On August 18, in 1868, helium was discovered by astronomers studying the sun during a total solar eclipse. The site of thie discovery was none other than the Andhra coast. It is the only element to have been seen in the sun before it was known to exist on earth. Identifying helium was key in ushering in a new era in astronomy, namely astrophysics. “Sitting here on Earth, and by analysing nothing more than the spectrum of light, we can now determine the chemical compositions of stars and gas far far away, and even calculate their temperature and density,” says Niruj Mohan Ramanujam. A member of the Public Outreach and Education Committee of the Astronomical Society of India, Dr Ramanujam gave a talk on the discovery of helium at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. Astronomers do this analysis routinely now, but the story of how this came about is intimately linked with an eclipse that was seen in Andhra Pradesh exactly 150 years ago.. Dr Biman Nath, an astrophysicist from Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru, describes this discovery in his book, The Story of Helium and the Birth of Astrophysics. On August 18, 1868, astronomers across the globe geared up to watch the solar eclipse in its path of totality. Those from the Royal Astronomical Society led by Major James Francis Tennant, and French astronomer Pierre Jules Janssen, chased the eclipse to Guntur. The Government Astronomer of the Madras Observatory, Norman Robert Pogson and his team watched the eclipse from Machilipatnam.
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