The Celestial Sphere
Before I start this post I must warn you: I might have an understanding of quasars, neutrinos and black holes more than your average non-nerd, but when it comes to sky-mapping, my mind is an utter blank. I also consciously chose not to research anything on wikipedia before I write this, first because when you are naive enough to approach an entirely new subject without being prepared, you get sidetracked. Tab accumulates over tab, page over page and before you know it, a week has past and you know everything there is to know about every sect in Lebanon (long story). Second because I enjoyed the idea of experiencing something in such a child-like way, and I want to share that grandiose uncharted new world feeling with you.
I was privileged enough to be in the middle of the desert this perseid meteor season, and now I see what our ancestors were all yapping about. The sky is filled with white light, so many stars twinkle down on you that the white in the sky is at the same percentage as the black. There’s a gigantic white cloudy brushstroke right through the middle splitting the sky into two identical halves. No wonder every culture has mythology for the milky way, it’s as imposing as the sun or moon, you cannot ignore it!
The second thing you must realize is that these constellations move. Yes, they move in a circular motion around an axis which is a straight line between your point and the pole star, which stays constant. They rise and set, just like the sun and the moon. The stars close to the pole move in small circle, and it gets larger the further the star is. We saw the big dipper just over the western horizon when we arrived. Two hours later, it had set, disappeared, and all the thousands of other stars had done this mythological shift that reminds you of God of War contraptions, and makes you realize for the first time that we in fact might be moving instead of everybody else.
There was also this “moment”. Some guy was explaining the star alignments on a simulator on his laptop, when a girl jumped and asked him if the meteors will show in his picture. It hit me, this girl knows absolute zip about computers, I am in Syria, and I’m surrounded by geeks who know absolute zip about computers! They’re science geeks, nature geeks, astronomy geeks. I had found an alternative to my alternative crowd, so to speak.
Here’s some interesting trivia I managed to collect from the guides:
-The constellations are 73
-The twelve astrological ones are the ones the sun goes through (don’t ask). There’s a thirteenth one but it got short-changed
-There are a significant number of stars out there with Arabic names, used in NASA and everything. e.g., Deneb, Altair, Vega, Famalhaut. (I was surprised I didn’t know that).
– The Sun also does the “revolve around the pole star axis” thing, and it shifts between seasons. In winter it gets farther from the centre, which results in a smaller circle, hence the short daylight time.
My prejudiced opinion of the ancients being so bored they tried to find drawings among the dots has forever been shattered. The scene is an eye-opener, and you have to find a meaning to all that you are seeing before you. Star alignments, shifting nightsky, they weren’t obssessive-compulsives noticing minor details. It’s breathtaking, and can’t be ignored.
Seeing what I saw has to be on every person’s bucket list.Science comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.