Starcrossed #2

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Chicken bone, ball syringe, it’s all the same.

Actually, this is a subject that comes up a lot in my work.  When I first started in the planetarium biz, my constellation knowledge was thanks to H.A. Rey (yes, the Curious George guy), from his book called The Stars: A New Way to See Them.

While it’s a fantastic book and largely responsible for my interest in astronomy, his constellation art is very artistic and highly contemporary, and by no means close to anything traditional.  He definitely took poetic license, which is fine, for a reason I’ll get to in a minute.

Pointing out outlines to visitors unfamiliar with constellations can be difficult, because the associated images are sometimes very stylizied and often look absolutely nothing like what they’re supposed to represent.

“Yes, this jagged, W-shaped line of stars is The Queen, Cassiopeia.  This square with a triangle on top is her husband, King Cepheus.”

You get the idea.

However, it’s not the image of the constellation that is important.  What is most important is where the constellations are. Every artist, astronomer, storyteller, astrologer, cartographer, etc., is going to draw a slightly different image of a constellation, so there’s no way to standardize that—what is standardized is the locations of the constellations.  Each has a “boundary”, a line that goes around them like a border.   (They were originally drawn by an astronomer named Eugene Delaporte and are governed by the International Astronomical Union.)

These boundaries encompass the entire sky, both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, and no star is “outside” of any of the boundaries.  Even stars that aren’t actually a part of a constellation’s traditional outline are considered to be within the constellation.

This is practical; you could say to a fellow astronomer, “I saw a meteor in Scorpio last night which went all the way through Virgo,” and he or she would know where you were looking when you saw it.

Likewise, you can use this concept to categorize stars.  If you took all the stars within a certain constellation, and made a list of them from brightest to dimmest, you could then give them standardized names, such as Alpha Centauri (the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus) or Omicron Persei (the 15thish brightest star in Perseus).

So anyway, the moral of the story is: constellation art, while fun and interesting (and sometimes depicting naked people) is for the most part unimportant—knowing where the constellations are is.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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