Sunday, October 28, 2007

Travelogue: Planetarium in AMNH

It had to happen. It has happened very rarely in the past but it had to happen someday. And what a day it was!
It was a weekend and I was off in search of the Planetarium in New York – Hayden Planetarium which is part of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). I didn’t have any problem with identifying which metro train to take – had got used to the layout of New York city as well as the subway system.
The museum was within another park that was just as beautiful as the other parks I had seen in the city – lush green grass, clearly demarcated footpaths, tall trees and benches scattered in many places. I bought a ticket which covered everything – right from the regular exhibitions to the special exhibition on gold. I soon realized that even a full day might not be sufficient to go through everything in that building; it was just too much to cover – you can run through the exhibits but if you wanted to read interesting facts and improve knowledge, one day was just not enough unless you come when the museum opens.

Before I had even glanced through the section on space travel it was time for the first Imax show – it was about exploring Mars; about the development and deployment of two rovers – Spirit and Opportunity; about some challenges faces, stiff deadlines and eventual success. The two machines are still alive in Mars – which is way beyond their expectations; even the designers weren’t sure how long they would last. The most fascinating thing was watching college students contribute to the project along with their professors. It was inspiring and for a while I wished that I had pursued an MS; could have been part of something special. I hope that someday such opportunities will arise for students in Indian colleges.

It wasn’t long before it was time for lunch; I went for a pizza slice and a burger with a banana for lunch. The planetarium show was awesome; you feel just as if you are in the middle of the sky with nothing around you.

Then there was a special exhibition on gold; there were a lot of gold specimens inside and only there did I learn that the gold standard for regulating foreign exchange was abandoned in favour of the fiat system (wondering what is the gold standard? – any body issuing currency in that system has to redeem equivalent amount of gold for money – so if you had a dollar then you are actually entitled to claim gold equivalent to 1 dollar; foreign exchange was pretty straight forward in this system – everything is mapped to gold).

I also learnt about the karat system – it denotes the percentage of gold; 22 karat means there are 22 parts in weight of gold in a total of 24 parts (the remaining 2 parts will be some other metal). 24 karat means 100% gold composition. Why is jewellery not made of pure gold? Pure gold is too soft and so gold alloys are used in jewellery.

There was so much to learn in that museum but time didn’t permit – there were some interesting facts about volcanoes, the earth, atmosphere and just about everything. The museum wasn’t filled with static slides alone. There were also some practical models where you could see or feel a particular phenomenon. There was an earthquake alert system which was connected to an international earthquake monitoring system. There was also a audio headset available for free which one could use throughout the trip – each exhibit had a number – press the number in the audio remote and you could hear some expert views on the exhibit. There were also some scheduled guided tours in each of the galleries were museum personnel would guide you through each exhibit.
It was a fun place to be in – and if you could spend two days there then you can digest everything. Everyone was bound to find something or the other interesting.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Travelogue: How much for a smile?

The days raced by as they usually do. I chatted with one of my mechanical stream college mates who completed his MS recently and is now working in: (surprise) solar energy technology. Surprise because now almost everyone is into IT – be it mechanical, civil, commerce etc.

We talked for a little over an hour and I couldn’t help but smile each time I thought about the incidents he narrated that happened recently. After spending three years in the US, he went back home to India on vacation. He was happy with few things and upset with many. An amusing incident was when he smiled or wished strangers “good morning” and they returned a blank (or even angry) stare in acknowledgement. It was a nice habit that you pick up in the US – wishing people you see in the bus stop, in shops, the waiters, drivers, colleagues and just about everyone you cross; bare minimum was a smile. But back home you would get long stares in return as if you had committed a sin in public. Here passengers thanked the bus driver while departing the bus and the bus driver would reciprocate with a smile. It kind of lifts your day when a stranger smiles or wishes you – it has the power to make you forget bad thoughts. In the first few days I was circumspect; wondering why people in the bus stop were wishing good morning; a couple of times I even turned around to check if there was someone standing behind me to whom the wish was intended!

There were certainly some good things one could pick up in the US even though most people back home would usually only talk of the bad things in the US. Life here is 'interesting' is the only word that comes to mind; some good things, good money, luxury life and all but you felt alien in this foreign land. It must be pretty tough for those living away from the heart of the city in US since you get sucked into boredom and loneliness very easily. And even stepping outside home is the same as being inside because there is nothing except highways and deserted streets. And the more you think of it the more lonely you'll start feeling especially if you are alone at home!

Just as I was lost in my thoughts another college mate rang up; he was in IT and posted onsite in some remote rural location in US. He spoke about the same boredom and loneliness I was thinking about – and why was he still here? Money. “Make some money now and then go back home and settle down” was his reply. And there was lots of money to be made – Indian IT was booming and the best money to be made was by working at the client location onsite. His time pass was movies and TV – and there was enough on TV to keep you busy – hundreds of channels, many movies playing on them, option of ordering a movie on demand etc.

Sadly enough when I arrived in the US, I thought I could play in the Indian stock markets but the time zone differences meant that the markets opened when it was midnight in New York! I did try to keep up a few days but found it really tough – at least luck was on my side; a few things which I bought and later thought would cause a loss took a U-turn; as the month end approached my profit was increasing. The markets were one of the ways to break the monotonous daily routine and was proving fruitful!