March 4, 2011

Right now, on any clear night, I can step out of my back door and see Orion rising from the south. Why Ptolemy, who cataloged most of the constellations we know, chose to name this particular one after a hunter who, even in Greek mythology, ain’t that prominent, and not after Hercules or Perseus or a half-dozen better known sword-weilding guys is beyond me. Yes, they have their own constellations, but they’re not nearly as noticeable. Maybe Ptolemy got halfway through his list when he said, "Oops, I forgot that big collection of stars in the south. Well, all the good names are taken, so I’ll just name it after…um…Orion." And then there’s the fact that the constellations are now all defined and standardized by the International Astronomical Union. These are the same people who demoted Pluto, so I think somebody better step in and take the constellations away from them before they decide to rename Cygnus after Gene Shalit. I have a special affection for the constellation Orion, though, because it’s the second constellation I learned to recognize. The first was the Big Dipper-also known as Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, although the fact that it has such an incredibly long tail makes me think Ptolemy hadn’t seen that many bears. We’re probably lucky that Ptolemy was completely unfamiliar with the fauna of North America because he might have been tempted to call the Big Dipper Mephitis Major and, let’s face it, "the Great Skunk" doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard about the Big Dipper. It was in the middle of summer, no sign of clouds, and one of the kids across the street said, "Tonight will be a good night to see the Big Dipper." I didn’t want to appear ignorant, especially since he wasn’t talking to me, so I just nodded knowingly and went back to collecting roly-polys. Later I asked my mother what the Big Dipper was. I think I was five or six at the time and had no clue what even a dipper was. My mother told me that, that night, she’d point it out to me. I think I imagined something like the moon, something big and easy to spot, which made me wonder why I’d never noticed it before. That night we went outside and she bent down next to me and started pointing at the stars saying, "There’s the spoon, and there’s its handle. Do you see it?" I didn’t want to appear ignorant, so I said, "Oh, yeah, okay," while I was thinking, "What the heck is she talking about? All I see is a bunch of stars." I’m pretty sure my mother, a former teacher, started by explaining that the Big Dipper is a constellation and that those are designs made by collections of stars, but I think I may have missed that, being concerned about the fact that the denizens of my roly-poly zoo were escaping by simply walking through the moat I’d carefully built. It wasn’t really until I’d seen connect-the-dots pictures of the Big Dipper, and a show about constellations at the planetarium, that I figured out what it was. And I got a huge thrill, almost like learning a magic trick, out of being able to actually spot it for myself in the night sky. In spite of the thrill I avoided learning any other constellations, just because I thought they were too hard to piece together. Orion, though, is kind of hard to miss, even in a fairly light-polluted neighborhood. I think I recognized Orion even before I knew which constellation it was, and once I looked it up that kind of opened the floodgates. Now I can spot Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Draco, maybe his father Lucius, or even, on a good night, Gene Shalit. What never ceases to amaze me, though, is that I’m never actually seeing the stars as they are, but as they once were. Even when I look at the sun–which I know you’re never supposed to do but as a kid I would do anyway, if only just for a second–I know it’s the sun as it was eight minutes ago. With stars, and this is the part that always gets me, it’s as they were hundreds, thousands, even millions of years ago. When we look at stars we are literally looking at a ray of light projected to us from distant space. I know this is Astronomy 101 but it still gets me that, when I look at the sky, I’m seeing stars that could have burned out when my ancestors didn’t even know how to make fire. At one point in Alice In Wonderland Alice, fearing she’s going to shrink out of existence, tries to imagine what a flame looks like after it’s gone out. Stars are candles that burn so bright their light is stretched across time. The only thing, to me, more amazing than that is that, when stars burn out, some of them will, in dying, build the elements that life itself is built from. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and every other element is nothing more than a cluster of hydrogen atoms smashed together in the heart of a dying star. Walt Whitman has a famous poem about astronomy:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Actually I don’t think it’s about the science of astronomy itself. I think Whitman was busting the chops of a really bad lecturer, the sort of guy who’d describe a car accident by telling you the temperature and relative humidity at the time it happened. Whitman, after all, also coined the phrase "the body electric", so I think he understood how much poetry there is in science. I wonder what Whitman would have thought if he’d heard, and fully understood, what Carl Sagan said more than a century later–"The Earth, and every living thing, are made of star stuff." Astronomy is the essence of poetry–and everything else.

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