh Beg, another (far greater) astronomer-king. But whereas Ulugh Beg's observatory was cutting-edge when it was built in the 15th century, telescopes rendered naked-eye observatories obsolete a century before Jai Singh built his. And Jai Singh, a highly cultured man, must surely have known that.
So perhaps the Jantar Mantars were built more for publicity than for practical use. I suppose we'll never know.