Stars above San Jose

by Mark Zaugg 3. April 2012 01:50

I have a whole lot of blog entries to write.  Some of them are funny.  Some of them are thoughtful.  Some of them are written.  Some have yet to be formed into meaningful sentences.  Many are political.  Some are astronomical.  I will try hard to use proper hashtags so you know what to expect in advance.

This one is about astronomy on a different spot on the globe.  It was originally written March 24 in San Jose, Costa Rica.

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Exactly how crazy is that?

I cannot orient myself with regards to the sky.  This doesn't make sense at all.  I want to point up with my hand this high and my arm at that angle and just know with certainty that I have pointed at Ursa Major -- the Big Dipper.  Cassiopeia is kinda up and Draco kinda between them and scootched over a bit and it's just obvious where the sky falls into place from there.

Right now Orion has already set; I spotted my oldest friend when we came to the hotel our first night in Costa Rica.  His presence above me has been the last thing of certainty I've seen so far.  

Granted, I have some disadvantages at the moment.  We're still in San Jose, and while there are fewer lights in the city than in Calgary, there is still light pollution.  Also I was looking from the darkest place I could find that was within the hotel area -- in this case by the pool.  That meant fully half my sky was blocked by the building  itself and by bright lights illuminating the pathway.  Of the half of the sky that I could see, it had wispy clouds floating by obscuring many of the dimmer stars that were visible. Not enough to be an impediment at home, far too much to give me a clear orientation under unfamiliar skies.

Zenith, of course, is easy to find.  Point straight up and you're there. But at zenith right now there's really nothing particularly bright.  Alkaid is somewhat close right now, which should lead me immediately to Ursa Major.  But finding what's directly above you is even more difficult when you twist and turn and don't spot anything familiar.

Ursa Major!  C'mon, that's one of my staple constellations. Or more precisely my staple asterisms because i really am only looking for the seven stars in the dipper.  But that is normally so familiar to me i barely have to look to see it.  I'm looking directly above me and cannot see one of the most familiar things in my sky?  Have I gone loco?

Tonight I have re-learned a bit of humility.  I have forgotten what it's like to look up and just see stars.  Ungrouped masses of light.  The constellations are one of humanity's oldest ways of describing locations in the sky.  They hold no mysterious power.  They do not define your life. They are not eternal entities which will be unchanged for all time, although it might seem to be the case for our own ephemeral life spans.  They are maps to describe what we see above us.

When I talk of the Square of Pegasus, I am not referring to a boxy horse soaring above me on wings.  I am referring to a location in the sky which is usually easily recognizable because of a cluster of bright stars.  The stories of a wondrous horse with wings exists to help us remember the map and to remember our tales and legends.  We remember the beautiful Pegasus in part because the legend has been tied to the stars.  If there was ever a marvellous creature in legend half cow and half fish that plunged through the oceans, it has been lost to us, in part because it was not tied to the legendary stories told in our astronomy.

Go, look up tonight. Whether you see constellations or not, find what stars you can.  Enjoy the moment under your own sky, become friends with its legends, create new stories of your own.  Tonight, understand that the stars you see have names and locations and whether you know them or not, they are beautiful and will return tomorrow night offering comfort and direction.  Once the stars have become your friends, you will share the collective stories and pass your own stories to others.

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