Monday, February 11, 2019

As Betelgeuse once said to Rigel, "You can't be Sirius!

When I was a young lad in Texas 70 years ago, my Dad introduced me to the glories of the night sky. He showed me The Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major (Big Bear) and how to draw a line through two of its stars to find Polaris, the North Star, which was at the end of the handle of The Little Dipper in the constellation Ursa Minor (Little Bear). He showed me how to look an equal distance beyond Polaris to find Cassiopeia, which according to Wikipedia "was one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd-century Greek astronomer Ptolemy, and it remains one of the 88 modern constellations today. It is easily recognizable due to its distinctive 'W' shape, formed by five bright stars. It is opposite the Big Dipper."

It is not really "opposite" the Big Dipper, but I know what Wikipedia was trying to say. My Dad said it better.

Speaking of my Dad, he also showed me Orion the Hunter, easily identified by the three stars in his belt; and Sirius, the Dog Star; and Leo the Lion; and red Antares in Scorpius (which really does look like a scorpion if your imagination is good enough).

He showed me Venus and Jupiter and Mars. He showed me the Milky Way. Anybody who does that can’t be all bad.

The Milky Way was easily visible in those days and stunning on the dark, flat plains of Texas. Today it cannot be seen from our urban and suburban areas because of all the man-made light near the ground.

Later I learned that Orion's right shoulder was the star Betelgeuse and his left knee was the star Rigel. I say "left" and "right" assuming Orion is facing toward us. If he is facing away from us, Betelgeuse is his left shoulder and Rigel is his right knee. I’m just saying.

(Image from stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/oricma-p.html)

This week I had a huge shock. I took my dog out for her last nightly walk before bedtime, looked up into the sky and saw bright Sirius, and glanced to the right to see my old friend Orion. There was Betelgeuse on his shoulder. There was Rigel on his knee.

I couldn't see his belt.

The macular degeneration in my eyes has reached the point that the only way I can see dimmer stars like the ones in Orion's belt any more is to look slightly to the right of them and pick them up in my peripheral vision, which isn't nearly as satisfying.

It's just more evidence that I am slowly going the way of all flesh.

12 comments:

  1. My father used to point out constellations to us too. He did not know as many as your father but it is a fond memory.

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  2. My first thought when I saw your heading was that you are a follower of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy. Having lived here on Lewis and in New Zealand I can appreciate the night sky without light pollution too. I'm sad for your macular degeneration. My father was thus afflicted too so I can appreciate your plight.

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    1. Graham, I read all five books in Douglas Adams's trilogy.

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  3. I am sorry. Getting older is too often an exercise in frustration for the things we can no longer do.

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  4. You were a lucky boy to have your Dad show you some of the basic constellations. It's sad that we have so much light pollution. I liked the northern lights best of all.

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    1. Red, I have never seen the northern lights except in photographs and films. Up where you are you got the full spectacle live and in technicolor!

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  5. I am sorry to hear about your ocular issues. Seeing the stars at night is, as you suggest, often difficult. Where my late brother lived in western Ireland the sky was often a stupendous sight on clear nights - stars behind stars behind stars - going on for evermore. Best seen when there was no moon. I didn't care much about the geography of the heavens - just that awesome beauty in the darkness.

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    1. Neil, when you say "stars behind stars behind stars" I think of a famous Hubbell Telescope photograph of many, many galaxies in a tiny section of space. We have no idea -- or I should say we're beginning to have a glimpse of an idea -- of the vastness of the universe.

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  6. I am heartsick to hear about your vision loss.

    My father never taught me very much about anything, and I envy you that. However, after moving to Oregon, a friend taught me a little about the night sky, and my sister had previously turned me on to H.A. Rey's wonderful book. In Mississippi, I grew up thinking that night sky would be a lot prettier and more interesting if not for those darn clouds that came along every night. When I started learning about the night sky, I realized that those "clouds" had been the Milky Way. Here in the Willamette Valley, star-gazing is never really good, it being overcast for nearly half the years, and hazy the rest of the time. As you might recall, I lived in Minneapolis for a couple of years, and to my very great surprise, the stars there were a lot clearer than they are here despite the lights of the city. Sometimes, I would go out for a few minutes in winter and be amazed at how many stars I could see. Here in Oregon, the best stargazing is to be done in the mountains or in the 2/3s of the state that's desert. What I've found is that if I go to a place like Yorkie described, I can see so many more stars than I'm accustomed to that I have trouble telling what's what, the situation being what's known as "an embarrassment of riches."

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    1. Snow, vision loss never stopped Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles or Ronnie Millsap or Andrea Bocelli or George Shearing or Fanny Crosby or Helen Keller -- not that I'm any of those, mind you. The the shots in the eye that I have been receiving monthly for the last two years atr supposed to keep the macular degeneration from worsening, perhaps even improving things a bit.

      I will have to look up H.A. Rey; I'm ignorant of more things than you could shake a stick at.

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