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Indian Journal of History of Science, 46.3 (2011) R.G. CHANDRA: A SELF-TAUGHT SKY WATCHER AND HIS CONTRIBUTIONS TO OBSERVATIONAL ASTRONOMY SUDHINDRA NATH BISWAS *, UTPAL MUKHOPADHYAY ** AND SAIBAL RAY *** (Received 17 February 2011) Radha Gobinda Chandra was a self-taught astronomer of a remote village of Indian subcontinent. By virtue of his sheer perseverance, determinism and love for sky watching he achieved so much dexterity in observational astronomy that his observational results (mainly related to variable stars) were highly valued by famous astronomers of Europe and USA. An account of his life and works has been presented here which reveals his role as an amateur astronomer in the development of astronomy. Key words: Achievements, Foreign correspondences, Observational astronomy, Personal life, Radha Gobinda Chandra 1. INTRODUCTION Radha Gobinda Chandra ( ) was a simple village boy who raised himself from his habit of sky watching to a much higher level of observational astronomy without any formal education. He can be proudly enlisted along with many such dedicated souls for his untiring service rendered to the cause of astronomical development. Chandra was born on 16 July, 1878 in the house of his maternal uncle in the village Bagchar situated some three kilometer away from the district town * Mahatma Aswini Kumar Dutta Road, Nabapally, Barasat, North 24 Parganas, Kolkata , West Bengal, India ** Satyabharati Vidyapith, Nabapally, Barasat, North 24 Parganas, Kolkata , West Bengal, India; ***Department of Physics, Government College of Engineering & Ceramic Technology, Kolkata , West Bengal, India; 484 INDIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY OF SCIENCE Jessore. Jessore was then a contiguous district of Bengal belonging to a state of undivided India. After the partition, major part of the district Jessore is now under Bangladesh. His father Gorachand Chandra was originally from Burdwan district but settled in Bagchar after his marriage with Padmamukhi 1. The maternal uncle s house had a very congenial environment for the all round nourishment of a growing child like Chandra. His maternal uncle being a writer used to maintain a good library. In later years, Chandra had a free access to Bandhab Library maintained by his affluent friend Kedarnath Chandra who himself was a book lover 1. Chandra s interest towards the cosmos was mainly induced by his maternal grand-mother, Sarada Sundari Dhar, a virtuous lady but had a clear perceptions of the constellations, bright stars and the visible planets. Jogendranath Vidyabhusan ( ), the Editor of the Bengali magazine Aryadarshan was a regular visitor to the house because of her knowledge. Chandra started his education at an early age of five years in a primary school in Bagchar and later joined the Jessore Zilla High School to continue his secondary education. During his studies in this school, there happened an incident that greatly influenced the young mind of Chandra to quest for the knowledge relating to cosmos. This happened in the process of preparing his lessons as a student of class six. He had to go through an essay entitled Brahma ṇḍa Ki Proka ṇḍo (How Big the Universe Is) written by a renowned Bengali writer Akshay Kumar Dutta ( ), in his Bengali text book Ca rupath. The dormant urge of Chandra for acquiring knowledge on the wonder world of astronomy was vigorously kindled by the text of the said essay. Since then he intensified his studies on the object and also became more serious for making observations of the celestial objects. However, no reference of particular books which he did read or the celestial objects which he observed during this period is still unknown. At the age of 21 years, while he was still a school student, in 1899, he got married with Gobindamohini Devi who was the second daughter of Tribhangosundar Nath of Murshidabad district 1. Unfortunately his academic career terminated with the third futile attempt for qualifying at the Entrance Examination conducted by the University of Calcutta for the students of class ten. Chandra spent two barren years after he had to give up his effort for continuing formal education. A sense of self respect made him impatient to get rid of his dependence on his family. So, after a little quest, he got a service in the Government Treasury of Jessore much to the dismay of his affluent family members. R.G. CHANDRA: SKY WATCHER ASTRONOMER 485 He was employed as a Podda r (coin tester) in 1901 on a monthly salary of rupees fifteen only. His duty as a Podda r of the Treasury was to examine the genuineness of the metallic coins. In absence of public transport system, Chandra had to travel daily, on a bicycle, all the way of three kilometer from his native village to the Treasury. Throughout his entire service period, he had been very sincere in discharging his duties at the Treasury during day-time and simultaneously he also maintained his habit of observing celestial objects during night. Having completed the continuous service of 35 years, he retired from the elevated post of the Treasurer when he had been drawing a monthly salary of Rs. 175 and thus his day-time compulsion terminated. After the partition of India in 1947, Chandra left his house at Bagchar and took shelter at Sukhchar in the district of North 24 Parganas within the Indian state West Bengal. Finally he settled in 1957 at Durgapally of Barasat, the Headquarter of the North 24 Parganas district, and lived there until his death on 3 April, THE GURU: KALINATH MUKHERJEE On the way to his working place in Jessore Treasury, Chandra used to pay regular visit to the house of a renowned person named Kalinath Mukherjee, B.A., B.L. a practicing lawer in the District Court of Jessore and was also known as an amateur astronomer of considerable fame (see Appendix I). Chandra came to know about the interest and erudition of Mukherjee in astronomy and attended regularly the discourses on astronomy arranged in his house after his day s work at the Treasury. From his regular visit to the discourses, his importance was gradually felt by Mukherjee himself and his associates. The importance of Chandra to Mukherjee became so much that he was entrusted with the responsibility of proof-reading for the books of the latter. Even then he had to procure those works by purchasing them from the market as he was not fortunate enough to receive a complimentary copy from the author. Yet, Mukherjee was his mentor and preceptor for inculcating astronomy in his young mind. 3. OBSERVATION OF COMETS After taking part in the discourses on astronomical topics at the house of Mukherjee, Chandra realized his limitations for the study of the subject. Considering 486 INDIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY OF SCIENCE his own academic attainment, he realized that it would be possible for him to achieve the observational dexterity in astronomy rather than its theoretical intricacy involving the concepts on higher mathematics and physical sciences. Accordingly, he planned his future action and began to observe the starry night sky with keen attention. Gradually, he became acquainted with the constellations, Zodiac and bright stars by the naked eyes. He later procured a binocular to observe the still fainter celestial objects including the meteors and comets. Chandra observed a good number of comets by the naked eyes, as also through the 3-inch and 6.25-inch telescopes (Fig.1) acquired subsequently in 1912 and 1928 respectively. He began his performance as an amateur astronomer with remarkable observational skill on the comet 1P/Halley 1909 R1. He made Fig. 1. Photograph of aged R.G. Chandra working with his telescope along with a photograph of young Chandra (inset) R.G. CHANDRA: SKY WATCHER ASTRONOMER 487 observations on this comet by his naked eyes and also through binocular. This comet remained visible from 25 August 1909 to 16 June 1911 while passed its perihelion distance of A. U. (1 A. U. = km.) on 20 April 1910 at 4 h 17 m 2.4 s U. T. A report on his observation of the comet 1P/Halley was recorded by Chandra in his book entitled Dhumketu (The Comet). At that time Rai Bahadur Jadunath Majumder, Vedanta Bachaspati, M.A., B.L., C.I.E. was the most revered person of Jessore. Rai Bahadur inspired the people of the town so much that they became very enthusiastic for the observation of predicted apparition of the comet. By then, Chandra had no adequate experience for such observation. Even he had no sky atlas except the Bhagola Citram prepared by Mukherjee. But, fortunately he received some guidance from the two articles on the subject, published in the Prova si, a Bengali monthly magazine and authored by Jagadananda Roy ( ). Jagadananda was a renowned science teacher of the school at Santiniketan under Viswabharati University, Bolpur founded by the Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore ( ) who supplied a 4-inch telescope to Jagadananda for observation of the comet 1P/Halley. By making personal contact, Chandra wanted to know the predicted time and location of the forthcoming comet from Roy who promptly fulfilled his request. By the guidance of the latter Chandra became one of the first observers to locate the comet 1P/Halley from India on 24 April 1910 with the help of his binocular. He spotted the comet for the first time as a small star-like object slightly below the Venus and to the south of the star γ Pegasi 2. The comet s tail was scheduled to occult the Venus on May , but Chandra didn t observe the occultation although the Venus was seen juxtaposed near the tail. He speculated that the transient part of the tail was lying on the Venus and hence the occultation was not visible. Afterwards, photograph of the comet 1P/Halley taken by John Evershed between 4.40 h and 5.10 h IST on that date revealed that the transient part of the cometary tail was indeed lying on the Venus. This proves the high quality of intuition possessed by the self-taught astronomer Chandra. However, he observed the comet in its full bloom for the first time on May 10 at 3.20 h IST. According to him 2, the tail was passing through the north of γ Aquarii, west of α Aquarii, north of βa Aquarii and south of ε Pegasi. He observed some small stars through the tail to the north of γ and β Piscium. The head of the comet was lying in the second part of Pisces and the tail was extended to the last portion of Capricornus. He continued his observations on the comet which was not visible by naked eyes, 488 INDIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY OF SCIENCE maintaining exchange of experiences with Roy of Santiniketan ( N, E) and John Evershed ( ), the Evershed effect discoverer, of Kodaikanal Observatory ( N, E) 3. Chandra kept his vigilant eyes on the comet 1P/Halley, 1909 R1 and subsequently published two articles in details on its apparition as observed by him. Roy was very much impressed by reading those articles and advised him to procure a telescope in order to have better observations in future on the celestial objects. The former already felt very much the need of such an optical instrument and so his feeling was vigorously inspired by the advice of the latter. In the meantime in 1912, the then Government of India enhanced the payscales of all of its employees. As a result, like all others Chandra also received some amount of arrear money along with his higher monthly pay. With this extra amount of money, he first made an advance payment in April 1912 to the Bernard & Co. of England for purchasing a 3-inch refracting telescope. After two months he took delivery of the telescope from the concerned Shipping Transport Authority by paying the rest amount totaling a sum of Rs (160 rupees 10 annas 6 pai). As the tube of the telescope was made of card-board, so it became necessary to replace it with one made of brass. For this assignment, the Broadhurst & Clerkson Co. of Calcutta were entrusted with at the remuneration of additional Rs Thus, in view of his humble monthly income, to acquire an apparently non-productive subject like the telescope in exchange of a relatively large amount of money must had been a courageous decision for a person like Chandra. Chandra observed the comet 7P/Pons-Winnecke 1927, which remained visible from 25 February 1927 to 10 January 1928 and passed the perihelion distance of A. U. on 21 June 1927 at about 1 h 34 m s U. T. On 20 June 1927 at about 15.5 h U. T. (21 h IST), he was busy with his usual scheduled programme for observations of variable stars. He suddenly noticed a nebula-like object just North-West of the bright star Vega. At that time the comet was visible on the line joining star γ Draconis and α Lyrae (Vega) and was nearer to Vega (RA: 18 h 22 m 30 s, Dec: ). After consulting the handbook of the British Astronomical Association (BAA), he came to know that the object under his observation was the comet 7P/Pons-Winnecke. He observed the comet until 7 July During the period of his observation, he observed the comet to pass through the constellations Lyra, Cygnus, Vulpecula, Delphinus, Pegasus, Aquarius, Sculptor and Phoenix at a very fast speed of 40,000 km/hr. In the context R.G. CHANDRA: SKY WATCHER ASTRONOMER 489 Search for meteors from the Pons-Winnecke Radiant, the following report was published in the journal Nature 4 : R. G. Chandra of Jessore, India, also reports a fruitless search for meteors in the night of June 25. He states that Prof. Ray of Bolpur saw two meteors radiating from the neighbourhood of θ Bootes. Here, Prof. Ray means Jagadananda Roy of Santiniketan as mentioned earlier. The comet 2P/Encke 1927 having period of 3.30 years, the shortest among the periodic comets, was also observed by Chandra. He searched out the said comet from the constellation Pegasus, following the instruction of A. C. D. Crommelin, the Director of BAA, and made observations until 17 January According to him 2, he detected the comet Encke in 1928 at 7 PM from Jessore with his 3-inch telescope in the Pegasus as a small nebulosity near the Andromeda galaxy (M31). During the apparition, the comet remained visible from 19 October 1927 to 3 April Chandra was not equipped with adequate data for determining the location of a known comet. However, he succeeded to locate a long period comet at a position 1 0 to the south-west of the star θ Ceti on 9 February 1941 with the help of his binocular. The comet remained under his observation until 28 February However, he could not identify the comet. Most probably it was the long period comet C/1941 B1 Friend-Reese-Honda with a period of 355 years. This comet remained visible from 18 January 1941 to 1 March 1941 as recorded in the Catalogue of Cometary Orbits-1999 (Catalogue 1999). On 24 February 1943, at about 16.5 U. T. (22.00 IST) Chandra was engaged to observe variable stars with absorbed attention. All of a sudden he noticed a nebula-like object near the star γ Ursae Majoris. Later he could recognize the object as a comet. According to Chandra s observation 2, the position of the comet on that date (24 February 1943) was R. A. 11 h 55 m, Dec at 10 PM. Its speed was slow and was visible in the east as a third magnitude star. The small tail was only visible through the telescope. He observed it as a bright nebula on the line joining the star δ Ursae Majoris and γ Ursae Majoris and was nearer to the latter one. Though he could not identify the comet, yet it is possible that he might have observed the long period comet C/1942 X1 Whipple-Fedtke-Tevzadze because the Catalogue-1999 reveals that the lone comet remained visible during the period 17 November 1942 to 1 August 1943 was the comet C/1942 X1. He made serious observations on the comet until 10 May 1943 with the help of two 490 INDIAN JOURNAL OF HISTORY OF SCIENCE refracting telescopes, one of his own 3-inch and the other 6.25-inch to lent him by the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). He recorded the apparent path and cometary phenomena of the comet C/1942 X1 in details during the period of his observations. He noticed the variations in its brightness by measuring in magnitude scale on two occasions. First, on 8 March 1943, the magnitude of the comet reduced from the 5th to 4th and again, on 16 March 1943 from the 5.5th to 5th. These observations indicated that the cometary brightness instantly increased on those two occasions. Later from the Journal of BAA, Chandra came to know that the comet C/1942 X1 was really a variable one. Also he realized from the said Journal that the phenomena of variations in magnitude observed in the comet was due to influence of solar magnetic disturbances during a sunspot maximum. The systematic observations on comet were initiated in 1760 by Charles Messier ( ). Until 1999, astronomers all over the world have discovered 1037 individual comets and observed to make 1688 apparitions of these comets. An outstanding observer of comets amongst the contemporary observers from the Indian sub-continent Chandra observed a good number of comets. However, he could not discover any new comet like Elizabeth Roemer (born 1929) who discovered the highest (79) number of periodic comets! The only name of an astronomer from the Indian sub-continent associated with the discovery of a comet and recorded in the Catalogue-1999 is Manali Kallat Vainu Bappu ( ). Bappu jointly discovered the comet C/1949 N1 with his teacher Bart Jan Bok ( ) and a fellow student G. Newkirk. This comet is known as the comet C/1949 N1 Bappu-Bok-Newkirk. 4. DISCOVERY OF A NEW STAR Chandra became interested for making observations on the planets, comets, meteors etc. His interest was so much intense that after the acquisition of a 3-inch telescope, he gradually became an expert observer of variable stars. In course of his routine-wise observation on stars from Bagchar ( N, E), Chandra had a chance in 1918 to locate a New Star which was actually a Nova. It was the time for on setting of rainy season of the year. The light radiating celestial objects were playing hide and seek behind the running clouds of the sky. On the night of 7-8 June 1918, at about 15.5 h U. T. (21.00 h IST), he was watching the celestial objects from a wide open place. Suddenly, he noticed that R.G. CHANDRA: SKY WATCHER ASTRONOMER 491 the space around him was inundated with unusually bright but smooth light! Also light with such intensity is visible only when the bright Venus with -4.4 magnitude makes closest approach to the Earth. He could not justify the reason for the appearance of such unique brightness on a night before the New Moon when there was no possibility for the appearance of Moon at the said hours of night. Also, the bright planets such as the Venus and -2.7 magnitude Jupiter were not scheduled to rise above horizon at that time in the night sky. Yet, he was at his wits end to explain the presence of unusual brightness on the landscape at that night. As the sky was infested with passing clouds, he did not intend to make any observation in search of the source of light. Even though, the suspicion that the source of light might be a celestial object was gaining ground in his mind. On the very next night of 8-9 June 1918, which was a New Moon night, at about 16.5 h U. T. (22.00 IST), Chandra easily noticed a bright star at a glance. But the part of the sky under his observation was covered with a veil of passing clouds. He thought that the bright star might be the star Altair, the brightest one of the Aquila constellation. After sometime, the veil of clouds ran away and as a result both the bright star and Altair became clearly visible with glare. The bright star (RA: 18 h 44 m s, Dec: ), in comparison, appeared to be brighter than both the 0.77 magnitude Altair and 0.03 magnitude Vega. These three stars were located in the same part of the sky. Also, on a few successive nights, he observed the same brilliance of light in the landscape and the bright star in the sky. A news about the new star in the constellation Aquila was published in
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