I’ve been spending the last few days working with the constellations, drafting images for the cartographers over at Rough Guides to turn into actual star charts (hint: It’s easier to do when you’re making screenshots off of astronomy software, as I’ve been doing. Yes, you have to get permission from the software makers before you do this sort of thing. Yes, I did). There are 88 officially recognized constellations, but I ended up with 69 charts, on account that I paired up several of the smaller and/or less impressive constellations. Sad to say, many constellations just don’t rate their own star chart.
It’s not like they care, mind you. They’re just abstract representations of earthly objects projected into the sky by humans, using stars that have only a passing relationship to each other. Stars that look close in our night sky can be hundreds of light years apart; it’s that whole “space is three dimensional” thing (and actually, space is four dimensional — some stars we see in the sky may already be long-dead and gone, it’s just taking a while for the news to reach us, thank you very much Dr. Einstein).
I don’t think most people realize how many strange and pointless constellations are sitting up there in the sky. In a way, this is only natural (said, of course, ironically): Most of us live in urban areas, where light pollution and other sorts of pollution conspire to blank out fainter stars from our view. I remember living in Chicago and looking up and being able to see nothing but the 10 or 20 brightest stars — really not enough to go naming constellations by. Since many of the more obscure constellations are composed mainly of faint stars, why should people know them? When it comes to constellations, you can’t know what you can’t see.
The other reason is that constellations just don’t mean what they used to people. When you’ve got PlayStation 2, what do you need with the constellation Vulpecula (this is not a knock on PlayStation 2, said the Chief Entertainment Media Critic for Official US PlayStation Magazine, quickly, before he can get fired for disloyalty). If you can make out and recognize the Big Dipper (which, strictly speaking, is an asterism, not a constellation), or maybe Taurus or Orion, you’re doing just fine.
Still, it’s interesting to know what weird and freaky objects are up there in the sky. For example, did you know that there’s a giraffe walking around near the celestial north pole? It’s the constellation Camelopardalis (pictured above), which, being circumpolar as it is, is always hovering in the night sky here in the northern hemisphere. Its near neighbors include two bears, a bobcat, a dragon, and a guy carrying around a couple of goats. I think it’s a little out of place.
The fact of the matter is that Camelopardalis is a fairly recent constellation, created just a few hundred years ago by an astronomer who noticed that there was this wide swath of space with no constellation in it; he just spotted a few dim stars (none higher than 4th magnitude, which means you won’t be able to see them n the suburbs), strung ‘em together, and there you have it — instant constellation.
Other lesser-known constellations in the northern sky: Delphinus and Equuleus (the dolphin and horse, respectively), Sagitta (the arrow) and Vulpecula (the fox), Corvus and Crater (a crow and a cup, and they actually share a mythological story together), Canes Venatici (hunting dogs) and Coma Berenices (Berenice’s hair, and isn’t that a weird one: A wig in space). The thing about these constellations is that if you can identify one of them, you’re probably the sort of person who can identify them all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. I am writing an astronomy book, you know. I want you to be know these things.
The earth’s southern hemisphere has a lot of unfamiliar constellations for most of us, but that’s to be expected, since most people on the planet live in the northern hemisphere, rather above the equator, thus there are constellations down under that we never see: Chameleon, Pavo, Apus, Hydrus, Tucana, Octans — all circumpolar to the South Pole.
Be that as it may, the southern hemisphere has a lot of constellations seem a little odd in their own right; many of them were described and created during the Age of Exploration (when the Europeans hopped in their ships to travel the world and surprise the natives of other lands with Jesus and smallpox), and so describe scientific objects: Microscopes, telescopes, compasses, air pumps, carpenter’s levels, chisels, pendulum clocks and octants. A fan of rationality though I may be, I’m not at all impressed with any of these: I want the night sky to be filled with wild animals and mythological heroes, not to resemble Galileo’s laboratory.
Given the fact that so many constellations are dim and/or obscure and/or just plain lame, I have an idea. I say we yank most of the constellations. I figure we have to keep the signs of the zodiac, otherwise we’ll have to fund an Omnibus Astrologers’ Assistance Bill in congress, and then keep on some of the most obvious constellations in both hemispheres: Orion, Centaurus, Ursae Major and Minor, Crux, and so on. Say, the top 25 or 30 constellations get to stay. The rest: Gone. Then we start voting on new constellations — and by “we” I mean pretty much the whole planet. You may not know this, but the night sky is officially pretty damn Eurocentric, up to and including the parts that can’t actually be seen from Europe (although there is a Native American in the southern sky — Indus — and I bet he’s surprised to be so far from home). It can’t hurt to let the voting power of China or India put in a constellation or two (or three, whatever).
The only rules I’d put in would be that the new constellations couldn’t be of real people — thus avoiding the constellations Mao, Elvis and Dale Earnhardt — and that we’d pretty much want to avoid any technological advance of, oh, the last 100 years. That way we’re not stuck with the constellations TiVo, Nintendo or Cell Phone. Other than that, let ‘em rip. We’ll let the astronomers keep the old constellations, of course, because there’s no point in having to rename the entire sky for scientific purposes. It’s like how they use Metric and stuff. You know, just because they do doesn’t mean we have to. And it’ll get people looking up at the sky again. That’s not bad.
Oh, come on. It’ll be fun. You won’t miss dumb ol’ Camelopardalis anyway.