Mumbai: The moment Viswanathan Anand heard about it, he thought it must be a prank. A fairly good one for 1 April. An April fool’s joke.
But then friends started calling and congratulating him. For having a small planet named after him. Of course, Anand didn’t believe it one bit. But then someone said, there’s something about it on Nasa’s website. So, Anand decided to check it for himself. And yes, it looked quite right.
4538 Vishyanand was there. In all its splendour—a speck of dust in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, one among the 650,000 such astral bodies.
Those that are termed as minor planets.
On 1 April, the planet was named after the Indian grandmaster and five-time world chess champion by the Minor Planet Center, proposed by Michael Rudenko, a chess buff and a committee member at the Center.
Minor planet 4538 Vishyanand was discovered by Kenzo Suzuki in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, on 10 October 1988 but has remained unnamed for almost 10 years, until now.
Why 10? Because usually the naming of a minor planet is reserved for the discoverer. And then an international committee of astronomers—members of a working group of International Astronomical Union (IAU)—officially assign a name to the planet.
However, if the planet continues to remain unnamed after 10 years, then the committee members themselves decide on a name. That’s how the planet got its name.
Anand, of course, is a bit surprised and can’t help but find humour in what has come to pass. “Aruna (his wife) jokes about it saying sometimes, I seem to be from some other planet,” he said in a phone interview with Mint. “And now it turns out to be actually true.”
It is another matter altogether that Anand and Rudenko have never met. But Anand wants to thank Rudenko for the rare honour. “It’s a very nice compliment. I want to thank Michael Rudenko. It’s a very nice gesture on his part, and it is so satisfying,” he said.
But why Anand? Rudenko could have chosen anyone in the world. Not quite, because as it turns out, Anand is an astronomy buff and a deep space photography enthusiast.
Little wonder then that the astronomer Rudenko, a chess buff with a Playchess account, decided it was appropriate to name the object after Anand.
Speaking to ChessBase, an online chess portal, Rudenko said, “My two passions in life are astronomy and chess. I thought it might be appropriate to name a minor planet in honour of a chess grandmaster. My thoughts at once turned to Viswanathan Anand who, in addition to being the 15th world chess champion, is also an astronomy buff.”
The Minor Planet Center operates at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), under the auspices of Division F (formerly Division III) of the IAU. The Minor Planet Center derives its operating budget from a five-year Nasa grant and is responsible for the designation of minor bodies in the solar system, which included minor planets, comets and natural satellites.
How does 4538 Vishyanand look? Well, Anand tried it after hearing the news. He accessed “iTelescope”, a facility that lets one hire and remotely control a giant telescope for an hour or two, and tried to locate the planet. But of course, even with the precise coordinates, it is a rough guess for its size.
“Saying I located will be too much. But I know where it is, it’s in the main asteroid belt, sort of between Mars and Jupiter. These are so small, you really get a spec of dust that you can take pictures. It’s just very, very small,” Anand said.
Anand is fascinated with astronomy but his busy schedule and constant travelling has prevented him from investing in expensive equipment. So Anand satisfies his interest through the remote telescope facility.
The iTelescope facility has three telescopes installed in Australia, Spain and New Mexico in the US, and Anand is a regular patron. For now, he makes do with his own small telescope and couple of binoculars. He plans to upgrade to more advanced instruments once he has time to spare, possibly after his retirement from the hectic life of a professional chessplayer.
To be sure, he already possesses the sophisticated skills for astrophotography.
“I often take pictures of astronomical objects. You can simply pick an object of your choice and write a little script telling how many exposures you want between say 10pm to 10.45pm, can specify kind of red, blue, green, spell out the angle, tilt etc. and the telescope more or less does it automatically.”
Like many of his generation and thereafter, Anand’s curiosity about space was piqued at a very young age reading Carl Sagan’s iconic book Cosmos. Anand also followed the televised version of the book buying compact discs of the programme and started taking cosmology seriously. He was aided by his cousin who would accompany Anand in tracking the night sky, wondering if there was life beyond the planet earth. The “germ” of astronomy was planted at a much young age.
Anand is not yet a member of any astronomy club but keeps himself abreast following press releases and news about the latest development in the astro world. Apart from keeping himself at the top of what’s happening in his profession, Anand regularly discusses astronomy with his friends in the field, who may or many not be chess players.
“I don’t belong to any astronomy club, maybe, at some point, that is the idea. I have some friends in the astronomy world, who I regularly keep in touch through correspondence, discussing about telescopes, etc., otherwise I just read up,” he said.
But he reads. A lot. He is excited about moons of other planets getting mapped up, rovers rolling over Mars and the recent Rosetta mission that landed its Philae probe on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
“Some 30 years ago, these things were science fiction and now they are happening,” he said. “I remember the original Carl Sagan book, the revelation that how interesting the moons were, when for the first time people saw them. In the 1970s, they thought all these moons were dead and we thought only the earth has the critical geology. Everything below the size of the earth would be dead planet because they wouldn’t have internal heat or power.”
“There were mechanism that people never thought about. For example, Jupiter supplies the heat on Io (its moon) through tidal forces, and suddenly, you find very interesting features. And now they have started saying that there’s huge liquid water oceans in some of the Jupiter’s moons!”
Anand is fascinated about the geological activities in Neptune’s moon Triton, and the possibility of finding a frigid hydrocarbon ocean there.
“I don’t know how much of it is confirmed but certainly we get to read about them and everyday more stuff keeps coming. Of course, we are very far from knowing anything with certainty because a lot of these are inferences of radar, etc. Nevertheless, it is very interesting.”
For now, astronomy is just something that he is fascinated about. But it is chess he loves. And his aim is firmly fixed on playing the Candidates Tournament next year, which will determine the challenger for the current world champion Magnus Carlsen. Anand could not wrest the honour from Carlsen in Sochi, Russia in November 2014.
Anand is the third chess player after the legendary Alexander Alekhine, and Anatoly Karpov, both Russians, to have a minor planet named after him.
Incidentally, it was mainly the Russians he battled bitterly over the chess board on his way to world domination between 2007 and 2013.
Anand was first crowned the world champion in 2000 when the chess world was divided into two camps: one headed by the traditional chess body FIDE and another by Anand’s arch rival Garry Kasparov. FIDE prevailed as the one unifying body and Anand became the undisputed world champion in 2007, a title that he defended till 2013 when Carlsen, a Norwegian, took over the reign from him in Chennai.