This column was provided by San Benito County resident and amateur astronomer David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only child, or for that matter, the only adult looking up at the night sky for the first time and wondered just what are those bright objects shining down on us like distant head lights? I pretty much had already figured out the identity of the sun and moon. The sun gives us warmth and life. For without the sun we wouldn’t exist here on Earth. In some ways the same goes for the moon. Many scientists believe without the Moon forming the way it did alongside the Earth we wouldn’t have evolved living the type of life that we have today, if at all, such as me sitting here typing out my article verses using a chisel and stone.
I had also heard in school that some of those bright objects were used to form figures of animals, and such, called constellations. They were given names along with stories said to be told by the gods. So I thought I would play God and make up names and stories for my own made up objects in the sky. Though I must say that my stories never turned out to be as clever as the stories told by the gods. My stories were more of a modern day story such as: my puppy Whisper, my grade school teacher Ms. Kessler, and a male Siamese Betta fish along with correlating stories, but they were indeed my stories.
Here it is 1955 and again I find myself waking up on Christmas morning to a line of presents under our little decorated tree. There wasn’t a ton of presents to go around, but if we each received two we felt we were doing quite well for ourselves. That year one of my two presents was a book. Usually a book was not warranted to be on my Christmas list. But once I opened that, not so exciting present, it turned out to be the better of my two presents. The book was called “The Heavenly Stars.” It was one of the best basic astronomy books I ever owned. Amongst other facts, it educated me on the names of those stars, stories, and who wrote them. I was quite pleased with my first present. The second present were socks. What the heck was Santa thinking?
Let me go over for you a few of those funny, yet cleaver stories in the sky past down to us by the gods so many years ago:
The Wild Animal Hunter:
One of the most unique stories was of the Orion Constellation. This constellation was a figure of a huge man called, you guessed it, Orion. Orion has more than seven very bright stars in it. No other constellation has so many, so it is easy to pick out in the winter sky. In Greek legends Orion was a great hunter. He boasted that he would soon rid the world of all the wild animals. The gods did not want this to happen, so they sent an enormous scorpion (Scorpius) to sting him. He died, but the gods were kinder to him afterward: they put his figure on one side of the sky, and the Scorpion far away on the opposite side of the sky. So soon after Scorpius rises above the eastern horizon it was then time for Orion to set in the western side of the night sky not having to worry about that Scorpion’s stinger ever more.
Just next to Orion’s head are the feet of the Gemini twins, you will notice a pair of bright stars: Castor and Pollux. Their name sakes were famous twin brothers in Greek legends. Castor was a wrestler and Pollux was a boxer, and together they went on many adventures. There was hardly any difference between them—except that Castor was mortal and Pollux was immortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux was so sad that he wanted to die too, but he could not because of his mortality. The chief god, Zeus, was so impressed by their brotherly love that he let them live together in the sky forever.
Well now you can see that the gods turn out to be pretty swell guys after all, except for having Orion killed that is. But they did make up for it afterward.
Look out Hydra, Hercules is coming
Just south-west of Gemini is Hydra the water snake constellation. Hydra is known as the longest of all the constellations. But It looks like the gods are at it again, for they ordered Hercules, the strongest man in the world, to kill Hydra. When Hercules approached Hydra he saw that the water snake had one hundred heads, and every time he would cut one head off two would grow back in its place. The situation was getting out of hand when he thought of burning the stumps after each head was removed thus to prevent the two from growing back. That seemed to do the job.
Now our snake in the sky has only one head: a group of five or six stars, quite easy to locate on a clear night. As you can see, the gods have eliminated yet another foe of their dislike, and as in the past, they had second thoughts and left space in the sky for Hydra as well to shine forever. You would think after a while the gods would think these things over a little bit better before they react. Just to show you that they don’t show any favorites; the gods left room for Hercules in the sky as well.
What a lovely long tail you have:
Time for one more short story; and that would be the two Bears, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. The Big Dipper is no doubt the best known constellation in the sky. But the Big Dipper is only a part of the constellation Ursa Major the Great Bear. It just shows up better than the rest of the stars in the constellation. The Big Dipper, as we know it, has many names around the world, such as in England it is called the Plough. Others call it Charles’s Wain, or the Churl’s Wain (I looked it up and a wain was a wagon; a churl was a peasant). One does wonder how these bears ended up with such long tails. It has been told that the end of the small tails were tied to the north star (Polaris) to keep them from drifting away. And as they were spun around and around that force would stretch the tail longer and longer with each completion of the circle. And therefore the long extended tails.
One has to wonder about these stories and who labeled these constellations in the sky. Were they real stories, stories that must have meant a lot to the gods? Maybe these were stories they wanted to be remembered throughout eternity. Well, I think the gods did a great job of that, for these stories, along with the makeup of the constellations, will be here looking back at the Earth long after we have departed. Yes, even longer than our system of information recorded in our books, our internet, or whatever device we happen to be using for keeping track of our information at that time.
Whenever I think of these stories by the gods, I wonder as they wrote them, could they ever have imagined that someone thousands of years in the future would be reading them. Would the readers be laughing with their children as read, or would they take them as god’s truth? Well, I believe they are true. Go ahead, prove me wrong…
I would think now that the next time you visit the starry night sky you just might walk away with a little more to think about. Pass it on.
What’s UP THIS MONTH?
Feb. 15: Venus passes 0.01° south of Neptune
Feb. 18: Moon passes 4° south of Mercury
Feb. 19: Moon is at perigee (222,617 miles from Earth)
Feb. 20: New Moon
Feb. 21: Moon passes 2° south of Neptune
Feb. 22: Moon passes 2° south of Venus
Feb. 22: Moon passes 1.2° south of Jupiter
Feb. 25: Moon passes 1.3° north of Uranus
Feb. 27: First Quarter Moon
Feb. 27: Moon passes 1.1° north of Mars