The sky is perfect tonight. The flawless close to a false Spring day in mid-February — an odd day with chirping birds, open windows, shirtless basketball and soft outdoor conversation before supper.
The kids are asleep. The warmth lingers windless in the dark outside. Winter is back up in Minnesota or someplace, where it belongs. And the Sun and the Moon are on the other side of the Earth, leaving the stars and planets free to put on a rare show: Winter sky in Spring weather.
I venture out to take in the performance. My hands, so used to freezing on the binocular’s barrels on clear Winter nights, hold steady enough for me to count Jupiter’s moons.
The night-sky sights of Winter are special. High in the South sky, the third star in Orion’s “sword” looks like a smudge of blue, a stain in the black velvet of space. This is the Great Nebula, a luminous embryonic cloud of dust and gas incubating a quartet of new blue stars called the Trapezium. Here we see fetus stars, already far more massive and luminous than our own sun, in the process of forming much as the sun did about eight billion years ago.
Over in the Northwest, to the left of Cassiopeia’s W, is a fuzzy oval patch about four moons wide. This is the spiral galaxy Andromeda, larger than our own Milky Way galaxy and, at 2,300,000 light-years away, the most distant naked-eye object in the sky.
One can get a sense of galactic perspective by glancing from this outside view of Andromeda to our inside view of the Milky Way, which stretches like a stream of spilled wax from one horizon to the other. Practically everything we see in the sky, except for Andromeda, belongs to the Milky Way. And the Milky Way, 100,000 light-years across, is only one of millions of galaxies.
Most of the stars we see clearly are in our own galactic neighborhood, which stretches one or two thousand light-years from us. The farthest is Polaris, the North Star, which is 1,085 light-years away. Polaris is actually a multiple star, several stars revolving around each other.
Our own star, the Sun, is pretty dull as stars go. It isn’t overly bright, like Rigel, Orion’s “right foot,” which burns 40,000 times brighter than the Sun, from 545 light-years away. It isn’t large, either, like Betelgeuse, Orion’s “left hand.” Betelgeuse is a “red giant,” so huge that if it replaced the Sun we would be inside it. Other unusual stellar phenomena are pulsars, the spinning remnants of former stars; quasars, objects so distant (up to 13 billion light-years away) that some suggest that they are simply views of the pre-big-bang universe seen full-circle through curved space; and “black holes,” concentrations of matter so dense and gravitationally strong that not even light can escape them.
Our dull Sun does support life, though, and nine planets that whirl through space in big circles. Tonight, at one time, I can see three of the five nearest planets. Venus shines over the western horizon like the light on an incoming plane. Jupiter glows brighter than any of the other stars just west of straight overhead. Saturn is third in brightness, high in the eastern sky. It’s not hard to tell these are planets. They look closer than the stars, somehow. Instinctively, perhaps, we can tell direct from reflected light. Maybe we sense the movement of the planets against the background of stars. Whatever the senses say, the mind which follows the stars and planets over the months and years develops a feeling about how this big clock works, what kind of magical symmetry is revealed in its motions.
For a star-gazer like myself (I’m not an astronomer; they have telescopes and know math), the sky is a programmed text. The earth, in its year-long orbit, reveals a new slice of night sky every sundown, and retires another in the west. There are about fifty officially recognized constellations observable in the Northern hemisphere, and over the course of a year one can see all of them. With the help of sky charts, one can find all kinds of interesting stars, nebulae, galaxies, planets, and moons.
Of course, most constellations don’t look like they’re supposed to. Most of them are named after animals: goat, bear, lion, ram, snake, unicorn, scorpion, swan, horse, fish, fox, whale. The rest are mostly humanoid: archer, virgin, god, queen. Or objects: scales, sextant, arrow, furnace. Few of them look like this. On a clear night, a sharp-eyed soul can make out a few more suitable configurations, and name them after real things: tractors, teeth, furniture, buildings, plants, eggs, appliances, tires, bait, graffiti, and Hands of God.
In fact, so senseless are many of these presumptive names for constellations that I challenge anyone unfamiliar with the official list to go out on a clear Spring night and find the Great Bear. Chances are the only constellation he’d be likely to identify is the hard-to-miss Big Dipper. He would be unaware that the dipper, along with the mess of faint stars around it, is the Great Bear, called Ursa Major by those who insist on fancy names for simple things. There is an Ursa Minor, too — a little bear. Though nearly impossible for the untrained eye to find, it is, when discovered, always misidentified as the Little Dipper, which of course it resembles.
Granted, some constellations do look like their names. Taurus, on a clear night, can look like a face-on bull. And Orion is at least a plausible hunter, even though it could pass for a bat or a go-go-dancer.
My arguments are with signs like Cancer and Aries, which are faint assortments of stars that resemble almost nothing at all. The most interesting thing about Cancer isn’t its dim stars, but something in its middle called the Beehive, a globular cluster of distant stars that looks dazzling through a set of binoculars. Aries is just an irregular row of undistinguished stars that draws its importance from proximity to the ecliptic, which is what most astrologers call the Zodiac. Strangely, Cetus, the Whale, is just about as close to the ecliptic as Aries, but useless to astrologers, presumably because whales don’t have enough interesting attributes worth passing on to humans who suffer the misfortune of birth somewhere between Pisces and Taurus.
It is interesting that the Chinese look at the same night sky that we do and see completely different constellations. I assume this because I have a copy of a Chinese star map from the third century A.D. Almost none of the constellations are charted the same as ours (which, as astrologers know, date back to Babylon and before). The only ones the Chinese see in the same configurations are Orion, Taurus and the Dipper (I refuse to call it the Bear). Everything else is different. The stars are in the same places, but joined together in different groups. The main third-century Chinese constellations were “walls,” separating the astrological lunar houses, inside of which were asterisms, or heavenly officials. The dipper was called Beidou, who was probably a luminary who resembled a gourd.
It puzzles me that the failure of many constellations to resemble anything is no problem for astrologers. Astronomers, of course, couldn’t care less whether a bunch of stars looks like a god or a wrench. For them, constellations are tools of convenience, making sense on maps and charts, the same way Ohio and Wyoming make sense on U.S. road maps. For astrologers, however, constellations of the Zodiac are signs with meanings that derive from their appearance in the sky. The constellation Leo, for example, is supposed to resemble a lion, which has the properties of courage and vanity (among others), and which passes on those properties, generally, to persons who are born when the sun is in that sign. It helps that Leo does look like a lion, sort of. It doesn’t help that a sign like Capricorn, which is supposed to be a goat, looks more like a squash.
Well, this isn’t really astrology’s main problem. We can take the word of the ancients on what those constellations look like. Babylonians and Greeks were sheep herders, and standing outdoors all night staring at the sky was part of their job. To them, constellations were as familiar as wool.
The real problem has to do with precision. Astrologers like to be precise about where the Sun, Moon and planets are at any given minute, to determine astrological influences on persons, events, and trends. The Moon and planets are always plotted, charted and calculated exactly. Right now, for example, Venus is in Pisces, Jupiter is in Taurus and Saturn is in Cancer. I know, because I just went outside and looked. (For the record, it’s Monday, February 14.) These are precise locations about which an astrologer, consulting his or her ephemeris (a book with charts giving such locations), would agree.
But most of us only know a little about astrology, so we could only say where the sun is. And where is the sun? Well, if it’s the 14th of February and Aquarius runs from the 22nd of January to the 21st of February, then it must be in Aquarius, right?
Wrong. The sun is in Capricorn and will be until most of us think it’s in Pisces, at which time, approximately, it will enter Aquarius.
What’s going on? Why are the sun signs of 1977 off by a whole sign? The answer is that in the 2,000 years since the Greeks formalized astrology, the sky has moved. The axis of the Earth moves in a slow circle about 26,000 years long. This gives us two different kinds of years. The tropical year, our calendar year, is twenty minutes shorter than the sidereal year, which is the length of time it takes the earth to complete an orbit against the background of stars — all because of this slow wobble in the Earth’s axis. Over the past twenty centuries, the slight difference in the two kinds of years has added up to a whole sign in the Zodiac. As far as I know, this doesn’t bother astrologers any more than the nonresemblance of signs and constellations.
Okay, I know. Astrologers have ways of handling differences between astrological and astronomical realities. Also, astrology is an occult discipline, not a strict science. Science tries to deal mostly in certainties. Astrology doesn’t. If astrology actually works for people, the reasons are probably beyond the grasp of science anyway. Science can’t explain beauty, either.
And beauty is what this is all about. There is no way to adequately express the depth of beauty in a skyfull of stars. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to take astrology to task. Astrology, whether it is right or wrong or somewhere in between, has beauty and symmetry, too.
I’m just saying get your heads out of the books and charts and magazine columns and go outside. There’s nothing in the world like it.
It may come as a shock to learn that nearly all the atoms in your body and in the earth were once part of a star that exploded and disintegrated, and that probably those same atoms were once the debris of still an earlier star.
— Kenneth F. Weaver