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Astronomy @ Taj Workshop, Agra, India, February 2016

A few months ago, I was recruited to join Astronomy At Taj. This wasn't a regular astronomy conference; rather, it was combination star-formation workshop / educational winter school / cultural exchange tour. I spent four days in Agra as part of it. I gave three talks (two on New Horizons, and one on planet formation), and participated on two panels (one on ET open to the public, and one on Contact).

The conference was attended by roughly 30 undergraduate Indian astronomy & physics students, and a dozen Canadian students. There were another 50+ engineering students from the host institution, Anand Engineering College, in Agra. Most of these local students helped put the conference together. While India has some well-developed infrastructure in astronomy, most of it is centered in a few places (Bangalore, Pune, maybe Delhi?) so many students across the country don't get a lot of exposure. This was perhaps the first astronomy meeting in Agra ever. Besides tourists coming for the Taj, Agra is not regularly visited... the closest commercial airport is 3-4 hours away in Delhi. Our conference was at the College on the outskirts of Agra, about 90 minutes away from the Taj itself.

Thank you to Pranav Sharma for inviting me -- Pranav is one of the amazing shining stars of modern, young India. His counterpart in Canada is Shantanu Basu at U. Western Ontario, who pulled this off from the Canadian side. It was really fantastic to get to meet a good fraction of India's astronomy students... so much energy and enthusiasm throughout.

I didn't take many photos during the workshop... there were a lot of people with cameras, and the program was dense with talks and workshops. But I do have a few from the trip to the Taj, and a couple from the days before and after.

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Slideshow (big images)

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We've made the front cover of the Agra daily paper!

Apparently the text here (in Hindi) says that it was a NASA workshop, but that's not quite right: it was actually organized by Canada and India, with me being the only American.

Priya Hasan studies star formation at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad. She also organzied a number of sessions in the 'Winter School,' which was the general-astronomy component of the workshop, aimed at a broader audience.
Priyanka Gupta.
Doug Johnstone talks protoplantary disks over some breakfast upma in Agra.
Guirakat Singh is a student in Punjab.
Rakesh Rao is from Goa, and a fantastic astrophotographer (c.f. Astroproject, his effort to popularize and document astronomy throughout India). The skies in Agra are pretty dusty and didn't make for good photography during the week, but he did run a workshop from his room at the guesthouse, shown here...
... while others listen to him.
I was mobbed by selfies during the week, but here I managed to get one myself, with Nisha Katyal (JNU - Delhi), Kamala S (Bangalore), ___, and ___.
At the public event on Tuesday evening, we started with a bit of Indian dance, courtesy of engineering students at Anand Engineering College, which hosted the workshop.
In downtown Agra and open to the public, we had a panel discussion about life in the universe. This guy came up to me afterwards (I was on the panel) and asked if I knew about the Greek aliens. Then he started talking about how aliens built the pyramids. If only I had as awesome a title as he does.
The opening ceremonies made it into the Agra paper. Behind me are Chris Essex, Sharon Essex, and Stephie Cyr. And that's Pranav and Shantanu next to me.

Devendra Ojha (TIFR) is giving a talk about India's participation in the TMT (30 Meter Telescope) project... India is contributing Rs 1300 cr ($250M), which will give them a 10% share. Parts of the mirror actuators and support are being fabricated by Godrej in Mumbai, and telescope control software will be developed elsewhere in India.

Most of the organizers and lecturers were staying at a college guest house down the road. From left is Sharon Essex (cut off), Fumitaka Nakamura (NOAJ), Sami Dib (Niels Bohr Institute), S N Hasan (MANUU = Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad), Doug Johnstone (U Vic), Priya Hasan (MANUU, Hyderabad), Stephie Cyr, Shantanu Basu (U Western Ontario, Canada), and Chris Essex (legs only, UWO). Chai is served at 7 AM, in prep for the bus ride to the main campus and breakfast at 8.
Day three of the conference -- Taj Mahal day. Our first view of the Taj, from an adjacent park (run by the Archaeological Society of India) where we have our morning session.
Two co-organizers, both of whom grew up in India (Shantanu Basu in Kolkata; Pranav Sharma in Agra). But as of this moment, only one had ever been to the Taj.
We're all on the grass here, discussing grad schools, career paths, scholarship options, and so forth. Many of the Indian students are interested in going to MSc / PhD programs in the US, so those of us with experience give the advice we have.
Meanwhile, there's a solar telescope getting set up...
Nisha Patel gets ready to check out those sunspots.
Gurkirat Singh wants to sudy cosmology.
Rakesh Rao talks about his four trips to Antarctica to document the construction of the Indian Antarctic base... with Priyanka Gupta, __, Komala Shivanna, ___ (photographer), ___ (works on MRO data), and ___.
Doug Johnstone with Dattatreyo Guha (St. Xavier's Kolkata) and Gurikat Singh.
I might have used slightly different word order myself, but I do get the point. For what it's worth, in six months in India, I've only seen one or two animals like this.
With Suraj Sharma, one of the volunteers, a student at the college.
Well, cliche away - here we are. I thought it would be interesting to visit the Taj Mahal, but not really on my must-do list. It turns out it's a pretty amazing place.
This is what everyone does, so I was powerless to resist.
There are two things about the Taj that make it cool.

The first is that it is really, really big.

And the second is that it is nearly pure white... or at least, moreso than any other building you have ever seen. It's incredible.

Hang on here. The price of the Taj is given in terms of grams of gold. A bit of math gives it as 1 million ounces, which at current prices, is nearly $1 billion. For a massive infrastructre project, 20 years of construction, thousands of workers, that sounds actually plausible.
The building is in remarkably good shape. There is some restoration work ongoing, but for the most part, it is maintained very well. Maintainers of apartment buildings, trains, roads, etc. across India could learn a lot here!
It is so huge. We are looking at the bottom third here.
Shoe covers are mandatory inside. Most people use the standard-issue ones, although some bring their own.
This family was fun to watch...
Off to the side of the Taj proper are several other buildings, made of much more normal standstone.
These guys are fixing (or replacing) marble tiles for one of the Taj's towers. The marble comes from Rajasthan -- not far away, and in fact we saw many marble mines on our trip to Rajasthan over xmas this year. Most of the other rocks for inlays comes from much further away.


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Henry Throop

Last modified Fri Nov 11 20:05:51 2016