Archive for the ‘Stars and Constellations’ Category

H.A. Rey, Amateur Astronomer or, He’s Not All Curious George   Leave a comment

320px-Gemini_constellation_map.svg-2                  Gemini_constellation_map_visualization_1

Back in the sixth grade, I wandered into the school library to pick out a good read.  At the time, I had a serious crush on Encyclopedia Brown.  He was so cute, so smart, and he had a girl for a bodyguard.  As an added bonus, his Dad was the Chief of Police, giving him an edge to solve mysteries.  As I sifted through the shelves, I was horrified to discover that all of the EB books had taken leave with another student.  I felt betrayed somehow, as if he was cheating on me.  Brokenhearted, I rifled through the science section, thinking, “I’ll show him,” and selected a topic far and away from his range of knowledge.  If EB thought detecting was cool, I was out to prove that astronomy was much, much cooler.

At that age, I knew few constellations, mainly the standards like the Dippers (technically speaking, the Big Dipper is an asterism), Orion and a few others.  I had a really cheap telescope and stared at the moon when it passed by my bedroom window.  I did see all these gloriously illustrated pictures of people and things superimposed over stars.  Yet when I tried to find them in the sky, I had a better chance of solving EB’s mysteries a few pages in than I ever did figuring out where those group of stars happened to be.

Sticking out at an odd angle was a deep blue and yellow book.  Its spine said The Stars and was written by H.A. Rey.  Say, wasn’t he the “Curious George” guy?  The book’s colors were similar (think the man in the yellow hat).  I pulled it out and on the cover was the constellation Gemini, actually looking like stick figure twins.  I opened the book and there were many more constellations to choose from, all more or less resembling what they were meant to represent.

It was a revelation.

Rey’s many charts in the book redrew the lines connecting the stars and by doing so, revolutionized the way the average person sees the constellations.  To this day, I wonder why no one had thought of this before.  Thanks to his insight, many field guides have adopted his methods of presenting the constellations.  Even Albert Einstein noticed his work and said, “Many thanks for your lucid and stimulating book.  I hope it will find the interest it deserves.”

Every night I could, I’d go outside with my copy of The Stars and see what else there was hanging out in the heavens.  Before long, I knew them all, when they rose and set, what season they belonged to and how to find planets among them.  The stars became my friends.  Excited to see The Herdsman each spring, I’d ask him how things were since we last met.   The Scorpion, first rising at dawn at the end of January, makes me happy to know that summer’s not all that far away if it’s rising.  Aquarius, my sign, is a gorgeous constellation that spreads across the late summer and early fall sky, if somewhat dim.

Rey conceived this book for anyone sharing the love of the heavens as he did.  I highly recommend this book who wishes to embrace and further their love for the stars.  And when next watching your favorite sci-fi show or movie, you’ll know exactly where the Andromeda Galaxy is…clearly marked on the knee of the constellation for which the galaxy is named…as shown on Page 42.

The Stars: A New Way to See Them, (ISBN 0-395-24830-2)

Gone and Forgotten   Leave a comment


Felis, as depicted in “Uranographia,” Johann Bode, 1801

There are eighty-eight recognized constellations in the evening sky.  Depending upon one’s latitude, each will make a grand entrance or hide in the wings.  For example, the Southern Cross isn’t visible north of latitude 20 degrees north.  Everyone below that enjoys it at least part of the year.  Orion hunts nearly all latitudes every winter, but he’ll never catch the little bear in New Zealand.  That one never strays that far south, and anyone south of latitude 10 degrees south never will.

Casual stargazers, no matter where on earth they live, will never experience the joys of standing in a dark field to pick out the stars of Felis.  And try as one might, The Battery of Volta just won’t appear (although it sounds as if it’d make a great mystery).  Sadly, at Christmas, there are no word to express how disappointed a child might be to learn that Tarandus gel Rangifer has better things to do than show up in her backyard.


Welcome to the world of obsolete constellations.

Yes, folks, if you thought the stars were permanent, well, they are, but it’s their groupings and names that pass on into the literal unknown.  They fade into obscurity as we surely all will.

But who gets to name them in the first place?  Excellent question.  I’ll address that in another blog.

To answer this question on how it applies to constellations, here’s a quick answer: some astronomer made them up.  In the case of Tarandus gel Rangifer, it was the creation of French astronomer Pierre Charles Le Monnier in 1736.  He wished to commemorate an expedition from Maupertius to Lapland whose goal was to prove the Earth’s oblateness.  Rangifer never caught the public’s imagination, or, it would seem, awareness.

Oh, by the way, it means “Reindeer.”

Argo Navis, or the ship Argo, falls into a grey area.  It still sails the southern skies (albeit backwards) mainly in the first half of the year, but due to its unwieldy size, it was broken up into four constellations: Carina (keel), Puppis (stern), Vela (sails) and Pyxis (compass).  Out of the forty-eight constellations that Ptolemy recognized, it is the only one no longer recognized from that group.  You can thank another French astronomer, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille for busting up the ship, as he did in 1752.

One can, however, still piece Argo together, if one chooses.  A star grouping shared between Vela and Puppis forms the asterism “False Cross,” which is a poor man’s version of the Southern Cross.  So you know, an asterism is a grouping of stars that isn’t officially recognized as a constellation at all.  They’re just part of someone else’s turf, like the Big Dipper is really part of Ursa Major.

Next time you stand out on your lawn and give those nightly lanterns a good look and find yourself thinking,  “Hmm, who did you used to be?” It won’t be some faded Hollywood has-been…just a few misplaced, rearranged constellations, faded from the celestial scene.

Posted March 4, 2014 by seleneymoon in Stars and Constellations

No. 13 in the Zodiac   Leave a comment


The constellation Ophiuchus (The Serpent Holder), as shown on

Most people take for granted that there’s a safe, stable number of zodiac constellations: 12.  I bet you can even name them.  But here’s one that you might not know: Ophiuchus.


You heard me: Ophiuchus.

My friend, I’ve been a Ophiuchus fan for years.  He’s the most underrated member of the ecliptic going.  His legs dangle ever so tenuously into the zodiac, just above Scorpius.  He’s actually trying to step on it – wouldn’t you?  Planets have been know to trod on his toes or through his legs.

So why isn’t he part of the party?  There’s all sorts of reasons for that.  Some say it’s traditional to have 12 signs of the zodiac, but the more practical application is that the area around the constellations has been allotted and Ophiuchus’ official territory doesn’t count for much.  In fact, I could write a million blogs just about that, but why bother?  What makes him most interesting is he’s also thought to be the only celestial representation of a historical person.

According to H.A. Rey, noted amateur astronomer and writer of “Curious George” books, he states:

“To speak of the Serpent Holder [Ophiuchus] as a doctor is not a mere whim.  The figure is thought to represent Asklepios, Greek god of medicine who can be traced back to the Egyptian Imhotep (about 2900 BC), eminent physician and architect and first man of science in recorded history.  The Serpent Holder thus becomes, indirectly, the only constellation representing a historical person.”

In Greek mythology, Asklepios was a doctor who knew the secret of death.  Since his patients continued to live healthy, productive lives, Hades, the god of the underworld, grew uneasy.  No deaths, no need for an underworld.  Dr. Asklepios’ services were called into order when Orion was killed by a scorpion.  As Dr. A tried to revive him, he found himself on the business end of a lighting bolt, shot by none other than Zeus himself.  Hades had called on his brother Z to do the dirty work, in order to continue his employment.  But the good Dr. A was recognized as a worthy sort and so found a home for eternity among the stars, along with Orion’s killer scorpion.    They reside on opposite sides of the night sky, so when you see one, you cannot see the other.  Keeps everyone out of trouble this way.

Ophiuchus isn’t just a zodiacal oddity.  He has planets of his own.  15, to be exact.  So why bother with waiting for any of our solar system’s planet to cross his territory when he doesn’t have to?  One planet in particular, GJ 1214, is only 42 light years away and is presently being observed for more data.

If you’d like to see Ophiuchus for yourself, his calling hours are generally late May, July and August, in the southern portion of the sky, just above Scorpio.  He’s a little dim, but on a clear night you can pick him out.

And who knows?  One of these nights, you might find a planet wandering nearby.


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