Spotlight on Malaysian Astronomy at IAUS 377 in Kuala Lumpur

In his opening address, conference organizer Prof. Yuan-Sen Ting shared that he and his colleagues have been waiting 30 years for this IAU conference, which is the first major astronomy conference in Southeast Asia since 1990. The conference was centered on connecting galaxies observed by JWST to Milky Way science, and is the last in a slew of Southeast Asian astronomy events in the past month, including the Global Malaysian Astronomers Convention and a “Monsoon School” hosted by the University of Malaya. Local students were integral to organizing the IUA symposium, and for many it was their first access to an international astronomy conference!

The conference included a special session on Malaysian astronomy, featuring four scientists who spoke about the technical, scientific, and anthropological frontiers of astronomy in Southeast Asia. 

Table of Contents:

Dr. Paul Ho, East Asian Observatory

East Asian Observatory as a Path for Rapid Growth of Malaysian Astronomy

Dr. Paul Ho, president of the East Asian Observatory (EAO), said that his goal was to make the EAO the European Southern Observatory (ESO) of East Asia, with the resources to support competitive astronomical research centers and build and operate major telescopes. The EAO was founded  in 2014 to unify and strengthen Asian astronomy. A year later, EAO took over operations for the JCMT (James Clark Maxwell Telescope), a 15-meter telescope on Mauna Kea. Operating major astronomical instruments typically has a very high cost-of-entry, but at the time the UK was ready to give up operations of the telescope, so it was a perfect time for the EAO to step in and solidify their role as a major force in the international astronomy community. 

Much like the ESO, the power of EAO lies in harnessing resources and people power from multiple countries to build large astronomical instruments that benefit the scientific community. The EAO currently includes 9 partners, with representation from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Malaysia and India may also join in the near future.

In addition to JCMT, the collaboration is a partner on ALMA and the SMA, and all three facilities contribute to the Event Horizon Telescope. Because EAO was founded on these telescopes, much of the strength of EAO science is currently in radio astronomy. For example, on JCMT scientists have made incredibly detailed polarization maps of magnetic fields on very large scales, which have shed light on rotation and filaments structures in galaxies. JCMT data is also used to map star formation, measure chemical enrichment from starbursts, and study AGN. In addition to these major telescopes, the EAO is also working on Subaru and UKIRT on Mauna Kea and EAO astronomers are part of several international collaborations and large surveys. 

Currently, many centers for astronomical research are centered in the US and Europe, with the result that many Malaysian astronomers, and Southeast Asian astronomers in general, have to work abroad. Dr. Ho says that one of the main goals of EAO is to provide enough infrastructure and financial support to build a strong center of astronomy in Asia so that astronomers have the opportunity to work locally, while producing research that is impactful globally. Future plans include upgrades to the JCMT and extended radio projects to improve EHT observations, as well as leveraging resources from their member countries to provide more competitive research grants. 

Dr. Ho is very optimistic about the future of Southeast Asian astronomy, pointing out that Southeast Asian economies have huge growth right now. Currently, the summed GDP of EAO member states matches that of the ESO members, and the EAO is projected to more than triple the ESO GDP by 2050. Including more Asian countries in the collaboration and directing even a little of this economic growth towards new instruments and research would certainly make Southeast Asia a powerhouse in astronomy. 

Nurul Fatini Jaafar, Universiti Malaya

Archaeoastronomy from the Malaysia Perspective

Nurul is a graduate student at the University of Malaysia, who studies Malaysian archaeoastronomy, the study of how the human perception and use of astronomy has evolved over history. The field is closely related to anthropology (incidentally, American anthropology was actually founded by a physicist), and relies on both written and physical archaeological samples. 

Nurul noted that archaeoastronomy in Southeast Asia is especially challenging because the region has been influenced by many other communities, and experienced multiple major cultural changes. The region was originally largely Hindu and Buddhist, before shifting to a majority Muslim population after the 1300s. Additionally, Malaysia was a huge center for spice trading, and was a major part of the Silk Road, which brought in further global influences. Southeast Asia also went through several colonization phases, with various areas controlled by Japan, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Portugal, and the United States up until the 1900s. Each of these phases influenced how Malaysian people lived, and by extension their relationship with astronomy and the night sky. 

Data for archaeoastronomy comes in many forms – Nurul pointed out alignments in the construction of temples with particular astronomical features and references to major astronomical events in writing and on monuments. Nurul also said that archaeoastronomical clues can be found in the evolution of constellation and asterism names. She called these names “manifestations of human knowledge”, which were deeply connected to early human activities such as farming and hunting. Understanding how these names have evolved over time helps to connect each term with a particular economic lifestyle and measure how quickly ethnic groups were evolving in the past. One of Nurul’s research specialties is the Semelai people, who settled in the Malaysia area around 2000-1000 BC. The Semelai are a subset of the Orang Asli, a group indigenous to Malaysia. Nurul shared that Semelai asterism names include words like “Denai,” or animal path, to describe the Milky Way, and the constellation “Peyh,” a name for a spring spear trap for hunting. These names are rooted in the early hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Semelai people. 

In her future research, Nurul hopes to collaborate with linguists to better understand changes in constellation names. She also plans to work more with engravings, cave drawings, and ancient rock sculptures to build more historical context for astronomy. 

Dr. Mohd Hafiz bin Mohd Saadon, University of Malaya

The Development of Islamic Astronomy in Malaysia

Dr. Hafiz is part of the Islamic Astronomy department at the University of Malaya. With a 60% Muslim population, Malaysia is one of the leaders in Islamic Astronomy, and the practice has been going strong for centuries. Islamic astronomy research is traditionally focused on informing worship practices, which includes tracking solar positions and angles to select prayer times, and precise timekeeping and positioning to determine the qibla, the direction towards Mecca that people must face during prayer. Historically, cosmology and philosophy, timekeeping and calculations have also been major areas of research. Islamic astronomy relies on guidance from both the Quran and Hadith, and in fact both books have multiple references to orbits of celestial objects, the moon and sun. 

Islamic astronomy took off during the Islamic Golden Age, in the 9th-15th centuries, and was strongly influenced by Greek mathematics and philosophy along with Indian instruments and geometry. A lot of the astronomical documents produced during the Golden Age  were lost or destroyed during later periods of conflict, however about 10,000 manuscripts and 1,000 instruments remain preserved around the world today. During the golden age, there were seven main observatories, including at Damascus and Maragheh. Maragheh in particular is known as the most influential observatory of the Islamic Golden Age. It was designed like a large sextant, with a set of stairs for the astronomer to sit on and calculate the altitudes of the various objects they observed, and the design served as inspiration for new observatories through the 18th century. Research from these observatories was highly influential to Copernican astronomy. Interestingly, Dr. Hafiz noted that while Europe was quite upset by the introduction of the heliocentric view, most local Southeast Asian astronomers quickly accepted the idea (though he joked that views are apparently regressing with the emergence of flat-earthers). 

Islam came to Malaysia around the 1300s; the best constraint on the date is an engraved stone called “Terengganu”, which includes a word only used in Malay but written out in Arabic. In the 1500s, a lot of astronomical documents were lost when the Portuguese came to Malaysia and destroyed Malacca, at the time a bustling trade center and location of one of the earliest sultanates. However, documents that did survive show complex calculations for solar positioning, and point to a several local astronomers, so we know that Malaysia was already pretty integral to Islamic astronomy research. Today, Islamic astronomy research is quite prominent, and multiple facilities around Malaysia are dedicated to the study. 

While the prayer practices themselves are centuries old, Islamic astronomers have been adapting their work to the modern world, for example by creating apps for calculating qibla and fasting times from anywhere in the world. Dr. Hafiz also shared that Islamic astronomers had to figure out procedures for prayer practices in space when a Malaysian astronaut traveled to the ISS in 2007. Since astronauts on the ISS circulate the earth every 90 minutes, the usual daily prayer schedule wasn’t realistic, and without gravity and while moving at high speeds, the practices of kneeling and qibla are more difficult than on Earth. Dr. Hafiz says astronomers are still adapting prayer methods to zero gravity, but one solution so far involves calculating prayer times from elapsed mission time instead of solar positioning as well as a system of straps to keep astronauts in place while they pray. 

Moving forwards, Dr. Hafiz says that Islamic astronomers plan to move into cosmology research, while keeping their work informed by the Quran and Hadith. Relatively recently, Islamic astronomy has shifted from being largely overseen by state religious departments to being more directly managed by universities. Dr. Hafiz hopes that Islamic astronomers can build more collaborations between institutions and grow their departments to push the field forwards. Additionally, he hopes to use JWST in future work, and potentially study things like the geometry of the cosmic web!

Ide Nada Imandiharja, Badung Institute of Technology

Connection between the Comet 1P/Halley Appearance in 760 A.D. and the Dinoyo Inscription

Finally, Ide presented her research on a potential reference to a comet in a famous historical stone engraving. Throughout history, the arrival of a comet has often been associated with turmoil and misfortune, which often inspired community leaders to plan countermeasures to repel any bad luck following the passage of the comet. Ide’s project involved an inscription on a stone called the Dinoyo Inscription. The stone tells of a king who built a shrine to Agastya, a famous Hindu sage, along with a stone statue of Agastya, and carried out a sacred ceremony with the goal of repelling enemies and/or ending an epidemic. Ide hypothesized that the shrine and ceremony may have been a response to the passage of comet, which the king might have associated with the attack or sickness referred to on the Dinoyo. 

Ide tests her hypothesis that the famous stone is related to a passage of a comet by examining the chronological and geographical likelihood that a comet was seen around the time of the inscription. Figuring out the timeline for the comet passage and the events described in the Dinoyo is quite difficult given the various calendars that have been in use between these events and today. The first clear clue in the Dinoyo is a line that says ‘Glory to the year 682 Saka!’ where Saka is a lunar-based calendar. Later on, the inscription provides a more detailed description, which still refers to the year 682 in the Saka calendar and also names the position and phase of the moon and relative location of the pole star. From these references, Ide calculated that the events in the Dinoyo occurred around November 28 in what would be the year 760 for our modern calendar. 

For the comet, the best candidate is comet 1P/Halley. Our current earliest reference to 1P/Halley is in a Byzantine document from 813, and there are multiple accounts of the event in Chinese, Arab, and Turkish documents from 900 through the middle ages. These accounts can be used to reconstruct the orbit of the comet, and trace back when and where it most likely showed up in the sky. The best constraint so far is that it appeared in the year 760 and was observed in the constellation Aries. To figure out when Aries would be observable at night, Ide used a reconstruction of the night sky in the year 760 to track Aries’ position. She found that Aries is only above the horizon at night in July, meaning the comet was either bright enough to be seen during the day at another time of the year, or the authors of the accounts did in fact see the comet in July of 760. Either way, this is proof that the comet would have been visible in the same year as the ceremony described in the Dinoyo!

Finally, Ide said that the next step of her research is to communicate with linguists to translate some of the terms used in the inscription. In particular, there are two terms she is interested in, the first being “devasimha,” which could be related to the constellation leo, and “putikeswara,” which means “holy fire” and could be another reference to the comet. Once she has a better understanding of language like this in the inscriptions she will be able to get a better idea of why the stone, and the ceremony described on it, were created and how they relate to the appearance of the comet 1P/Halley. 

Astrobite edited by: Roel Lefever

Featured Image Credit: IAUS 377 Organizing Committee

About Isabella Trierweiler

I'm a fifth year grad student at UCLA. I'm interested in planet formation and I study the compositions of exoplanets using polluted white dwarfs. In my free time I like knitting, playing train games, and growing various fruit trees.

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