Saturday, October 16, 2004

I've been very into skywatching lately, and right now I have the good fortune to be awake late in the evening and early in the morning on New Mexico's Plain of St. Augustine. You really couldn't ask for a better place to look at stars, and the area's excellence is attested by the fact that some of the first objects to catch my eye when it gets light are the enormous radio telescope dishes of the Very Large Array, spread over the plain like cybernetic sea anenomes awaiting the descent of some heavenly prey.

One thing I have found helpful in my own astronomical ventures is learning to recognize and name individual stars, instead of focusing over much on the constelltions. We all know that most of the constellations don't look very much like their namesakes; finding individual stars helps me learn my way around the sky according to the patterns my own brain perceives, instead of largely arbitrary patterns made up by others. Remember different star books draw the lines differently; and from the scientific standpoint the only point of naming the constellations is as a means of finding the objects within a certain area. Besides, the names of individual stars are a lot of fun and often have interesting histories. I wish someone would publish a star book which treats the subject with real detail. Algol, Cor Caroli, Sualocin and Rotanev, and Zuben el Genubi are a few of my personal favourites: look 'em up!

It's also a lot of fun to look for constellations which are no longer recognized, especially the goofy 17th and 18th Century ones: Tarandus the Reindeer, for instance. The patterns of the sky have been perceived quite differently by various people over time (the Sioux saw the Great Bear as a skunk, and I'm inclined to agree), and knowing individual stars apart from their constellations helps my imagination explore the various ways of regarding the heavens.

As an example, consider the constellation Monoceros (which can conveniently be viewed this evening, weather permitting). The name means unicorn, and the first reference to the constellation dates to 1624. It's a dim and rather unexciting spatter of stars crammed between Canis Major, Canis Minor, and Orion (here's a cool visual aid). If you're looking to see a unicorn here, you'll probably be disappointed; if you actually see the unicorn, consider changing medications.

But there's another way of looking at Monoceros which makes it wonderful and appealing, at least to me. (I have a notion that the following is an older way of perceiving the region, though I can't for the life of me remember where I heard this.) The stars of Monoceros are the tidbits thrown by the twins of Gemini to the two begging dogs. I, of course, always see the dogs as a dachshund and a tazi, and in fact even now as I type there are specimens of said breeds begging for my crumbs. It's nice to think that my parents' highly singular taste in animals may be sanctioned in the heavens.

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