The Solar System Doesn’t End At Neptune

A new day, a new obsession.

I was helping my daughter revise for her Science exams when we came across the astronomy chapter in her textbook. I realised that a lot of the material that she is learning is pretty much the same things that I was learning when I was in school, apart from the fact that we now have only eight planets in the solar system instead of nine (Sorry Pluto, you will always be a planet in my heart).

NASA

Truth of the matter is our solar system has way, way more celestial bodies in it than just the terrestrial planets, the asteroid belt, the gas giants and moons. To stop teaching about the Solar System at Neptune is a missed opportunity. #justsaying

I think that our Science syllabi in school can be more interesting and fascinating if we put in more chapters or topics to do with astronomy and the study of our Solar System. You know, make it less about which astronomer discovered which planet at which year (memory work) and make it more about how they did it, what were the consequences of their discoveries, what tools they used to explore the night skies and how far technologies have come in this modern world when it comes to finding very, very far and very, very small objects in the sky.

I’m no Science textbook author, but if I were, I would put into textbooks things I’m putting into this blog post now.

But first, let’s recap what is already in the textbooks.

Planets & Moons

We have our Sun, and orbiting it are the terrestrial planets Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Then there’s the asteroid belt between the rocky planets and their gas giant neighbours, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay

Now, moons. How many moons are there in the solar system? A staggering number of them. Apart from Mercury and Venus which have no moons, the rest of the planets have natural satellites orbiting them.

Earth has one, Mars has two, while the other planets have … a lot. At the time of this writing, Jupiter has 79, Saturn has 82, Uranus has 27 and Neptune has 14. You can see a pattern here, something along the lines of the larger the planet, the more moons they can hang on to.

That’s not how it works with Pluto.

Let’s talk about Pluto

Pluto has 5 moons. Five. There’s Charon, the largest of Pluto’s moon, pretty much half the size of Pluto. As you can see in the video below, they’re locked in this dance where they face each other; there’s a binary planet thing going on there.

Then you have the two larger ones, Nix and Hydra (the one that looks like it is drunk and spinning out of control). Between them is the smaller Kerberos and lastly, you have Styx which was found by New Horizons, the probe which travelled for 9 years just to check out Pluto. It has since moved on, and is en route to a Kuiper belt object, Ultima Thule. Read more about the New Horizons mission here.

I’m sure you know that Pluto is no longer a planet. I’m sure you know that it is a dwarf planet but did you know that it is a Kuiper belt object?

What Are Kuiper Belt Objects?

If you find asteroids in the asteroid belt then you will find Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO) in the Kuiper belt. Although Pluto was discovered in 1930, the Kuiper belt where it originated from was not found until the year 1992.

This is primarily because the belt is just so darn far away, beyond the orbit of Neptune. It’s a region that is cold and dark and full of small objects made of mostly rock, water ice, ammonia and methane.

That’s a pretty crowded neighbourhood beyond Neptune

The Kuiper belt starts at the edge of the orbit of Neptune, 30 AU from the Sun, and extends to around 50-55 AU from the Sun (reminder: 1 AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun).

Sometimes KBOs are also known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) although this definition covers pretty much everything that is found beyond Neptune.

Finding the Kuiper Belt

In 1943, long before we had the technology to locate the belt, astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth suggested the existence of objects beyond Neptune. Gerard Kuiper predicted a “belt of icy objects” near the edge of the solar system in 1951. This is why sometimes this region is known as the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt.

In 1992, after searching for 5 years, astronomer David Jewitt and graduate student Jane Luu, announced their discovery of the first Kuiper Belt object: 1992 QB1 also known as 15760 Albion.Since then there had been thousands more of such objects found.

Source

We know that Pluto is a dwarf planet but it’s also a Kuiper Belt Object. In fact, it is the largest KBO in the group, with a diameter of 2377 KM, and technically it’s the first KBO every discovered.

Pluto, together with Makemake (1430 KM), the second brightest KBO after Pluto, and oblong-shaped Haumea (1595 KM), are the only Kuiper Belt Objects that are also dwarf planets.

Read more about Kuiper Belt Objects here, here and here.

Eris, the Dwarf Planet from Beyond

At this point we know that the Kuiper Belt is very far away from the centre of our Solar System. And yet, beyond that we have a region called the scattered disk which extends up to 1000 AU from the Sun!

Now from this region, scientists found Eris. It was initially thought to be bigger than Pluto but eventually we discovered that it has a moon, and that in fact, it’s only about the same size as Pluto (2326 KM).

Eris and her moon Dysnomia, far beyond Pluto’s orbit

At its closest to the Sun, it’s 38 AU away; at its furthest, 96 AU! Remember that Neptune is at 30 AU – sunlight takes more than 4 hours to get to Neptune. Eris’ orbit is tilted by 45 degrees and it takes around 557 years to go once around the Sun.

Eris plays an important part in our understanding of the solar system because its discovery was one of the reasons Pluto got demoted to dwarf planet status. Had they decided to keep Pluto as a planet, Eris would have been the tenth planet in the solar system.

So based on the IAU definition of a planet released in 2006, our solar system now has 8 planets and 5 dwarf planets: Pluto, Makemake, Haumea and Eris. Wait, that’s four. What’s the fifth dwarf planet?

Ceres, King of the Asteroids

Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, a region between Mars and Jupiter. It only has a diameter of 945 KM but because of its proximity to Earth, it was a lot easier to find than say, Pluto or Eris.

In fact, Ceres was discovered back in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, and like Pluto, it was declared a planet. At the time, the Solar System had only 7 planets; Neptune had not been found yet. Ceres would become the fifth planet from the Sun for about 50 years before the discovery of more objects like it force astronomers to reclassify Ceres as an asteroid instead of a planet.

Source

After Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status, Ceres was once again reclassified as a dwarf planet. Amongst the 5 dwarf planets, Ceres is the only one within the inner Solar System. It’s also the first dwarf planet to have been visited by a dedicated space probe, Dawn back in 2015.

See pictures sent back from Dawn and read more about Ceres here.

Sedna, A World of Possibilities

Reading about Sedna fills me with frustration and with a new appreciation for the work astronomers do. You see, Sedna is widely considered a dwarf planet but it isn’t officially one, mainly because it is just too far to observe.

To be a dwarf planet you need to meet two requirements: you need to orbit the Sun, and you need to be big enough for your own gravity to give yourself a round shape. Unlike the definition for a planet, a dwarf planet need not have cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

Sedna is big enough to see, but is it big enough to have its own self-rounding gravity? The short answer is, we don’t know. That’s because Sedna has an incredibly elongated orbit.

Pluto orbits the Sun once every 248 years; Eris, once every 557 years. Sedna takes 11,400 years for one trip around the Sun. At its farthest from the Sun, Sedna would be 937 AU away. When it was found in 2015, it was 86 AU away, still a great distance from us. While it is big enough for us to sit up and take notice, but we just can’t see enough of it to be sure that it is a dwarf planet.

What we can study however is its orbital path, which many believe alludes to the existence of another giant planet beyond the Kuiper belt. It is believed that this trans-Neptunian planet would be able to explain the eccentric orbits of Sedna and other objects like it in the Kuiper belt. But until we find it, this is just a theory. Fingers crossed, we will one day find out why Sedna travels the way it does.

So, are we done? Nope.

Trojan Asteroids

In October 2021, NASA is launching Lucy, a space probe mission that will head for Jupiter trojans. #saywhatnow?

See it in action here

Jupiter trojans are a type of trojan asteroid (depicted in green in this pic above). There are two groups of asteroids that flank Jupiter on both sides while orbiting the Sun. They are found in stable orbits, at two Lagrangian points 60 degrees ahead (L4) and behind (L5) of Jupiter. Jupiter has millions of trojans larger than 1 KM across.

These trojans are the fossils left over from failed planet formations, remnants from when the Solar System was in its planet-forming phase. Lucy will be aiming for multiple Jupiter trojans during its 12-year mission to study and send back data that can help scientists understand more about planet formation.

Apart from Jupiter, at the moment of this writing, Neptune has 22 trojans, Mars has nine, Uranus has two, Earth has one, and Venus had one temporary trojan. Two of Saturn’s moons have trojan moons also known as co-orbital moons. Just to be clear, these aren’t moons that go around moons, they are just moons that orbit in a locked pattern (60 degrees ahead and 60 degrees behind) a fellow moon. Tethys has Calypso and Telesto, while Dione has Helene and Polydeuces. #betyoudidn’tknowthat

Centaurs

So far, all the objects that we have previously discussed, dwarf planets, asteroids, trojans, Kuiper belt objects and trans-Neptunian objects, are grouped under the category “minor planets”. The only one that has not been discussed is Centaurs. And that’s because centaurs are complicated.

Centaurs are small bodies in the outer solar system region, found between Jupiter and Neptune. They behave like, and thus are sometimes categorised as, comets and asteroids on top of being centaurs. It’s believed that they are strays that have escaped the Kuiper belt object inward towards the outer Solar System area.

They have chaotic orbits that are often eccentric (like stretched out ellipses) and unstable. Let’s talk about what those two things mean:

  • Eccentric orbit: Earth has a near circular orbit, so it has an orbital eccentricity of near zero. On the other hand, Halley’s comet has an orbital eccentricity of 0.97, a highly elliptical orbit. Because of the perturbations from the gas giants, many centaurs (though not all) are found to have eccentric orbits. So far, the centaur with the most eccentric orbit is Asbolus at 0.62.
  • Unstable orbit: Centaurs have dynamical lifetimes. This means their orbits will change over time. Some centaurs may move into different orbits after a period of time. If they get flung into the inner Solar System, the end up as Jupiter family comets (short-period comets). If they get flung outward, they may leave the Solar System entirely.

Below is a great image of what is in our outer Solar System (you can check out the source here). You have Jupiter (J), Saturn (S), Uranus (U) and Neptune (N) and the yellow Sun right in the middle. The blue flecks are Kuiper Belt Objects while the yellow ones are objects in the scattered disk region. The green flecks that are inside the orbits of the gas giants are the centaurs.

By User: Eurocommuter – Plotted by a program written by the author, CC BY-SA 3.0 (link)

Yes, the Solar System isn’t as empty as we thought. It’s just really big.

Gravitational Perturbations

Why are the orbits of centaurs so unstable? Well, as the orbits of centaurs cross the orbits of the four gas giants, centaurs are subject to the gravitational pull of the much larger planets. This extra force exerted by the planets is called gravitational perturbation and in the long run, it is this force that will cause the orbits of centaurs to change.

One wonderful story that illustrates the significance of perturbation is the discovery of Neptune.

NASA

Neptune was discovered in the mid-1800s and was the only planet in our solar system that wasn’t discovered from direct observation. It was simply too far and too small to be observed. But astronomers know that mathematically, it’s there.

Neptune’s position in the sky was calculated based on the understanding that something large, possibly a planet, had been causing irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier did the math then sent the calculations to the Berlin Observatory for confirmation. Based on his calculations, Neptune was subsequently discovered in under an hour, and only a degree from the predicted location. #mathisgreat

If Neptune can exert such an influence on a fellow gas giant, imagine the chaos Neptune and the other gas giants can cause when it comes to smaller bodies like 2060 Chiron, a centaur that’s only 206 KM across. Chiron’s orbit crosses between Saturn and Uranus and lasts around 50 years. It also exhibits comet-like activities, such as having a coma when its orbit is near the Sun (at its perihelion).

If you look up info about other centaurs and check out their orbits, it will probably look something like this.

And if you look further, say at Chariklo, you might find more interesting information, like how this centaur has not one, but two rings around it.

Chariklo is a centaur slash asteroid that has an orbit between Saturn and Uranus. It looks something like this. #iknowitdoesntlooklikemuch #waitforit

Chariklo via the Hubble Space Telescope in 2015

Discovered in 1997, Chariklo is the largest known centaur so far, with a diameter of around 300 KM. In 2014, a group of scientists found evidence of rings on Chariklo by observing it during an occultation. An occultation occurs when the object you want to study crosses in front of a star, thereby blocking its light from reaching you. The longer the period of the block, the larger the object.

During the stellar occultation of Chariklo, the light magnitude from the start dipped not once, but 5 times, indicating 2 distinct ring systems (and outer and an inner) around Chariklo.

Planetary.org

Read more about this process here.

I’ve gotten to this point in my post when I discovered that scientists are still at odds on how to define centaurs. I mean, if you think about it, they’re everywhere and then millions of years down the road, they’re just not where they were anymore. They’re not doing that to annoy you, that’s just how they roll. But you got to admit, centaurs are just too cool to leave out of this post.

Finally Wrapping Up

The thing with astronomy is that the objects we find inside our Solar System don’t have to fall neatly into boxes for us. Try as we might to classify this object or that, we will constantly be making new and surprising discoveries that will push the boundaries of our definitions and force us to rethink and recategorise and reboot our understanding of the cosmos for as long as we are willing.

This is precisely why No. 1, astronomy is a must-learn topic in Science class. And No. 2, we need to and should update our textbooks to give our children the opportunity to learn about all these “new” discoveries beyond Neptune.

If you want the next generation to be fascinated with Science, keep astronomy in Science class and it will do the rest.

Got Straight A’s? Claim Your Excellence Rewards From These Banks

Congratulations to all SPM students for your results. You are all superstars in my book. But on another note, if you are one of the few who worked your butts off for SPM and got straight A’s to show for it, you have got to claim your academic excellence rewards from your favourite banks.

Banks offer rewards in varying degrees to good exam results in UPSR, PT3, SPM, STPM and even university degrees. These range from as low as RM50 to as high as RM500.

Credit: jcomp

There are two things to observe though: how you can be eligible and how to apply for the rewards (yes, it’s not automatically given to you, you have to apply and within the deadline given). I’ve gone through the terms and conditions for the relevant bank rewards for academic excellence offered by the following banks.

Maybank

Maybank offers academic cash rewards for straight A students for PT3, SPM, STPM/A-levels and even university degrees, ranging from RM100 for PT3 up to RM500 for bachelor’s degree.

You will need excellent grades of course, as shown in the image below: PT3 (7A), SPM (8A, 8A+), STPM (4A, 5A, Muet Band 6) and if you graduate with 1st class honours in your degree from a recognised university.

So far, Maybank is the only bank that offers rewards to straight A students at pre-university and university level but it offers no rewards for UPSR.

Eligibility

To be eligible for this, you will need to maintain RM1000 in your Yippie Savings or imteen account for the year you are taking the examination, right up to the date of submission for the reward.

Based on the form, you can also apply for this reward if you have a Maybank Premier 1 account, a Premier Mudharabah account or have an FD Premier account (bring the receipt as proof).

If you have only opened a new bank account, you must open the account before the 1st day of exams and maintain it at or above RM1000. (Seems a little unfair for current users, but rules are rules, I guess.)

To claim the RM500 for 1st Class Honours, the account must be opened before you turn 18, so essentially before you have even gone to university. You have to maintain at least RM1000 (the golden rule so far) in the account.

How to Apply

Just fill in this form and bring your result slip or degree certificate, as well as your IC, your child’s IC and passbook to apply over the counter. You need to do this at your home branch within 1 month of the official results announcement. Only one claim can be done per accountholder, no matter how many accounts you have with Maybank.

For more info, click on this link which takes you to the Maybank website. If you have any questions, please call Maybank.

Public Bank

Public Bank has a Star Achiever Programme that rewards UPSR, PT3 and SPM excellence. For UPSR students, you will need 5 A’s, PT3 students will need 7 A’s and SPM students will need 8 A’s.

The rewards are for RM50 for UPSR, RM100 for PT3 and RM200 for SPM. It is limited to only 200 recipients per year. Successful applicants will be announced on the website.

The reward will then be credited into the PB Bright Star Savings account so that’s the account you need to be eligible for this.

ELIGIBILITY

To be eligible for this, you will need to maintain a minimum daily average balance of RM500 in your PB Bright Star Savings account for the year you are taking the examination (the programme period for this programme is defined as January to December).

The account must also remain active until the cash reward has been distributed.

HOW TO APPLY

To apply, you can fill in the online form and submit, or you can do it in person at the account holding branch. Bring along your original examination result slip AND a photocopy which the bank will want to keep.

Successful applications will receive a serial number. (It doesn’t specify what the serial number will be used for in the TnC.)

The submission dates for this is 31 January the following year for UPSR and PT3 students, and 30 April for the current year for SPM students.

For more info, click on the following links which takes you to the Public Bank Terms and Conditions page in English, and this one in BM.

Alliance Bank

Alliance Bank has a Straight A’s Achievement Award which recognises achievements in UPSR, PT3 and SPM. The awards are RM100 for straight A’s in UPSR, RM200 for straight A’s in PT3 and RM300 for straight A’s (A+, A- counts as A) in SPM.

Eligibility

A balance of RM500 must be maintained in your Alliance Buddy Account for 6 consecutive months before the official date for the announcement of results.

How to Apply

You need to submit a certified true copy of the examination result slip within 14 days of the release of results. The reward money will be credited straight into the account.

For more info, check out this link that takes you to the Alliance Bank Deposits TnC document.

OCBC Bank

OCBC also offers rewards to students who obtain 5 A’s and above for UPSR (RM50), 7 A’s and above for PT3 (RM100) and 8A’s and above for SPM (RM150).

A finance information website not affiliated with the bank mentions a RM200 reward for 4 A’s and above in STPM but as this was not mentioned in OCBC’s official page, you will need to enquire with the bank if this is legitimate. #doesnthurttoask

Eligibility & How to Apply

Your Young Savers Account must be opened more than 1 year before the announcement of the exam results (note that you need a minimum initial deposit for RM500 to open this Young Savers account). The results must be submitted within 2 weeks from the official announcement date.

For more info, check out this link which takes you to the OCBC bank page for Young Savers account or this link which takes you to an Product Information Sheet.

Hong Leong Islamic Bank

Now this one, you wouldn’t be able to find on their website (frankly that place needs a revamp) but me, I prefer to look up their TnC documents. Here’s the link to the Hong Leong Islamic Bank TnC. You can go through it or check out my summary below.

This one is a special promotion that applies for the period of July 1 2018 until June 30 3019. They reward straight A’s as such: RM100 for UPSR, RM250 for PT3 and RM350 for SPM.

The monetary reward from this bank is higher than most so if you are eligible (check to see if you are below), do give it a go. A maximum total of RM60,000 will be dispensed during this campaign period.

It’s first come, first served but the TnC does not mention if there is a cap for the number of rewards per type of examination.

Eligibility

For this one, you need to main an average minimum balance of RM1000 in your Junior Savings Account-i at least one month prior to the date of application. If you have the conventional savings account (without the i at the back), you’re not eligible. #itpaystopayattention

How to Apply

You need to send in your application for the reward within 14 days from the official announcement date. You can receive only one reward per public examination type.

Go to a branch (it doesn’t mention if it needs to be your account holding branch) with a certified true copy of the examination result slip (certified by a school official), together with your IC, JSA-i passbook and you will need to fill in an application form. It doesn’t say how the money will be rewarded to you. Do enquire at the bank.

If you need the link to the TnC again, here it is.

Just For Fun

Based on what is shared above, if a student got straight A’s for SPM, and they were eligible for all the above rewards, they would have got RM1050 extra spending money for all their effort.

For PT3 students, they would get around RM750, and for UPSR, they would have received RM300 (which is a lot of money for a 12 year old)!

If you or your child were not eligible for some of them, at least now you know what you need to do for the next public examination. Better yet, SHARE this post with someone you know who is taking a public examination next year. Good luck with your submission!

Diomede Islands: Where Time Travel Is (Somewhat) Possible

These are the Diomede Islands. They’re made up of two islands: a big one (29 sq km) called Big Diomede, in the west, and a small one (7.3 sq km) called Little Diomede in the east.

Little Diomede Island or Kruzenstern Island (left) and Big Diomede Island or Ratmanov Island in the Bering Sea (Dave Cohoe)

They’re right in the Bering Strait, which separates Russia from the USA. In this satellite picture by NASA, the Diomede Islands are flanked by Siberia, Russia on the left, and Alaska, USA on the right.

The two islands are smack in the middle, minding their own business.

On the surface, they don’t look like anything special but what if I told you that the time on Big Diomede is 20 to 21 hours ahead of Little Diomede? This is because the International Date Line runs between the two Diomede Islands.

It’s also the reason why Big Diomede is called Tomorrow Island and Little Diomede is called Yesterday Island. How insane is that? Not as insane as finding out that Big Diomede is officially part of Russia and Little Diomede is part of the USA. They belong to different countries!

World Atlas

So, technically if you swim the 3.8 km (at its closest point) distance between the two islands you go from being in the U.S. today, to tomorrow Russia or from Russia today to the U.S. yesterday. This video shows just how far (or near) that swim would be.

But you probably shouldn’t because you might die from the freezing water temperatures. Or from the weather. Or from the strong waves. You could however kayak across, then be arrested by the Russian military based in Big Diomede, then deported. It would be messy but you would still have time travelled!

On a more serious note, this arrangement between Russia and the U.S. really wrecked up the families that have lived on the two islands for thousands of years. On Little Diomede, you can still find around 100 or so Inupiat Inuit. Things are flown in by helicopter for most of the year and by plane when the sea is frozen enough for a runway to be made on the surface of the ice.

The Diomede settlement

(I stumbled upon a physician’s blog where she shared about her visit to Little Diomede (find it here) to see patients. There are pictures of a children running around barefoot in their pyjamas in “30-40 degrees”. If that’s in Fahrenheit, then it’s about -1 to 4 degrees Celcius which is pretty much the temperature water turns to ice. That’s mind-blowing to say the least.)

Back up a few thousand years or so, and you will find the Inupiat Inuit on both islands. Then in 1867, money changed hands between the US government and the Russian monarchy, and suddenly the two islands were separated by an invisible wall that became very real by 1948.

The Soviets by then had built a military base on Big Diomede during World War 2 then shifted the residents there to Chukotka on the mainland before they started running the place like they owned it, which they do.

Apart from splitting families apart, taking those on the big island away from their relatives on the small island, the Russian side is very protective of their border, often sending warning shots when villagers got too close to the island while hunting by boat.

Imagine having your life uprooted like that based on decisions made by people who have never and probably will never visit your home due to its remoteness.

That’s real messed up.

North Sentinel Island: What A Rare Sentinelese Welcome Looks Like

As notorious as the Sentinelese’s were with their guest reception, there were various academicians who tired to land on the island and study them up close. One of the more widely known was Triloknath Pandit who visited North Sentinel Island from the 1960s up until the 1990s.

Triloknath Pandit Visits

Like Portman, he visited the island regularly, bearing gifts. Unlike Portman, he wasn’t a total jerk about it. He took cues from the Sentinelese: if they were up in arms, he would stay a safe distance.

Interesting fact: In 1970, India had claimed the island as one of their land — by dropping a stone tablet onto the beach (ta-da!).

Every visit to the island, Pandit brought with them gifts varying between coconuts, bananas, iron rods, metal cookware, a live pig and even toys, just to name a few. Some were received well, others were discarded or buried in the sand (they killed the pig then buried it).

It would take 24 years of coaxing before they would make the first recorded friendly visit with the Sentinelese. And it was theorised that this was due to the presence of the first woman anthropologist in the visiting team on January 4 1991, Madhumala Chattopadhyay.

(Strangely enough, this piece of literature about her was greatly under-reported. I only stumbled upon it because someone raised it in a massive Twitter thread about Portman’s questionable obsession with photographing the Sentinelese’s nether regions.)

Need a reminder of who Portman is? You read about or will read about him in North Sentinel Island’s battered history.

Madhumala Chattopadhyay Visits

Madhumala’s presence tipped the dynamics of the visiting crew on that fateful day on January 4, 1991. Pandit was away on a family emergency and had missed that visit. His much more reported visit would come a few weeks later in February.

Madhumala had made her mark earlier when she became the first woman outsider to make in-roads with the Jarawa mixing in with the women folk and being allowed to actually carry a Jarawa child. Her presence in the group of 13 people visiting the island that morning seemed to ease tension.

This sharing by Sudipto Sengupta relayed details about what transpired that day. An interview with Madhumala with National Geographic dated December 2018 would reveal a similar albeit truncated version of the same event.

That morning, the team had dropped coconuts in the water and for the first time ever, the Sentinelese came into the water to collect them. Coconuts were not found on the island and in fact Portman had wanted to turn the island into a coconut plantation but the idea was not pursued for reasons unknown.

This was a breakthrough, a change from their usual show of aggression. It is theorised that it had something to do with having a woman among the visiting crew.

This coconut delivery continued for four hours. When they ran out, the crew left to restock and returned with more coconuts. Round 2 saw a young “youth wade up to the boat and touch it with his hands”. More men followed suit.

The meeting was not without problems though.

A lone youth on the shore was not as trusting. He had raised an arrow at the direction of the group. Madhumala held her ground, refusing to budge. It was a standoff. Had it not been for a Sentinelese woman pushing the youth and causing the arrow to land far off the mark, things could have ended up far worse. (A different report mentioned that a woman pushed the bow down and the man holding the bow and arrow buried them in the sand.)

Instead, Madhumala took the cue from the woman, and initiated contact by jumping into the knee-deep water. She began handing over coconuts in person, and surprisingly, the Sentinelese men reciprocated by taking the coconuts by hand.

The first friendly contact had been made with the Sentinelese.

The team would return with Pandit in February. This time, the Sentinelese climbed onto their boats to receive the coconuts, with no bows, arrows or spears in tow. However, when Pandit found himself separated from the rest of his crew, he was given a cut-across-the-neck gesture by one of the Sentinelese man on the shore. They had overstayed their welcome. Pandit retreated to safety and rejoined his crew.

Stopping Future Visits

The Government of India would eventually stop these friendly visits in 1994. It was decided that contact with the outside world brings more harm than good to them (e.g. modern-day illnesses they have no immunity against).

Many of the other Andamanese tribes had succumbed to diseases like syphilis and measles, as well as addiction to alcohol. Some have been driven to extinction. Take for instance the Bo tribe. Originally estimated to have a population of around 200 in 1858, the Bo tribe lost most of its people to warfare, loss of territory, being moved around, illnesses and alcohol. The last speaker of the Bo language died in January 2010, aged 85.

Perhaps the Sentinelese got it right all along all these centuries. Maybe the descendants on the island got constant reminders by their elders, of the instances when their ancestors (such as Portman’s abductees) were taken away from the island only to come back sickly, or not come back at all.

Maybe refusing to make contact with the outside world is what’s been keeping them going for tens of thousands of years, and maybe we should agree with the anthropologists and the Indian government on this and just leave the Sentinelese alone.

More Reading:

This is the last part of the North Sentinel Island series. Follow the link to check out the other posts in the same series.

North Sentinel Island’s Battered History (1880-2018)

This is part of the Unique Islands series. Follow this tag for more.

Visitors to the island have varying degrees of success: few were successful in making contact, most were chased away with spears and arrows, some were ignored while some were taunted from the shores of the island, and an unlucky few were straight-out killed.

Portman Visits the Sentinelese

Maurice Vidal Portman was a British naval officer put in charge of the Andamanese tribes (the Sentinelese are but one of many). Portman would carry out armed expeditions to the island regularly. He would always leave gifts, and only sometimes abduct tribespeople to bring back to Port Blair to study (and photograph).

In 1880, he kidnapped six Sentinelese and took them back to Port Blair, two of them elderly, four of them children. Unfortunately, they all got sick. When the old couple died, Portman quickly returned the children to the island, presumably still sick, carrying disease back to their people. To make up for what he did, Portman left them gifts before he departed, a tradition he would repeat as he continued visiting the island in the following few years until 1887.

In February 1895, Portman visited the island with a new objective: to return a lost Sentineli who had drifted off the island and found his way to an Onges tribe on a neighbouring island. The tribe did not welcome their brethren and chased him away like they did everyone else from then on.

The Sentinelese Defends Their Territory

In 1896, a lone convict made his way to the shores of the island after having escaped from Port Blair 50KM away. Two of his fellow escapees had meet their doom, drowning on the treacherous reefs surrounding North Sentinel Island. He himself met with much more grisly death. His body was found by the British navy with his throat slit and with arrow wounds all over his body.

Two world wars and India’s struggle for independence from the British saw the islanders left to their own defences and glee for three-quarters of a century – until 1967 (but you’ll only read more about this in the next post since I’m continuing the rest of this post with the same running theme.)

In 1974, a National Geographic camera crew ventured too close, and a member of their film crew got an 8-foot-long arrow to the thigh. The resulting documentary would be known as Man in Search of Man. (Note that the documentary will cover more than just the Sentinelese tribe but if you want to fast forward to their part, here’s the link for it. Also note that there is nudity in the video.)

Interestingly enough, some time in 1974, exiled King Leopold III of Belgium tried to visit the island with the chief administrator of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The old King, 73 years of age at the time, considered himself a social anthropologist and had been travelling the world. The overnight tour was cut short when the visitors were shot at by a lone warrior on the shore.

Read More about how the Sentinelese treat the crews of ships that ran aground on the coral reefs surrounding North Sentinel Island.

Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami (2004)

The magnitude-9.1 Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 and subsequent tsunami devastated fourteen region and left over 230,000 casualties in total.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands were heavily hit due to their proximity to the epicentre, and the aftershocks. The tsunami that hit their area was 15 metres high. One-fifth of the population on the Nicobar islands were injured, dead or missing.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands underwent dramatic lifting and sinking as observed from NASA satellite photos. North Sentinel Island was not spared this. Shown here are satellite photos indicating the drastic change in elevation. In certain places, the elevation changed between 1 to 2 metres.

By Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory Team

Fearing the worst, the Indian government sent a helicopter over North Sentinel island to check on the tribe three days after the Boxing Day tsunami. The helicopter was greeted robustly with arrows and spears. The Sentinelese are managing fine on their own.

Other Andanamese tribes in the area also survived the tsunami by heading inland or to higher ground once the earthquake hit. They suffered far less or no casualties compared to other communities in more densely populated regions.

A little over a year later, in January 2006, two fishermen trying to harvest crabs off North Sentinel island were attacked after their boat drifted, while they were sleeping, into the shallow parts of the island. They were hacked to death and their bodies “put on bamboo stakes facing out to sea like scarecrows.” Attempts to retrieve their bodies even by helicopter failed, and were later abandoned.

More recently, in November 2018, 26 year old John Allen Chau, a missionary who kayaked to North Sentinel Island in the hopes of converting the islanders there to Christianity was shot and killed by the tribe. Authorities also could not retrieve his body from the island.

By this time, it was forbidden by Indian law for anyone to approach the island for any purpose. For their help in getting Chau to the island in the first place, seven people including a local tourist guide were arrested by Indian authorities.

But not everyone is treated with threats and harm. There were a few who succeeded (relatively speaking) in making contact with the Sentinelese.

Up Next:

In the next part of this North Sentinel Island series, we’ll be looking at how two anthropologists tried to study and make contact with the Sentinelese through decades-long island visits.

North Sentinel Island, India: The Last Island You’ll Ever Visit

This is part of the Unique Islands series. Follow this tag for more.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands make up an archipelago of 572 islands situated in the Bay of Bengal. Around 550 are under the Andaman Group and the remaining 22 islands under Nicobar. Only a total of 38 islands are inhabited by man, 28 in the Andaman islands and 10 in Nicobar. In a census from 2011, India estimated the population on the islands to be a little under 380,000.

Of the whole lot, the most interesting island is probably North Sentinel Island. It’s a small island (about 28 sq miles) and it lies 50 KM away from Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands.

By Jesse Allen for NASA Earth Observatory 

North Sentinel Island is home to one of the most isolated tribes in the world, the Sentinelese (or Sentineli). They have lived on the island with minimal contact with the outside world, and anyone who dares to venture close are often treated with arrows and spears.

by Christian Caron for Survival International

Their hostility towards visitors have been recorded through history, beginning from the 1800s.

Treacherous Waters For Ships

Surrounding the island is a ring of coral reef that made access by sea very dangerous and difficult, if not impossible. The

In 1867, an Indian merchant ship, Nineveh was stranded on the coral reef off North Sentinel Island. After three days on the beach, the passengers and crew (a total of 106) were ambushed by the Sentinelese. They manage to fend off the attack and survive long enough for the Royal Navy to rescue them.

In 1970, a wreck was reportedly spotted (it was not mentioned by whom) on the coral reef on the southeast side of the island. The only other info about this wreck that I can find was that it’s been there for around 8 months. 1977, the cargo ship MV Rusley ran aground on the reef. Nothing much was known or mentioned about the cargo or the crew for both ships.

In 1981, the freighter Primrose got stranded on the reef during a storm. The choppy waters kept the 28-man crew on board while they await rescue. A few days later, they would find the same dangerous waters as the only thing keeping fifty Sentinelese men from successfully attacking the ship.

Their flimsy boats and rudimentary arrows kept any real danger out of range. The crew was eventually airlifted to safety (you can read about the rescue here as told by the helicopter pilot), leaving behind the Primrose and its cargo of chicken feed on the island and on Google Maps until today.

Beginning in 1991, five ship-breakers (the brothers Mohamed) would head to the island every few months with police escorts to salvage iron, for days at a time, from the wreck. While there, they would stay on their boat, never descending upon the shore.

The Sentinelese had also been scavenging metal from the wreck since it landed on their shores a decade prior. Hence, it was not surprising that the tribespeople shot at the ship-breaking crew when they first landed on the island. After their police escort fired warning shots into the air, the ship-breakers got to work in peace for the remainder of their task until 1997.

Up Next:

In the next part of this North Sentinel Island series, we’re going to look at how visitors to the island were treated (spoiler alert: not very well).

Okinoshima Island: Where Women Are Not Allowed to Visit

This is part of the Unique Islands series. Follow this tag for more.

This small island in Japan does not allow any female visitors, ever. Home to an Okitsu shrine, Okinoshima Island is around 60KM from Kyushu, Japan.

By Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism – MILT Japan

Previously, a maximum of 200 male visitors were allowed on the island on only one day of the year, May 27, and only for two hours. The allowance was given to honor those who lost their lives in the Battle of Tsushima.

Battle of Tsushima, 1905

The Battle of Tsushima is one of the many battles fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. It was also the last battle.

The Russian fleet suffered massive defeat in the hands of the Japanese navy while attempting to cross the Tsushima Strait in the dead of night on 27 May 1905.

The Russians would lose not only all 11 of its battleships, but also 4800+ of their men, with nearly 6000 more were captured. On the Japanese front, 117 navy men died and 500 more were wounded.

The event marked not only the first instance of an Asian country defeating an European power but also the end of the Russo-Japanese war in which Russia conceded defeat.

Read more about this on the Battle of Tsushima‘s Wikipedia page.

Interesting fact: On board one of the cruisers was a young Isoroku Yamamoto, as in Admiral Yamamoto, the man who would plan and execute the Pearl Harbor attack in World War 2 three and a half decades later.

STrange Island Restrictions

While women are banned from visiting because they menstruate and blood is considered an impurity to the island, the men don’t get it any easier. Those who do get to visit must strip and bathe in the sea in a cleansing ritual called misogi before they can set foot on land.

They are also to take a vow of silence and cannot tell anyone about what was seen or heard while they were there. Other restrictions they are to adhere to is that they cannot consume any four-legged animals while on the island, and most importantly they are not allowed to remove anything from the island. Why?

Okinoshima Island lies smack right in the middle of a sea route that connects to the Korean peninsula and China. Centuries ago, seafarers and fishermen stopped at the island to pray for protection against maritime perils.

They would conduct ritualistic offerings to the gods in the form of swords, mirrors from ancient China dynasties, bronze dragon heads, gold rings, ceramics, glass bowl fragments, iron ingots and comma-shaped beads, just to name a few.

Do You Know What This Means?

The island is now a historic time capsule that holds about 80,000 of these trinkets, scattered between boulders or hidden beneath stones in rituals by seafarers to the island from the 4th century to the 9th century. (You can see photographic samples of the items on the Okinoshima Island Heritage Site.)

Some of these items have been collected and placed at a shrine on the island, and visitors are forbidden from removing any of these offerings or even pebbles or blades of grass off Okinoshima island. Legends speak of divine retribution to anyone who dares attempt this.

Planning Island Visits

While there aren’t any “permanent” residents that call this place their home, one of 24 Shinto priests will stay on the island for 10-day stretches to pray to the island’s goddess, and to guard the island against intruders.

If you’re wondering how you can get to the island, wonder no more, because you’re no longer allowed to visit the island beginning 2018.

In July 2017, it was registered as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Locals worry that this would mean increased tourism to the island and in an effort to preserve the island for future generations, they decided to ban all form of travel there with the exception of visits from academics. Historical preservation trumps tourism, hands down.

Which Country is Closest to Antarctica? The Answer Surprised Me!

Have you ever thought of Antarctica? Ever wonder which country in the world is closest to Antarctica? No? Never? Take a guess anyway. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Pic of Antarctica by NASA

Antarctica (the one where Santa isn’t from, the one with the South Pole) is the coldest continent in the world. Temperatures there can drop to as low as 89 degrees Celcius below zero!

It’s home to between 1000 and 5000 scientists from 28 different countries who stay at one of the 70+ research stations in Antarctica during different periods of the year to conduct experiments and scientific research.

What do they study? Meteorites, wildlife, the state of glaciers, the effects of climate change, pretty much anything they feel is worth risking the low temperatures for. #salute

Scientists recovering a meteorite in Antartica (Pic by NASA)

It has two seasons, sunny when the sun is perpetually in the sky and winter when the sun is not. These seasons are six months apart.

Oh yeah, back to the question at hand. So, the country that is the closest to Antarctica is… Chile and Argentina!

Antarctica is less than 1000 km away from South America, tip to tip.

What? You cheated. You asked which country, not which countries were closest to Antarctica.”

Hey, it is what it is. Here’s a close up of what’s underneath that red pin.

To the left of the black border line is Chile, to the right, Argentina. Technically, Chile is the country closest to Antarctica.

But wait… ever wonder how do all those scientists get to Antarctica? I did. And I found out how.

Visitors to Antarctica sail there by ship which is a two-day journey. But, if you’re more interested in sightseeing instead of scientific research, there are 6 to 18 day-long cruises that take tourists (between 50 and 200 per trip) to the Antarctica Peninsula and South Shetland Islands. Around 50,000 tourists take this more scenic route across the Drake Passage every year.

Ships sail from the city of Ushuaia, one of the southernmost cities in the world; more importantly, it is in Argentina.

Over 90% of visitors leave for Antartica from Ushuaia by ship while around 5% leave from Punta Arenas in Chile by a 2-hour chartered flight. You can get to Antarctica from November to March via these two routes.

Alternatively you can sail to Antarctica from New Zealand as well but it’s going to take you 10 days to get to Antarctica. You can also get there from Cape Town South Africa by a 9.5 hour flight but this one is a pretty exclusive and luxurious way to travel, limited to around 200 passengers per year.

Care for a trip to Antarctica, anyone?

Where to Conduct Bone Scan for Cancer (Malaysia)

Recently a family member of mine was diagnosed with cancer. He was asked by his doctor to conduct a bone scan to see how far the cancer had spread.

The information the bone scan can reveal will be helpful in deciding what sort of treatment a patient can pursue taking into account the state of his health, his age, and whether or not the cancer has metastasised or spread to the bone.

[Updated: May 22, 2019]: Here’s a cool Ted Ed video on particle accelerators in hospitals and how they can help patients detect the spread of cancer faster than many other machinery can.

Because the Bone Scan was not available at the hospital our doctor was attached to, we were advised to seek out other hospitals to get the scan done. Little did we know that this was going to be a lot tougher than expected.

Available Options

The doctor gave us names of a few hospitals, government and private, in Malaysia and in Singapore to enquire at. The problem with government hospitals is that you need to wait quite a while before you get your turn at the machine. Around three months long.

For private hospitals, the machine is only available in one or two of the larger hospitals, which may then charge you around RM1500 for a scan. And even then, we need to wait two weeks for them to collect enough patients to get the scan conducted.

I was told that the exclusivity of this machine is due to the use of radioisotopes as the tracer materials which is to be injected into the patient’s body. Only larger hospitals have the capabilities to deal with the radiation waste.

Despite this, we figured we could try our luck elsewhere. We figured wrong.

The BONE SCAN Test IS RIDICULOUSLY(!) HARD TO FIND

Personally, I’ve called at least six hospitals/medical centres to ask about this test.

The hospital’s general line almost always sends me to the Radiology department and the Radiology department will tell me “no, we don’t have this thing you are looking for”. This happened over and over again.

Eventually it was a staff at Glenmarie KL hospital that explained to me that this is something you can find under the Nuclear Medicine Department, not at the Radiology department. #pffffft

She was also kind enough to give me the contact number for place called the Nuclear Medicine Centre in KL. It’s ridiculous that I have never heard of this centre because they do good work.

About the Nuclear Medicine Centre

The Nuclear Medicine Centre in KL, Malaysia is attached to the National Cancer Society of Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation.

The Centre offers nuclear imaging tests, including the bone scan at highly subsidised prices. When I asked, they told me it would only cost us RM600 for the scan.

To make an appointment you will have to have a referral letter from a hospital. While making the booking, you need to only leave the name of the patient, the name of the doctor and the hospital that issued the referral letter.

You can bring that document and all other relevant documents on the day of your bone scan appointment. The appointment date given to me was within 6 days of my phone call. The relief I felt for being able to find this centre is not something I can relay in words.

If you would like to know more about this centre, here are a few links and details that can help:

  • Nuclear Medicine Centre website
  • Address: 119, 107, Jalan Raja Muda Abdul Aziz, Kampung Baru, 50300 Kuala Lumpur, Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur (Location)
  • Tel: 03-2698 1053
  • Opening hours: 8.30am to 4.30pm (Mondays to Fridays)
  • To make a booking, you need a referral letter from a hospital.