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Have you ever tried going to a dark spot, away from city lights to look at the sky from there? You’ll be amazed at the range of colors and brightness variations of stars in the night sky.  Can you guess the number of stars you can see in a very dark sky?  Do you think you can see millions of stars? No!  At the most you can see about six thousand stars in the sky. That means you probably can’t see more than three thousand stars at any given time! Strange, but true!

When you look up in a dark sky you will see stars of many different hues – bluish white, bright white, bright red, orange, yellow and several other colors in between. Some stars visible to naked eye are extremely bright, while a large number of the stars are faint. But have you wondered if these stars had any names?

Most of the bright stars in the sky, that you can see even from a light-polluted city sky have proper names. In India, many of these stars were named thousands of years ago and the same names are in vogue today. The names of twentyseven asterisms (stars, or groups of stars) starting with Ashwini, ending with Revathi which are part of the twelve constellations in the zodiac have existed for more than four thousand years. By the way, many of the stars from this list of Indian asterisms are not very bright but they were named because they helped ancient Indians to formulate their calendar based on the movement of Sun and the Moon in the background of these stars.

Apart from these, names in Indian languages are available to few other bright stars outside the zodiac as well. The pole star, called ‘Dhruva’ is probably the most well known of such stars. The word ‘Dhruva’ (ध्रुव)  in Samskrta means ‘constant’, ‘firm’ etc.  This is a very apt name because the position of this star in the sky never changes and stays constant.  The Pole star is a not an exceptionally bright star, but is a notable star because of its position it occupies in the sky. All stars in the sky appear as though they rotate around it. The Pole star never rises or sets, nor does it show any kind of movement in the sky. If you were at the North Pole, you would see the Pole star directly overhead, and all other stars go around, never rising or setting. However due to the precession of Earth’s orbit, the Pole star 4000 years ago, is not the same Pole star we have today; but tat is another discussion altogether!

Orion-Constellation

                                         The Constellation of Orion

Many of the star names in English are taken from their Roman or Greek names. A large number of star names in English also come from Arabic. For those stars for which there is no native Indian name, Indian stargazers use their international (English) names.

For those stars that don’t have proper names, there is another way of nomenclature. The sky is divided into 88 constellations. Constellations are imaginary star patterns in the sky. Some constellations actually resemble what they are supposed to resemble, and for some constellations, you must have an extremely eccentric imagination to relate a constellation to the figure it is supposed to mean! But that is beside the point.  Any star you that you can see, belongs to one constellation or the other. The brightest star in a constellation is normally denoted by the Greek letter alpha, the second brightest beta, the third brightest gamma and so on. Thus, the brightest star in the constellation of Centaur would be called Alpha Centauri; the second brightest star in the constellation Leo would be called Beta Leonis. In this system, the Pole star would be called Alpha Ursa Minoris, because it is the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor. Thus every star that has a proper name also has a name based on the constellation and the brightness of the star within the constellation it belongs to.

This method of naming although very useful has given some incorrect names too. For example, the bright red star Betelgeuse is called Alpha Orionis, meaning it is the brightest star in the constellation Orion. But if you look up the sky now to look at Orion, you will notice there is one more star that is brighter than Betelgeuse! That star is Rigel (or Beta Orionis, as you might have guessed). Betelgeuse is a variable star, meaning its brightness varies over time. There was a time when Betelgeuse might have actually looked brighter to bare eyes than Rigel, and that’s when this name must have come from and it has stayed on.

Using Greek letters as prefixes to stars would only work for a handful of stars in any constellation. When you look at the sky with a telescope, you’d see thousands of new stars, invisible to naked eye. A new problem of naming these arises. Astronomers have a very interesting way of dealing with this problem.

Just like the Earth is divided by imaginary lines called longitudes from North Pole to South Pole, the sky is also divided by imaginary lines going from the north pole of the sky to the South Pole. Just as there is a prime meridian on Earth (0 degree longitude), there is a 0 hours right ascension (RA) line in the sky. The line that goes through the First point of Aries (The point in sky where the Sun would be seen on the spring equinox) is called 0 hours RA. Any star in sky can be located by its co-ordinates – how many hours (and/or minutes) away from the first point of Aries and how far is it from the equator of the sky. This is very similar to locating a place on the Earth knowing the longitude and latitude.

Now you must be guessing how this helps in naming stars! Every star in a constellation is given a number by the order of right ascension. As an example, the star within the area marked for the constellation Virgo and with the least right ascension will be labeled 1 Virginis. The star with next higher right ascension will be 2 Virginis and so on. Here there is no correlation between the number and the brightness of the star.

The winter (in the northern hemisphere) are a treat to star gazers, wherever it is not cloudy or rainy!  There are a bunch of bright stars and constellations in the eastern sky. So what are you waiting for? There are many resources on the Internet to help you identify the stars and constellations. Get out and check out those bright constellations like Orion, Taurus, Gemini, Auriga and Perseus in the winter sky. You can start with the three stars from the belt of Orion, which are unmistakable (see figure). I bet you won’t miss the bright stars like Sirius, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Aldebaran and the Pleiades cluster if you head out and watch the evening sky!

-neelanjana

(This is the text of a Toastmaster’s speech I made a long time ago)

(Found this text of a speech I gave at my Toastmasters club (named “Innovators”, sometime in 2011, when I was organizing folders on my PC. Posting as is)

images

I come from India. If you did not know already, India is a land where you’ll find people speak hundreds of language and there are at least 30 languages with more than a million speakers. It is not hard to find people who can speak more than one Indian language. Typical of many urban Indians, I can speak in several of Indian languages too.

But there is one language that I can’t claim to speak, but I can understand quite well. This language is Samskrta. It is the oldest known language of India, and possibly one of the oldest surviving languages of the world. This language has influenced every other language in India to a varying extents, and has a literature that spans over four millennia. Even though it is not claimed as a mother tongue by any, due to the antiquity, and the influence it has on the vocabulary on Indian languages, it is still one of the 22 official languages of the country. Till the time of the colonization of India by the British in the 18th century, it was in fact the pan-Indian language for communication among the educated class. A great number of texts about yoga, Ayurveda (or the science of medicine), Jyotisha (or astronomy) and Ganita (Mathematics) etc are written in this language.

When I was in my elementary school, my parents enrolled me to Samskrta classes. I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to go to those classes, and I don’t know if I had any other opinion, it would have mattered! It was not a language that was taught in my grade school. These classes were held throughout the year, without even a summer break! What this meant was that I had to wake up early, take a shower, go to the class, come back home and then head out for my school. Sometimes, there were additional classes in the evening too. Going to these classes were the routine for me from the time I was in my kindergarten to about my junior year in high school. Since I lived in a small town, I could walk or bike to the classes quickly, so that was not a big problem. But I had to be always aware of these extra two hours needed in my day, when it came to preparing for tests or other work at my school, because I could never use the last couple hours before school to finish up anything!

Over the years, I passed through several levels in these Samskrta language classes. The classes were grouped based on the level, and not on the age. Since I started out early, I was almost always the youngest student in my class! Since Samskrta is not really a widely spoken language, there wasn’t much thrust in learning to speak the language, but the emphasis was on understanding the structure of the language, grammar and and appreciating literary texts. Some texts, specifically poetry had to be memorized too. As we all know, things that are committed to memory at a young age generally remain with us till much later in my life. Although I stopped going to my Samskrta classes during mid-high school, I still remember those verses memorized years ago.

Luckily, my interest in this language did not wane even after I stopped going to those classes. About five or six years ago, I tried to translate some poetry from Samskrta, to Kannada, my mother tongue; generally I started out by those poems that I knew by heart, from my age old classes! I started a blog to post these translations, and the positive comments from readers encouraged me to try out more. Then I had to look for other poems that I did not know before. Now that I am not that young anymore, and and can not commit these verses to memory, it was indeed a good idea for me to try translating whenever I found a new verse that sounded good to me!

To make a long story short, sometime back I was asked if I would like to publish a collection of my selected translations, and a book was published this year! The book is titled “Hamsanaada” and it is in Kannada. It got some favorable reviews in the press too.

As the verse on the opening page of my book says, needless to say translated from an age old Sanskrtit saying – “Start your kids on good things, when they are really young. The pictures etched on a wet mud pot will stay even after you use it for cooking for a long time!”

Dear Innovators, start off your kids to some good things – be it sports,or arts like music and dance, or learning a new language, or whatever else that they can grow up with, and take into their adulthood. With the current life styles, it may be a hard choice to put kids into many activities, and the kids may even resent them now. But I am sure you can find one or two activities apart from the regular schooling, that they’ll like or at least lean to not hate! I’m sure they will be thankful for what you did for them, later in their adult life, because the pictures etched on a wet mud pot, indeed stay forever!

-neelanajana

p.s: Excerpts from my book Hamsanada is now available on Google Play as well as on  iTunes Store as a free app. Download and read it on your mobile device.

Who hasn’t heard President Obama’s 2008 electoral pitch – “Yes, We Can”? Although I’m not planning on contesting an elections any soon,I firmly believe in the power of the “Yes, We Can” attitude – Yes, We can, but only if we want it; Yes. We can, only if we persist. Yes. We can, only if we strive for it..

I am reminded of a Samskrta subhashita of Bhartrhari which classifies people into three categories -The people in the lowest rung, who never try because they are scared of failing. The mediocre people who start off with their task, but stop when faced with hurdles and finally those excellent men and women, who despite of being hunted and haunted by troubles and hardships, do not stop in their endeavor, and work towards achieving their goals.51kmxl9EkjL._SL500_SS500_

On March 8th, the world celebrated the International Women’s Day.That day, I remembered, Nagamani, a very remarkable woman. Nagamani was born about a century ago in a middle class family in village in south India. As a young girl, she was trained in Indian classical music along with regular schooling. However she wasn’t encouraged to be a performing musician and was married at an young age. To her sorrow, she wasn’t allowed to take the Veena, the musical instrument she was trained on with her because it was considered a family heirloom, one that could only pass to a son. Nagamani moved on to join her husband. Since her husband was a forest officer, that meant she would now live in extremely remote locations, surrounded by the wild and the beautiful but without the music a town life could offer. As a remedy, Nagamani decided to make some of her own, got herself a harmonium and taught herself playing it. She played hours on end, just for herself, and perfected the art.

Life wasn’t a bed of roses for Nagamani: 12 childbirths out of whom 4 did not survive; one of the children became a victim of brain fever and ended up being disabled and needing constant care. But Nagamani did not let go of her music. As the children were growing, she kept playing the harmonium, for herself, and for her kids, and to instill the love of music among them. Years rolled by, and some of her children indeed become performers, something she herself could not do earlier. And her addiction to Indian classical music was passed to many of her grandchildren and great grand children too. She was an example of the “Yes, We can” spirit to engage in activities that are close to our hearts even if there are obstacles on the way.

It’s almost three decades since Nagamani passed away. I was very young then, but I still remember glimpses of her mastery over the keyboard that created wonderful music; and I still carry the love of music that she made a family heirloom. Nagamani, was my grandmother.

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Now, let me switch gears to something more contemporary. Susan Spencer Wendel, a journalist left her job as a legal reporter when she was diagnosed with a serious condition called ALS in 2011. The disease left with her muscles dying and now she can barely talk and move her fingers. With her health fast deteriorating, she decided it was time to live the last couple years to the fullest. Last year, she went to the Yukon territories up North to see the northern lights with her best friend. She started writing her memoir typing only with her index finger on her iphone as that was the only functioning finger by then. This memoir, titled “Until I say Good Bye” goes on sale today, March 12th, 2013. Susan is a living example of the “Yes, we can” attitude doing things that we love to do, about in spite of the most grueling hardships.

How many times have we told ourselves that we don’t have time for things we wanted to do or wanted to do better, and blame external factors? “Only if I have more time” – “only if I had more money”, “only if the weather was not so cold” , “only if the neighbours dog didn’t bark so much” – Oh well. I made that last one up. But you get the idea!

Come on, let’s stop making lame excuses and move on! To do things that we really love. To do things that we care about. To do things we enjoy. And to say with pride and satisfaction , “Yes, We Can”.

-neelanjana

(This is the text of a speech I gave at my Toastmaster’s club contest today: March 12th, 2013)

This is a story from long time ago. You’ll have to go back to a sunny day in the middle of 12th century, to the grand old city of Ujjain in central India. It was to be a memorable day in Leelavati’s life. A day that was expected only once in a girl’s life time – the day when she would be the bride. The day when the groom would tie the golden bridal necklace around her neck. The time had been carefully chosen. You know, the bride’s father was none other than Bhaskara Acharya – Or “the learned teacher Bhaskara”, who was considered as one of the very best mathematician, astronomer and astrologer during those times.

Bhaskara was immensely happy when his daughter Leelavati was born. As was customary in those times, he prepared a chart of planetary positions at the time of his daughter’s birth. When he saw what those positions predicted, he really had to start worrying because the positions indicated the girl would never get married. But how could he not marry off his daughter? Marrying off ones daughter was considered as one of the most critical duties of a family man. Giving the hand of a daughter to a suitable groom was a guaranteed way for a good place in the heavens after death.

But Bhaskara did not leave this worry affect his bringing up of the little child Leelavati. Life went on as usual and Leelavati grew to become a young beautiful and intelligent girl. Bhaskara did leave no effort in educating her with the arts and sciences he was proficient at.  There qas no paucity of material to be taught. Leelavati was especially fond of mathematics, and Bhaskara would often compose terse verses with mathematical problems and ask her to solve.

When it was the appropriate age for Leelavati to get married, her father dug into his books again to see if there was a way to get her married, in spite of the shortcoming in her planetary charts. Finally, after careful evaluation, he found an auspicious time, when all the planets would be at the right locations conducive of a long, happy married life. But time was of the essence, and he had to make sure that the wedding ceremonies began exactly at the prescribed time.

Bhaskara went off to search for a suitable match for his girl. He found a groom to his daughter’s and his liking. All arrangements were made. The wedding hall was decorated with flower garlands. The water clock was also brought to the wedding hall to make sure that the ceremonies began at the right time. The water clock consisted of a big pot of water, in which a metallic bowl of accurate size, shape and weight that had a small hole of accurate dimensions at the bottom would float. Water would constantly come up into the floating bowl filling it up with water, and ultimately sinking it down, which acted as an accurate time marker.

Young Leelavati, still curious at heart, wanted to take a peek into the new water clock that was brought into the wedding hall. When no one was looking, she went near the water clock and peeped inside, and as luck would have it, one of the pearls from her nose ring fell into the floating bowl and covered the hole at the bottom. Unluckily, Leelavati did not take note.

Everyone was waiting for the arrival of the groom’s family, so that the wedding ceremonies might start at the appointed hour. Bhaskara went and checked the clock and was satisfied to see that the appointed hour had not come, because the bowl was still floating. After a while, he checked it again, again to see the bowl at the same position. Now he was sure something had gone terribly wrong. He looked carefully, and saw the pearl that came in between his daughter and her marital bliss, by getting stuck in the hole in the bowl and thus making the auspicious hour pass. The planets had indeed foretold the truth. The groom’s family did not make it to the wedding venue after all.

Bhaskara became sad for a while, but he was a learned man. He went to his daughter Leelavati, and said: “Oh my dear girl, don’t worry. I wanted to get you married so that you could have a family of your own, have good children who would carry the family’s name. But the planets proposed something else. I don’t consider this a defeat. I will make your name immortal”.

He then went on to write a book, which comprised of all those problems that he was giving his daughter, which she was very fond of solving. It had 278 verses, dealing with different fields in mathematics like arithmetic, geometry and algebra. And he called this book after his little girl “Leelavati”, and making his girl immortal as he promised.

Here is one verse from Leelavati (on calculations involving fractions) translated by your truly:

 

ಬೇಟದಾಟದಲಿರೆ ಇನಿಯ ಇನಿಯೆ, ಮುತ್ತಿನ ಸರವವಳದು ಹರಿಯೆ
ಮೂರಲ್ಲೊಂದು ಉರುಳಿದವು ನೆಲಕೆ; ಐದರಲೊಂದು ಹಾಸಿಗೆ ಕೆಳಗೆ;
ಅವಳು ಹುಡುಕಿದಳು ಆರಲ್ಲೊಂದು; ಇನಿಯ ಹೆಕ್ಕಿಹನು ಹತ್ತರಲೊಂದು
ದಾರದಲೀಗ ಉಳಿದರೆ ಆರು, ಸರದಲಿ ಮೊದಲೆಷ್ಟು ಮುತ್ತಿದ್ದಾವು ಹೇಳು!

ಸಂಸ್ಕೃತ ಮೂಲ: 56th verse of Leelavati

ಹಾರಸ್ತಾರಸ್ತರುಣ್ಯಾ ನಿಧುವನ ಕಲಹೇ ಮೌಕ್ತಿಕಾನಾಂ ವಿಶೀರ್ಣೇ
ಭೂನೌ ಯಾತಾತ್ರಿಭಾಗಃ ಶಯನತಲಗತಃ ಪಂಚಮಾಂಶೋಂಸ್ಯ ದೃಷ್ಟಃ |
ಪ್ರಾಪ್ತಃ ಷಷ್ಟಾಃ ಸುಕೇಶ್ಯಾ ಗಣಕ ದಶಮಕಃ ಸಂಗ್ರಹೀತಃ ಪ್ರಿಯೇಣ
ದೃಷ್ಟಂ ಷಟ್ಕಂಚ ಸೂತ್ರೇ ಕಥಯ ಕತಿಪಯೈಃ ಮೌಕ್ತಿಕೈರೇಷ ಹಾರಃ ||

-neelanjana

p.s: The skeleton of this narration is based on Indian folklore – but the details are my imagination.
p.p.s: This post came from the script of speech I gave at my Toastmaster’s club (And won the best speaker of the day too!)
p.p.p.s: Solving the puzzle of pearls is left as an exercise to my readers :-)

“There are seven days, there are seven days,

There are seven days in a week

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday

Thursday Friday Saturday”

You might know this rhyme for a long time, but have you thought why there should be seven days in a week? Why not five? Why not ten?

Or for that matter why there should be a week after all?

If you didn’t know, let’s do some time travel to see the origin of the seven day week.

As a second language learner of English, I remember being surprised at the fact that three of the days of the week (Sunday, Monday and Saturday) had the same meanings as their counterparts in Kannada, my mother tongue. This similarity was very conspicuous given the fact that the names of the months of traditional Indian calendar were very different from their western counterparts. As you might know, Indian names for the days of the week are based on the 7 visible planets (Traditionally, the Sun too was considered a planet) Later on, I came to know that even the names like Tuesday and Wednesday (which do not show a direct relation with Mars and Mercury, were indeed coming from old Germanic words which are either equivalent to the planets or another God or deity with very similar features.

If you look at world languages, there are two distinct ways of naming the days of the week. The first is calling the days of the week as the first day, second day, all the way up to seventh day. Some languages have a ‘Day of rest’ after the sixth day. This system is used in languages such as Hebrew and Mandarin.

In the other scheme, the names of the days are always named on the planets. I will elaborate on this scheme because this one is most likely the fore-runner to the other system.

This naming scheme seems to have originated in or near Babylon around 3000 years ago, and spread to around the world in historic times. The names were obviously based on the planet names, but why should Monday follow Sunday or Saturday follow Friday?

Years and Years of looking at the night sky had made the ancient civilizations proficient in everything seen in the night sky. They had figured out that it took about 365 days between the return of the seasons, and Sun complete a revolution in the sky against the background of the stars in the same time. They call this unit as the ‘year’.

They also knew that there were 12 full moons in one year. In other words, there were 24 waxing and waning cycles of the moon in one year. When they had to define a unit of time shorter than a day,  they choose to divide a day into 24 parts. This is the unit that has come to be known as an hour. This is why we have 24 hours in a day.

These people from ancient civilizations knew that there were exactly seven objects in the sky which moved with the stars being fixed in the background. Each one took a different amount of time to move in the background of stars. Moon took about 27.5 days to return to the same position among the stars. Mercury took about 90 days to return to the same spot among the stars. Venus took about 225 days. Sun took exactly 1 year. Mars took little more than 2 years. Jupiter took about 12 years and finally Saturn took about 30 years.

Now let us write this in a table, in the decreasing order of the revolving time of the planets around the sky in the background of stars, as observed from Earth :

Saturn

1

8

15

22

5

12

19

Jupiter

2

9

16

23

6

13

20

Mars

3

10

17

24

7

14

21

Sun

4

11

18

1

8

15

22

Venus

5

12

19

2

9

16

23

Mercury

6

13

20

3

10

17

24

Moon

7

14

21

4

11

18

1

Earlier, we saw that a day was comprised of 24 hours. Who ever came up with this naming, allocated each hour of the day to a celestial object in this order. Assume on day 1, the first hour (hour when the sun rises is given to Saturn, Then the following hour is given to Jupiter and the third hour to Mars and so on. When you finish 24 hours and go to the next day, you may notice that this hour will be associated with Sun. – and that is the first hour of the next day. Continuing this process repeatedly you will see that the first hours of each day are governed by these planets in the following order – Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn.

This method adopted by Babylonians went to the west through Greeks and Romans. This was also carried to the Far East, most likely through India. All the major Indian languages follow this naming. Japanese, Korean and Old Vietnamese follow this scheme for some of the days of the week and for the rest the days, there are substitutions such as fire –day, water-day etc. But in Japanese, the planets themselves are named on the five principles (fire, water etc) thus indicating the source of naming to be the same. For some reason, this naming is lost in China, which follows a first-day second-day kind of naming.

Many of the customs and rituals followed by ancient civilizations had real scientific principles behind them. I wish we take sometime in understanding the traditions of earlier generations, and take the best part for our future. We should not forget a giant Sequoia tree becomes great by a combination of its ancient roots, and the shoots and blossoms of today.

-neelanjana

ps: This was a speech I gave in my Toastmasters Club :)

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A Collection of  Samskrta Subhashitas, translated to Kannada

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about.me

Ramaprasad K V

Ramaprasad K V

ಕನ್ನಡಿಗ. Musicphile. Bibliophile. Astrophile. Blogophile. Twitterphile.

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