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July 29, 2012 8:56 AM In Defense of Constellations

By Ryan Cooper

Over at Slate they’ve got a classic Slate-ish bit of astronomer-baiting from Daniel Engber arguing against constellations:

On an otherwise clear evening, whatever the season, a smog of Bronze Age graffiti sweeps across the glittering dome and stains the heavens with crude shapes and stick figures—the doodles of a primitive mind. Snakes and scorpions, shepherds and fish, cups and spoons—no image is too dreary or mundane so long as it reflects the anxieties and preoccupations of a life spent farming in Mesopotamia or trawling the ancient seas. These connect-the-dots are among the most heinous affronts to nature ever devised, a witless miscalculation that has corrupted our landscape for thousands of years and ruined a billion nights. If only there were a way to shake the heavenly Etch-a-Sketch and make them all disappear! If only we could erase the constellations!

Points for style and the humor of pushing the bounds of hyperbole (“most heinous affronts to nature,” really?), I guess, but this is pretty ludicrous. Three points: first, constellations help you orient yourself in the night sky. Having everyone know and agree on them makes it easy to find a map or other aid (I particularly like Google Sky Map for my phone). When I was in South Africa and realized one night that I could see an upside-down Big Dipper just on the horizon it was quite the flash of insight, as well as a good sense of just how far south I had gone.

Second, Engber whines about how the constellations reflect peasant preoccupations from thousands of years ago, but the fact is it wasn’t so long ago we were largely a race of peasants. It’s already too easy to forget that. Besides, when you look up the constellations, half the time it’s not even clear what the thing is supposed to be. Vela? Puppis? Those are just random shapes unless you want to read into the mythology.

Third, this line is just offensive: “Why should Orion be a hunter, and not a bus driver, or a civil-rights lawyer, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company?” I think the ego of the modern CEO is bloated enough without writing one into the heavens. Sheesh.

Anyway, this is just a bit of a buildup to post a cool timelapse from the good old Southern Hemisphere. Make sure you catch the Southern Cross!

Follow Ryan on Twitter and his website.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

Comments

  • Hedda Peraz on July 29, 2012 10:34 AM:

    Engber sure is full of himself!
    I wonder what his views are on that other " witless miscalculation that has corrupted our landscape for thousands of years and ruined a billion nights"
    -I speak, of course, of Organized Religion.

  • c u n d gulag on July 29, 2012 11:15 AM:

    I joined my friends and their infant son on a trip to Hawaii in January of 1994.
    We were going to stay with my friend brother's family on Oahu, and use that as a base for going to see some of the other islands.
    My friends brother ran IT for the military, so he had access to all sorts of things like flights, and military vacation facilities, so the trip was going to be pretty inexpensive, except for the flight there and back.

    My Aunt, my Godmother, was living with us, and dying of liver cancer. The end was near, and I was very reluctant to go, but my aunt and my parents insisted, saying that I'll probably never get the opportunity to go this cheaply again.
    And so I went.

    As soon as we landed in Honolulu, my friends husband, her brother, and I, took off for the big island of Hawaii, where we were going to spend the night at a military vacation spot on top of the volcano.
    When we got there in the late afternoon, it was raining.

    We had dinner and a couple of drinks at the restaurant there, and went back to our small suite.

    Around midnight, by friends brother woke me up, and asked me to join him outside.
    I wondered what this was about, but I followed him out.

    It had stopped raining, and the clouds had cleared.

    He pointed up at the night sky.

    MY GOD!!!
    I had never seen a night sky anything like it!

    First, it looked completely different.
    I had spent my whole life in the Northeast, and this was a small island not too far from the Equator, and in the middle of the ocean. And where I lived, with all of the background lighting from Richmond to north of Boston, the stars and constellations almost had to work to be seen.

    But here they were, looking as if they were in reach. Like I could take that Southern Cross down from the night sky, and begin marching down the mountain with it.

    The stars were in such SHARP relief from the black sky, that you could begin to understand the awe that ancient man must have felt, looking up at the grandeur of the night sky, and wondering what all of those lights were?

    And why he/she must have felt some need to bring order to something as chaotic and beautiful as that.

    We've taken some Western mythological figures, and applied them to the night sky. In China, Japan, Mexico, Kenya, India, etc., they applied their own myths and legends.
    Where ancient man might have seen an apple, an infant, an old woman, a giraffe, or an elephant's trunk, we see Orion, bears, and dippers, big and little.

    Who cares what we call them?
    We are trying to bring order to what otherwise looks like chaos.

    On my third day in Hawaii, my aunt passed away
    I got the news after whale-watching off the coast of Maui.
    We flew back to Oahu, and I flew home the next morning.
    That night, I went outside and looked up at the night sky - but it wasn't even close to being the same. The lights of Honolulu bleached out the stark beauty of what I'd seen a few nights before.

    Basically, I just want to say that we need to appreciate the beauty and the grandeur while we can.

    I know that the night sky I saw from the top of a volcano on a sparsely populated Island (Hilo is the only decent-sized city, and it's TINY!) in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is a sight I'll never, ever forget.

    Not ever.

    And enjoy looking at the stars while you still can.
    We are ruining this planet trying to live in places where we probably shouldn't, trying to air condition the dessert, and heat the arctic - all with fossil fuels, trying to bend the inhospitable to our needs and wants.

    And in doing all of this cooling, heating, and illuminating, we're rapidly choking the planet to death - and making seeing the stars in the night sky something that in the not too distant future, if we survive, that is, only some scientists on top of isol

  • exlibra on July 29, 2012 11:19 AM:

    Why should Orion be a hunter, and not a bus driver,[...]

    Because, dear heart, by the time the bus driver became more prevalent than a hunter, you could hardly see a paw of the Great She-Bear (Ursa Major), never mind all of her. Clear skies, full of stars, are a thing of the past.

  • skippy on July 29, 2012 11:38 AM:

    ryan, why are you wasting your time reading slate?

  • Fess on July 29, 2012 11:52 AM:

    Every time I've spent some time learning the names of constellations beyond the most famous few, I always get confused. "That's a swan? If you say so." On the other hand, I always find new ones that aren't part of the official play book. Check out the pizza slice next time you're in the mood for a little star watching. Unlike the swan, it's as clear as clear can be.

  • TCinLA on July 29, 2012 12:23 PM:

    He writes for Slarte f'r chrissakes, what did you expect? Intelligence? Ain't gonna happen there.

  • Steve P on July 29, 2012 12:28 PM:

    Have an intern find the 30+ year-old Mad magazine New Comstellation Map.

  • TCinLA on July 29, 2012 12:30 PM:

    gulag is right about truly seeing the night sky. Even better than doing it on an island, try the deck of a ship 1,000 miles from the nearest land. The night sky is so bright with stars that you do not need light to make your way around, and that's on a night where the moon isn't shining.

    Lying on the deck, looking up at that, and having some comprehension of what I was seeing, some comprehension of the fact that what I was looking at was so immense that much of that light had left its original source before there were mammals on Earth, let alone humans. That a small, insignificant being living on a small insignificant planet, orbiting a small insignificant sun, on the outer edges of what is likely not a very significant galaxy, can see that and have any understanding of it is about as close to a proof of the existence of god as I have ever been able to get. Being able to see the Universe - which we mostly don't (certainly not here in the City of Lost Angles) here on land, is one of the incredible experiences one can have. Of course early humans were awed by what they saw at night - who wouldn't be?

  • castanea on July 29, 2012 12:58 PM:

    That was a wonderful, if sad, story, gulag. Thanks for sharing it.

    For over 100,000 years of human history, our species knew how to read the night sky. Only over the past few thousand years did that knowledge get recorded in stone or on paper.

    It is a sad commentary on our slovenly species that the overwhelming majority of people probably cannot tell you if the moon is waxing or waning, or which planet(s) are visible after dusk.

    I always laugh when a pompous ass such as Engber sneers at the intelligence and accomplishments of our Bronze age ancestors, or their predecessors. All our ancestors, to some degree, laid the foundation for us today, so that halfwits can sit at their computers, pecking away at churlish articles for websites such as Slate.

  • bad Jim on July 29, 2012 2:06 PM:

    It's my guess that some of the constellations go back to the Stone Age, especially the bears, the hunter and the dogs. Orion was a pretty minor figure in Greek mythology, but it's one of the most brilliant constellations in the sky.

  • CharlieM on July 29, 2012 2:18 PM:


    Nothing quite so awe inspiring and yet humbling as to be on a mountain top on a clear night miles away from any city and look up at the overwhelming immensity of the cosmos.

    The universe contemplating itself - Small minds like Engber are poorer for not looking high enough or far enough. The trivia consumes them.

  • buddy66 on July 29, 2012 2:56 PM:

    "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...."

  • comstock load on July 29, 2012 5:53 PM:

    When I lived among the Navajo it didn't take long to find out that they had their own constellations. Always thought the local schools should have taught those....

  • Neil Bates on July 29, 2012 6:37 PM:

    Engber is a grotesque "philistine" (there's some bronze-age romance for 'ya) and very ignorant about *modern astronomy.* Our current labeling system for stars (altho there are others like the HD system, which haven't the same wide currency or easy mnemonic reach) uses constellation names to lable stars, such as Alpha Orionis (α Orionis) - Btelgeuse, eta Aurigae, etc. Why does Slate have to public rubbish like that? Oh yeah, they have to show their hip centrist (beyond political) cred through fashionable "see we are tolerant enough to publish these edgy thought-provoking authors, don't be so sentimental or whatever if they offend you" etc.

  • mark on July 30, 2012 8:43 AM:

    What's more, we haven't been treated to any new constellations in a while. Perhaps, as was standard practice in the past, one of the gods will cast the body of Ronald Reagan into the heavens, to become the "Little Gipper"--always pointing to the right.

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