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December 15, 2013

Spaced-Out Challenge: Reflecting on an Unchanging Sky

Apologies for a shorter edition of the astronomy thread this week, we will be back with the Winter Sky guide next Sunday. Since the ONT will be upon us in a bit, no Open Thread below. But I wanted to share some personal thoughts, along with a rather incredible 16,000 year old artwork.


Taurus is a large, bright, and ancient constellation, positioned just east and north of Orion in the celestial sphere, with the bright star Aldebaran blazing as the bull's red eye, the beautiful open cluster Hyaades forming his face and mouth, and the infamous Seven Sisters riding his back.

The constellation and it's various components have been documented in ancient Chinese texts and the Bible, but to get an idea just how far back we have recognized the "Great Bull" in the sky, take a close look at this image from the caves at Lascaux:

EPasztorFigure5.jpg

Original artist: Dave in Texas

Notice a sizable bull, with "dots" in it's face, and a cluster of dots just above his back? Dr Michael Rappenglueck of the University of Munich certainly thought it was more than just coincidence the "dots" happen to line up with more modern depictions of the constellation Taurus. Much of the rest of that painting (not depicted in the small photo above) seem to indicate the placement of the Summer Triangle and even the Belt of Orion, all features that would have been readily visible to cave-dwelling observers.

TaurusModernDepiction.png

Courtesy Stellarium, a more modern depiction of Taurus

The stars are our common heritage, and the careful observation of them made our very civilization possible. The ancients kept careful watch: the heavens came and went with the seasons, and one ignored them at their own peril. On a human timescale, they certainly were the closest things to eternity, always and without fail rising in the east and setting in the west.

We have advanced quite a bet in the seven hundred generations since this paint brushed a wall, and yet the stars still fascinate us. Be it the stars themselves, the moon, a meteor shower, planets or a comet, there's something up there that captivates all of us, even for just the smallest moment. It seems hard-wired in us as a species. Call me crazy, but they also connect us to our past, and in a surprisingly personal way.

Consider this: the stars you see at night are almost exactly identical to what your parents, grandparents, etc could see. Perhaps the light pollution has blotted out a few, but from a darker site, it's the same. Christmas hasn't exactly been the same for me since the death of my grandmother a few years back. She would occasionally go outside her house in the country, drink in hand, and look up. Knowing my interest in astronomy as a child, she asked me a question I haven't thought about for some time: "do you ever just look up and appreciate it for what it is? I do."

It brought me comfort, looking up in the sky on a clear night last week, that the sky above me is the same as it was when she asked me. It felt like that was a moment frozen in time, and I was experiencing that all over again, but with a greater appreciation that I could have ever possessed twenty years ago. Perhaps there's a loved one no longer physically with you. Go outside on a clear night this week, and do what I did: look up and appreciate it for what it is.

At some moment in their life, they did too, and in a cosmic sense, they still are.

***

Regular thread returns next week.

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posted by CAC at 09:25 PM

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