Thanks to “Aiuto allo Zanskar-onlus”, the Italian branch of our association, 66 students from the LMHS were able to follow an astronomy course over a ten-day period. Featuring theoretical and practical classes, thanks to equipment generously provided by the Turin Observatory (telescope, computer and meteorites), the highlight of this experience was certainly the observation of the eclipse of the moon on the evening of July 27, 2018.
Donatella Crosta, an adherent and member of the AaZ-Onlus Committee, is at the origin of this initiative. She gives us her testimony below (free translation of the original Italian text published in La Voce).
Here I am in Zanskar! A land I have loved since my first visit: for its inhabitants who are always smiling, friendly, welcoming and helpful; for the children who come to you and want to shake your hand and say “Julley” and who very rarely beg for a candy; for its huge arid mountains, devoid of vegetation, all in shades of ochre, green and violet. This is Zanskar and much more.
And then the LMHS, the school that always welcomes me so warmly: from the youngest children to the oldest, girls and boys alike, teachers and all the people who work there.
Last year, while observing the sky with myriads of stars and the Milky Way that seemed so close, the idea came to me to create an astronomy course for some of the classes that the science, physics and mathematics teachers would be interested in to teach. I am a physicist, I have always taught physics and the idea of being able to offer a course here motivated me.
I talked to some of the teachers and the school principal about it: they were enthusiastic! As soon as I returned, I started working on the “Astronomy Project” by involving Alberto Cora, a colleague and friend of the Astrophysical Observatory of Turin, with whom I collaborate from time to time on scientific projects. We sent a proposal to the teachers to get their advice and feedback, then we presented our project to the General Assemblies of the AaZ Onlus and AaZ France associations: project approved! Members also expressed their desire to participate.
Alberto and I arrived in Pipiting on July 24, 2018. Here we go! Some preliminary meetings with the teachers involved, Choskyi, Dolma Munjhom, Khrisna, then in classes VI, VII and IX. Students are immediately interested and attentive: they ask questions; not all concepts are easy for them to understand because they have little knowledge of astronomy. We repeat, re-explain and teachers often translate from English into their own language: Bodhi.
For two weeks, we organise three courses every day, often outside of school hours, to avoid them missing out on other courses. We work overtime: they are so enthusiastic and curious.
Thanks to the Stellarium software, we were able to show them the circumboreal celestial zone (the region of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper) using Vedic script, but the students did not know these constellations and were not able to suggest local names.
Only older people remembered the local astronomical names. For example, the Milky Way, which at an altitude of 3600 metres and in the absence of light pollution is a breathtaking sight, is called “Lemule”. They also mentioned the Hyades and the Pleiades under the names of Midum and Mituc. These names do not correspond to those of Indian Vedic astronomy, but are probably of Tibetan origin.
We were surprised to learn that “star” in the Bodhi language means “karma”.
We used the telescope to observe the sun during the day because at night it was more difficult to retain students who live in villages far from the school. But on July 27, the evening of the lunar eclipse, the Director organized a bus ride for students from nearby villages. Munjhom, the computer professor, set up a large screen to see the eclipse broadcast live from Delhi. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the whole one because of the clouds.
That evening, the children were able to use the telescope to observe Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and the moon before the eclipse began.
The telescope remained at school, offered by the Astrophysical Observatory of Turin. We have taken care to show teachers and some students how to assemble and install it so that teachers are autonomous to carry out activities in the coming years.
We had the pleasure of hearing His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who, during a lecture held on July 25 near his Potang residence in Pipiting, stressed the importance of science, including astronomy and astrophysics. In his teaching, he explained how to recognize the planets of stars, distinguishing between the first that seem to shine with a constant light, and the second that shine. He also pointed out that in some ancient Buddhist writings it was wrongly written that the moon shines with its own light when it only reflects sunlight.
It was a wonderful experience for many reasons: the relationship with these attentive and curious boys and girls who participated in the lessons, who asked questions and greeted us warmly when they saw us in the school. From a pedagogical point of view, we realized, using an anonymous questionnaire (so as not to intimidate them) that many of them had fully understood the concepts transmitted. It was important to arouse their curiosity and to be able to provide them with the additional information they expected.
I wonder if any of them will follow a course of study oriented towards astrophysics?