Arcturus was directly overhead, so bright I thought it was a planet, and it didn’t have the twinkle that stars are supposed to have compared to the steady glow of planets since stars generate their own light while planets merely reflect it. Or maybe it was twinkling and I just couldn’t see it without my glasses, although you’d think a twinkle would be pretty obvious, especially since Arcturus is the fourth brightest star in the night sky and fifth overall if you include the sun although you probably shouldn’t because the sun is so bright it’s just not a fair comparison.
Anyway I didn’t automatically recognize Arcturus. I know a few constellations—Ursas Major and Minor, Cassiopeia, Orion, but Arcturus is in the constellation Boötes. Actually it’s in the foot of Boötes and I guess no one’s made a joke about it being in Boötes boot because no one’s really sure how to pronounce Boötes and also no one’s sure who Boötes was. It’s always seemed strange to me that even modern constellations named for figures from Greek mythology don’t get named after A-listers or even B, C, or D-listers. Sure, Aquarius, Castor and Pollux, and, my personal favorite, Sagittarius, get to be part of the Zodiac, but as far as the Olympian crowd is concerned they’re third cousins twice removed who only showed up that one time at their great aunt Gaia’s nephew’s friend’s marriage to Monoceros. If that’s the case Boötes was probably the guy who swept up the amphitheater while everyone else was enjoying a wild wrap party at Aristophanes’s house and someone felt bad for him and thought he deserved a constellation prize. And then there’s Arcturus which is also a proper name and the origin there is just as fuzzy although the star is sometimes also known as Alpha Boo which sounds like something astronomers write in Valentine’s Day cards to each other, but that’s another story.
As I said I didn’t automatically recognize Arcturus and I probably wouldn’t have taken a ride on this runaway train of thought had I not been able to use an app on my phone to identify it—although speaking of fuzzy terminology I’m not sure it’s fair to call something a “phone” anymore when making calls is lowest on the list of things I do with it. And then I used my phone to look up information about Arcturus because, hey, what else was I supposed to do with it, call somebody?
Arcturus is approximately 36.7 light years away, which partly explains why it’s so bright. In celestial terms that’s, while not exactly next door, at least on the same block. I did some calculating and figured that the light from Arcturus that’s now reaching us started on its way in late February, 1984, a little over a month after Apple aired its legendary Superbowl commercial for the Macintosh.
Back then being able to recognize Arcturus, and knowing it was in Boötes, would have been impressive. It would have made someone seem smart if, perhaps sitting under the stars with their Alpha Boo, they’d been able to rattle off those facts. Now it’s information that’s easily accessible, and while I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much information I don’t think it’s making us any smarter. Sometimes I worry it may even be the reverse.