North of North Pole

The Indian Antarctic Program is a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional program, initiated in 1981 with the first Indian expedition to Antarctica. India signed the Antarctic Treaty and constructed Dakshin Gangotri Antarctic research base in 983, Maitri in 1990, and is planning to build another research station named Bharathi. India has carried out 27 scientific expeditions to the Antarctic and studied atmospheric, biological, earth, chemical, and medical sciences. India is in the elite group of nine countries which have multiple bases in Antarctica.

Indian Navy is an active member of the Antarctic Program. An Indian Naval team to Antarctica includes a helicopter pilot. In one of the expeditions, Commander VS Dixit, one of the finest helicopter pilots of the Navy, was the pilot. In the expedition, conducting some experiments, a team of scientists were trapped in the open and needed to be air-lifted to the base camp. Above the poles, charts do not work as there is no clear reference point like elsewhere on the earth. A helicopter had to be guided in its flight with continuous radio communication from the base camp. The communication equipment was not working and guidance was not possible that day. The regulations did not permit a flight as the pilot would put himself in danger and also the helicopter which was crucial for the operations of the expedition.

Cdr. Dixit flew breaking the rules, picked up the scientists and returned safe without radio guidance from the base camp. He saved lives. When the team returned to India, he was summoned to the Naval Headquarters, where he was given a “Letter of Displeasure” for breaking rules and a “Commendation Letter” for saving lives [breaking a rule].

We face the problem of direction when the reference shifts. If we travel farthest North from Bangalore or Boston, we will meet at geographic North Pole – the True North. All lines of longitude converge at the pole. If we standing at the North Pole, all points are to our South; if at South Pole they are to our North. East and west have no bearing at the Poles. Here, our speed of rotation is almost zero, compared to the speed at the equator at about 1,038 miles per hour.

Nick Saik, a Cinematographer attached a small wide angle camera to a hula hoop and asked his sister Laura Saik to hoop. See the video – a hooper from the hoop’s point of view. This is what Cdr. Dixit managed, looking at South Pole region while flying above South Pole. These are the challenging moments when the references are drastically different from what our senses can perceive and make our thinking fuzzy.

How to Solve It (1945) is a small volume by mathematician George Pólya describing methods of problem solving. A problem in the book: “You start from a point, travel one mile due South, then a mile due East, followed by a mile due North. You reach the point from where you have started.” He is referring to the North Pole.

What is to the North of North Pole and South of South Pole? If we look South from North of North, we see North. Our points of references make a big difference in our thinking. However on the land, we are safe if we take stable reference points or landmarks sensibly. That itself is a challenge for many of us.

Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps is a book by Allan Pease and Barbara Pease. In India, most of the men too cannot read maps. I have tried motivating a few professional drivers to learn to read maps. No success; they do not find a need to read maps. They drive by intuitions and landmarks. If not familiar with the area, they ask the people on the roadside for direction and often get more confused with the directions they get.

Landmarks are not permanent in a growing (and decaying) city. My wife and her sister zealously ventured to visit their childhood friend’s house in Jayanagar, Bangalore. They knew the area and that the house had a coconut tree in front. When they tried to identify the house, they found coconut trees in front of scores of houses on the street. Mobile phones had not invaded personal lives yet.

Some sample addresses in BBMP voter list have entries like “Opposite Aralikatte.” What if the peepal tree is felled by BBMP to widen the road? How do you find the house? Landmarks are not permanent and if we show them in official addresses, data quality is suspect. Kalidasa could explain the beauty of Indian landscape to a cloud messenger. Such directions won’t work to direct an aeroplane.

Different people have different names for the same landmarks. In Padmanabha Nagar, Bangalore, people would refer to “Deve Gowda Petrol Pump” a major landmark. If I tell the name on the board at the petrol pump, few would recognise it. Then, a small board incscribed “Deve Gowda Circle” appeared on the outer ring road for some time, which is now missing after the NICE road passed in the vicinity. When board existed, I had tried referring to the circle, but none could recognise the place.

Often people refer to non-existent cinema halls to identify a location – say, Minerva Circle, Sagar Theatre. Some places in Bangalore are known by restaurants – like Ganesh Bhavan bus stop. There are areas known as Nirmala Stores, Shivananda Stores, etc. Some enthusiastic officials give official names to some such places modeled after some popular people, which the local people find difficult to adopt. Then, we have a situation of one place with many names and added confusion.

At Hudson Circle, we get on to KG Road if I turn right and also to KG Road if we turn left. One is Kasturba Gandhi Road and the other is Kempe Gowda Road. What is in a name, till we get lost?

My daughter gets lost in the city, calls me and asks “How do I reach home? I am lost and don’t know where I am.”

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Above is a much repeated quote from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll. As a corollary, if we know where to go but do not know where we are, how can we get directions?

Giving directions to reach your home is an art. Understanding received directions is also an art. I tell someone on the ring road, turn right after Little Flower Public School. Is it right or left? Depends on the direction from which you come. We assume the visitor to drive in the direction that we often take till he surprises us by approaching from the opposite direction.

I can tell people, “as you approach, you will find Food World, where you don’t turn left or right. Then you will find a right turn to Bank Colony (official name is Srinivas Nagar, known to very few people) – don’t turn there either…” I pump noise to the message by giving a long list of land marks where no specific action is expected. With all the confusion the visitor turns not where he should and turns where he should not.

I wish we all get our sense of direction-North right and also know that if I see a person face to face, my right is his left. Good reference points like right goals are necessary in everyday common sense activities as well as for higher achievements of life. Take care of your compass.


About pgbhat

A retired Naval Officer and an educationist. Has experience with software industry. A guest faculty at different institutes and a corporate trainer with software development companies.
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