Wishing on a star is one of those ancient traditions that probably sprung up in multiple cultures over time. The same goes for wishing on the first star spotted in the evening–the author of “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might have the wish I wish tonight” is anonymous and it seems like such a simple, straightforward combination of rhymes it seems possible it was coined by more than one person even without any of them knowing each other. Then there’s Jiminy Cricket who sang “When You Wish Upon A Star” in the Disney version of Pinocchio. I prefer Collodi’s original in which he’s merely a talking cricket who warns Pinocchio not to be lazy, gets smashed with a hammer, and comes back as a ghost, but that’s another story.
Wishing on a falling star seems like it would be even luckier, since they’re rarer, but I think it must also be lucky to wish on a planet. Jupiter and Venus shine more brightly than any star in the night sky and, being closer, seem more likely to grant a wish, or at least have some influence over our world, even if it’s only an occasional gravitational nudge or errant burst of radiation.
These are all thoughts that ran through my head the other night when, looking roughly north by northeast, I saw the first star of the evening, which just happened to be Arcturus. Of course it was Arcturus. It’s the brightest star, with the exception of the sun, visible in the northern hemisphere. It’s just under thirty-seven light years away which makes it a pretty close neighbor. That, combined with being a red giant, is what makes it so bright. It also might have a planetary system.
Could there be life around Arcturus? Let’s say yes. This isn’t science fiction so much as science speculation. We haven’t found life anywhere else in the universe yet but there are a lot of places we haven’t looked, and given the size of the universe it would be strange if our little planet really is alone. Still Arcturus isn’t exactly the best candidate. It’s at least a couple of billion years older than our sun, not to mention the fact that it’s a very different kind of star, all of which means whatever life is out there is likely very different from anything we’re used to. And even if we can communicate the distance means just exchanging a couple of friendly hellos would take almost seventy-four years. A lot can happen in that time.
I’m sure I saw Arcturus a lot when I was a kid. Thinking back to all the summer nights I checked the sky, and assuming it was in roughly the same position then, which it probably was since the stars are pretty regular, it’s very likely that first bright star I saw at night that managed to not be obscured by the streetlight at the end of our cul-de-sac. Arcturus could shine even through light pollution.
And that’s why I see it so often now. It’s annoying, really, that I’ll see a bright star in the evening sky and, checking an astronomy app, I’ll confirm that it’s Arcturus. Again. And I’ll think how nice it would be if it could move over and let something else shine, The next morning I went out and in roughly the same position, bright enough to be seen in the early dawn sky, was Jupiter.